Why the Gulf of Tonkin Matters 50 Years Later (1/2)

July 30, 2014

Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg and historian Gareth Porter discuss how the Gulf of Tonkin incident was used to further entangle the US in Vietnam and how shoddy intelligence reports continue to lead America into war

Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg and historian Gareth Porter discuss how the Gulf of Tonkin incident was used to further entangle the US in Vietnam and how shoddy intelligence reports continue to lead America into war


Story Transcript

JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

August 2 marks the 50th anniversary of the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Back in 1964, the USS Maddox engaged with North Vietnamese torpedo vessels, resulting in four deaths and six wounded on the North Vietnamese side and no American casualties. A couple of days later, on August 4, the United States claimed another engagement with North Vietnamese vessels in sea battle. But later intelligence reports would stipulate a lack of North Vietnamese present at all in the encounter.

Years later, then secretary of defense Robert McNamara admitted to the incident never taking place in this documentary Fog of War. Here’s the clip.


ADM. U. S. GRANT SHARP JR., U.S. NAVY: Well, there apparently have been at least nine torpedoes in the water. All missed.


SHARP: Now, wait a minute now. I’m not so sure about this number of engaged. We’ll have to check it out here.

[Admiral Moore] said many of the reported contacts with torpedoes fired appeared doubtful. Freak weather effects on radar and overeager sonar men may have accounted for many reports.

BURCHINAL: Okay. Well, I’ll tell Mr. McNamara this.

SHARP: That’s the best I can give you, Dave, Sorry.

It does appear now that a lot of these torpedo attacks were from the sonar men, you see, and when they get keyed up to a thing like this, everything they hear on the sonar sonar is a torpedo.

BURCHINAL: You’re pretty sure there was a torpedo attack, then.

SHARP: Oh, no doubt about that, I think. No doubt about that.


ROBERT MCNAMARA, FMR. U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: No, it was just confusion, and events afterwards showed that our judgment that we had been attacked that day was wrong. It didn’t happen.


DESVARIEUX: But what did happen was a ramping up of force against North Vietnam, as [with] that false report from McNamara, Congress approved the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which was then signed by President Lyndon Johnson. It gave the president power to conduct military operations in Southeast Asia, eventually leading the U.S. down the path of full-out war with North Vietnam.

Now joining us to discuss this 50 year anniversary of this event are our two guests. Daniel Ellsberg is a former US military analyst employed by the RAND Corporation. He started a national political controversy in 1971 when he released the Pentagon Papers, which revealed the top-secret Pentagon study of U.S. government decision-making about the Vietnam War.

Also joining us is Gareth Porter. He’s a historian, and investigative journalist on U.S. foreign and military policy, and military policy analyst. He is the author of the book Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam.

Thank you both for joining us.


DESVARIEUX: So, Daniel, I’m going to start off with you. Before we get into the details about the whole Gulf of Tonkin incident, there are folks like myself who only heard about this event in history books. So why does this matter? Why does understanding this event even matter?

ELLSBERG: People could hardly imagine 50 years ago that the president of the United States would lie the Congress and lie the public into an endless, hopeless, deadly, bloody war. But that’s exactly what happened in 1964. And I’m sorry to say that I was part of the government during that time. Many years later, almost half a century later, the U.S. was lied into Iraq in almost the exact same pattern of deception, or the same degree of deception, certainly. And even today we’re finding that–as in the Tonkin Gulf incident–very equivocal, limited evidence as to who did what and why and what happened is being used right now by hawks to encourage us to engage in hostilities again. That would be–was very similar. The a downing of a the Malaysian aircraft is still surrounded by great uncertainty as to just what happened, and yet many people are talking about it as though it’s not only clear-cut and unequivocal, but a case for war. That was similarly true of the gas attack in Syria, where some of the same people want us to go into that at that point, before anything was really found out as to who had actually launched it. It’s an almost exact parallel to what happened in the case of the Tonkin Gulf, although there there was the additional effect that even had such an attack occurred, the insiders would have known that it had been provoked, because we were undertaking secret covert attacks on North Vietnam at that very time, which did lead, in fact, to the first attack, which actually did happen on August 2. And there were similar attacks later, on the third, that could have provoked an attack but in fact didn’t.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. So, Gareth, Daniel put this in perspective for us in terms of today, but refresh our memories here. What actually happened back in August 1964?

GARETH PORTER, INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST: Well, Dan has accurately laid out the essential facts of the matter, and you also in your intro, that there was an incident on the second that had to do with a North Vietnamese response to provocation that they had been experiencing for some months, in fact, that is, a set of attacks on the North Vietnamese coast by South Vietnamese commandos who were in fact employed by, commanded by the CIA, and at the same time, a set of Naval operations for the purpose, at least ostensibly, of finding out what the North Vietnamese radar were doing in response to various events. And logically the North Vietnamese were putting these two things together, and they saw the U.S. Navy ships in the Tonkin Gulf as somehow connected with those covert operations carried out by the CIA. And so, as Dan said, it was part of a provocation.

