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40 Years After Tonkin

Upon accepting the Democratic Party’s nomination for president, Senator John F. Kerry promised to “bring back this nation’s time-honored tradition: The United States of America never goes to war because we want to; we only go to war because we have to.”

This tradition may indeed be time-honored…but more in the breach. The concept of a nation forced into war is, in fact, a primary component of the inveterate “sleeping giant” spin.

“He started it” or “She hit me first.” It’s an excuse we all learn in childhood. From this rudimentary alibi grows the myth of the sleeping giant. By portraying oneself as the target of an unprovoked sneak attack; all bases are covered. Not only are you claiming innocence and the role of a victim, you might even be excused for responding angrily…maybe even with a little too much force.

As George W. Bush declared on March 17, 2003, the night he gave Saddam Hussein a final ultimatum, “The United States and other nations did nothing to deserve or invite this threat, but we will do everything to defeat it.” In other words, the sleeping giant may not want war but once rudely awakened, don’t blame him when things get a little nasty.

Our history books and newspaper headlines portray an ever-benevolent U.S. as minding its own business yet incessantly awakened by surprise events and unprovoked incidents that test its celebrated patience. Incidents like the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor…after which Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Commander of the Japanese Fleet, is reported to have said: “I fear we have awoken a sleeping giant.”

Interestingly, Yamamoto’s quote is yet another example of spin. There is no official record of the Japanese commander uttering these words…except for the 1970 feature film about the attack on Pearl Harbor, “Tora! Tora! Tora!” It may actually be Napoleon Bonaparte who deserves credit for this term. Legend has it the French general pointed to China on a map of the world and growled: “There is a sleeping giant. Let him sleep! If he wakes, he will shake the world.” Regardless of its origin, as with all myths, the “U.S. as Sleeping Giant” façade crumbles rapidly under scrutiny.

It was forty years ago this month that a series of ambiguous events in the Gulf of Tonkin resulted in the military intervention that helped propel Candidate Kerry to his current position. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara described it as such: “While on routine patrol in international waters, the U.S. destroyer Maddox underwent an unprovoked attack,” while the Washington Post headline on August 5, 1964 blared: AMERICAN PLANES HIT NORTH VIETNAM AFTER SECOND ATTACK ON OUR DESTROYERS; MOVE TAKEN TO HALT NEW AGGRESSION.

Asked to explain North Vietnam’s actions, Secretary of State Dean Rusk chalked it up to “a great gulf of understanding between that world and our world, ideological in character.”

By a nearly unanimous vote by Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on August 7, 1964, thus authorizing President Lyndon B. Johnson “to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.” Over the next two years, 400,000 U.S. soldiers shipped out to South Vietnam.

Of this scenario, we can ask the same question being proposed today: Was this military response based on a legitimate threat or a fabricated pretext?

Squadron commander James Stockdale, who would later serve as Ross Perot’s running mate in 1992, was a navy pilot flying over the Gulf of Tonkin that night forty years ago. “I had the best seat in the house to watch that event,” Stockdale recalled, “and our destroyers were just shooting at phantom targets-there were no PT boats there…. There was nothing there but black water and American fire power.”

One year after the dubious incident, even President Johnson admitted: “For all I know, our Navy was shooting at whales out there.”

Since Senator Kerry is fond of sprinkling his speeches with literary quotes, here’s one from Edna St. Vincent Millay he’s bound to relate to: “It is not true that life is one damn thing after another; it’s one damn thing over and over.”

MICKEY Z. is the author of two brand new books: “The Seven Deadly Spins: Exposing the Lies Behind War Propaganda” (Common Courage Press) and “A Gigantic Mistake: Articles and Essays for Your Intellectual Self-Defense” (Library Empyreal/Wildside Press). For more information, please visit: http://mickeyz.net.

 

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Mickey Z. is the author of 12 books, most recently Occupy this Book: Mickey Z. on Activism. Until the laws are changed or the power runs out, he can be found on the Web here. Anyone wishing to support his activist efforts can do so by making a donation here. This piece first appeared at World Trust News.  

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