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Tonkin Bay: Was There a Conspiracy?

Another Sullivan group proposal was for setting up the Navy’s Yankee Station at the mouth of the Tonkin Gulf, which was first used for naval air strikes against Laos in early June. In June the well-informed Aviation Week had underlined the importance of this “first US offensive military action since Korea.” It added ominously: “President Johnson apparently is awaiting public reaction to the Laos air strikes in this country and abroad before taking the next big step on the escalation scale.”16

All of these escalations were not conspiratorial in any legal sense but were duly authorized, as part of a secret policy approved by the President, to increase the pressure on North Vietnam. But the Tonkin Gulf incidents also suggest a concerted campaign of deception, not by those in power around the President, but of them by their subordinates. Goulden argues that the commanders in Honolulu should now explain why they did not, until too late, tell Washington of the August 4 34-A raids; and why Herrick’s obvious doubts about the incident were transformed along the line into a report that he was “satisfied” an attack had taken place.

Goulden also asks whether Washington was kept informed by CINPAC of the various North Vietnamese threats against the Maddox, and of Herrick’s warnings of danger. He was told (but could not confirm) that the White House did not hear of the intercepted North Vietnamese threats on August 1-2 until after the August 2 incident. Finally he asks about Honolulu’s alteration of Washington’s orders, to provide for repeated runs in toward the Hon Me area, and whether Washington was consulted about this. The Foreign Relations Committee should pursue these questions, especially since the August 4 strike decision was made, it is now known, “on the basis of CINCPAC recommendations.”17

There are many other questions for Admiral Sharp and the US Pacific Commanders. Why did Sharp not consult Washington before ordering the much larger aircraft-carrier Constellation to join the Ticonderoga in the Tonkin Gulf, barely in time to make the large-scale retaliation of August 4 possible?^18 Why were the President’s instructions after the first incident, calling in his own words for “a combat air patrol over the destroyers,” not carried out? On August 4 Herrick complained specifically that near Hon Me a fifteen-minute reaction time for operating air cover was unacceptable: “Cover must be overhead and controlled by destroyers at all times.” Yet this request for what the President had already ordered was rejected by Admiral Moore of the Ticonderoga, who however promised his aircraft were ready for “launch and support on short notice.” Why then (according to the official Pentagon chronology) when Herrick cabled at 7:40 P.M. August 4 that an attack appeared “imminent,” were fighter aircraft not launched from the Ticonderoga until 56 minutes later, arriving at 9:08 P.M.?20

Such questions (there are still others) suggest there may be more to the Tonkin Gulf affair than confusion and precipitous reaction. Goulden criticizes the naval commanders severely; he does not however call for disclosure of the intercepts and the intelligence reports about them. One can understand his caution—there is little precedent for outside review of intelligence activities—but a review that stops short with Admiral Sharp and his colleagues is likely to prove frustrating. An inquiry will not accomplish much if it reveals that the Admirals violated only the spirit of Washington’s cautionary directives, and never the letter of them.

More important, there are many signs that the intelligence community, rather than Honolulu or the White House, was the prime source of the many “coincidences” which together led to Tonkin. Whatever the outcome of an inquiry into the implausible intercepts of August 4, it is clear that the involvement of intelligence agencies in creating a more aggressive Vietnam policy was a crucial one, and that it has been concealed from the public. McNamara, in the 1968 Hearings, admitted at one point that US military personnel in Vietnam had the power to “suggest” and “work out adjustments” to the “South Vietnamese” 34-A attacks.21 These personnel were members of the so-called “Studies and Operations Group,” reporting in theory to General Westmoreland, but in fact to the CIA. The CIA was likewise deeply involved in the counter-guerrilla activities against North Vietnam, expanded after the arrival in Saigon May 1 of Brig. Gen. William DePuy, ex-CIA Deputy Division Chief. Finally, the CIA’s cover operation in Taiwan, the US Naval Auxiliary Communications Center (NACC), worked hand in glove with the NSA in communications and electronics intelligence missions, such as that of the Maddox.

This is not said to launch a blanket attack against the CIA, some of whose personnel voiced in 1964 what were probably the strongest warnings within the Administration against an escalation in Vietnam. 22 But of all Johnson’s civilian advisers, the CIA’s John McCone was in early 1964 the most important advocate of expanding the war against North Vietnam. Here as elsewhere McCone, the proponent of a “forward” or “rollback” strategy against Communist territory, was pitted against McNamara, the spokesman of a militant strategy of “containment.” In 1963 the two men had divided bitterly over the issue of whether or not to mount a second Bay of Pigs against Cuba. As for the Far East, McNamara had in 1962 passionately opposed “McCone’s somewhat apocalyptic view that sooner or later a showdown with the Chinese Communists was inevitable.”23 Hilsman assures us that Rusk also was opposed to the CIA’s proposal in that year (supported by Ray Cline, the station chief in Taiwan) for a large-scale landing by Chiang on the Chinese mainland—“a sort of even grander Bay of Pigs.”24

In early 1964 the proposal to bomb North Vietnam was seen, even by its supporters in the Johnson Administration, to raise the risk of a showdown with Communist China. Here Johnson and McNamara found themselves in a difficult position that was rapidly becoming a dilemma. On the one hand the two men had agreed (at a crucial emergency meeting held only two days after Kennedy’s assassination) to an unconditional pledge of military support to South Vietnam.25 On the other hand neither man had any appetite for a major expanded air war. McNamara still wanted to prove the ability of US Army advisers to win a limited war without escalating it beyond recognition, and Johnson also showed grave reluctance to escalate even after his campaign and election as a “peace candidate.” Yet nothing in South Vietnam seemed to be going right. William Sullivan, the leader of the Vietnam Working Group, had worked closely with Harriman to achieve the 1962 “neutralization” of Laos; now he was slowly converted to the view that the Johnson policy of doing “whatever is necessary” might lead in the end to bombing North Vietnam.

After a joint survey mission to Vietnam in March, McNamara still believed that the war must be won within South Vietnam itself. McCone, on the other hand, is reported to have recommended “that North Vietnam be bombed immediately and that the Nationalist Chinese Army be invited to enter the war.”26 Johnson wanted the two men to rethink their positions toward a consensus; but the gap was too great. Sullivan’s working group had been set up in December as a compromise between the two positions (to develop a list of bombing targets—thus postponing the decision on bombing, but also increasing its likelihood).

The plan of gradually increasing pressure against North Vietnam which Sullivan’s group now produced represented a similar effort to steer a “middle” course. The multistage scenario began with hints and warnings, such as sending unmarked jets to create sonic booms over Hanoi, to be followed by the establishment of the Navy’s Yankee Station, frequent feints at the shore by destroyers, and South Vietnamese torpedo boat raids.27 It would climax with a policy of selected “tit-for-tat” or “punch-for-punch” bombing reprisals28 which would hit in the end against Hanoi and Haiphong proper.

This was the consensus “package,” but it failed to resolve the debate. On the one hand (according to a well-informed right-wing source) the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended unanimously in March that America “attempt to force the Communists to desist from their aggression by punishing their homeland.”29 On the other hand, Goulden (p. 91) agrees with other reports that from March through May Johnson was unwilling to buy the Sullivan compromise:

Persons who watched him that spring concluded that he was stalling; that when suddenly brought against the hard decisions required to implement his broad policy goal, he was not so confident it was worth the effort.

