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Paul Jay speaks to Garth Porter about former Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara who died Monday, July 6th. Porter says that documents he uncovered from the Lyndon B. Johnson library demonstrate that McNamara deceived LBJ over the Gulf of Tonkin incident. In spite of dubious reports that U.S. Navy ships were attacked by North Vietnamese fleet, “[McNamara] went ahead with drafting the strike order for the retaliation that night and actually [sent] that strike order without having basically consulted further with President Johnson about the situation that he now understood of real doubt on the part of the commander on the scene that they had been attacked.”

Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. On Monday, Robert McNamara, John F. Kennedy and President Johnson’s secretary of defense, passed away in the morning at the age of 93. Perhaps no man was more instrumental in America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. To help us unpack McNamara, and particularly his role in the Gulf of Tonkin incident, we are joined by Gareth Porter, investigative journalist and historian. Thanks for joining us, Gareth.


JAY: So tell us what we know about McNamara and the Gulf of Tonkin incident.

PORTER: Well, first of all, Robert S. McNamara, as a historical figure in the history of US national security policy, is a really fascinating and, I think, instructive character to really follow and study. And that’s why he was the pivotal figure in the book that I did on the Kennedy and Johnson administrations’ policy toward Vietnam. This is someone who was both a liberal in his basic political standpoint, certainly on domestic politics. And even on such matters as disarmament and arms control he was far more liberal than the military and the other people in the national security community were during that period. But he was also someone—.

JAY: Gareth, that’s particularly interesting because a lot of people associate liberal at home with less aggressive abroad. But there’s a whole trend within the Democratic Party which is not that at all, is it?

PORTER: Well, that’s right. Of course, the so-called liberals in the Cold War period were, if anything, more aggressive in their foreign policy positions than were conservatives here at home for a variety of very complicated reasons. But there’s something about Robert S. McNamara’s personality and character which made him particularly lust for power and influence over very large issues. When he was at the Ford Motor Company, he was someone who was very much seeking a larger role over policy. That’s what he lusted after. And so it really was natural that, when he became secretary of defense, he really wanted to be the one to dominate policy whenever the issue was one that was before the president, was in the media, and so forth. And so when the Vietnam War came along, he was attracted to that issue in a way that I think is rather instructive for understanding the way the mentality of national security officials really operates.

JAY: So tell us about—the Gulf of Tonkin incident, I think, is a very revealing insight into the inner workings of Washington and the extent to which games get played and agendas get enforced. So tell us what McNamara did during this period.

PORTER: Well, first of all, you know, the Gulf of Tonkin crisis has always been understood not only by the general public and the news media but I think by historians, generally speaking, as a crisis—.

JAY: Actually, Gareth, for some of our younger viewers who may not know the story, give us some of the basics of what happened as well.

PORTER: Of course. The Gulf of Tonkin incident or Gulf of Tonkin crisis involved two alleged incidents in which North Vietnamese patrol boats supposedly fired on US warships in the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of North Vietnam. There was one incident where it’s very well established that there was a very limited attack, a small-arms attack, really, on a US warship by one or more North Vietnamese patrol boats, and they were badly damaged after that. But Lyndon Johnson—this was August 2, 1964, and Lyndon Johnson chose not to retaliate, because he believed, for very good reasons, that the North Vietnamese believed that the US warships were there in conjunction with an attack that had also been carried out that same night or shortly before that by South Vietnamese commandos being carried by US officials, by US military personnel or CIA personnel. And so Johnson understood this, and he decided not to retaliate because he thought the North Vietnamese misunderstood what was going on then.

JAY: Just, again, Gareth, for some younger viewers, explain to us where we are in the Vietnam War in terms of American involvement at this point.

PORTER: This is before, of course, the big US military buildup in Vietnam, in South Vietnam, and also before the bombing of North Vietnam began. What you had in 1964 was thousands of US advisers, so-called, but also helicopter pilots actually fighting in South Vietnam a counterinsurgency war, or at that point what was called a “counterinsurgency war”. And the Vietcong at that point were in fact winning the war. They were slowly grinding down the South Vietnamese army and gaining control over a larger and larger part of South Vietnam. So the US military and the national security officials surrounding Lyndon Johnson were desperate to get him to make a decision to bomb North Vietnam. This is what the national security community almost unanimously believed had to be done as a minimum in order to avoid the loss of South Vietnam. So Robert S. McNamara was at the center of this effort to try to maneuver Lyndon Johnson into beginning the bombing of North Vietnam. And that’s the setting in which this Gulf of Tonkin crisis, these two incidents or alleged incidents, took place. So on the morning of August 4, 1964, Robert S. McNamara was telling Lyndon Johnson very early in the morning that they had intercepted a communication that there was going to be a naval incident—and that was well before there was any evidence of any shooting or any belief that there had been shooting at US warships. And then, when the US commander of the naval task force in the Tonkin Gulf reported that they were under fire, McNamara immediately was telling the president that this is the beginning of an incident in which the United States is going to have to retaliate. So by noontime, when Lyndon Johnson met with his advisers, including Robert S. McNamara, he was being told, “We’re going to have to retaliate,” and that it was very clear that US warships had been fired on, and this time the US would have to carry out bombing against North Vietnam in retaliation. So Lyndon Johnson agreed that there would be a retaliation. And they were beginning the planning that afternoon when something very interesting happened. The task force commander, the commander of the naval task force, began to report back that he now wasn’t so sure what had actually happened. He said that freak weather patterns had caused some blips on the screen to appear, which now they understood had not been torpedoes aimed at US ships but simply blips that were caused by the weather. So the task force commander was reporting back that the United States should not do anything until they had been able to reconnoiter to examine the physical evidence to find out what actually happened by daylight—in other words, several hours later. And this was a report that McNamara read as soon as he returned back to the Pentagon from this early afternoon meeting at the White House. And so this is where the story really gets interesting, because instead of calling the White House and informing president Lyndon Johnson that the premise of that luncheon meeting with a decision—tentative decision, but a pretty firm decision to retaliate against North Vietnam—was now very much in doubt, he went ahead with planning of strike orders, sort of drafting a strike order for the retaliation that night, and actually sending that strike order, without having basically consulted further with President Johnson about the situation that he now understood, of real doubt on the part of the commander on the scene that they had been attacked.

