FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Robert S. McNamara and the Real Tonkin Gulf Deception

by

For most of the last five decades, it has been assumed that the Tonkin Gulf incident was a deception by Lyndon Johnson to justify war in Vietnam.  But the U.S. bombing of North Vietnam on August 4, 1964 in retaliation for an alleged naval attack that never happened — and the Tonkin Gulf Resolution that followed was not a move by LBJ to get the American people to support a U.S. war in Vietnam.

The real deception on that day was that Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara’s misled LBJ by withholding from him the information that the U.S. commander in the Gulf who had initially reported an attack by North Vietnamese patrol boats on U.S. warships had now expressed serous doubts about the initial report and was calling for a full investigation by daylight. That withholding of information from LBJ represented a brazen move to usurp the president’s constitutional power of decision on the use of military force.

McNamara’s deception is documented in the declassified files on the Tonkin Gulf episode in the Lyndon Johnson library, which this writer used to piece together the untold story of the Tonkin Gulf episode in a 2005 book on the U.S. entry into war in Vietnam.  It is a key element of a wider story of how the national security state, including both military and civilian officials, tried repeatedly to pressure LBJ to commit the United States to a wider  war in Vietnam.

Johnson had refused to retaliate two days earlier for a North Vietnamese attack on U.S. naval vessels carrying out electronic surveillance operations.  But he accepted McNamara’s recommendation for retaliatory strikes on August 4 based on reports of a second attack.  But after that decision, the U.S. task force commander in the Gulf, Capt. John Herrick, began to send messages expressing doubt about that the initial reports and suggested a “complete evaluation” before any action was taken in response.

McNamara had read Herrick’s message by mid-afternoon, and when he called the Pacific Commander, Admiral Sharp, he learned that Herrick had expressed further doubt about the incident based on conversations with the crew of the Maddox. Sharp specifically recommended that McNamara “hold this execute” of the U.S. airstrikes planned for the evening while he sought to confirm that the attack had taken place.

But McNamara told Sharp he preferred to “continue the execute order in effect” while he waited for “a definite fix” from Sharp about what had actually happened.

McNamara then proceeded to issue the strike execute order without consulting with LBJ about what he had learned from Sharp, thus depriving him of the choice of cancelling the retaliatory strike before an investigation could reveal the truth.

At the White House meeting that night, McNamara again asserted flatly that U.S. ships had been attacked in the Gulf.  When questioned about the evidence, McNamara said, “Only highly classified information nails down the incident.” But the NSA intercept of a North Vietnamese message that McNamara cited as confirmation could not possibly have been related to the August 4 incident, as intelligence analysts quickly determined based from the time-date group of the message.

LBJ began to suspect that McNamara had kept vital information from him, and immediately ordered national security adviser McGeorge Bundy to find out whether the alleged attack had actually taken place and required McNamara’s office to submit a complete chronology of McNamara’s contacts with the military on August 4 for the White House indicating what had transpired in each of them.

But that chronology shows that McNamara continued to hide the substance of the conversation with Admiral Sharp from LBJ.  It omitted Sharp’s revelation that Capt. Herrick considered the “whole situation” to be “in doubt” and was calling for a “daylight recce [reconnaissance]” before any decision to retaliate, as well as Sharp’s agreement with Herrick’s recommendation.  It also falsely portrayed  McNamara as having agreed with Sharp that the execute order should be delayed until confirming evidence was found.

Contrary to the assumption that LBJ used the Tonkin Gulf incident to move U.S. policy firmly onto a track for military intervention, it actually widened the differences between Johnson and his national security advisers over Vietnam policy.  Within days after the episode Johnson had learned enough to be convinced that the alleged attack had not occurred and he responded by halting both the CIA-managed commando raids on the North Vietnamese coast U.S. and the U.S. naval patrols near the coast.

In fact, McNamara’s deception on August 4 was just one of twelve distinct episodes in which top U.S. national security officials attempted to press a reluctant LBJ to begin a bombing campaign against North Vietnam.

In September 1964, McNamara and other top officials tried to get LBJ to approve a deliberately provocative policy of naval patrols running much closer to the North Vietnamese coast and at the same time as the commando raids. They hoped for another incident that would justify a bombing program. But Johnson insisted that the naval patrols stay at least 20 miles away from the coast and stopped the commando operations.

Six weeks after the Tonkin Gulf bombing, on September 18, 1964, McNamara and Rusk claimed yet another North Vietnamese attack on a U.S. destroyer in Gulf and tried to get LBJ to approve another retaliatory strike.  But a skeptical LBJ told McNamara, “You just came in a few weeks ago and said they’re launching an attack on us – they’re firing at us, and we got through with the firing and concluded maybe they hadn’t fired at all.”

After LBJ was elected in November 1964, LBJ continued to resist a unanimous formal policy recommendation of his advisers that he should begin the systematic bombing of North Vietnam.  He stubbornly argued for three more months that there was no point in bombing the North as long as the South was divided and unstable.

