How the United States started the Vietnam War

Published: 2003-02-01

This document is part of the The Revisionist periodical.
Use this menu to find more documents that are part of this periodical.

On August 4, 1964, network television was interrupted at 11:36 p.m. EDT so President Lyndon B. Johnson could tell the nation that the U.S. warships USS Maddox and its sister ship USS C. Turner Joy had been attacked in a place called the Gulf of Tonkin by North Vietnamese PT boats. Already two days earlier, according to Johnson, the USS Maddox, a destroyer conducting reconnaissance in the gulf, had been attacked by North Vietnamese, Russian-made "swatow" gunboats, but this was not taken as a reason for action.

In response to what he described as "open aggression on the open seas," Johnson ordered U.S. airstrikes on North Vietnam. The airstrikes opened the door to a war that would turn into a traumatic experience for the USA. During its course, one million Vietnamese, most of them civilians, and 58,000 American soldiers would die. This war was also the origin of the anti-authority, left-wing flower-power and hippie movement which in later years divided most western societies and over the decades led to a radical left-wing conversion especially of the German society.

Over the years, debate has swirled around whether U.S. ships actually were attacked that night, or whether, as some skeptics suggest, the Johnson administration staged or provoked an event to get congressional authority to act against North Vietnam.

Recently released tapes of White House phone conversations indicate the attack probably never happened. The tapes, released by the LBJ Library at the University of Texas at Austin, include 51 phone conversations from Aug. 4 and 5, 1964, where the Tonkin Gulf incident is mentioned.

Although these tapes do not finally clarify what really happened in the Gulf of Tonkin, they do at least indicate that the sailors on board of the US ships involved claimed to believe – or actually did believe – that they had been attacked in this region of conflict. One of the radio messages of the Maddox reads:

"Under attack by three PT boats. Torpedoes in the water. Engaging the enemy with my main battery."

Indeed, the destroyers fired 249 5-inch shells, 123 3-inch shells and four or five depth charges, according to Navy records.

Many of the taped conversations from that night are between ‘Defense’ Secretary Robert and Adm. U.S. Grant ‘Oley’ Sharp, commander of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet. During these conversations, McNamara was (actually or allegedly) trying to verify what actually happened so he could brief LBJ for his TV bulletin.

Sharp was feeding McNamara ‘information’ from the field and trying to get a strike force in the air to retaliate for the alleged attack even before the president went on television. He obviously tried to confront the nation with a fait accompli. On Aug. 4 about noon, Sharp said:

"If it’s open season on these boys, which I think it is, we’ll take it from there."

Later, in a 1:59 p.m. EDT conversation with Air Force Lt. Gen. David Burchinal of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Sharp was elusive, saying:

"many of the reported contacts and torpedoes fired appear doubtful."

He blamed the reports on "overeager sonarmen" and "freak weather effects on radar."

But, asked Burchinal:

"You’re pretty sure there was a torpedo attack?"

"No doubt about that, I think," Sharp replied.

At 8:39 p.m., with McNamara laying plans for LBJ to go on TV, McNamara asked Sharp why the retaliatory strike was delayed. Bad weather, Sharp said, and an agitated McNamara replied:

"The president has to make a statement to the people and I am holding him back from making it."

Thirty minutes later, at 9:09, Sharp said the launch still was 50 minutes off.

"Oh my God," McNamara said. This indicates how eager the secretary of ‘defense’ was to push the country into a war and to confront the nation with a fait accompli.

Shortly after 11 p.m., the counterstrike was under way and LBJ went on the air to tell the American people that the USA would do everything to "in support of freedom and in defense of peace in Southeast Asia."

But, says James Stockdale, a Navy aviator who responded to the "attacks" on the Maddox and Turner Joy, it all was hogwash. Stockdale later was shot down and spent eight years in a North Vietnamese prisoner of war camp. In 1992, he was presidential candidate Ross Perot’s running mate. Stockdale wrote in his 1984 book In Love and War (Harper & Row, New York):

"I had the best seat in the house to watch that event, and our destroyers were just shooting at phantom targets – there were no PT boats there. There was nothing but black water and American firepower."

Congress, however, responded to LBJ’s call to arms, giving him a veritable blank check to make war.

While the U.S. response, as the tapes seem to bear out, was a mistake rather than a charade, there is ample evidence the United States was a provocateur in 1964, not an innocent bystander. The Johnson administration had approved covert land and sea operations involving U.S. forces earlier in 1964, the so-called Op Plan 34-A.

On Monday, Aug. 3, 1964, the day after the alleged first Tonkin Gulf incident against the USS Maddox, Johnson, according to White House tape recordings, said:

"There have been some covert operations in that (Tonkin Gulf) area that we have been carrying on - blowing up some bridges and things of that kind, roads and so forth. So I imagine (the North Vietnamese) wanted to put a stop to it."

Later that same day, LBJ, who ironically was about to ask Humphrey to be his running mate in the ‘64 election, complained to their mutual friend, James Rowe:

"Our friend Hubert is just destroying himself with his big mouth."

After an intelligence briefing, the Minnesota liberal Hubert Humphrey had told the media that U.S. boats were running covert operations in the gulf – "exactly what we have been doing," according to LBJ on a tape.

Two months before the Tonkin Gulf incident, Undersecretary of State George Ball, a member of Johnson’s inner circle and a member of a committee that oversaw the 34-A operations, had drafted, but not submitted, a congressional resolution endorsing "all measures, including the commitment of force," to defend South Vietnam and Laos, should their governments seek help – in effect, the language in the subsequent Tonkin Gulf Resolution of the US Congresses from early August 1964. In a May 24 meeting, the National Security Council suggested the best time to submit such a resolution was after Congress had passed the landmark 1964 civil rights bill, which occurred in July 1964. Hence, the Tonkin-Resolution passed by Congress in August was anything else but a reaction to the alleged Tonkin ‘incident.’

Ball later is supposed to have said, according to McNamara in his 1995 mea culpa In Retrospect (Times Books, NY):

"many of the people who were associated with the war […] were looking for any excuse to initiate bombing."

However, another close LBJ aide, William Bundy, according to the same source, said the Tonkin Gulf incident was not engineered.

While the reasons for it either were unclear or false, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution cleared Congress on Aug. 7, 1964 – 414-0 in the House and 88-2 in the Senate.

Professor Edwin Moise, a Vietnam War expert at Clemson University, claims that the ‘incident’ was not a "put-up job," since the LBJ Library tapes indicate that the Navy was not ready to launch a retaliatory strike on Aug. 4 against North Vietnam. Professor David Crockett, a presidential scholar at Trinity University, calls the incident an accident. He says that the bigger problem was that Congress "rolled over" and gave LBJ a blank check for war without any resistance.

It was therefore nothing but cynicism that LBJ painted his republican competitor Goldwater as a warmonger in the ‘64 presidential election campaign. During this campaign, LBJ campaigned with the slogan that he would not send American boys to die in Asian wars. But in the meantime, did we not become used to such lies from American presidents?

Source: http : // [now defunct]

Additional information about this document
Property Value
Author(s): Wolfgang Pfitzner
Title: How the United States started the Vietnam War
Sources: The Revisionist 1(1) (2003), pp. 114f.
Published: 2003-02-01
First posted on CODOH: June 7, 2012, 7 p.m.
Last revision:
Appears In: