the gulf of tonkin -- 8/15/22

Today's selection -- from War Made Easy by Norman Solomon. A report of an attack on a U.S. ship in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964 was the predicate for escalating U.S. military action in Vietnam. The report was false:
"The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution gave President Johnson authority 'to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.' It was to be followed by several other resolutions from Capitol Hill in the next decades that also stopped short of a declaration of war -- yet relinquished congressional responsibilities by deferring to presidential power to make war as the man in the Oval Office saw fit.

"It all seemed very clear. 'American Planes Hit North Vietnam After 2d Attack on Our Destroyers; Move Taken to Halt New Aggres­sion,' said a Washington Post headline on August 5, 1964. That same day, the front page of the New York Times reported: 'President John­son has ordered retaliatory action against gunboats and "certain sup­porting facilities in North Vietnam" after renewed attacks against American destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin.'

"But there was no 'second attack' by North Vietnam -- no 'renewed attacks against American destroyers.' By reporting official claims as absolute truths, American journalism opened the floodgates for the Vietnam War.

"The official story was that North Vietnamese torpedo boats launched an 'unprovoked attack' against a U.S. destroyer on 'routine patrol' in the Gulf of Tonkin on August 2 -- and that North Viet­namese PT boats followed up with a 'deliberate attack' on a pair of U.S. ships two days later. But the truth was very different.

"Rather than being on a routine patrol August 2, the U.S. destroyer Maddox was actually engaged in aggressive intelligence-gathering maneuvers -- in sync with coordinated attacks. 'The day before, two attacks on North Vietnam ... had taken place,' wrote scholar Daniel C. Hallin. Those assaults were 'part of a campaign of increasing military pressure on the North that the United States had been pursuing since early 1964.'

"On the night of August 4, the Pentagon stated that a second attack by North Vietnamese PT boats had occurred earlier that day in the Tonkin Gulf -- a report cited by President Johnson as he went on national TV that evening to announce a momentous escalation in the war: air strikes against North Vietnam. But Johnson ordered U.S. bombers to 'retaliate' for a North Vietnamese torpedo attack that never happened.

Photo taken from USS Maddox during August 2 encounter, showing three North Vietnamese motor torpedo boats.

"Prior to the U.S. air strikes, top officials in Washington had reason to doubt that any August 4 attack by North Vietnam had occurred. Cables from the U.S. task force commander in the Gulf of Tonkin, Captain John J. Herrick, referred to 'freak weather effects,' 'almost total darkness,' and an 'overeager sonarman' who 'was hearing ship's own propeller beat.' Herrick advised against jumping to con­clusions: 'Review of action makes many reported contacts and torpe­does fired appear doubtful. ... Suggest complete evaluation before any further action.' One of the navy pilots flying overhead that night was squadron commander James Stockdale. 'I had the best seat in the house to watch that event,' he recalled many years later, 'and our destroyers were just shooting at phantom targets -- there were no [North Vietnamese] PT boats there.' But Johnson's speech of August 4, 1964, won accolades from edi­torial writers. The New York Times proclaimed that the president 'went to the American people last night with the somber facts,' while the Los Angeles Times urged Americans to 'face the fact that the Communists, by their attack on American vessels in international waters, have themselves escalated the hostilities.' 

"The Washington Post featured a prominent news analysis, head­lined 'Firm Stand Is Warning to Hanoi.' That August 5 article recited the White House line in a journalistic voice: 'The United States turned loose its military might on North Vietnam last night to prevent the Communist leaders in Hanoi and Peking from making the mis­taken decision that they could attack American ships with impunity. But the initial United States decision was for limited action, a sort of tit-for-tat retaliation, and not a decision to escalate the war in South­east Asia.'

"However, as Hallin has pointed out, 'it certainly was not the case that the first air strike against North Vietnam was merely a "tit-­for-tat" retaliation. The administration had been moving throughout 1964 toward a fundamental change in American policy. The covert operations begun in February were part of a systematic program of 'increasingly escalating pressure' on North Vietnam.' Hallin observed that journalists had 'a great deal of information available which con­tradicted the official account [of Tonkin Gulf events]; it simply wasn't used' Ironically, the obscured story of attacks on North Vietnam by South Vietnamese gunboats was itself a cover story. Those attacks had been, in Daniel Ellsberg's words, 'entirely U.S. operations.'

"On August 6 -- two days after the second purported incident in the Gulf of Tonkin -- Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara testified at a joint closed session of the Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees of the Senate. McNamara claimed that the two U.S. vessels, the Maddox and the Turner Joy, 'returned the fire' that had been directed at them in the form of 'torpedoes' and 'automatic weapons fire.' Flanked by General Earle Wheeler, he spun out the tale. When Senator Frank Lausche asked 'how many of the torpedoes were set in motion and what small arms were used,' this exchange followed:

McNamara: 'It is difficult to estimate. This was a very dark night. The attack was carried out during the night, the hours of darkness. It was a premeditated attack, a preplanned attack. It was described as an ambush in the reports from the commanders, but because it was night it is very difficult to estimate the total amount of fire.'

Senator Lausche: 'The shots were again initiated by the North Vietnamese?'

McNamara: 'Yes.'

General Wheeler: 'That's correct.'

"At the joint committee's session that day, a gadfly in the ointment was Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon. 'Early that morning, a Penta­gon officer telephoned a startling tip to Morse,' journalist Stanley Karnow wrote two decades later. 'The officer, whose identity Morse would never divulge, revealed that the Maddox had indeed been involved in the covert South Vietnamese raids against North Viet­nam.' But when Senator Morse raised the issue, Defense Secretary McNamara responded by lying: 'Our navy played absolutely no part in, was not associated with, was not aware of, any South Vietnamese actions, if there were any .... l say this flatly. This is a fact. '

"For the Johnson administration, the rigorously deceptive behind­ closed-doors testimony was part of a dissembling approach that cinched a congressional resolution for war. The blitz was multi­pronged, with no aspect more important than manipulative use of television, radio, and major print outlets. Setting the pace for admin­istration officials with a relentless media drumbeat, Johnson did not hesitate to follow up the first news accounts of Tonkin Gulf attacks with quick and facile rhetoric of the injured mighty party. He told a national TV audience: 'This new act of aggression, aimed directly at our own forces, again brings home to all of us in the United States the importance of the struggle for peace and security in Southeast Asia.'

"Media reliance on official sources facilitated the Vietnam War, as it would many other wars in the next four decades. Such reliance was the professional norm --and a shoddy rendition of journalism. As media researcher Hallin points out: 'The assumptions and routines of what is often known as "objective journalism" made it exceedingly easy for officials to manipulate day-to-day news content."



Norman Solomon


War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death


John WIlen & Sons


Copyright 2005 by Norman Solomon


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