As a result the tension within the Administration began to increase. Elaborate contingency plans for “rollback” were planned, and discussed with allies. US Navy personnel and the CIA began to train South Vietnamese for the 34-A Operations Plan. But none of these plans had yet been authorized by the President. Meanwhile this uncertainty about American intentions was seen within the Administration as a prime cause of the growing political instability and neutralist sentiment in Saigon. This instability was increased by the many calls in July for a new Geneva Conference (U Thant was to report on such matters to Johnson on August 6), and led to reports of a possible coup in Saigon at the time of the second Tonkin Gulf incident.30 Within the Administration, the growing risk of neutralism in Saigon became a prime argument for carrying the war north.31

Frustrated in early 1964, the advocates of bombing looked outside the Administration to spokesmen like Dodd and Goldwater for public support: in April (long before Khanh had joined the cry) Richard Nixon called for US intervention, proclaiming that “the goal of the South Vietnamese army must be a free North Vietnam, and that the war must be carried north to achieve that goal.”32

The “freeing” of North Vietnam has never become a US policy objective. Nor was it contemplated by the Sullivan scenario, which specified that the United States should make it abundantly clear it had no intention of destroying or occupying North Vietnam. (Failure to make this clear, it was understood, would not only increase North Vietnamese resistance but might well provoke that direct confrontation with China which McCone thought inevitable. US Ambassador Kenneth Todd Young has written that recently one of the principal US themes in the Warsaw Ambassadorial talks with China has been that “the United States has no…intention of seeking to overthrow the Democratic Republic of North Vietnam.”33 ) Nevertheless former CIA hand William Bundy told a secret House Committee session in May that “rollback”—hitherto the slogan of right-wing propagandists like the American Security Council—was in fact a US strategic goal:

The objectives of our Far East policy are clear. They are, as they have been for many years under both parties, to preserve and strengthen the will and capacity of the peoples of the area to resist Communist aggression, and thus to produce a situation of strength from which we may in time see a rollback of Communist power.34

He is also reported to have told the Committee that the United States would drive the Communists from South Vietnam, even if it meant “attacking the countries [sic] to the north.”35 In the same month an article in Fortune, apparently based on leaks from the CIA, named China as “the true war base of the Communist offensive against South Vietnam,” and warned that the US might soon have to extend the war north. It cited “Western intelligence” as believing Russia had already told Hanoi it would stay out if a more forthright US intervention provoked the Chinese into a Korea-type response. (“Left to themselves, the Chinese could not cope with the totality of US forces.”36 )

At least as late as February 1965, according to Bernard Fall, one extreme faction in Washington held

that the Viet-Nam affair could be transformed into a “golden opportunity” to “solve” the Red Chinese problem as well, possibly by a Pan-Asian “crusade” involving Chinese Nationalist, Korean, and Japanese troops, backed by United States power as needed.37

The important top-level Honolulu Conference of June 1-2, 1964 (Rusk, McNamara, Taylor, McCone, Lodge, Sharp, and William Bundy) marked the beginning of the end of the “limited war” strategy so dear to Kennedy and McNamara. Reportedly this Conference agreed to a “forward strategy” against China (another slogan emanating from the right, in this case from the Foreign Policy Research Institute of Dr. Strausz-Hupé which has received support from a CIA “conduit” foundation) for CINCPAC in the whole of Southeast Asia.38

Soon after this Conference Johnson ratified for Laos the “punch-for-punch military policy” which he had previously refused to ratify for Vietnam. This included authorization for air strikes against Laos, and the readying of US bombers “to hit targets in North Vietnam and elsewhere if Washington gives the word.”39 He also authorized the various covert proposals of Sullivan which began in July, but he still postponed decision on the issue of bombing North Vietnam.

Laos, in other words, was the target offered, as a compromise, to the proponents of air strikes against North Vietnam. And it was the aircraft carriers which had been moved in for the purpose of striking Laos which made the strikes against North Vietnam, not yet authorized, possible at any moment. (In addition, the airfield at Danang had been secretly lengthened to handle jet F-100’s—despite their prohibition under the 1954 Geneva Agreements—and F-100’s had been brought in to fly strikes against Laos by June 21.)

