The Gulf of Tonkin
BACKGROUND OF THE ATTACKS
On 2 August, 1964, an American destroyer, the U.S.S. Maddox, was collecting electronic intelligence along the North Vietnamese coast some 30 miles offshore (closer when considering reefs) but clearly in International waters. The North Vietnamese communists, who had been escalating an unprovoked war against the South, suddenly attacked with three P-4 patrol torpedo boats. They fired torpedoes and got close enough to rake the destroyer with heavy caliber machine gun fire.
Nor was this outrage unprecedented. In violation of the 1954 Geneva Accords, the North Vietnamese had been conducting a terror campaign against the strongly anti-Communist population of the South ever since. Indeed, the North had been selectively murdering upwards of 25,000 taxi drivers, hamlet chiefs, school teachers, Catholic clergy, Buddhist monks, and South Vietnamese government officials and their families, yearly. In the weeks prior to the incident, the North Vietnamese had increased their attacks in support of escalating infiltration along Laotian trails and by ships along the coast.
Fortunately the Maddox had been warned by signals-intelligence and had noticed North Vietnamese radar targeting them. The destroyer ran for its life, took violent evasive action, and called for air support. Despite best efforts, damage to all parties was slight with the worst being North Vietnamese PT boats stopped dead in water. The attack itself was never in question. It was hailed as a victory by North Vietnamese radio and was recorded on film by the US Navy.
The controversy only began two nights later on August 4, 1964. Along with the U.S.S. Turner Joy, the Maddox had been ordered to resume its surveillance and had moved to 100 miles offshore. Suddenly sonar and radar targets similar to North Vietnamese P-4 torpedo boats were again detected by the jittery crews. Signal intercepts also suggested North Vietnamese commanders had ordered another attack. Both destroyers again took violent evasive action, fired on intermittent sonar contacts, and requested emergency air cover.
Fortunately, the weather provided cover in an exceptionally “dark and stormy night” which possibly precluded contact but which did cause chaotic reflections from waves and vortices from the ship’s rudder. A day or so later when emotions had cooled, the commander of the Maddox filed a detailed after action report casting doubt on the attack. This was supported by US fighter jet pilots who didn’t see any nearby enemy boats either. Over the next several days the calmer judgment of higher level US military commanders gradually coalesced around this same view, although it certainly wasn’t definitive at the time.
Later the North Vietnamese claimed their PT boats only put to sea in the middle of a powerful storm and were in the general area to salvage their boats previously damaged.
In any event, President Johnson, who had a prepared speech only waiting for the next outrage, cited both incidents as part and parcel of a continuing North Vietnamese aggression against South Vietnam. That this undeniable and escalating war was funded entirely by the communist governments of the Soviet Union and China with global ambitions was yet another selling point.
Judging the mood of the country, Congress overwhelmingly passed the “Gulf of Tonkin Resolution” authorizing the President to take unspecified action to protect US Forces and Allies in South East Asia. Johnson had previously increased U.S. ground forces in Vietnam by one-third to about 20,000 in total with several hundred US military already killed in action. And so US military escalation enjoyed broad support, even before the resolution. Interestingly the Congressional vote for the resolution was greater than for going to war against Japan after Perl Harbor.
THE PASSIONATE LIBERAL RESPONSE
Enemies of America abroad, allied with their friends in the American press and the democrat party, spun the facts claiming the entire rationale for US intervention was a lie about a single provocation. The obvious problem is that if one unprovoked attack was the only necessary justification, then there had already been a huge number from which to choose.
The liberal methodology was to focus ad nauseam on the minutia of conflicting reports from the single night of August 4th ignoring the uncontested daylight attack two days earlier. The North Vietnamese, echoed by American democrats and communists in Russia and China, also claimed a cover up because details of U.S. radar, sonar, and radio intercept technology remained frustratingly classified.
The rambling litany of the American press was that that the peace loving North Vietnamese had a right to attack the Maddox on the high seas, that the US military were a pack of liars falsely claiming North Vietnamese aggression anywhere, that Vietnam was a civil war despite Great Power instigation and essential logistical support, training, and organization. But in short there was no valid reason for US intervention.
On the home front the democrat argument was that America’s laws drafting men into the Army were illegal or failing that asking any sacrifice for one’s country was immoral. Liberal college students burned down ROTC buildings on campuses and spit on anyone in military uniform. Corollaries were that since democrats were themselves sensitive caring souls, any contrary opinions must be not just mistaken but evil. Their opponents were probably in the pay of corporate interests somehow. And unbelievably American democrats claimed in print that the 4-6 MILLION South Vietnamese and Cambodian civilians likely to be murdered for their political views would be a small price to pay for moral superiority.
But the final liberal word was that the necessity to abandon Vietnam was settled, didn’t deserve further consideration, and dissenters should be legally punished or assaulted.
This flippant and childish mentality insulated the American left wing from bigger questions such as whether the million Vietnamese who fled the Communist North after partition in 1954, the millions who served in the South Vietnamese military, the millions who fled North Vietnamese terror in the countryside to cities like Saigon, the tens of thousands of men, women and children who were buried alive by Communists during Tet, the millions who fled AWAY from advancing Communist armies in the closing days of the war, the hundreds of thousands of “boat people” who escaped the “worker’s paradise” by venturing into the South China sea, and the UNDISPUTED millions who were murdered after the Communist takeover of South Vietnam, deserved their fate.
Lesser questions as to whether petty aggressors can be successfully appeased, or whether small wars left unchecked lead invariably to bigger wars, or whether any U.S. citizen owes any sacrifice to his country, can be comfortably shelved behind clever witticisms about how the entire war was based solely on Johnson’s lie about an isolated incident. When pressed, liberals fell back on the claim North Vietnam never had attacked anyone or alternatively were entirely justified in defending themselves against electronic eavesdropping.
Nor, despite incessant rantings from a biased liberal press, did this resolution confer any extra-constitutional powers on the President or remove any from Congress. The truth is that Congress could have stopped the Vietnam War with a single vote on any funding bill over nearly ELEVEN years of war, but strangely chose never to do so.
In hindsight, some inconvenient facts include the following:
a) The Vietnamese Communists had NO respect for International law, past agreements, or common decency exactly like the East Germans and the North Koreans also sponsored by Russia and China.
b) Before WW II, Vietnamese communists systematically killed, or turned over to the French, any Vietnamese anti-colonialists who rejected communism, giving lie to their purely nationalistic motives.
c) By 1964 the North Vietnamese, despite their daily denials, had been terrorizing South Vietnam murdering many tens of thousands annually.
d) The North Vietnamese were funded and supplied entirely by Russia and China. It’s probably not far wrong, that in many decades of war, not a single bullet was fired by either side that wasn’t imported.
e) The North Vietnamese had a consistent policy of attacking anyone who got in their way, specifically Americans, whether they were directly involved at the time or not.
f) Most, if not all, of South Vietnam did not want a communist government.
g) Reflecting their fervent opposition to communism, nearly four million South Vietnamese (or 15-20% of the entire population) and two million Cambodians were sadistically MURDERED by the Communists after the war. A sizable governing Christian population was extinguished.
Please note that this diatribe does NOT say that war or U.S. military involvement is always a good idea. That is another discussion entirely. This simply says that the LIES OF A LIBERAL PRESS intended to dismiss the Vietnam War as the sole consequence of President Johnson’s lie about North Vietnamese intentions on August 4th, 1964 is WRONG.
But speaking to the minutia, the North Vietnamese unquestionably did launch a surprise attack on the Maddox on the 2nd of August. Torpedoes were launched against the Maddox which was in international waters. Machine gun rounds fired by the North Vietnamese did strike the Maddox. On the 4th of August, the Maddox and its justifiably nervous crew had probably maneuvered out of range. The worst one can say in hindsight is President Johnson too quickly overrode the military commanders who doubted the second attack. But the point is that if one unprovoked attack is sufficient motivation to go to war, the there were HUNDREDS on US forces in Vietnam and on the high seas, besides the night of the 2nd of August, from which to choose.
Unfortunately the American press has a long habit of extreme left wing bias as when they blunted criticism of poor ole misunderstood “Joe Stalin” (“our friend and ally” as quoted by President Roosevelt).
What we are SICK of hearing is the LIE that if a putative misrepresentation of incidents in the Gulf of Tonkin been exposed, the entire rationale for Vietnam war would have vanished and bad things would never have happened anywhere to anyone in the region.