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

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,” explained 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, 1964, 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], plus plenty of planes standing by. And that’s where we are now. [emphasis added]

To hear that one-minute audio clip, click on the play button below:

 

The war fever created by North Vietnam’s seemingly “rogue behavior” 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. A later post will show that we failed to learn and committed a similar error when we invaded Iraq in 2003, and yet another will question whether today’s rogue nation of choice, North Korea, is really as crazy as it is portrayed as being.

Martin Hellman

Links to all posts in this series on Avoiding Needless Wars
Part 1: The First Gulf of Tonkin Incident
Part 2: The Second Gulf of Tonkin Incident
Part 3: Are We About to Repeat the Mistakes of Vietnam?
Part 4: Nixon’s Madman Nuclear Alert
Part 5: Operation Northwoods
Part 6: North Korea
Part 7: Afghanistan
Part 8: Syria
Part 9: Iraq
Part 10: Iran

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

  1. John S. O'Shea, MD, FAAP says:

    A chilling warning!

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