Do You Trust Your Government?
In this series of articles, we look at events where governments, factions of governments, or individuals within government, have acted in way that has harmed its own citizens.
Part 2 – Vietnam
French colonial rule in Vietnam was ended following the Geneva Conference of 1954. At that time, North and South Vietnam were divided at the 17th parallel. The communist government of Ho Chi Minh would rule the north. Emperor Bao Dai would lead the south. The partition was based on internationally supervised free elections being held within two years. It didn’t happen.
South Vietnam insisted on United Nations supervision of elections to prevent fraud. North Vietnam refused.
With the cold war between the US and the Soviets escalating, arms supplies and advisors poured in to the north from China and the Soviet Union, and to the south from the US. In effect, it was America against communism. Tensions escalated into what would become known in Vietnam as the American War, but many people still do not know what triggered full-scale conflict.
For anyone who is interested in the details, simply search for “Tonkin Bay.” You will find various sources for the story, including Wikipedia, Encyclopedia Britannica, A&E news, All That’s Interesting, etc. I have chosen to take details from an article written by Lieutenant Commander Pat Paterson on the US Naval Institute website. (ref 1)
Attacks Conceived And Overseen By The US
Early in 1964, South Vietnam began conducting a covert series of attacks along the North Vietnamese coast. These were conceived and overseen by the US Department of Defense, with the support of the CIA, and carried out by the South Vietnamese. In July of 1964, the commander of the US Military Assistance Command (Vietnam) shifted the operation’s tactics from commando attacks on land to shore bombardments from South Vietnamese patrol boats.
In parallel with these attacks, the US navy had been carrying out reconnaissance and signal intelligence (SIGINT) missions in the Gulf of Tonkin. The two operations were not coordinated.
So it was, then, that the destroyer USS Maddox was in the same vicinity as South Vietnamese patrol boats were carrying out their sorties. Observing North Vietnamese patrol boats chasing the South Vietnamese, Maddox withdrew from the area, but was back again on patrol by 2nd August. Weather was clear and seas were calm.
By early August, things were heating up
Maddox intercepted SIGINT reports of North Vietnamese boats getting under way, “possibly intent” on attacking the destroyer. As the three patrol boats closed to within 10,000 yards, Maddox fired shots across their bows. The patrol boats launched torpedoes and a short gunfight ensued, with no damage to the Maddox, which retired to the south.
Naturally, flash messages were sent to the US, where the Joint Chiefs of Staff and White House officials were appraised of the situation. Their response was to send the Maddox back in, with support from another destroyer, USS Turner Joy.
On 3rd August, the South Vietnamese attacked a security garrison and a radar site. The North Vietnamese had been attacked four times in five days.
“There was nothing there but black water and American firepower”
The next day, US intelligence intercepted a report that the communists intended to carry out offensive operations in the Gulf of Tonkin. The weather on the evening of 4th August was very different to two days earlier., with thunderstorms, rain squalls and six-foot waves. As if that were not enough to make detection difficult, Maddox’s long-range air search radar and Turner Joy’s fire control radar were both inoperative. Herrick, captain of the Maddox, ordered both destroyers to move out to sea.
Targets would appear from multiple directions
Nevertheless, at 2040 (8:40pm), Maddox reported tracking several vessels. Although more than 100 miles from the coastline, approaching vessels seemed to come from multiple directions. Northwest. Southeast. East. Mimicking the attack profile of torpedo boats. Targets would disappear, then new targets would appear from the opposite direction.
Over the next three hours, the two ships repeatedly manoeuvered at high speed to evade perceived enemy boat attacks. The destroyers reported automatic-weapons fire; more than 20 torpedo attacks; sightings of torpedo wakes, enemy cockpit lights, and searchlight illumination; and numerous radar and surface contacts. By the time the destroyers broke off their “counterattack,” they had fired 249 5-inch shells, 123 3-inch shells, and four or five depth charges.
The destroyers had air support from USS Ticonderoga. The pilot of a Crusader, Commander Stockdale, arrived overhead at 2135. He made runs parallel to the ships’ course over the next 90 minutes at low altitude, looking for enemy vessels. He reported later, “I had the best seat in the house to watch that event and our destroyers were just shooting at phantom targets—there were no PT boats there. There was nothing there but black water and American firepower.”
