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

In 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. Also see the note added at the end of this post, which corrects an error here.*]

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

* Note added after the post had been written: Prof. Edwin Moise, author of Tonkin Gulf And the Escalation of the Vietnam War, noted an error in the  NSA history, and therefore in the post. Here is what he wrote:

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.

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

  1. zach says:

    So perhaps this is related in some way to the above topic given the accusations, counter accusations, propaganda, and media hysteria surrounding the latest fiasco with diplomacy in East Asia. Namely, seperating fact from mischaracterizations between us and the DPRK. In my attempt to grasp the situation, I have read a few articles from an english translated North Korean news website and started researching the Korean War, with emphasis on events leading up to it. Although I surmise there is an unfortunate absence of a dialogue between both countries, coupled with America’s tendency to not only project its power but also its history of violating nation state sovereignty, I cannot comprehend why DPRK believes we will invade them after 60 years of staying put on our respective sides of the DMZ. I suppose the invasion of Iraq may have had something to do with it, especially since one of the motivations behind the U.S. invasion had to do with WMD in Iraq (irrespective of course of whether or not they were really there to begin with). The invasion of Iraq had occurred not long after Bush declared Iraq part of “the axis of evil” which included Iran and DPRK. Perhaps these acts gave motivation to accelerate Iran’s and DPRK’s nuclear weapons programs, believing for whatever reason that they would be next in line having to contend with U.S. aggression and, in their view, nuclear weapons would be the most affective defense against potential armed conflict with the U.S.

    What puzzles me is that, even in spite of what happened in Iraq, DPRK believes the U.S. would be foolish enough to initiate armed conflict, with the intent of overthrowing DPRK’s government, and violating their sovereignty. From a strategic standpoint, it doesn’t make sense for the U.S. to do so given the likely response from the Chinese and possibly the Russians. As if that wouldn’t be bad enough, we would have to confront the possibility of a nuclear crisis with any of those nations given their respective stockpile of nuclear weapons should they feel that the presence of U.S. military right on their doorstep implies imminent U.S. aggression at worst and vulnerability at best.

    What I am curious to know is whether or not there is a real threat to Kim’s legitimacy from his own military that could be driving the latest round of bellicose posturing or if this is in some way, an artifact of the U.S. foreign policies in the middle east. Would the Chinese and/or Russians get involved in the event of an armed conflict with the U.S. even if the DPRK detonated a nuclear device over ROK, Japan, or nearby U.S. military installations? My intuition wants me to believe that neither side will initiate hostilities as it is neither ours nor DPRK’s interest to do so, but rather a high potential for miscalculation, misinterpretations, or accidental event that worries me. With that said, I don’t understand why either side would favor some cowboy rhetoric that initiating a dialogue would be percieved as a weakness especially since both sides seemed to have demonstrated their will to fight if needed. In any event, if Kim is requesting bilateral talks with us, what harm is there in granting such a request? Are either sides attempting to save face by protecting their egos? If so, how can such talks occur in light of the fact that DPRK has stated its willingness for a direct nuclear strike on the U.S. followed by seemingly continuous threats of nuclear retaliation and/or aggression?

    I had a talk with my fiancée about this topic last night and she seemed quite receptive to my views on this. I did mention that I rarely discuss any topic involving nuclear warefare since it seems to be a rather taboo subject. Most people that I know seem to be oblivious to the threat that these weapons pose based mostly on their reactions to incidents such as these. Also, it appears any real discussion about nuclear war walks along a fine line between receptive and percieved sensationalism with others. Nevertheless, I am convinced there is no greater risk to humanity and the lines of rationality can easily become blurred when bellicose behavior takes hold of nation states that are either unwilling or show contempt at the prospect of diplomacy and finding middle ground to settle their disputes. What’s even worse is when the public supports armed conflict as a means to a political and perhaps, economical means. I honestly don’t know what to believe at this point from the media, getting unbiased and objective reporting is next to impossible when sabre rattling is in progress. Surely, in a cult of personality such as the case with DPRK and the historically hyped up American made version of media coverage likely implies consent to whatever either government intends to do. What worries me is the public support of hostile actions from either side which would lend justification to war. What worries me even more is the likelihood that one day they will get their wish and have everything we take for granted perish.

