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Getting the Gulf of Tonkin Wrong: Are Ken Burns and Lynn Novick “Telling Stories” About the Central Events Used to Legitimize the US Attack Against Vietnam?

This past spring I attended an advance screening of excerpts of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s documentary about the US War against Vietnam at Harvard, with these two in attendance, along with some Kennedy School “national security” types, who had evidently been recruited as “consultants.” (I was happy to see Peter Davis, the director of the truly commendable “Hearts and Minds” in the audience, to whom I had a chance to say “hello” before I left. Peter is himself a Harvard grad, is now writing novels and, happily, was acknowledged by Ken Burns as he began the post-screening discussion.)

I was astonished to hear the “Narrator” in one of these excerpts refer to “retaliation for the Gulf of Tonkin.” I was doubly astonished when I heard Burns use this exact same phrase — “retaliation for the Gulf of Tonkin” — during the discussion and Q&A which followed the screening, and in a different context. [Was it on his mind for some reason?]

What could he possibly mean?

“Retaliation” for Gulf of Tonkin?

Professor Sut Jhally has done noteworthy work with the Media Education Foundation (MEF) in Western Mass on the uses of the term “retaliation” in major US media. MEF have produced at least one excellent DVD where they analyze how every attack by Israel on Palestinians is invariably framed as “retaliation.” Of course, this is often, in fact, not actually the case. Of course, if you “believe” that some entity (a person; a government; a “nation”; a “people…”) are “retaliating” (for an alleged attack) — rather than initiating attacks — then almost anything the “retaliator” does is justified, no?


Framing the US attack on North Vietnam as “retaliation” in this PBS documentary, which purports to tell truths about this horrific war, is a fundamental, serious, and consequential defect, one which must raise the question of why, after all these years — and when the truth about the Gulf of Tonkin “incidents” has been known for years — Ken Burns and Lynn Novick would engage in this kind of (albeit strangely belated) pro-war propaganda. (Or is it better understood as indoctrination.)

Burns and Novick are noted for specializing in the delivery of emotion-laden “stories.” Are they to be allowed to turn actually important, fundamental facts about the US war into a “story,” as well? But the movingemotional stories in this PBS series are tied together with a Meta-Narrative, if you will, of the *history* of the war in Vietnam. It is in this Meta-Narrative that we can discern and judge the extent to which Burns and Novick (and PBS) are actually revealing helpful truths for facing “our” history — and the history of this war — or not.

Three days after the “second” of two supposed “incidents” in the Gulf of Tonkin, the LBJ administration secured an overwhelming rubber stamp in the US Congress for the infamous “Gulf of Tonkin Resolution,” which would be used forever after as the fig-leaf for justifying continued US military intervention in Vietnam, as both supposedly constitutionally and politically “legitimate,” with all the attendant violence, massive destruction, and death.

Isn’t this little bit of “history” rather important? Isn’t it rather important to get this right?

Just three weeks after these alleged “incidents,” I. F. Stone had already reported much of the real story in his famous I. F. Stone’s Weekly, evidently based entirely on just the well-informed remarks of Senator Wayne Morse on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

Wayne Morse, of Oregon, was one of only two senators to vote against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution;  the other was, of course, Ernest Gruening, of Alaska.

As it turns out, the US Central Intelligence Agency had been conducting “covert” attacks against the shoreline of North Vietnam for months (OPLAN 34-A). Finally, in early August of 1964, a mid-level NV naval officer may have been responsible for ordering NV patrol boats to pursue the USS Maddox out into international waters, as a result of it’s believed role in supporting these attacks (which was actually the case; the Maddox had a special [and unusual] NSA surveillance unit on board, and was also engaged in what were labeled “DeSoto Patrols,” moving into and out of territorial waters claimed by the Government of North Vietnam.) Among other things, these US/CIA attacks were designed to test and gain information about North Vietnamese radar and air defenses.

So,  if there were, indeed, any “retaliation,” it would be more accurate to say that this was a case of “retaliation” by North Vietnames naval forces for repeated coastal aggression by the United States. (Likely deliberately conceived, at least in part, to provoke just this sort of response, which could then be used as the pretext for the broader intervention top “policy-makers” were seeking.) Because of the advanced surveillance by the NSA unit aboard the Maddox, they knew the patrol boats were approaching “at high speed” well ahead of time. The three PT boats involved were almost entirely destroyed, and the Maddox may have sustained “one bullet hole” during the incident. [Extensive materials on this topic can be found at the National Security Archive website.]

Two days later, on the night of August 4, 1964, a “second attack” supposedly occurred, this time including the USS Turner Joy, as well.

However, there was no second “attack.” 

A relatively recent article published by the US Naval Institute reported the following:

Analysis of the Evidence

Historians have long suspected that the second attack in the Gulf of Tonkin never occurred and that the resolution was based on faulty evidence. But no declassified information had suggested that McNamara, Johnson, or anyone else in the decision-making process had intentionally misinterpreted the intelligence concerning the 4 August incident. More than 40 years after the events, that all changed with the release of the nearly 200 documents related to the Gulf of Tonkin incident and transcripts from the Johnson Library.

These new documents and tapes reveal what historians could not prove: There was not a second attack on U.S. Navy ships in the Tonkin Gulf in early August 1964. Furthermore, the evidence suggests a disturbing and deliberate attempt by Secretary of Defense McNamara to distort the evidence and mislead Congress.

[See: https://www.usni.org ]

I.F. Stone was actually onto this story years before some historians were able to use belatedly and reluctantly released classified documents to confirm the lies, deceptions and misrepresentations.  [See: I. F. Stone’s Weekly, following further “testimony” from McNamara in 1968.]

Turbulent water may have been either misinterpreted — or misconstrued — as a North Vienamese PT boat torpedo launch. Among others, James Stockade, later an Admiral and eventually Ross Perot’s running mate when he ran for President, was flying missions over the Maddox and reported seeing zero evidence of any alleged “attack.” Stockdale would later emphasize that he would have had a far better view of the any alleged “engagement” from the air, in any case.

An NSA cryptography publication ran what has been viewed by historians as an important analysis of all this based on hundreds of documents involving extensive declassified cable traffic.[See an oft-sited NSA study by Robert J. Hanyok.]

Finally, John Prados, who has written important histories about the CIA and US covert operations abroad, produced a useful article on the occasion of the 40th Anniversary of The Gulf of Tonkin “incidents” for the Washington-based National Security Archive in 2004.

Naturally, if you’re interested in telling “stories,” you may not focus too carefully on the facts of the history and the context in which these “stories”  took place.

But shouldn’t we demand that Burns and Novick (and PBS) get something as important as what did or didn’t happen in The Gulf of Tonkin — and was used as the pretext for ten years of war — right?