Truth Is the First Casualty: The Gulf of Tonkin Affair
Illusion and Reality
Seaman Patrick N. Park, on the night of August 4, 1964, was directing the gun-control radar of the USS Maddox. For three hours he had heard torpedo reports from the ship’s sonarman, and he had seen, two or three times, the flash of guns from a nearby destroyer, the Turner Joy, in the rainy darkness. But his radar could find no targets, “only the occasional roll of a wave as it breaks into a whitecap.” At last, just before midnight, a target: “a damned big one, right on us…about 1,500 yards off the side, a nice fat blip.” He was ordered to open fire; luckily, however, not all seamen blindly follow orders.
Just before I pushed the trigger I suddenly realized, That’s the Turner Joy…. There was a lot of yelling of “Goddamn” back and forth, with the bridge telling me to “fire before we lose contact,” and me yelling right back at them…. I finally told them, “I’m not opening fire until I know where the Turner Joy is.” The bridge got on the phone and said, “Turn on your lights, Turner Joy.” Sure enough, there she was, right in the cross hairs… 1,500 yards away. If I had fired, it would have blown it clean out of the water. In fact, I could have been shot for not squeezing the trigger. Then people started asking, “What are we shooting at…?” We all began calming down. The whole thing seemed to end then.
Goulden’s fascinating book, which has gathered much new information about the Tonkin Gulf incidents, see: the experience of Patrick Park as, with one exception, a microcosm of the entire Tonkin affair—
illustrating the confusion between illusion and reality and the inclination of man to act upon facts as he anticipates they should be, rather than what rational examination shows them to be. The exception is that Park refused to squeeze the firing key, while Washington acted on the basis of assumption, not fact—hastily, precipitously, perhaps even unnecessarily—firing at an unseen enemy lurking behind the blackness of misinformation.
Not all will accept the analogy between Washington and a confused young seaman, but this hardly lessens the importance of Goulden’s patient researches. The author of a book on AT&T and a former reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Goulden has made good use of his years of experience in Washington. He has not really written a “thesis” book; his method is to stick closely to official documents (above all the neglected Fulbright Committee Hearing of 1968) and first-hand interviews with witnesses the Committee failed to call, including Seaman Park. At times, he can be faulted for believing so much what was told him in the Pentagon. Even so, the result is devastating. It is now even more clear that the Tonkin Gulf Resolution (in his words) “contains the fatal taint of deception.” The Administration had withheld much vital information in formulating the simple story of “unprovoked attack …
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