JAY: So it’s a deliberate deception, then, on behalf of McNamara, holding back the information from Johnson.

PORTER: It was a deliberate deception by McNamara not to call and inform the president immediately of what had happened.

JAY: So let’s play it. Maybe what we’ll do is we’ll just play a few seconds of the conversation between Johnson and McNamara. These are tapes that have been released by the Lyndon Johnson Library. And as we know, in those days (and perhaps still—who knows?) most, if not all, the presidential conversations, phone conversations, were taped for some reason beyond my understanding. Anyway, here’s a few seconds of Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara.


PRES. LYNDON JOHNSON (VOICEOVER): [inaudible] just say that you want to be sure, before you tell me that we were fired upon, that we were fired upon, because you just came in, like, a few weeks ago and said that they’re damn well launching an attack on us, they’re firing on us, and when we got through the—all the firing, we concluded, basically, they hadn’t fired at all.


JAY: So there’s Johnson talking to McNamara. So did this alter Johnson’s approach towards the war? I mean, it didn’t seem to have stopped him from getting more and more embroiled, knowing that the incident that sparked all of this was more or less false.

PORTER: Well, Paul, this segment of the Johnson tapes, which was recorded on September 18, 1964, six weeks after this alleged attack of August 4, 1964, was a very interesting occasion on which he was talking with McNamara, because at that point McNamara was trying to get him to agree that there had been another incident in the Tonkin Gulf in which US warships had been under attack by North Vietnamese patrol boats, and this time Lyndon Johnson was not having any of it. He was expressing great skepticism about the idea that there had been an attack. He said, “I want more evidence.” The key here, in my interpretation, in my opinion, is that what Johnson said to McNamara on that occasion clearly indicated that he understood that he had been misled by McNamara on August 4, 1964, of what was going on.

JAY: But Johnson did in fact escalate after the Gulf of Tonkin, did he not?

PORTER: Well, actually, in the period of months after the Gulf of Tonkin, Lyndon Johnson did the opposite. And this is not well known at all, it’s not well understood, that his reaction to what he later understood about the Gulf of Tonkin was to move away from the policies that were being urged on him by his national security team. First of all, he stopped the US naval patrols in the Gulf which had been spooking the North Vietnamese, because they believed that those naval patrols were connected with the South Vietnamese commando raids. And he also stopped the commando raids which the CIA had been sponsoring on the North Vietnamese coast. In other words, he was removing any possible provocation that could get him into another situation of a war with North Vietnam or could be used by his advisers to get the United States to get into a war situation with North Vietnam. And this is very important, very significant historically, because we know that his advisers, including McNamara, after the Gulf of Tonkin, were trying to get a series of events to provoke North Vietnam into some kind of naval confrontation with the United States, which could then be used to again escalate the war against North Vietnam and pave the way for further US involvement in Vietnam. But Lyndon Johnson, during that period from September through October, November, December, and even January of 1965, was moving away from the bombing of North Vietnam.

JAY: So what changed for Johnson, then? Because, as we know, he eventually did escalate.

PORTER: Well, I think that he, first of all, understood more clearly that he was being manipulated by his advisers, that they were trying to get him into a war with North Vietnam, and that they were carrying out actions which he really did not want to be carried out. And he acted in such a way as to try to alleviate that situation or try to eliminate that situation [inaudible]

JAY: But what changed, Gareth? Because he did bomb North Vietnam. So what—?

PORTER: What happened in early 1965 was that his two top national security advisers—Robert S. McNamara, his secretary of defense, and his national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy—wrote him a letter essentially complaining that he was refusing to go along with the recommendations, the unanimous recommendations of his national security team to begin a program of escalating bombing of North Vietnam. They basically told him in so many words that this was unacceptable. And the implication of that letter to Johnson—this was January 25, if I remember correctly, January 25 of 1965—was that if South Vietnam were lost—and they were telling him that that would be the consequence of his passive policy, what they called a “passive policy”, in Vietnam, that they would not be able to support him, they would not be able to defend his policy. And I think at that point he realized that he was in a spot, that he would be—he would not have the support of his leading national security advisers if he chose to allow South Vietnam to fall without carrying out some effort, military effort, against North Vietnam. And that’s when he began gingerly and in a limited way to go along with the recommendation for the bombing of North Vietnam.

JAY: Well, in the next segment of our interview, let’s pick this up and let’s talk about what this means in terms of reevaluating Johnson, but also maybe more importantly what this means in terms of the roots of this trend of foreign-policy thinking within the Democratic Party, because the question will be: does this kind of thinking about the world still play a hand in guiding today’s foreign policy? Please join us for the next segment of our interview with Gareth Porter.

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Gareth Porter is a historian and investigative journalist on US foreign and military policy analyst. He writes regularly for Inter Press Service on US policy towards Iraq and Iran. Author of four books, the latest of which is Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam.