Avoiding Needless Wars, Part 3: Are We About to Repeat the Mistakes of Vietnam?

20090224_capitol2_33In August of 1964 Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, giving President Johnson a blank check to escalate the war in Vietnam. Two alleged acts of North Vietnamese unprovoked aggression were the basis for that resolution. But, as detailed in Part 1 of this series, in reality their first attack was in response to covert American attacks on North Vietnam, and as detailed in Part 2, the second attack never occurred. This third installment in the series draws on additional formerly classified information to extend those arguments, and concludes by warning of might become a kind of “Iran War Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.”

The official State Department web site has a formerly classified transcript of an August 4 National Security Council meeting which occurred soon after the second incident, and which establishes that everyone present should have known that any North Vietnamese attacks were defensive in nature – that is how the CIA Director characterized them at the meeting. At the time of this meeting, the attendees had conflicting evidence about whether the second attack had occurred, so they were not totally disingenuous in assuming that it had occurred (follow the above link to see their discussion of that issue):

Secretary of State Dean Rusk: An immediate and direct reaction by us is necessary. The unprovoked attack on the high seas is an act of war for all practical purposes. … 

President Johnson: Do they want a war by attacking our ships in the middle of the Gulf of Tonkin?

CIA Director John McCone: No. The North Vietnamese are reacting defensively to our attacks on their off-shore islands.

McCone’s observation did not stop the administration’s mischaracterization of the attack as unprovoked, nor did it stop Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (who was present at that meeting) from testifying before  the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “on August 2, one of our destroyers was attacked by North Vietnamese naval forces without provocation while on patrol on the high seas.” [emphasis added]

A formerly top secret NSA history of the Gulf of Tonkin incidents provides further evidence that either McNamara lied to Congress or that even the Secretary of Defense was kept in the dark about critical military matters:

At about 1505G  [3:05 PM Gulf of Tonkin time, 3:05 AM DC time, both on 2 AUG 1964], 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. See page 16 of the originally top secret document below, with this passage highlighted.]

010101 NSA Gulf of Tonkin Paper Page 16

In that same Senate Foreign Relations Committee testimony, McNamara went on to say, “The next night, the two destroyers were also attacked without provocation on the high seas by North Vietnamese naval forces,” even though incontrovertible evidence was then available to him that the second attack had not occurred.

US government claims of unprovoked North Vietnamese aggression in the Gulf of Tonkin created a war fever which led to the deaths of over 58,000 Americans and approximately 2,000,000 Vietnamese. Yet the formerly classified sources cited in these first three posts conclusively prove that those claims were at best mischaracterizations, and at worst outright lies.

Given that history, it is disturbing that Senate Resolution 65 –  a kind of “Iran War Gulf of Tonkin Resolution” – is currently being considered with few questions being asked. That resolution says in part: “if the Government of Israel is compelled to take military action in self-defense, the United States Government should stand with Israel and provide diplomatic, military, and economic support to the Government of Israel.” The problem is that, as demonstrated by the Gulf of Tonkin incidents, it is sometimes hard to distinguish unprovoked aggression from self-defense.

As of March 18, 2013, Senate Resolution 65 has a total of 66 sponsors and cosponsors, and has been referred to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. With 66 out of 100 Senators already on record as supporting the resolution, it seems likely to pass muster both in the committee and in a floor vote. In light of the history of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, shouldn’t we be asking more questions before joining a new march to war? Whether you agree or disagree, I hope you will let your Senators know where you stand. There is an online page with all their phone numbers to facilitate your calling them.

Stay tuned for the next installment in this series, which will highlight how the Vietnam War created needless risk of a nuclear disaster

Martin Hellman

About Nuclear Risk

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography — the technology that protects your credit card. But, for almost 30 years, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic.

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3 Responses to “Avoiding Needless Wars, Part 3: Are We About to Repeat the Mistakes of Vietnam?”

  1. Edwin Moise April 16, 2013 at 6:24 PM #

    The NSA history was mistaken in saying, in a context that seems particularly to refer to what Secretary of Defense McNamara told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that the Johnson administration “never reported” that the USS Maddox had fired three warning shots at the North Vietnamese torpedo boats on August 2, 1964, before those torpedo boats fired torpedoes at the Maddox. The prepared statement that McNamara brought to the hearing of August 6, 1964, published on page 7 of the published transcript (“Southeast Asia Resolution”) of that hearing, was reasonably clear on this point: The Maddox “was attacked by three PT craft at 3:08 P.M. She opened fire with her five-inch battery after three warning shots failed to slow down the attackers. The PTs continued their closing maneuvers, and two of the PTs closed to 5,000 yards, each firing one torpedo.”

    The interesting thing is that after McNamara gave the committee his prepared statement making it clear that the Maddox had fired first, he and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (General Earle Wheeler) gave oral testimony phrased as if the PT boats had fired first. The senators did not notice the discrepancy and ask which version was correct. Instead they chose to believe the version that made the U.S. seem most innocent in the incident. This is where the error in the NSA history came from. The story that the senators took away from the hearing was that the PT boats had fired first.

    The lesson from this is that Congress tends to be a bit credulous, when the executive branch brings it a story of attacks on the U.S., even if there are visible discrepancies in the evidence. A phenomenon that was repeated in 2003.

  2. Martin Hellman April 17, 2013 at 4:32 PM #

    My thanks go to Prof. Moise for adding those details from his deep knowledge of this subject. If you want to learn more, read his book, “Tonkin Gulf And the Escalation of the Vietnam War.”

    Martin Hellman

  3. John April 27, 2013 at 3:13 PM #

    The feeling we are closer to war is in itself a pressure cooker situation. It happens when people don’t talk or want to talk. Assuming thy know what the other side is thinking. Most fights are caused ultimately by lack of communication induced and amplified into fear and reaction to situations.

    Let’s hope cool heads prevail for a while and the talkers get centre stage.

    God help us if any half big war starts. let’s all encourage potitive communication while we still have relative “non war”.

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