Avoiding Needless Wars, Part 1: The First Gulf of Tonkin Incident

martin_hellmanThere’s an old saying: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” But what should the saying be when the American public is fooled repeatedly, at a cost of millions of lives? 

Wednesday marks the tenth anniversary of the Iraq War, a very appropriate time to reexamine ways that we have been fooled – or even worse, fooled ourselves – and gotten into needless wars. Avoiding such debacles is key to Defusing the Nuclear Threat because every war has at least a small chance of escalating to the use of nuclear weapons. The Vietnam War serves as Exhibit A in this argument since Nixon’s “Madman Nuclear Alert,” detailed in a later installment in this series, added needless nuclear risk and was motivated by his desire to end the war on terms favorable to him.

This first post in the series treats the first Gulf of Tonkin incident, which played a key role in President Johnson’s justification for the war. It occurred on August 2, 1962, when North Vietnamese PT boats attacked the USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin. Two days later the second Gulf of Tonkin incident (to be treated in the next installment in this series) occurred when the Maddox and the Turner Joy, which had been sent to reinforce it, reported that they were attacked yet again. These seemingly rash, aggressive North Vietnamese actions became the basis for Congress’ Gulf of Tonkin Resolution which gave President Johnson a free hand to escalate the war. Before it ended, that war killed over 58,000 Americans, and approximately 2,000,000 Vietnamese.

President Johnson, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and many others created a war fever by characterizing North Vietnam’s attacks on the Maddox – and the later attack on the Maddox and the Turner Joy – as “unprovoked aggression.” But formerly classified information shows that the North Vietnamese were responding to earlier, covert American attacks on North Vietnam. On August 3, the day between the two incidents, LBJ told former Treasury Secretary Robert Anderson in a phone call which he secretly taped:

OK. Here’s what we did. We [were] within their 12-mile limit, and that’s a matter that hasn’t been settled. But there have been some covert operations in that area that we have been carrying on –  blowing up some bridges and things of that kind, roads, and so forth. So I imagine they wanted to put a stop to it. So they come out there and fire and we respond immediately with five-inch guns from the destroyer and with planes overhead. And we cripple them up – knock one of them out and cripple the other two. And then we go right back where we were with that destroyer [the Maddox], and with another one [the Turner Joy], and plus plenty of planes standing by. And that’s where we are now. [emphasis added]

You can hear that part of the conversation in the one-minute audio clip below by pressing the play button.

As further evidence that the first Gulf of Tonkin incident was not unprovoked aggression, a formerly top secret NSA history of the Gulf of Tonkin incidents notes:

At 1500G [3 PM Gulf of Tonkin time, 3 AM DC time, on 2 AUG], Captain Herrick [the task force commander, who was on the Maddox] ordered gun crews to open fire if the [PT] boats approached within ten thousand yards. At about 1505G, the Maddox fired three rounds to warn off the communist boats. This initial action was never reported by the Johnson administration, which insisted that the Vietnamese boats fired first. [emphasis added]

In summary, the war fever created by North Vietnam’s seemingly rash and unprovoked aggression was based at best on mischaracterizations, and at worst on outright lies.

Continuing the series of errors, the next installment in this series will use other formerly top secret documents to show that the second Gulf of Tonkin incident never happened.

Martin Hellman

This is the first in a series of posts on Avoiding Needless Wars, and is the only one I cross posted to the FAS web site. If you want to see the others, you can find them on the Defusing the Nuclear Threat blog.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

One Response to “Avoiding Needless Wars, Part 1: The First Gulf of Tonkin Incident”

  1. Martin Hellman November 16, 2013 at 5:51 PM #

    Good question! “How much risk is OK?” is something each of us should think about. to my mind, even one chance in a thousand each year is way too high since it would add up to roughly 8% over the 80 year life expectancy of a child born today. Given that it’s not just that one child’s life that’s at stake, but all of ours, is even one chance in 10,000 each year acceptable? (That adds up to almost 1% risk over that child’s expected life.) See my latest post, for another perspective.

Leave a Reply