Goulden fails to see how intimately events in Laos were linked to internal pressures on Johnson to escalate, for he unfortunately swallows the CIA version, which presents the right-wing Laotian coup of April 19, 1964 as a response to stepped-up Pathet Lao activity. (“In mid-April the Communist Pathet Lao mounted battalion-sized attacks against government positions, prompting a brief rightist overthrow of Premier Souvanna Phouma (a neutralist)”). In fact the chronology, and the causality, were the other way round: the fighting in the Plaine des Jarres was resumed in mid-May, after the coup had been followed by a new Army command of rightist generals who assumed command over the hitherto separate neutralist troops. As the pro-American correspondent Denis Warner confirms, the resulting “mass defections from the ranks of the neutralists…led to the rout of Kong Lae’s troops and the fall of the Plain of Jars.”40

In other words the right wing, not the Pathet Lao, provided by their coup the impetus which led to American escalation. The April 19 anti-neutralist coup in Vientiane, like Khanh’s anti-neutralist coup of January 30 in Saigon, was officially regretted in Washington. But both coups were spearheaded by pro-American figures (security chief Siho in Vientiane, Special Forces chief Nghiem in Saigon) whose offices and cadres had been set up by the CIA.41 It can be shown that Kennedy’s original escalations in Vietnam, like Johnson’s, followed US escalations in Laos, which were presented as responses to Communist provocations, but which in fact were originally triggered by actions of CIA personnel and their Asian cohorts. The air strikes after Tonkin, in other words, cannot be written off as an isolated instance of ill-advised judgment reached “hastily” and “precipitously” in Washington.

Goulden concludes with a review of the “mistakes seen in Tonkin.” Assuredly Washington made mistakes and, as Goulden demonstrates, they do “recur all too frequently.” One of his most telling chapters is a review of the command-and-control snafus surrounding other ill-fated electronics intelligence missions—the USS Liberty in the 1967 Israeli-Arab War, and more recently the Pueblo. The Israelis, he reveals, attacked the Liberty after the US military attaché, in good faith, had denied there were any US ships in the area. The attaché had seen a cable from the Joint Chiefs of Staff ordering all US craft in the area 100 miles out to sea; the Liberty however, had not received the order. The original message had been dispatched, in error, to the Philippines and then to Fort Meade in Maryland; a follow-up, confirming order was likewise deflected in error to Morocco.

Again Washington was thrown into a crisis of which it had no good intelligence. As McNamara later admitted, “I thought the Liberty had been attacked by Soviet forces. Thank goodness, our carrier commanders did not launch directly against the Soviet forces who were operating in the Mediterranean.” A warning message about the dangers inherent in the Pueblo‘s mission was similarly misdirected. Goulden’s review underlines the dangers in thus shadowing the territorial waters of the world: at least 225 US personnel have been killed or captured in ELINT and other “ferret” missions since January 1950; and some of these incidents, like the Pueblo‘s, have led not only to increased tension but to international crises.

But it can be misleading to compare the Liberty to the Maddox. No one in the Administration wanted to strike against Israel, and we did not do so; but for years elements in CINCPAC and the CIA have wanted to strike against Communism in Asia. On August 4 we did. The most important revelations about the Tonkin Gulf incidents are not the mistakes—delayed cables, the inadequate procedures for review. The most important revelation is of another recurring pattern—the readiness of our national security bureaucracy to escalate in Southeast Asia for the attainment of bureaucratic objectives, with or without a provocation.

At one level the objectives may appear to have been relatively finite—the passage of the Tonkin Gulf resolution (which Johnson had decided upon after the first Tonkin incident), the forestalling of international pressures for a Geneva Conference, the revival of Saigon’s interest in an ill-starred war, or the quiet deployment of aircraft for a “forward strategic position” against China. But for some at least the long-range objective seems to have been “a rollback of Communist power” in the area. Although such fantasies may not have been widely shared in Washington, the air strikes and troop deployments of August 5 fitted into a long-continuing build-up of US strike forces around China’s periphery. (Even America’s apparent disengagements, as in 1954 and 1962, have always been balanced by new and strengthened commitments to the region.)42

