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 of attrition against the South, launched a sudden and unexpected attack in broad daylight with three P-4 patrol torpedo boats. They fired several torpedoes and got close enough to rake the destroyer with heavy caliber machine gun fire. Fortunately the Maddox, which had just been warned of their approach by signals-intelligence, to include recording the North Vietnamese radar signals directed towards them, had gone on high alert. The destroyer ran for its life, took violent evasive action, and called for air support resulting in a full barrage of on-target Zuni rockets. Despite best efforts, damage to all parties was apparently slight with the worst of it being in North Vietnamese PT boats stopped dead in water.
In the weeks prior to the incident, the nearest unprovoked attacks had been more than 120 miles to the south and were only the last in a long line of similar incidents accompanying an increased North Vietnamese infiltration of the south along trails in Laos and from ships along the coast. Nor was the attack itself in question as it was immediately hailed as a propaganda victory by North Vietnamese radio stations. In addition, the US Maddox had recorded the entire incident on film.
The controversy only began two nights later on August 4, 1964, when the Maddox was again ordered to continue their unescorted surveillance of the coast and had moved to roughly 100 miles offshore but still in International waters. Suddenly radar targets similar to North Vietnamese P-4 patrol torpedo boats were again detected by the jittery crew of the Maddox. Signal intercepts also recorded orders by North Vietnamese commanders to launch another attack. The destroyer again took violent evasive action, fired on intermittent sonar contacts, and again requested emergency air cover.
Fortunately for the US destroyer, the weather provided cover in an exceptionally “dark and stormy night” and the North Vietnamese boats ordered to sea probably did not get close enough or could not locate their target. This was also supported by the crews of US fighter jets who couldn’t locate any targets either. So despite undeniable radio intercepts from the North Vietnamese ordering an attack, the calmer judgment of higher level US military commanders gradually coalesced around the view that the crew of the Maddox had overreacted although it certainly wasn’t definitive at the time.
In any event, President Johnson, who had a prepared request only waiting for the next outrage, cited both incidents as part and parcel of continuing North Vietnamese violation of the Geneva Accords and its intent to wage an even bigger war of aggression against South Vietnam. That such unmistakable and unquestionable activity was funded and supplied entirely from the Soviet Union and China was yet another selling point. Note that this was before the US Military had become engaged in offensive combat operations beyond providing military advisors.
Judging the mood of the country, Congress overwhelmingly passed the “Gulf of Tonkin Resolution” authorizing the President to take unspecified military action to prevent further Communist aggression against U.S. and South Vietnamese forces. Johnson had previously increased U.S. ground forces in Vietnam by one-third bringing the total to over 20,000 with several hundred killed in action by this time and enjoyed wide spread support for his escalation even before the resolution. Interestingly, the vote for the resolution was better supported than that for going to war against Japan after Perl Harbor.
A LYING LIBERAL PRESS
Enemies of America abroad, allied with friends in the Democrat Party, attempted to twist these facts nearly to the point of lunacy by claiming that the entire rationale for the Vietnamese War was a U.S. Government lie about a single provocation. The obvious problem with this argument is that if one unprovoked attack was America’s only necessary justification for going to war, then there were a huge multitude of undeniable and uncontested incidents from which to choose.
The TYPICAL Liberal canard was that the US Government consisted entirely of liars, that the peace loving North Vietnamese had conducted no attack on the Maddox whatever, that the issue was SETTLED and any discussion pointing out the criminal stupidity of the liberal position didn’t deserve consideration and should be legally punished. Corollaries were that since the liberals were sensitive caring whackos any opposing opinions must be evil probably inspired by corporate interests of some type and didn’t bear further discussion. And that the 4-6 MILLION South Vietnamese and Cambodian civilians likely to be murdered for their political views after the fall of South East Asia would be a small price to pay for a liberal moral superiority.
The North Vietnamese and US liberal obfuscation 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 and further to claim a conspiracy of lies and cover up because details of U.S. radar, sonar, and radio intercept technology remained frustratingly classified.
