D. Dowd Muska


50 Years Ago, LBJ Lied, and Millions Died

July 24, 2014

Distressed that the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives can’t get along? Frustrated over “gridlock”? Pining for the days when bipartisanship was the norm?

Let’s time-travel back 50 years, and examine a fateful measure that Congress and President Lyndon B. Johnson enacted with near-unanimous support.

In the summer of 1964, Vietnam’s civil war was escalating. Would the country -- bifurcated, north and south, by an agreement crafted a decade earlier -- be communist or “free”? Washington’s Cold Warriors, in the thrall of the “domino theory,” weren’t willing to let another nation succumb to the reds. A covert, and largely unsuccessful, campaign was underway to weaken the regime in the north. But the shenanigans raised the pesky matter of congressional consent. To do more, and openly, the commander-in-chief needed permission.

Stanley Karnow, in his voluminous history of the Vietnam conflict, wrote that by May 1964, presidential aides had composed a rough draft of a “resolution that would serve a dual purpose: by giving Johnson a free hand to conduct the war in Southeast Asia as he saw fit, it would strengthen his international credibility; more important, its passage would assure him bipartisan endorsement and thereby remove the Vietnam issue from the election campaign.” The document was ready, but a pretext for approval was necessary.

On August 2, the USS Maddox was engaged in electronic snooping in the Gulf of Tonkin. It fought a brief skirmish with several torpedo boats, and called for help from fighters based on the USS Ticonderoga. Two days later, the Maddox, joined by the USS Turner Joy, was spying again. The destroyers were authorized to “attack any force that attacks them.” As Karnow put it, the vessels “were effectively being used to bait the Communists.”

At 9:52 p.m., the Maddox reported that the flotilla was under attack. “Between 22 and 30 torpedoes were counted during the next two hours,” wrote Robert Scheer, in a 1985 investigation for the Los Angeles Times, “during which the destroyers thrashed about in high-speed evasive action while frenetically firing their cannon.”

Neither lives nor ships nor planes were lost that night, but LBJ had his casus belli, and quickly took to the airwaves. Reporters and editorial pages fell in line. So did Congress. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution asserted that “naval units of the Communist regime in Vietnam” had “deliberately and repeatedly attacked United States naval vessels.” It encouraged the president to take “all necessary measures … to prevent further aggression,” and passed without a single dissent in the House of Representatives. In the Senate, only Wayne Morse (D-OR) and Ernest Gruening (D-AK) opposed the de facto declaration of war.

You know the rest. Millions throughout Indochina, most of them noncombatants, lost their lives. Over 58,000 American soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen were killed from combat, accidents, suicides, homicides, and illnesses. The Hanoi Hilton. Nixon. Kent State. The Weather Underground. Watergate. Pol Pot. The Boat People.

In the bitterest of ironies, a conflict that achieved epic levels of inhumanity was precipitated by an incident that never took place.

In the immediate aftermath of the August 4 “attack,” the destroyers’ commodore had notified superiors of his “many doubts” -- there had been no “actual visual sightings” of the enemy, and perhaps “freak weather effects” had yielded faulty conclusions. In March 1965, John White, an officer assigned to the seaplane tender USS Pine Island, spoke to the chief sonarman for the Turner Joy, who averred that “in his opinion there were no torpedoes fired at his ship during the event,” and that “he kept reporting it to the ship’s bridge personnel that way.” White went public about the conversation in a December 1967 letter to the New Haven Register, then worked with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Gulf of Tonkin probe. (His pamphlet on the imbroglio, published earlier this year, is worth a read.) In the 2003 documentary The Fog of War, former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara admitted that torpedoes hadn’t been launched on August 4.

No official of the Johnson administration was held accountable for the expedient rush to judgment it made a half-century ago. And the lesson of the Gulf of Tonkin debacle repeatedly went unlearned. In 1990, false claims about babies snatched from incubators helped rally support to “liberate” Kuwait. A dozen years later, nonexistent “weapons of mass destruction” and chimerical “links to Al Qaeda” were used to justify the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Obsessed with “threats,” exaggerated and imagined, Washington’s would-be globocops couldn’t be trusted in 1964. They still can’t.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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