Doubts About The Attack
Captain Herrick also began to have doubts about the attack. As the battle continued, he realized the “attacks” were actually the results of “overeager sonar operators” and poor equipment performance. The Turner Joy had not detected any torpedoes during the entire encounter, and Herrick determined that the Maddox‘s operators were probably hearing the ship’s propellers reflecting off her rudder during sharp turns. The destroyer’s main gun director was never able to lock onto any targets because, as the operator surmised, the radar was detecting the stormy sea’s wave tops.
“We were about to launch a war under false pretenses”
By 0127 on 5th August, hours after the “attacks” had occurred, Herrick had queried his crew and reviewed the preceding hours’ events. He sent a flash (highest priority) message to Honolulu, which was received in Washington at 1327 on 4th August, declaring his doubts: “Review of action makes many reported contacts and torpedoes fired appear doubtful. Freak weather effects on radar and overeager sonarmen may have accounted for many reports. No actual visual sightings by MADDOX. Suggest complete evaluation before any further action taken.”
Air Strikes Were Ordered
Back on board the Ticonderoga, Commander Stockdale had been ordered to prepare to launch an air strike against the North Vietnamese targets for their “attacks” of the previous evening. Unlike Captain Herrick, Stockdale had no doubt about what had happened: “We were about to launch a war under false pretenses, in the face of the on-scene military commander’s advice to the contrary.”
Intelligence officials realized the obvious. When President Johnson asked during a 4th August meeting of the National Security Council, “Do they want a war by attacking our ships in the middle of the Gulf of Tonkin?” CIA Director John McCone answered matter-of-factly, “No, the North Vietnamese are reacting defensively to our attacks on their offshore islands. The attack is a signal to us that the North Vietnamese have the will and determination to continue the war.”
On 7th August, Congress, with near unanimity, approved the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which President Johnson signed into law three days later. Requested by Johnson, the resolution authorized the chief executive to “take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.” No approval or oversight of military force was required by Congress, essentially eliminating the system of checks and balances so fundamental to the US Constitution.
On hearing of the authorization’s passage by both houses of Congress, the delighted President remarked that the resolution “was like Grandma’s nightshirt. It covers everything.”
“Hell, those damn, stupid sailors were just shooting at flying fish.”
The Second Attack In The Gulf Of Tonkin Never Occurred
Historians have long suspected that the second attack in the Gulf of Tonkin never occurred and that the resolution was based on faulty evidence. But no declassified information had suggested that Secretary of Defense McNamara, President Johnson, or anyone else in the decision-making process had intentionally misinterpreted the intelligence concerning the 4 August incident. More than 40 years after the events, that all changed with the release of the nearly 200 documents related to the Gulf of Tonkin incident and transcripts from the Johnson Library.
These new documents and tapes reveal what historians could not prove: There was not a second attack on U.S. Navy ships in the Tonkin Gulf in early August 1964. Furthermore, the evidence suggests a disturbing and deliberate attempt by Secretary of Defense McNamara to distort the evidence and mislead Congress.
Johnson himself apparently had his own doubts about what happened in the Gulf on 4 August. A few days after the Tonkin Gulf Resolution was passed, he commented,
“Hell, those damn, stupid sailors were just shooting at flying fish.”
Accusations Of Outright Deception
Army Colonel H. R. McMaster, author of the highly acclaimed 1997 book Dereliction of Duty, accused Johnson and McNamara of outright deception:
“To enhance his chances for election, Johnson and McNamara deceived the American people and Congress about events and the nature of the American commitment in Vietnam. They used a questionable report of a North Vietnamese attack on American naval vessels to justify the president’s policy to the electorate and to defuse Republican senator and presidential candidate Barry Goldwater’s charges that Lyndon Johnson was irresolute and “soft” in the foreign policy arena.”
For his part, McNamara never admitted his mistakes. In his award-winning 2003 video memoirs Fog of War, he remained unapologetic and even bragged of his ability to deceive: “I learned early on never answer the question that is asked of you. Answer the question that you wish had been asked of you. And quite frankly, I follow that rule. It’s a very good rule.”
An Atmosphere Of Recklessness And Overenthusiasm
The administration’s zeal for aggressive action, motivated by President Johnson’s election worries, created an atmosphere of recklessness and overenthusiasm in which it became easy to draw conclusions based on scanty evidence and to overlook normally prudent precautionary measures. Without the full picture, Congress could not offer the checks and balances it was designed to provide. Subsequently, the White House carried the nation into the longest and one of the most costly conflicts in US history.
The war would claim 3 million Vietnamese lives and 58,000 American lives, before the US finally ran out of will and left for home. With communism alive and well. Two years later, North Vietnam overran the South.
Should US citizens trust their government?
Next: World War II