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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.

While this secret extension of the war northward was going on, the State Department was not idle. It was drawing up that blank check resolution for a wider war in Southeast Asia which has come to be known as the Tonkin Gulf resolution. This was drawn up well in advance of the Tonkin Gulf incidents. Here again McNamara suffered a lapse of memory. When Fulbright asked him whether he had ever seen the draft resolution before the Tonkin Gulf incidents, McNamara said “I don’t believe I ever saw it.” McNamara added that he called William P. Bundy, Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern and Pacific Affairs, “to ask him if he had any recollection that I ever saw it. He states that he has no recollection that I did, and he believes that I did not. But I can’t testify absolutely on that. My memory is not that clear.” What followed in the interrogation shows how even the best of our human IBM machines can on occasion falter:

THE CHAIRMAN: Mr. Bundy told this committee that this draft was prepared some months before the Tonkin incidents in the hearing. You know that.

SECRETARY MCNAMARA: I know that, but I don’t think he said I saw it.

THE CHAIRMAN: No, I was asking you, you don’t think you saw it?

SECRETARY MCNAMARA: I don’t believe I saw it, and he doesn’t believe I saw it.

THE CHAIRMAN: Isn’t it customary for the State Department to consult you on a matter of this kind?

SECRETARY MCNAMARA: Well, if it were a working paper and that is apparently what it was, no. It hadn’t advanced to a point of decision within the Government.

Presumably “the point of decision” was the August 4 incident. It is hard to believe that a Secretary of Defense as famous for his memory as McNamara would recall so little. The war was being extended northward through these new South Vietnamese activities under American auspices, and a resolution was being readied to authorize the President to widen the war any way he saw fit. Yet McNamara cannot recall that he ever heard of it.

The same kind of amnesia appeared when Fulbright went on to open up the most important question of all. This was whether the aerial and troop deployments announced under cover of the Tonkin Gulf incidents were actually made before those incidents occurred. This is where the body is buried and this is where the Senate Foreign Relations Committee owes the country an obligation to complete its job.

TO UNDERSTAND the tricky story of these deployments one must go back to Secretary McNamara’s appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees on August 6, 1964—the original hearing on the Tonkin Gulf resolutions. In his formal statement at the joint hearings, the Secretary said “the President and his principal advisers” had decided “that additional precautionary measures were required in Southeast Asia” and that “certain military deployments to the area are therefore now underway.” Six measures were announced, including “movement of fighter bomber aircraft into Thailand” and “the alerting and readying for movement of certain Army and Marine forces.” In retrospect this was the signal that the Johnson Administration was getting ready for the bombing of the North (which could only be done on a heavy and continuous scale by using Thai bases) and for the dispatch of combat troops to South Vietnam. But this was not discussed with the Senators at the joint session nor did it figure in the Senate debate on the Tonkin Gulf resolution. If known, it would have alerted the Senate and the public to what was being cooked up under cover of the incidents and the resolution. It would also have ruined Johnson’s image as a peace candidate against Goldwater. So this information was withheld. It was included in McNamara’s prepared statement and inserted later in the hearing record, but this record was so tied up in security snafu by the Pentagon and the State Department, and by other forms of delay, that it was not finally released until more than two years later, on November 24, 1966. Even the date was skillfully chosen, for that was Thanks giving Day when it was likely to attract little public attention.

By that time the hearing record looked like ancient history to the press anyway and nobody noticed the significance of the military deployments disclosed in McNamara’s prepared statement. I myself never read it until several weeks later when I began to do the research for the three-part series on Senator Fulbright which I wrote for The New York Review. It was in the second installment of that series, published in The New York Review, January 12, 1967,2 that public attention was first called to the significance of those carefully buried revelations. I later learned that, although the prepared statement was passed around at the hearing, no member of either committee seems to have had time to read it and ask questions while McNamara was on the stand. Later, other Senators could only have noticed it if they had taken the trouble to come to the committee hearing rooms and read the record there, for as a classified document it was not—until November 24, 1966—available elsewhere and it was not available to the staff assistants on whom Senators depend. This was perhaps the most ingenious device ever hit upon to make a record which could effectively be kept secret while allowing the Administration afterward to claim that they had disclosed it.

The transcript of the new hearing of last February 20 shows that McNamara and his military aides are still unwilling to be wholly frank about these deployments. The McNamara statement of four years ago said that because of “the unprovoked and deliberate attacks in international waters…certain military deployments are now underway.” This gives the impression that the deployments were a result of the Tonkin Gulf incidents, even though—as any sharp reader will notice now—they were taken before the passage of the Tonkin Gulf resolution which was Johnson’s authority for widening the war. But now the Senate committee found neither McNamara nor Wheeler ready to assure it that the deployments did in fact follow the incidents.

When Fulbright could get only a fuzzy reply from McNamara on the deployments, he turned to General Wheeler and said, “Maybe you are more familiar with military equipment. Is it not true that fighter bombers were moved into Vietnam and Thailand immediately after this [the incident of August 4] took place?” General Wheeler replied, “We moved some bombers in 1964, but I don’t have the exact dates.” But Wheeler had not been asked for exact dates, but only whether the deployments followed the second incident. So now Fulbright asked him, “Were these units alerted to impending movement prior to the Tonkin Gulf incidents?” The question, prepared by staff, reflected the fact that the Senate committee had collected considerable evidence that certain units had been alerted for movement before the incidents. Wheeler’s reply was wary:

GENERAL WHEELER: To the best of my knowledge, not, Mr. Chairman, but I will check that also, and make sure.

THE CHAIRMAN: Would you check whether or not you considered sending these units to South Vietnam and Thailand prior to the Tonkin incidents?

GENERAL WHEELER: I will check that particular point.

At this point in the printed record there is a notation, “The following information was later supplied: We have not identified any air unit which had been alerted for movement into South Vietnam or Thailand prior to the Tonkin Gulf incidents. A check of the records is continuing.” This is not a very responsive reply. It does not answer the question of whether such movements were “considered” before the incidents. It only says the Pentagon searcher had “not identified” any air unit alerted before those incidents. The phrasing is odd and in one respect revealing. It does not say that no units were alerted. It says only that it has not “identified” any “air unit” so alerted. The reply is confined to air units. The key to this may lie in a fact to which John McDermott first called attention in his penetrating review of Roger Hilsman’s To Move A Nation (The New York Review, Sept. 14, 1967). McDermott noted a series of steps taken in the first half of 1964 to escalate the Vietnamese conflict, including the announcement on July 27, just six days before the first Tonkin Gulf incident, that we were sending another 5,000 troops to South Vietnam. Oddly enough no discussion of this appears in the Committee hearing. Were the “selected Army and Marine forces” to which McNamara referred in his statement of August 6, 1964 in addition to this 5,000? If so, were the new combat troops alerted before the incidents? Why this nonsense about “a check of the records is continuing,” as if we were dealing here with some obscure disappearance of a recruit or a mislaid shipment of rifles? Could men as able as McNamara and Wheeler really be so ignorant of so important a matter? Why were they unable by unequivocal answer to scotch a suspicion most damaging to them and the Administration?

Morse interrupted at this point in order, as he said, to “help” the Secretary refresh his memory, and read McNamara his own description of these deployments in his prepared statement of four years ago. McNamara replied:

I will be very happy to determine when those movements were first initiated, when the units were put on alert, and whether it occurred before the Tonkin Gulf incidents. I don’t recall that information.

This was followed by a veritable cascade of non-recalls by a Secretary who is otherwise famous for his phenomenal memory:

THE CHAIRMAN: Mr. Secretary, if there had not been a Tonkin Gulf resolution would you have recommended to the President and Congress that the US step up its military assistance to South Vietnam…?

SECRETARY MCNAMARA: Mr. Chairman, I think it is a speculative question…

CHAIRMAN FULBRIGHT: But to be more specific was there any plan for such an intensification of the US involvement?

SECRETARY MCNAMARA: No, not that I can recall.

CHAIRMAN FULBRIGHT: Did it then include the bombing of North Vietnam?

SECRETARY MCNAMARA: Not that I know of, Mr. Chairman.

The Secretary seemed a little nervous about that last non-recall, for he hastened to add, “I don’t mean to say that “contingencies and targets hadn’t been examined, because they had been, prior to that time, but there was no plan for further buildup that I can remember, and no plan for the bombing of the North.” So he did remember that “contingencies and targets” had been “examined.” In that case in what special sense did he mean that there was “no plan for the bombing of the North”? Any lawyer will agree this was not a very frank witness. The information he offered to supply was not forthcoming in time for the published record. Nine days later McNamara stepped down as Secretary of Defense. Will the committee insist on the full answer promised it?

I NOW WANT TO BRING UP a matter I cannot prove, though I am willing to give the Committee the name of the witness who will confirm it. This is that a few days after the assassination of Kennedy, Secretary McNamara, with the support of McGeorge Bundy and Secretary Rusk, urged on the new President the need for “a decisive commitment” in Vietnam, and insisted—over Johnson’s reluctance to be rushed quite that fast into so important a decision—that it had to be made quickly. This is known to quite a few insiders, and it is perhaps one reason why in an earlier period Senator Morse—who is, I might say in passing, not the source of this information—used to call it “McNamara’s war.” The Committee ought to recall McNamara and insist that he clear up the whole question of just when this major step-up in the war was initiated. For all this goes back to the question not just of decision making in a crisis but of crisis-making to support a secretly pre-arranged decision. Here the war-making power of Congress was clearly usurped by a private cabal in the executive department, which was soon to confront Congress and the country with a fait accompli, and to do so within a few months after Johnson was reelected on the pledge not to do what this inner circle had already decided he would do.

