• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

McNamara and Tonkin Bay: The Unanswered Questions

The Gulf of Tonkin, The 1964 Incidents Senate, Ninetieth Congress, Second Session with the Honorable Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of Defense, on February 20, 1968 (released February 24, 1968)

Hearing Before the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States
US Government Printing Office: Washington, D.C., 30 cents

The big surprise at the new Tonkin Gulf hearing held by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was the attitude of Secretary McNamara. Chairman Fulbright greeted him with affection and respect. “I for one,” Fulbright said, “regret to see you leave the Government at this very perilous time in our history.” The Committee’s mood was nostalgic. Even Morse, McNamara’s sharpest interrogator, called him “one of the most dedicated public servants I have experienced in my twenty-eight years in the Senate.” Fulbright assured the Secretary that in seeking to establish the truth about the Tonkin Gulf incidents of August 2 and 4, 1964, “the purpose is not to assess blame on anyone, certainly not upon you.” It was “simply to review the decision-making processes of our Government in time of crisis.”

At the beginning of the hearing Fulbright was characteristically gentle and philosophical. He expected McNamara, in this last appearance before a Senate committee after seven years as Secretary of Defense, to enter into the investigation in the same spirit. Fulbright was encouraged in this expectation by McNamara’s manner the previous Sunday on Meet the Press, when the Secretary referred sadly if cryptically to the many mistakes made in Vietnam and volunteered a confession of personal responsibility for those committed at the Bay of Pigs. Fulbright said he had long since admitted his own shortcomings in connection with the Tonkin Gulf affair. “I am a firm believer,” Fulbright said, “in the idea that to acknowledge my mistakes of yesterday is but another way of saying I am a wiser man today.” He expressed the view that it might be helpful to future Senators and Secretaries “and even future Presidents” if the way decisions were reached in the Tonkin Gulf affair were reviewed. “Mr. Secretary,” Fulbright said, “I believe all of us here share your own desire that the United States profit from its mistakes—not repeat them.”

But McNamara came on not as a fellow philosopher, ready to reminisce on the common errors of the past, but—as one staff member later phrased it—“like a 10-ton tank.” At no point was he prepared to admit that any mistake had been made in the Tonkin Gulf affair. He showed no readiness for reflection, much less contrition. The Pentagon’s own internal communications on the Tonkin Gulf incidents, as obtained by the Committee, were confused and murky. The full truth about the incidents, which triggered the first American bombing raids upon North Vietnam, is unlikely ever to be uncovered. But in McNamara’s version they were evaluated with accuracy, beyond a shadow of a doubt, and responded to with precision. This was neither dove nor hawk but a fighting cock, insisting that he had had everything at all times completely under control. It was as if the Committee had touched the most sensitive depths of his pride, and perhaps also threatened to open up aspects of the story McNamara preferred to remain untold. In retrospect his belligerence may prove as significant as it was unexpected.

Very early in the hearing McNamara indicated that he was going to play rough. He was examined in executive session, and at the very beginning Fulbright expressed the wish that McNamara withhold his prepared statement from the press “until after the committee has gone through the hearings” and decided what to do about its own staff report on the Tonkin Gulf incidents. “I thought it would be much fairer,” Fulbright said, “if we could arrange to release them simultaneously.” McNamara seemed to agree, but added, “I doubt very much that we will be able to withstand the pressures of the press today without releasing it.” The Pentagon is not exactly inexperienced in the ways of withholding information it does not wish to release. Sure enough, during the luncheon recess it seized upon a remark by Senator McCarthy to the UPI as an excuse to release McNamara’s prepared statement to the press, jumping the gun on the Committee and getting McNamara’s version into the papers first. McNamara told Fulbright when the executive session resumed after lunch that McCarthy told the UPI McNamara had admitted that one of our destroyers had penetrated North Vietnam’s 12-mile limit. “That is just contrary to what I said this morning,” McNamara said. “I cannot stand by without having what I said in my statement issued.” McNamara could not have hung his release on a more finely split hair. Indeed the difference between what McNamara said and what McCarthy said he said does not speak well for McNamara’s candor.1

The real purpose served by the release of the statement even before the executive session was over was not to correct McCarthy but to make the headlines with the counter-attack with which McNamara ended his prepared statement. “As a final point,” McNamara said,

I must address the insinuation that, in some way, the Government of the United States induced the incident on 4 August with the intent of providing an excuse to take the retaliatory action which we in fact took. I can only characterize such insinuations as monstrous…I find it inconceivable that any one even remotely familiar with our society and system of Government could suspect the existence of a conspiracy which would include almost, if not all, the entire chain of military command in the Pacific, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Joint Chiefs, the Secretary of Defense, and his chief Civilian Assistants, the secretary of State, and the President of the United States.

