The Gulf of Tonkin: Reflections, 50 Years Later
A Vietnam vet pleads for healing on the anniversary of the incident
“All Vietnam is not worth the life of an American boy . . . “
— Alaska Senator Ernest Gruening, August 1964
“Hell, those dumb stupid sailors were just shooting at flying fish.”
— President Lyndon Baines Johnson, August 1964
“I believe that history will record this resolution as a historic mistake. I am not going to go along with this kind of a program, in South Vietnam … that in my judgment is going to kill needlessly untold numbers of American boys, and for nothing.”
— Oregon Senator Wayne Morse, August 1964
I was 17 years old when the infamous Gulf of Tonkin incidents took place in Vietnam in 1964, less than a year away from being required by law to register with the Selective Service and, thus, became eligible for the draft.
As President Johnson was preparing to address the American public about the Tonkin situation on the night of August 4, I was sitting in Forbes Field watching the Los Angeles Dodgers defeat my beloved Pittsburgh Pirates 10-7. The Dodgers’ Willie Davis stole three bases that night while my favorite baseball player, the Pirates’ Roberto Clemente, had three hits. For a 17-year-old apathetic American male living in industrial Pennsylvania, that baseball game was about all that mattered that warm summer evening.
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But as my cousin and I were making our way out of the stadium, we became aware of rumblings among the crowd, ominous murmurs that rippled, almost like a domino, among the Pirate faithful.
By the time the buzz got to us, we understood that the great U-S-of-A was at war with a country alternately misidentified as Vet-nam, V-et-nim or Hanoi and that the president had ordered a bombing raid. “We’ll kick some Commie ass and declare victory by the morning,” boasted a rather large fellow sporting a “Have a Duke” (Duquesne Beer) T-shirt.
On the ride home, we turned on the radio to hear news reports that torpedoes had been fired at our ships somewhere overseas whereupon LBJ got justifiably pissed and decided to retaliate. “We seek no wider war” was the line from the president’s radio address the newscasters kept quoting.
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The next day President Johnson sent a Resolution to the House and Senate titled “To Promote the Maintenance of International Peace and Security in Southeast Asia” which became known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.
The House of Representatives passed the Resolution 416-0, and the Senate 88-2 with only Senators Gruening of Alaska and Morse of Oregon (both Democrats) opposing.
What We Didn’t Know
The American public would later learn that there was no attack on our ships on Aug. 4. In fact, according to eyewitness Naval pilot James Stockdale, who “had the best seat in the house to watch that event," “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."
Eventually, the North Vietnamese naval “attacks” of Aug. 2, 1964, would likewise become questionable.
But we didn’t know that then. So the next morning, The New York Times praised the president for going “to the American people last night with the somber facts,” while 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." A Gallup poll indicated that 85 percent of Americans supported the intervention.
Little did I know that my conscription goose was cooked that night, and that seven years later I’d spend many a hot and uncomfortable August evening in Southeast Asia as a member of the U.S. Army, just one from among the 2,215,000 men drafted into military service during the Vietnam era from a pool of approximately 27 million draft-eligible.
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Of course I didn’t know any of these facts or statistics back then, and, as a son of a World War II veteran and loyal American, I believed what my president told me that night, believed enough that when his successor, Richard Nixon, commanded me to go to Vietnam and put my life on the line in 1970, I went.
What I Believed
My story is just one among the 27 million, and I can only speak for myself, but I’d argue that most of the 27 million of us who were eligible for military service at that time, believed the same things I did — that our country was honest and true, that we only fought to defend ourselves and preserve freedom, and that our elected officials always, always told the truth.
All of those values were turned upside down by the Vietnam War. Some of us (me) learned this sorry lesson overseas in Vietnam, since the Pentagon Papers were released in June 1971 during my 365 days at war. The Papers revealed in painstaking detail how we had been duped and lied to.
Moreover, by then it was apparent that we were not going to win this war and that we soldiers would be left holding the bag of defeat and dishonor. It’s a bag we still hold, one handed down to us by a nation that chose to turn its anger and frustration about the war toward us, the soldiers who fought it.
The totality of the Gulf of Tonkin deception was made completely apparent in 2010 when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee released more than 1,100 pages of previously classified Vietnam-era transcripts. The documents highlighted the fact that several U. S. senators knew that LBJ, his aides, and the Pentagon had deceived the American people over the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident. Yet they chose to do nothing.
The Lessons of the Vietnam War
These are among the many lessons of the Vietnam War, one that experienced historians will tell you began long before those two nights in August of 1964 and the fabrications of Tonkin Gulf. And in many quarters, the point-counterpoint regarding who was right or wrong about Vietnam, our military tactics, our dubious ally, etc. etc, continues.
But none of this — not the tapes nor the transcripts nor the books nor the arguments — can bring back the 58,195 whose names are on the Wall in Washington, D. C. or the hundreds of thousands who have died since then as a result of Vietnam-related damage.
The war showed Gruening and Morse to be prophetic — “kill needlessly untold numbers of American boys, and for nothing” — although I’m certain neither of them would have boasted about being right.
My point is that when we first knew the lies were lies — be it in 1964 or 1968 or 1971 or 2010 — we should have said: “We screwed up. We were wrong. We’re sorry.” And then we should have helped the country get on with the process of healing.
Those avowals and apologies never came. The healing never happened. And we’re left 50 years later with a hole in our national soul, one that might not have been born on the high seas in August 1964, but which most certainly took sail then. And the ramifications of that deception will haunt us to our graves.