Johnson also refused to oppose the demoralized South Vietnamese government negotiating a neutralist agreement with the Communists, much to his advisers’ chagrin. McGeorge Bundy later recalled in an oral history interview that he concluded that Johnson was “coming to a decision…to lose” in South Vietnam.

LBJ only capitulated to the pressure from his advisers after McNamara and Bundy wrote a joint letter to him in late January 1965 making it clear that responsibility for U.S. “humiliation” in South Vietnam would rest squarely on his shoulders if he continued his policy of “passivity”.  Fearing, with good reason, that his own top national security advisers would turn on him and blame him for the loss of South Vietnam, LBJ eventually began the bombing of North Vietnam.

He was then sucked into the maelstrom of the Vietnam War, which he defended publicly and privately, leading to the logical but mistaken conclusion that he had been the main force behind the push for war all along.

The deeper lesson of the Tonkin Gulf episode is how a group of senior national security officials seeks determinedly through hardball – and even illicit — tactics to advance its own war agenda, even though they knew the President of the United States was resisting it.

Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and historian writing about U.S national security policy and the recipient of the Gellhorn Prize for Journalism in 2012.  His investigation of the U.S. entry into war in Vietnam, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published by University of California Press in 2005.

 

More articles by:

Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for journalism. He is the author of the newly published Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare.

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

July 20, 2017
Sebastian Friedrich – Gabriel Kuhn
A New Class Politics
Patrick Cockburn
The Massacre of Mosul: More Than 40,000 Civilians Feared Dead
Paul Street
The Abandonment: Reflections on James Foreman’s “Locking Up Our Own”
Kim Codella
A Practical Education
Frank Scott
America’s Trump, Not Trump’s America
Louis Proyect
Clancy Sigal Goes Away
Don Monkerud
The Real Treason in DC: Turning Our Lives Over to Corporate
Brian Dew – Dean Baker
Are Amazon’s Shareholders Suckers?
Ralph Nader
Detecting What Unravels Our Society – Bottom-up and Top-down
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Covering Islam, Post-Jack Shaheen
Binoy Kampmark
Uhlmann’s Trump Problem
Patrick Walker
In Defense of Caitlin Johnstone
Barry Lando
Those Secret Putin-Trump Talks
Sean Marquis
Thank You, Donald Trump
July 19, 2017
Adam Ziemkowski and Rebekah Liebermann
How Seattle Voted to Tax the Rich
Patrick Cockburn
Why ISIS Fighters are Being Thrown Off Buildings in Mosul
John W. Whitehead
Zombies R Us: the Walking Dead of the American Police State
Mateo Pimentel
Net Neutrality’s Missing Persons
Adil E. Shamoo - Bonnie Bricker
Yemen Policy is Creating More Terrorists
L. Ali Khan
U.S. Misreads Pakistan’s Antifragility
David Macaray
Fear and Trembling in the Workplace
Brian Trautman, Gerry Condon and Samantha Ferguson
Veterans Call on U.S. to Sign Nuclear Ban Treaty
Binoy Kampmark
Militarising Civilian Life: Australia, Policing and Terrorism
Ricardo Vaz
Venezuelan Opposition “Consultation”: Playing Alone and Losing
Jesse Jackson
Trump’s Cold-Hearted Agenda is Immoral
Raul Castro
We will Continue to Advance Along the Path Freely Chosen by Our People
July 18, 2017
James Bovard
Obama’s AWOL Anti-War Protesters
Gary Leupp
CNN: “Russia is an Adversary, Ukraine is Not.”
Ryan Shah
Beware the Radical Center
John Carroll Md
Cold Hands Don’t Need Narcotics
Derrick Jensen
Endangered Species Don’t Need an Ark – They Need a Living Planet!
Kenneth Surin
Brief Impressions of the Canadian Conjucture
Arturo Lopez-Levy
Trump’s Cuba Restrictions: a Detour, Not the Future
Russell Mokhiber
State Street Bentley University Business Ethics and Corporate Crime
Laura Finley
Being Too Much
Robert J. Gould
What is Our Experience of our Flawed Democracy?
Taju Tijani
The Burden of Indivisible Nigeria
Guillaume Pitron
China Now Leads in Renewables
Ted Rall
How I Learned Courts are Off-Limits to the 99 Percent
Binoy Kampmark
Militarising Civilian Life: Australia, Policing and Terrorism
July 17, 2017
Gregory Wilpert
Time for the “International Left” to Take a Stand on Venezuela
Gary Leupp
Trump’s Embrace of the Saudi Crown Prince, and a Qatar Nightmare Scenario
Thomas Hon Wing Polin
Liu Xiaobo: the West’s Model Chinese
Terry Simons
Why I Did Not Go to Vietnam
Jim Green
Nuclear Power’s Annus Horribilus
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail