Gulf of Tonkin Incident - Event That
Pushed US Into Vietnam War - Probably
Never Happened, Tapes Show
Bob Richter, San Antonio Express-News
Thirty-eight years ago Sunday (2nd August,
1964), network television was interrupted at 11:36
p.m. EDT so President Lyndon B. Johnson could tell
the nation that U.S. warships in a place called
the Gulf of Tonkin had been attacked by North
Vietnamese PT boats.
In response to what he described as "open aggression
on the open seas," Johnson ordered U.S. airstrikes on
North Vietnam. The airstrikes opened the door to a war
that would kill 1 million Vietnamese and 58,000
Americans and divide the nation along class and
Over the years, debate has swirled around whether U.S.
ships actually were attacked that night, or whether,
as some sceptics suggest, the Johnson administration
staged or provoked an event to get congressional
authority to act against North Vietnam.
Recently released tapes of White House phone
conversations indicate the attack probably never
2008 note: It looks like the website has gone.]
Anniversary: Tonkin Gulf Lie Launched Vietnam War
Fairness And Accuracy In Reporting
Media Beat (7/27/94) ~ By Jeff Cohen and Norman
Thirty years ago, it all seemed very clear.
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
A pattern took hold: continuous government lies
passed on by pliant mass media... leading to over
50,000 American deaths and millions of Vietnamese
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
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 sombre 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
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
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."
Gulf Lie Launched Vietnam War
~ Fairness And Accuracy In Reporting ~
Tonkin's Phantom Attack
Faulty Intelligence Played Role in Decision to Engage
By Walter Cronkite
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