"President Johnson ordered U.S. bombers to
"retaliate" for a North Vietnamese torpedo attack that never
happened. We Americans are the ultimate innocents. We are
forever desperate to believe that this time the government
is telling us the truth."
Thirty years ago, it all seemed very clear.
"American Planes Hit North Vietnam After Second Attack on Our
Destroyers; Move Taken to Halt New Aggression", announced a
Washington Post headline on Aug. 5, 1964. That same day, the front
page of the New York Times reported: "President Johnson has ordered
retaliatory action against gunboats and 'certain supporting
facilities in North Vietnam' after renewed attacks against American
destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin."
But there was no "second attack" by North Vietnam — no
"renewed attacks against American destroyers." By reporting
official claims as absolute truths, American journalism opened
the floodgates for the bloody Vietnam War.
A pattern took hold: continuous government lies passed on by
pliant mass media...leading to over 50,000 American deaths and
millions of Vietnamese casualties. The official story was that North
Vietnamese torpedo boats launched an "unprovoked attack" against a
U.S. destroyer on "routine patrol" in the Tonkin Gulf on Aug. 2 —
and that North Vietnamese PT boats followed up with a "deliberate
attack" on a pair of U.S. ships two days later.
The truth was very different.
Rather than being on a routine patrol Aug. 2, the U.S. destroyer
Maddox was actually engaged in aggressive intelligence-gathering
manoeuvres — in sync with coordinated attacks on North Vietnam by
the South Vietnamese navy and the Laotian air force. "The day
before, two attacks on North Vietnam...had taken place," writes
scholar Daniel C. Hallin. Those assaults were "part of a campaign of
increasing military pressure on the North that the United States had
been pursuing since early 1964."
On the night of Aug. 4, the Pentagon proclaimed that a second attack
by North Vietnamese PT boats had occurred earlier that day in the
Tonkin Gulf — a report cited by President Johnson as he went on
national TV that evening to announce a momentous escalation in the
war: air strikes against North Vietnam.
But Johnson ordered U.S. bombers to "retaliate" for a North
Vietnamese torpedo attack that never happened.
Prior to the U.S. air strikes, top officials in Washington had
reason to doubt that any Aug. 4 attack by North Vietnam had
occurred. Cables from the U.S. task force commander in the Tonkin
Gulf, Captain John J. Herrick, referred to "freak weather effects,"
"almost total darkness" and an "overeager sonarman" who "was hearing
ship's own propeller beat."
One of the Navy pilots flying overhead that night was squadron
commander James Stockdale, who gained fame later as a POW and then
Ross Perot's vice presidential candidate. "I had the best seat in
the house to watch that event," recalled Stockdale a few years ago,
"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." In 1965, Lyndon Johnson commented:
"For all I know, our Navy was shooting at whales out there."
But Johnson's deceitful speech of Aug. 4, 1964, won accolades
from editorial writers.
The president, proclaimed the New York Times, "went to the
American people last night with the somber facts." The Los Angeles
Times urged Americans to "face the fact that the Communists, by
their attack on American vessels in international waters, have
themselves escalated the hostilities."
An exhaustive new book, The War Within: America's Battle Over
Vietnam, begins with a dramatic account of the Tonkin Gulf
incidents. In an interview, author Tom Wells told us that American
media "described the air strikes that Johnson launched in response
as merely `tit for tat' — when in reality they reflected plans the
administration had already drawn up for gradually increasing its
overt military pressure against the North." Why such
inaccurate news coverage? Wells points to the media's "almost
exclusive reliance on U.S. government officials as sources of
information" — as well as "reluctance to question official
pronouncements on 'national security issues.'"
Daniel Hallin's classic book The "Uncensored War" observes that
journalists had "a great deal of information available which
contradicted the official account [of Tonkin Gulf events]; it simply
wasn't used. The day before the first incident, Hanoi had protested
the attacks on its territory by Laotian aircraft and South
Vietnamese gunboats." What's more, "It was generally known...that
`covert' operations against North Vietnam, carried out by South
Vietnamese forces with U.S. support and direction, had been going on
for some time."
In the absence of independent journalism, the Gulf of Tonkin
Resolution — the closest thing there ever was to a declaration of
war against North Vietnam — sailed through Congress on Aug. 7. (Two
courageous senators, Wayne Morse of Oregon and Ernest Gruening of
Alaska, provided the only "no" votes.) The resolution authorized the
president "to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack
against the forces of the United States and to prevent further
The rest is tragic history.
Nearly three decades later, during the Gulf War, columnist Sydney
Schanberg warned journalists not to forget "our unquestioning chorus
of agreeability when Lyndon Johnson bamboozled us with his
fabrication of the Gulf of Tonkin incident."
Schanberg blamed not only the press but also "the apparent amnesia
of the wider American public." And he added: "We Americans are the
ultimate innocents. We are forever desperate to believe that this
time the government is telling us the truth."