The high point of North Vietnamese propaganda coincided with sympathy from Democrats in the US was that President Johnson, for some unknown but certainly nefarious purpose of his own, falsely claimed an attack from a peace-loving Communist government which had no aggressive intentions towards anyone.
But echoing this flippant and childish train of thought serves to insulate the self-satisfied American liberal from the bigger question of whether the million Vietnamese who fled the Communist North after partition in 1954, millions who served in the South Vietnamese Armed Forces, millions who fled North Vietnamese terror in the countryside to the cities along the coast (especially to Saigon) during the war, the many millions ALL of whom fled south AWAY from advancing Communist armies in the closing days of the war, the hundreds of thousands who tried to escape the “worker’s paradise” by venturing into the South China sea, and the UNDISPUTED millions who were murdered for their religious and political beliefs 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 the lighthearted bravado of self-satisfied and clever witticisms about how the entire war was based solely Johnson’s lie about an isolated incident when actually North Vietnam never attacked anyone at any time; or alternatively were entirely justified in defending themselves by force against electronic eavesdropping.
Nor, despite claims 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) In 1964 the North Vietnamese, despite their daily official denials, had been conducting an unrestricted war against fellow, but non-communist, Vietnamese in the South for the last 10 years murdering tens of thousands. North Vietnamese cadres had systematically eliminated, or turned over to the French, any Vietnamese leader with popular support who wasn’t a communist, giving lie to their purely nationalistic motives.
b) The North Vietnamese were funded entirely by Russia and China and supplied entirely by the same. 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.
c) 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.
d) The North Vietnamese communists had NO respect for International law, past agreements, or common decency in a manner exactly like the East Germans under Soviet Rule in Berlin or the North Koreans also sponsored by Russia and China.
e) A large fraction, if not all, of South Vietnam did not want a communist government.
PLEASE NOTE that this diatribe does NOT say that war is good or that U.S. military involvement is 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. In all honesty, the question was very much bigger than that.
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, North Vietnamese patrol boats were again ordered to attack and did conduct a search for the Maddox whose nervous crew had fortunately maneuvered probably 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 to say that the entire war was based on a lie because Johnson quoted the 4th of August when the REAL TRUTH was the 2nd of August is not only irrational sophistry but an obscene dismissal of real human tragedies involved in the war. This is perhaps not surprising when one considers the whackos on the left did exactly the same thing blunting criticism of poor ole misunderstood “Joe Stalin” (our friend and ally).
What we are SICK of hearing is the LIE that if a putative U.S. Government misrepresentation of one isolated incident in the Gulf of Tonkin been exposed, the entire rationale for war in South East Asia would have harmlessly dissipated and bad things would never have happened anywhere or to anyone.
TRUTHS IN HISTORICAL HINDSIGHT
Since the partition of Vietnam in 1954, Communists in the north, contrary to international law, to specific guarantees in the partition agreement, and to common decency, by 1964 had been murdering thousands of South Vietnamese a year in a high profile campaign of terror. School teachers, aid workers, Vietnamese Catholic Priests and Nuns, Buddhists Monks, politicians at any level down to the local school board, and indeed anyone with any education were preferred targets. The avowed intent of the north was to conquer the south by military force. No rational person, before, during, or after the Gulf of Tonkin incident had any doubt of this.
By 1964, the U.S. Army had more than 20,000 ground troops in Vietnam, had suffered hundreds of people killed in action, and was increasingly under fire along the coast from North Vietnamese infiltrators. And in fact, North Vietnam was stepping up its attacks in the latest phase of a never ending war that had already lasted decades from the Communist standpoint. At that point there were at least 100,000 Communist troops in the South and the North was beginning to send in large units of its regular army. Sympathetic communist insurgencies in Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, and other places were also flaring up supported in word and deed from North Vietnam.
But the point is that the U.S. had been effectively engaged in Vietnam for years before 1964; and despite whacko leftist claims to the contrary, attacks on U.S. Forces in and around Vietnam by 1964 were a common occurrence.