    I know this is a long winded response but it seems what you had been trying to tell us all along is coming to fruition. I will emphasize that I don’t think the worst possible outcome will occur this go around but the fact that we are putting ourselves-humanity in general-once again in a situation where miscalculation potential is high worries me and that one day going forward we will cross the Rubicon. Using the media to manipulate public opinion to justify aggressive behavior scares me when neither side really understands what its intentions are and has no intention of finding out. Thoughts?

  2. Nuclear Risk says:

    Zach,

    While you’re right that it would not make sense for the US to attack North Korea, especially in light of our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, that doesn’t mean we won’t do it. The same is true for attacking Iran, yet as discussed in this blog post, Senate Resolution 65, which increases that risk, had 76 sponsors and cosponsors the last time I looked! Not only North Korea, but even Russia, sees the US as gripped by “strategic insanity” according to a highly placed Russian source. See

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2013/03/19/russian-analyst-moscow-believes-washington-is-gripped-by-strategic-insanity/
    for details.

    Martin

    • zach says:

      There are a couple of things I took away from reading the Washington post article and Res 65. One item is Putin’s view of the war in Iraq as substantiating his perception of American foreign policies and the potential threat Russia’s sovereignty and/or interests resulting from those policies. The other item pretty much falls in line with what I suspected in terms of America’s policy towards Iran. While I had little reason to doubt Moscow’s distrust in Washington, I am a little surprised by Putin’s reaction of the war in Iraq. The reason for this is that incident seems to have had much worse consequences for global security than I had thought and I wonder how many other nations share his views on it, particularly China.

      The author brought up some interesting questions that are similar to mine one the most pressing ones being why are we backing theological organizations over well established secular governments, especially in Syria? If the reasons are not economical in nature then what incentive is in it for Washington to back organizations hostile to its existence and interests instead of the well established secular organizations that had maintained order and even had diplomatic, or improving diplomatic relations with the U.S.? If Putin claims insanity in American foreign policy, I think this would be a great example of it, unless there is something I’m not getting here.

      I had heard that Terahn’s remarks had been taken out of context and even some sources indicating a lack of evidence that Terahn will weaponize their nuclear material. I don’t know how much fact goes into these statements but it doesn’t look like Washington is going to dive too deeply into them anyway. With that many signatures, it makes sense from Putin’s point of view that Washington isn’t concerned with the consequences of its decisions and it doesn’t look like those that endorsed to resolution are either.

      As far as the situation in East Asia is concerned, I’d hate to think that our leaders would be that brazen with North Korea given its proximity to Russia and China. Then again, until I have a better grasp on just what it is Washington hopes to accomplish in terms of foreign policy, it would naive to think that wouldn’t happen. You’re one of a very few that has heard of Northwoods (at least in my circle of acquaintances). If you have any resources on American foreign policy in the Korean peninsula, I would like to check them out. I will admit my research into this subject is still in its infancy so any help would be great! Thank you ahead of time.

  3. Nuclear Risk says:

    Zach,

    Something I should have added to my earlier reply and which fits with your current comment as well: I suspect that the North Korean leadership is even more worried about the US trying for regime change than an outright military attack. Not only is American pressure for regime change possible, it is already working via the crippling sanctions we have instituted against North Korea. They are partly in the hope that the regime there will implode.

    Martin

  4. I’m sure this is self-evident to most, NK is not the objective. It is so that we have an excuse & cover for getting in closer to PRC & Russia’s Far-East. They would NEVER remove this perfect orwellian distraction, mostly meant for our own sheeple, China & Russia know exactly what we are doing, but they, (PRC & Russia) cannot proove that in the world-court of public. If PRC of Russia tried to doing a blocking-move on the threatened, poor USA, it’d be seen as, 2 bullies stopping someone from defending himself. Nuclear war is imminent. Not in a century, not in a decade, but rather weeks, months…possibly a year or two. The US & NATO are just pulling way too much bulls&$t in many are ask & manners, be they geographical, finance, market-manulation, unfair trade, currency-wars, starting & prosecuting full-on wars, planning & funding proxy-wars, ad nauseam… And were doing OT not just in the Mid-East/North-Africa & NK, but hither & youn & everywhere in between. I know so many extremely “educated” who reject out of hand, dismissively, some, as if I were literally schizophrenic, any possible government chicanery or the possibility of any kind of nuclear war, I’m as more aghast & disgusted with people’s self-delusion &/ or utter cowardice more than own seemingly sociopathic & demonic (I’m agnostic) our government

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