The Gulf of Tonkin Incident, Revisited

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“Falsehood is a recognized and extremely useful weapon in warfare, and every country uses it quite deliberately to deceive its own people, to attract neutrals, and to mislead the enemy. The ignorant and innocent masses in each country are unaware at the time that they are being misled, and when it is all over only here and there are the falsehoods discovered and exposed. As it is all past history and the desired effect has been produced by the stories and statements, no one troubles to investigate the facts and establish the truth.”
— Introduction to Arthur Ponsonby’s Falsehood in Wartime

If reading about the lies and misdeeds of one’s own government gives you indigestion, then that is good. It ought to. As Arthur Ponsonby notes, without lies there would be “no reason and no will for war.” Anne Morelli has summarized and systematized the contents of Ponsonby’s classic in “ten commandments of propaganda.”

1. We do not want war.
2. The opposite party alone is guilty of war.
3. The enemy is the face of the devil.
4. We defend a noble cause, not our own interest. (Just War Theory)
5. The enemy systematically commits cruelties; our mishaps are involuntary.
6. The enemy uses forbidden weapons.
7. We suffer small losses, those of the enemy are enormous.
8. Artists and intellectuals back our cause.
9. Our cause is sacred.
10. All who doubt our propaganda are traitors.

Lying, of course, doesn’t just happen in wartime, and that governments or people lie should not surprise us. What is extraordinary, he says, is our “amazing readiness to believe. It is, indeed, because of human credulity that lies flourish.”

Against this backdrop we visit the Gulf of Tonkin incident, as detailed in Paul Thomas Chamberlin’s The Cold War’s Killing Fields. The significance of the Gulf of Tonkin incident in August 1964 is this: As a result of two attacks on the USS Maddox by North Vietnamese torpedo boats, Lyndon Johnson successfully obtained unanimous approval from Congress and 88–2 in the Senate to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution which gave our country the right to take “all necessary measures” to repel the enemy and “prevent further aggression.”

BUT… What really occurred? First, it was not reported anywhere that the U.S. had been assisting South Vietnamese commandoes who were conducting raids on North Vietnamese installations. These raids were controlled by and sustained by the U.S. Navy, “attacking targets selected by the CIA in an operation paid for by the United States.”

Second, and more significantly, the second attack on the Maddox never happened. We made it up.

So LBJ announces that these two assaults (the second fabricated and completely fictitious) on our ship were unprovoked. Johnson now had his pretext for retaliation against Hanoi, “an action U.S. officials had been discussing for some time.” We soon ramped up the bombing campaigns and in three and a half years dropped 643,000 tons of bombs in a campaign named Rolling Thunder.

The outcome of these two incidents was the passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which granted President Lyndon B. Johnson the authority to assist any Southeast Asian country whose government was considered to be jeopardized by “communist aggression.” The resolution served as Johnson’s legal justification for deploying U.S. conventional forces and the commencement of open warfare against North Vietnam. So, North Vietnam fired a couple torpedos at us, and in return we bombed the living daylights out of them, destroying 65 percent of their petroleum facilities, 60 percent of their bridges, 9.821 vehicles, and 2000 rail cars.

According to Chamberlin, for every dollar of damage inflicted we spent $6.60. 1,000 Americans were killed or captured. Rolling Thunder did nothing to stop infiltration by North Vietnamese into South Vietnam. It did, however, give justification for Moscow and Beijing to increase their aid to Hanoi. The saddest part of all this is the “collateral damage,” a euphemism for the killing of civilians, 52,000 in this campaign.

Is the U.S. the only country that has ever behaved this way? Hardly. Bullies have always found a pretext for getting what they want. The Soviet Union used the Orzel incident to take over Estonia. During the American Civil War 7 French soldiers were killed on the beach at Vera Cruz, so France took over Mexico and installed Austrian monarch Maximillian as Emperor to run the country (till he was shot and the Europeans expelled a couple years later.)

Don’t you just love the way bullies make excuses for their actions? “Might makes right,” they say.

Originally published at on November 23, 2018.

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An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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