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Paul Jay speaks to Gareth Porter, Investigative Historian and Journalist about Robert McNamara’s deception of former President Lyndon B. Johnson. In this second part of the interview, Porter discusses the documents that served a smoking gun for McNamara’s deception over the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Porter says it was not just McNamara. Lyndon B. Johnson’s national security advisers in general were pushing and “maneuvering” him and “going so far as deprive him of the information that he really needed to make an informed decision about the use of force. They were desperate to get him involved in a war. The relevance of this is that today we have a president who, like Lyndon B. Johnson, is a neophyte in foreign affairs… he was very dependent on his national security advisers. He was reluctant to completely counterman their positions and advice. He was afraid that without their support he would be portrayed as weak and as someone who was not willing to do what was necessary to defend US power and interests.”

Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to our interview with Gareth Porter on The Real News Network. We’re talking about the death of Robert McNamara and the significant role he played in embroiling the United States in the Vietnam War. Thanks for joining us again, Gareth.


JAY: So we left off with McNamara’s story of holding back information from Lyndon Johnson that would have likely proved to Johnson that the Vietnamese in fact did not attack an American boat in the Gulf of Tonkin. Tell us a little bit more. You said there’s a smoking gun which sort of proves McNamara’s deception.

PORTER: Yes. The smoking gun evidence: apart from the lack of any indication that Lyndon Johnson knew that there had been a change of mind or a change of understanding on the part of the commander in the field which had been conveyed to McNamara, we have a document which is the result of Lyndon Johnson himself ordering an inquiry—that’s what it was called, an “inquiry”—into the communications between the commander in the field in the Tonkin Gulf, the commander-in-chief of Pacific Forces in Hawaii, and the Pentagon, that is to say, Robert S. McNamara, on the day of this alleged incident, August 4, 1964. And as a result of that inquiry, we have a chronology that Robert S. McNamara personally presided over the crafting of at the Pentagon, which was supposed to be almost a minute-by-minute account of what happened during that day in the making of policy and the communications between the field and the Pentagon. And what happens is that Robert S. McNamara writes up a chronology in which he misrepresents, in fundamental ways, the conversation that he had with the commander-in-chief in the Pacific, Admiral Grant Sharp, on the afternoon, 4 p.m., of August 4, 1964. Let me just refer to the actual original documents that I used for this story, which come from the Lyndon Johnson Memorial Library. This is the first document, which shows the deception by McNamara of Lyndon Johnson, is the actual conversations, the transcript of the conversations between McNamara and the Pacific commander, Admiral Sharp, at 4:08 p.m. in the afternoon. In this conversation Admiral Sharp actually says the following: “Well, I would recommend this, sir: I would recommend that we hold this execute order until we have a definite indication that this happened.” That means we hold the execute order for the strike against North Vietnam until the command had actually been able to confirm that an attack took place. Then McNamara responds a few seconds later. He says, “If you get your definite information in two hours, we can still proceed with the execute. And it seems to me we ought to go ahead on that basis, get the pilots and the aircraft ready, and so forth.” That’s what he says. So then, finally, he says, “Continue the execute order in effect, but between now and six o’clock get a definite fix, and you call me directly.” So that means McNamara’s saying we’re going to go ahead with the execute order whether or not you come back to me with the information. Then this is how McNamara handles this same problem in the inquiry document, the chronology that he writes for the inquiry that LBJ has ordered. This is his account of that same conversation. It says, McNamara says, that even if definite confirmation of the attack is not forthcoming for another two hours, an hour would still remain and the execute order could then be issued. McNamara stated, “It seems to me we ought to go ahead on that basis, get the pilots briefed, get the planes armed, get everything ready to go.” So he’s making it sound like he was agreeing with Admiral Sharp that he should hold the execute order until he got confirmation, instead of what he actually said, which is that we will go ahead with the execute order, and then you get in touch with me.

JAY: You spoke to McNamara directly on the phone when you were writing your book, Perils of Dominance. You confronted him with this. So, what happened?

PORTER: That’s right. On January 24, 2004, as I was doing research on my book, Perils of Dominance, I called up McNamara to tell him that I had found in the Lyndon Johnson Library documentation which was very clear, it seemed to me, in indicating that he had not informed Lyndon Johnson that afternoon, August 4, 1964, that he had learned that the commander in the field now was not sure about what had happened, and even the commander of US forces in the Pacific had expressed doubt about what had happened in that incident. And I confronted McNamara with this information, and he then told me—he denied that that was the case. But he said, “I did not necessarily have to inform the president by phone.” And I waited for him to explain how that could be, and he said, “I could have told him at the National Security Council meeting that night.” At 6:15 p.m. there was an NSC meeting at which the president discussed with his leading advisers what had happened and what they were going to do about it. And so he was saying that he could have told Lyndon Johnson at that meeting about the doubts that have cropped up during the day. So then, of course, I said, “Well, look, you know, fortunately for your case, the notes which were prepared for the president’s eyes only on that meeting show that you reaffirm that there had been an attack on US ships in the Gulf of Tonkin.” And then he said, “Well, those notes were incomplete.” Well, that’s a very weak alibi, because those notes were a very complete accounting of that meeting, and they were for the president’s eyes only.

JAY: So let’s talk about why all of this matters today. The kind of thinking of McNamara, many of his advisers, a section within the Democratic Party, which—although the party wants to portray itself as the party of peace, there’s certainly a section within the party which has not been that, the roots of that kind of policy—talk a bit about what McNamara’s outlook, this liberal-at-home, hawk abroad—.

PORTER: Well, I think that it’s important because it demonstrates the degree to which the national security community, writ large, in the Democratic Party, as well as the Republican Party, you know, share a certain outlook, which is that when there’s a challenge to US power abroad, the United States must respond. The United States cannot allow this to go on without responding with the use of force if it’s necessary to prevent a loss, to prevent what will be viewed as, basically, a loss of US influence because it failed to respond to the challenge. I think that’s exactly what was happening in this incident, the Gulf of Tonkin. It was not just McNamara, of course; all of the civilian and military advisers to President Lyndon Johnson agreed that they had to use force in order to prevent the loss [inaudible]

JAY: And this is this whole—we just interviewed [William] Engdahl the other day, and he talked about the Pentagon’s fundamental outlook of full-spectrum dominance. It’s about this idea that the United States needs to have dominance in certain areas, not vie for or compete; it needs to control. Is that the roots of this?

PORTER: It is indeed. I think that is precisely the problem, that Robert S. McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, all of those who surrounded Lyndon Johnson, and to a great extent Lyndon Johnson himself did in fact believe that the United States had to remain dominant in East Asia. Anything that would cause their dominant position to be in danger, to topple, to weaken, was something that had to be resisted, by force if necessary. And so that was the premise on which McNamara, Bundy, and the others were pushing Lyndon Johnson, maneuvering Lyndon Johnson, really, and going so far as to really deprive him of the information that he really needed to make an informed decision about the use of force. They were desperate to get him involved in a war. Now, the relevance of this, it seems to me, is that, you know, today we have a president, basically, Barack Obama, who is, like Lyndon Johnson, a neophyte in foreign affairs, in the sense that he was unfamiliar enough with the situations in Southeast Asia and East Asia that he was very dependent on his national security advisers, he was reluctant to completely countermand their positions, their advice. He was afraid that without their support, he would be portrayed as week and as someone who was not willing to do what was necessary to defend US power and interests. And that’s why I think there’s a very similar situation today, that the president is surrounded by advisers who believe that the United States must use force in order to preserve its dominant position in the Middle East. I think you have a parallel situation today with the situation at the time of the Gulf of Tonkin.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Gareth.

PORTER: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network. And, once again, the “donate” button. Please become a member, a donating member, so we can keep doing The Real News. Bye-bye.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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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.