But in the wider scheme of things, what was really going on was that the top level of national security officials in the Lyndon Johnson administration were determined to get President Lyndon Johnson committed to two things. First of all, a bombing campaign against North Vietnam that they wanted to begin as soon as possible, and ultimately a ground operation, a U.S. military intervention in South Vietnam. They wanted Johnson to commit himself to both of those things. And Lyndon Johnson was very strongly resisting both proposals, and he started to resist as early as December 1963, almost as soon as he entered the White House.

Now, what actually transpired on August 4, that is, when the second alleged attack was said to have taken place, is even more twisted and in some ways more serious than what most people–I would say virtually everyone–has understood over these 50 years, and that is that it was actually President Johnson who was directing the deception on 4 August, but rather Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara. And I was able to find the actual documents in the Lyndon B. Johnson Library, in doing the research for my book, that showed that Robert S. McNamara never actually informed Lyndon Johnson of the fact that the naval commander in the Tonkin Gulf, the commander of U.S. vessels in the Gulf, had changed his mind after his initial report of an attack, a torpedo attack on U.S. ships, and said now he wasn’t sure at all that the attack had taken place. He sent a message to the CINCPAC, the commander-in-chief of the U.S. Navy in the Pacific, Admiral Sharp, to that effect. And that was then of course relayed to the Pentagon. And McNamara read the report, the second report, indicating doubt about the existence of the attack in midafternoon on August 4, but he did not call Lyndon Johnson to tell him what happened.

DESVARIEUX: Daniel–I just want to get Daniel into this conversation a little bit more, ’cause he was actually there on August 4.

Can you just give us your take? Tell us what happened.

ELLSBERG: Well, the way it came to me, my boss–the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, John McNaughton–with McNamara in his office on the morning of August 4, when I came into the office at 9 o’clock they were actually already planning the possible response to an attack that they expected because of indications that the commodore on the spot, he thought that he was being shadowed for a possible ambush. These were mistaken inferences that the commander was drawing. But in any case, they were already considering the possibility of an attack. At the time I came in, a little after 9 o’clock in the Pentagon, a courier rushed in, ran in from the communications office of the Department of Defense with a flash cable saying that the commodore Herrick on the patrols in the South China Sea, which was then in the middle of the night, or roughly nine o’clock there, was under attack at that very moment, that there was a torpedo coming at him, he was taking evasive action. And in subsequent moments, more cables came in, running in, all very urgent, the fastest priority flash, saying two torpedoes, four torpedoes, eight torpedoes. He seemed to be awash in torpedoes as he was maneuvering his boat. In fact, eventually he had reported something over 20 torpedoes, which was larger than we estimated was in the entire arsenal of the North Vietnamese fleet. So that was a little strange right there. But in any case, it seemed a very desperate situation, the first time that a destroyer had been attacked like this since two days before, but that had been the first since Second World War. So a very [urgent (?)] situation. We were preparing to respond with air attacks, the first air attacks against North Vietnam.

But as Gareth has indicated, at about 1:30, while my boss was now over at the White House–or McNamara, actually, was over at the White House, and I think McNaughton was with him, conferring with the president on the exact nature of the retaliation, comes a very dramatic table from Commodore Herrick saying, hold everything, in effect, as Gareth has said. All the torpedo reports except the first one are now suspect and, it turned out, he said, were reports of an overeager sonar man who was mistaking the beat of the ship’s propeller against the wake as they took evasive action, circled in the water. That was being mistaken for incoming torpedoes. And there was other evidence for casting very much doubt on what had happened.

Now, I took it for granted that anything I was seeing was, of course, also available to the president and to McNamara. And it certainly was to McNamara. So I assumed that they were quite well aware that there was a good deal of uncertainty about what had happened. The commodore at the time, Herrick, did say that there was one torpedo, but one had to take that with a good deal of salt, because he had been just as certain about the next 20 torpedoes, and it really took him many years before, looking at the evidence, he finally acknowledged that he had been mistaken about the first one as well. But even on that night, we knew that what the president proceeded to say and what McNamara proceeded to say to the press in television interviews, that the attack was unequivocal, we knew that that was false, as many years later it turned out that the assertions by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld that they had unequivocal evidence of WMDs, weapons of mass destruction, in Iraq were false and known to be false at the time, that the evidence was extremely equivocal at that time. And just like the Tonkin Gulf, it turned out there were no WMDs. The evidence was not just equivocal; it was mistaken. Well, that’s what happened on the Tonkin Gulf, as was increasingly clear within hours, to some extent, but certainly within days as new evidence came in, where the overwhelming evidence was that there had been no attack. But that did not stop the president and McNamara from going to Congress to get, essentially, a blank check for war, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which was, just like the Iraq Resolution, essentially a predated declaration of war given by the Congress to the president, in violation of the Constitution.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. I actually want to pause the conversation there, because I want to get into it little bit deeper and talk about who wanted this escalation. So, Gareth Porter, as well as Daniel Ellsberg, thank you for joining us me. And in part two of this conversation, will pick it up and we’ll get into further details about the interests behind wanting this escalation.

Thank you, gentlemen, for joining us.

ELLSBERG: Thank you.

PORTER: Thanks, Jessica.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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