Why the Gulf of Tonkin Matters 50 Years Later (2/2)
On the 50th anniversary of the Gulf Tonkin incident, Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg and historian Gareth Porter discuss the powers which wanted Pres. Johnson to pursue a ground operation in Vietnam
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore. And welcome to part two of our conversation with Daniel Ellsberg as well as Gareth Porter about the 50th anniversary of the Gulf of Tonkin incident.
Thank you, gentlemen, for joining us.
DANIEL ELLSBERG, PENTAGON PAPERS WHISTLEBLOWER: Good to be here.
GARETH PORTER, INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST: Thanks, Jessica.
DESVARIEUX: You can see both of their bios below.
But just as a quick reminder, Daniel Ellsberg is a former U.S. military analyst employed by the RAND Corporation, and he blew the whistle and released the Pentagon Papers.
Also joining us is Gareth Porter. He’s a historian and investigative journalist. And he’s the author of the book Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam.
So, Gareth, I’m going to start off with you, because where we left it off in our conversation, we were discussing who wanted the escalation in Vietnam. Can you just describe for us who wanted that escalation and why?
PORTER: Yeah. The people who were pushing for beginning with the air war against North Vietnam, but also for a commitment by Johnson to the defense of South Vietnam eventually, they didn’t expect him to commit himself to actually do it before he was elected, but they did expect him to commit to doing it eventually. It was the top national security staff of the Johnson administration, that is to say, Secretary of Defense McNamara, CIA Director McCone, the chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Maxwell Taylor, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, those were–and Dean Rusk, the secretary of state, although he was not as active as Taylor and McNamara. And it was McNamara more than anybody else who pushed time after time, who took the lead to try to get the Johnson committed. He was the one who was talking to Johnson most. And in my book I document the fact that McNamara and his cohorts tried over the period from November 63 to February 1965 on 12 occasions to get Johnson to agree to escalate the war. And Johnson, right up until February/March 1965 resisted in one way or another.
Now, on August 4, we see one of the ways in which that coalition of bureaucratic forces and individuals tried to push Johnson into war, and that was, as I said earlier, in the last segment, that Robert S. McNamara actually misled Johnson to believe that the commander in the field in the Tonkin Gulf had not changed his mind and was not doubting that the attack might have taken place and in fact was calling for not doing any retaliatory strike until the Navy could carry out reconnaissance by daylight. And he informed Admiral Sharp of that, and Sharp then, in the afternoon of the fourth in a conversation with McNamara, actually relayed a second warning by the commander that he had new doubts and that he was again calling for waiting on retaliation, any retaliatory strike, until the actual facts of the matter had been clarified. And indeed, Admiral Sharp repeated or actually endorsed that advice to the White House, to McNamara and the White House, to wait until morning. But McNamara in that conversation with Sharp disagreed, said he did not intend to hold off on the execute order as Sharp was suggesting and would go ahead with the execute order while Sharp tried to get confirming evidence.
And that is a key point, because later on, we now know from the documents in the LBJ Library, that Johnson actually asked for an investigation after the fourth. He asked his national security adviser to inquire about not only whether the actual attack had taken place, but he wanted to know what the contacts between the field commander, the admiral, Sharp, in Honolulu and McNamara actually were. What did they say to McNamara? What did McNamara know and when did he know it? And so there was in fact an inquiry that required McNamara to compile all of the conversations in a chronology. And McNamara did send a chronology to the White House pretty soon after that. Unfortunately, McNamara lied in the chronology and misrepresented that conversation with Admiral Sharp, leaving out the critical details that Sharp had informed him about the doubts of Captain Herrick, and also had misrepresented his response to Sharp’s recommendation and said he agreed that they should hold off on the execute order until Sharp had been able to provide him with confirmation of what happened. And, in fact, McNamara, after that conversation with Sharp, had gone ahead and sent the execute order to the strike. And LBJ was not aware of what had happened in that transaction. So LBJ ultimately concluded it’s very clear that he had been misled by McNamara, and six weeks later, when McNamara and Rusk tried to get him to sign on to another retaliatory attack on North Vietnam, claiming there had been another raid on U.S. ships, Johnson not only said no, but he confronted McNamara and said, a few weeks ago you said our ships were under attack, and it turned out that wasn’t true.
DESVARIEUX: Okay. Daniel, you just heard what Gareth had to say. So it sounds like LBJ was a bit reluctant to get involved in the war. When you were there on the inside, is that really how it transpired? And I really want to get into the interests here, why they wanted this were so badly.
ELLSBERG: Actually, Gareth persuaded me in the course of reading his book The Perils of Dominance that McNamara had informed LBJ of the degree of uncertainty about the [incompr.] sort of stuff that I was actually reading but was available to McNamara but was not, apparently, passed on to the president. And that gives McNamara very great responsibility for carrying out this strike.
It’s true, I have no question, that LBJ, the president, Johnson, was very reluctant to see an escalation of the war before his election in November 1964. If Gareth means to give the impression that Johnson was very uncertain as to whether we were going into a wider war in Vietnam, I would disagree with that. I think that the president was assuring the Joint Chiefs from as early as late 1963 or early ’64, when he became president, that, as is often quoted in one case, they would have their war after he had been elected in his own right in 1964. But he was skeptical to the end of the bombing campaign, because they were afraid they were going to lose Vietnam otherwise, and they wanted the president to be committed to a large war, essentially. And certainly that was true with the joint Chiefs. However, as it worked out, we were moving–another thing that the president said that very night is we “seek no wider war”. That was a conscious lie by Lyndon Johnson, and he campaigned on it. He was campaigning against Senator Goldwater, a major general reserve in the Air Force, who was calling for a wider war immediately. And he was saying, Johnson was saying, we seek no wider war. We’re not going south, that is, we’re not getting out of Vietnam, and we’re not going north at this time. People didn’t notice the at this time and a contingent aspect of that during the campaign, and they thought of him as a very strong alternative to Goldwater. And he in fact got an unprecedentedly large landslide against Goldwater, largely on that basis. That was fraudulent. In fact, although Goldwater probably would have given us even a larger war, possibly more troops faster, [or head to (?)] North Vietnam, probably, very possibly causing the Chinese to come in, in which case he was prepared to use nuclear weapons, and for that matter, had the Chinese Come in, even the Democrats were internally saying they were committed to using nuclear weapons against them.
But Johnson wanted not to lose the war. He knew he had to put in more resources. I believe that Johnson and McNamara were in a conspiracy, and the Joint Chiefs, essentially, to involve the country in a wider war, what the joint chiefs understood and told Johnson would be a large war. He didn’t want it to be as large as they wanted, which would probably have involved China and even nuclear weapons, but he was determined not to lose in Vietnam.
And McNamara, who I believe had earlier agreed with John F. Kennedy before he died that we should be getting out of Vietnam in ’65 after the election, I think McNamara went along entirely with Johnson on the idea that once Johnson became president, that we would not lose in Vietnam. And he saw the only way of doing that as being airpower especially, and eventually he agreed to troops. McNamara, the difference between them, if Gareth has said, or as I would attribute Gareth, did disagree that the airpower should start as early as 1964, before the election. And Johnson was very set against that.
But ultimately, as I say, there was in effect a conspiracy led at the top against the Congress, the Constitution, the American public, and Vietnam to commit, basically, a crime against the peace in going into a large war. That has very great lessons for us today because there are people, in this case I would say not led by the president, but the pressures to which he’s responding, to get us involved in wars all over the place on evidence that is not only equivocal and uncertain, but where the conflicts are no more promising in their prospect than was Vietnam. So the example before of how this came about is very important to us.
PORTER: Dan, I would just say I think it’s important to understand everything you’re saying in general about the lesson of Tonkin Gulf and what happened later is obviously very, very applicable today. But I want to emphasize that there was a conspiracy that went beyond simply the president ordering things that was taking place in the entire 15 months after LBJ took the presidency, and that is that he was in fact resisting their efforts to get him committed to both the ground war to defend South Vietnam as well as to carry on the air war against North Vietnam. And this, by the way, continued after he was elected for another three to four months. It was a matter of great concern to the military, to the Pentagon, and to McGeorge Bundy that LBJ was still refusing, after November 1964, to go along with their recommendations. And they were still pushing him in February 1965. So this was–I think we have to understand there was something going on here which goes beyond what has been understood to be the conspiracy for war in Vietnam, and I think that is that the national security state has its own agenda, and it pushes that agenda even when the president is opposed.
DESVARIEUX: Alright. Gareth Porter and Daniel Ellsberg, thank you both for joining us.
ELLSBERG: Thank you for having us.
PORTER: Thanks a lot, Jessica.
DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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