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 …

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