Now we come to a related matter which the Committee has left unexplored, though it goes to the very heart of how the incident came about that was used to cover and to authorize the deployments for a wider war, for the bombing of the North and for the commitment of combat troops in the South. This other “buried body” may be found in McNamara’s prepared statement for the February 20 hearing. Its significance has escaped attention, perhaps because it could not be fully understood except against the background of the new revelations made by Morse in his Senate speeches of February 21, 28, and 29. The country and the future historian owe Morse an enormous debt for those speeches, as for those four years ago on August 5 and 6, 1964, in which he first began to lift the bureaucratic curtain of secrecy surrounding the Tonkin Gulf incidents.

In his prepared statement McNamara made an admission which must have cost his pride a good deal. It shows that he was not in full control of his own Department at a crucial moment. The fact that he disclosed it himself would lead a trained lawyer to believe that he knew or feared that documents in the hands of the Committee’s staff had already disclosed this, and that he thought it best to slip the fact into his statement to protect himself under interrogation. This is what the Secretary said: “I learned subsequent to my testimony of August 6, 1964, that another South Vietnamese bombardment took place on the night of August 3-4.” And at page 90 of the printed record, under interrogation by Senator Cooper, McNamara added a supplementary revelation. “At the time of the specific incidents of August 4,” he admitted to Cooper, “I did not know of the attack by the South Vietnamese, but we knew of the operations, and some senior commanders above the level of the commanders of the task force did know the specific dates of the operations.” This seems to mean that certain senior commanders knew something McNamara still did not know three days later when he appeared before the Senate committees on the Tonkin Gulf resolution four years ago.

To appreciate the import of this revelation one must turn to the Morse speeches, and to the classified messages and information he courageously made public in them. If we look at Morse’s speech of February 29 we will see that the patrols on which the Maddox was engaged were far from “routine,” not only in the sense that they were electronic espionage missions, but that, when the first attack occurred on the Maddox August 2, 1964, it was only the third occasion since 1962—or within two and a half years—on which an American naval ship had approached the North Vietnamese coast. “The appearance of an American destroyer,” Morse disclosed on the basis of the Pentagon documents obtained by the committee but still classified, “the appearance of an American destroyer along the Vietnam coast was highly unusual.” The next point to be noted is that the first attack on the Maddox followed by 40 hours the first coastal bombardment of North Vietnam by the raiding vessels we had supplied the South Vietnamese.

NOW WE CAN UNDERSTAND the significance of McNamara’s revelation. On August 2 the Maddox was attacked for the first time. On August 3 the President warned of serious consequences if that attack were repeated and announced that we were not only sending the Maddox back into those waters but a second destroyer, the Turner Joy, with it. That night, the night of August 3-4, there was a second coastal bombardment, the knowledge of which—so McNamara says—was kept from him though it was known to certain higher naval commanders and presumably arranged by the joint South Vietnamese and MACV headquarters in Saigon, which we now know from this new hearing directed these naval attacks. It was the night after this second bombardment—the night of August 4-5—that the alleged second attack on the Maddox and the new destroyer accompanying it took place. Whether the second attack actually took place or not—and this is still unclear—that new coastal bombardment was a provocation likely to make a second clash more probable, and therefore to trigger the retaliation Johnson had already threatened.

The Committee cannot close its books on its investigation without determining who was responsible for so provocative a move at so tense a moment, why it was not disclosed to the Secretary of Defense, and whether it was known to the White House. This is the kind of provocation military bureaucracies have often committed in the past to set off a war against the wishes of civilian authorities; a well-known example was the Mukden incident in which the Japanese military themselves blew up one of their own troop and supply trains to give them the excuse they wanted in 1931 for war on China and the annexation of Manchuria. If Chairman Fulbright really wants to explore decision-making in a crisis, he cannot leave these questions hanging.

One final but intensely important point ought also to be explored. The Politics of Escalation3 shows that the Tonkin Gulf incidents occurred just when,

within a two week period, proposals for a Geneva-type conference on Vietnam and, more largely, Southeast Asia had emanated from three important sources—U Thant, France and the USSR—and had been favorably received in Hanoi and Peking. None of these proposals, it should be noted, specified conditions or “preconditions” in urging that a solution be sought for the Indo-Chinese crises.

On July 24, the day after De Gaulle urged reconvening the Geneva conference, Johnson rejected it as a conference “to ratify terror,” and declared “our policy is unchanged.” But pressure for negotiations was rising. A bright chance for peace was torpedoed in the Tonkin Gulf that August night four years ago, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has a duty to find out how and why.

(This is the first installment in what will be an exploration in depth of McNamara’s record as Secretary of Defense.)

  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.

  2. 2

    The series may be found reprinted in my new book, In a Time of Torment (Random House). See pp. 343-4.

  3. 3

    by franz Schurmann, Peter Dale Scott, and Reginald Zelnik; Foreword by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Fawcett, 160 pp., $0.60

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