Put in this question-begging form, of course it was monstrous. Nobody had implied any such widespread conspiracy to bring about the incident—real or alleged—of August 4. But the more one studies the evidence so far available the more one does begin to see the outlines of a conspiracy, not to fabricate the incident of August 4, but to plan and to put into motion a sharp escalation of the Vietnamese war in the very year Johnson was campaigning for election as a man of peace. The aerial deployments necessary, not for the one retaliatory strike which followed the Tonkin Gulf affair, but for the continuous bombing of North Vietnam which began in February 1965, were ordered and accomplished—as was the alerting of combat troops—in the very year Johnson was promising not to widen the war. This was the conspiracy and this was monstrous and this is what will fully appear if the Senate Foreign Relations Committee finishes its job. One major and one minor aspect of this conspiracy are left tantalizingly unexplored in the record of the new hearing at which McNamara testified.

THE MAJOR ASPECT involves the steps taken to widen the war before the Tonkin Gulf incidents which provided the public excuse for them. As these steps began to figure in Fulbright’s examination of McNamara, it was curious to see how McNamara—who remembered so much and so exactly at other points in the hearing—suddenly suffered from lapses of memory. Fulbright cited an article by Hanson Baldwin in The New York Times in July of 1964—a month before the Tonkin Gulf Incidents—saying that Pentagon sources were then arguing for extension of the war into the North. “Were there in fact,” Fulbright asked, “recommendations by the US military at any time from late 1963 until July of 1964 to extend the war into the North by bombing or any other means?” This was hardly a minor question, especially for an executive like McNamara who prided himself on a detailed knowledge of what was going on at the Pentagon. Suddenly the super whiz kid went blank. “Mr. Chairman,” McNamara said, “I would have to check the record on that.” He couldn’t recall any such recommendations but he would be happy to check his records and supply an answer. The answer as supplied and inserted in the printed record at page 22 was amazingly cryptic and inconclusive. It consisted of two short sentences saying, “We have identified no such recommendation. A check of the records of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is continuing.” Will the Committee drop the matter, or will it insist on an answer?

Fulbright turned at this point from McNamara to General Wheeler, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and asked, “I wonder if General Wheeler knows at this time?” The General’s answer will repay careful study. “I don’t believe so, Mr. Chairman,” General Wheeler began. This was a curious reply. A witness asked if he knows something will usually reply (1) yes or (2) no or (3) that he can’t recall. The General came up with a new one. Asked if he “knows at this time,” he replied “I don’t believe so.” What does it mean when a witness says he doesn’t believe he knows something? That he is waiting to go home and interrogate himself more closely? The rest of his reply, in its odd qualifications, indicates that the General was not being frank with the Committee. “I think that the proper answer would be,” General Wheeler continued, “that there were certain intelligence activities [deleted] but to the best of my knowledge and belief during that period there was no thought of extending the war into the North in the sense of our participating in such actions, activities“(Italics added). He too promised to check for the record.

Now in one of the three speeches Morse made on the Senate floor after the hearing (on February 21, 28, and 29) one may find the key to what Wheeler meant by saying “there was no thought of extending the war into the North in the sense of our participating in such actions.” In those three speeches Morse courageously “declassified” most of the hitherto secret material the Foreign Relations Committee obtained from Pentagon files in its investigation. In his speech on February 29 Morse threw new light on the program for commando raids on the North, known as OPLAN 34-A, which figured in the background of the Tonkin Gulf incidents. He revealed for the first time that this was initiated as early as February 1964 jointly by the South Vietnamese forces and the US military advisory group in Saigon. Under this program Morse told the Senate,

U.S. personnel were assigned to provide advice, training and assistance for South Vietnam maritime operations against North Vietnam. A U.S. Navy detachment was assigned to train and advise the South Vietnamese. For the first few months in 1964, the operations consisted of intelligence and interdiction missions. In July of 1964—the same month the Maddox began its patrol—the U.S. made available eight fast patrol craft to the Government of South Vietnam. The new craft permitted an extension northward of the attacks on North Vietnam.

From this account it appears that General Wheeler was being disingenuous when he said “there was no thought of extending the war into the North in the sense of our participating in such actions.” If General Wheeler interrogates himself more closely he may come to believe that he knows more than he believed he knew when he was before the Committee.

  1. 1

    McCarthy said McNamara had admitted that the Maddox had invaded North Vietnam’s 12-mile territorial limits. What McNamara said (p. 13 of the hearing) was that “at no time…did the Maddox depart from international waters. It had been instructed to approach the North Vietnamese coastline no closer than 8 nautical miles and any offshore island no closer than 4 nautical miles.” This invasion of the 12-mile limit was defended by the Secretary on the grounds (1) that the US “recognizes no claim of a territorial sea in excess of 3 miles” and (2) that there is “no official documentary confirmation” of North Vietnam’s claim to 12 miles. Presumably even if there were such a claim, we would not recognize it. Four years ago McNamara simply deleted from the first Senate hearing (pp. 32-33) the fact that our destroyers were instructed to penetrate North Vietnam’s 12-mile limit in order to keep this provocative action from public knowledge. Morse’s Senate speech of Feb. 29 (at the bottom of col. 1 p. S1948 of the Congressional Record disclosed a portion of the orders to the Maddox which McNamara did not mention. The destroyers were instructed not to approach the Communist Chinese coast any closer than 15 miles. Why did we honor Peking’s 12-mile claim and not Hanoi’s? Obviously we were willing to risk provoking the North Vietnamese but not the Chinese Communists.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print