The Tonkin Gulf resolution led not only to a major war in Asia, but to the credibility gap at home. The young in particular have lost respect for those who accepted, without criticism, a clearcut story which no serious student has since found credible. Senator Fulbright himself has said he regrets his own role in the Tonkin Gulf affair “more than anything I have ever done in my life.”43 It is still in his power to re-open the Tonkin Gulf Hearings, to question Admiral Sharp and other relevant witnesses, and to demand publication of the intercepts on which the strike decision was based. To do so may cause trouble between Congress and the military, but will hardly increase public disaffection. The truth (and the search for it) will more likely allay the worst apprehensions of the anti-war movement. Congress is implicated in the deception of Tonkin; its own credibility is at stake. Many believe our political system is now so militarized, Congressional powers are irrelevant, or subservient, or somehow collusive. Senator Fulbright, will you prove them wrong?

  1. 16

    Aviation Week, June 15, 1964, p. 21; June 22, 1964, p. 15.

  2. 17

    Adm. U. S. G. Sharp and Gen. William C. Westmoreland, Report on the War in Vietnam (As of 30 June 1968), (US Government Printing Office, 1969), p. 85; cf. p. 12. At the time Sharp told a Time reporter that on August 4 “he made about 100 calls to Washington.”

  3. 20

    The apparent delay of 90 minutes contrasts sharply with the five or so minutes it took aircraft to arrive during the first incident, before the President’s orders.

  4. 21

    Hearing, p. 31.

  5. 22

    Right after the Tonkin Gulf incidents, someone leaked a study prepared by Willard Matthias for the CIA Board of Estimates, which foresaw a “prolonged stalemate” in Vietnam, and the possibility of “some kind of negotiated settlement based on neutralization” (NYT, Aug. 23, 1964, p. 1; Dommen, Conflict in Laos, p. 298).

  6. 23

    Roger Hilsman, To Move a Nation, Doubleday, 1967, p. 318.

  7. 24

    Hilsman, p. 314. Ironically Nixon has now promoted Cline to Hilsman’s old post as Director of Intelligence and Research in the State Department.

  8. 25

    Tom Wicker, JFK and LBJ: The Influence of Personality Upon Politics (Wm. Morrow, 1968), p. 205.

  9. 26

    Edward Weintal and Charles Bartlett, Facing the Brink (Scribners, 1967), p. 72.

  10. 27

    Goulden, pp. 87-91; cf. Hilsman, p. 534; Weintal and Bartlett, pp. 73-75.

  11. 28

    The less euphemistic phrase “punch-for-punch” seems more appropriate: the Sullivan group contemplated bombing a North Vietnamese factory if the Viet Cong killed a village official, which is hardly “tit-for-tat.” Needless to say, the air strikes against PT boat bases and petroleum installations on August 5 were hardly “tit-for-tat” either.

  12. 29

    American Security Council, Washington Report, June 22, 1964, p. 3.

  13. 30

    London Times Aug. 6, 1969, p. 8; Franz Schurmann, Peter Dale Scott, and Reginald Zelnik, The Politics of Escalation (Fawcett, 1966), pp. 35-43.

  14. 31

    Fred Greene, US Policy and the Security of Asia (McGraw-Hill, 1968), p. 237: “One reason for the American reaction on August 4 was the need to stabilize a deteriorating political situation in Saigon, and in this regard the bombings proved to be of some, though limited value.”

  15. 32

    NYT, Apr. 17, 1964, p. 1; Apr. 19, 1964, p. 82; Richard Nixon, “Needed in Vietnam: The Will to Win,” Reader’s Digest (Aug. 1964), pp. 42-43.

  16. 33

    Kenneth Todd Young, Negotiating with the Chinese Communists: The United States Experience, 1953-1967 (McGraw-Hill, 1968), p. 269.

  17. 34

    House Committee on Appropriations, Foreign Operations Appropriations for 1965, Hearings Before a Subcommittee, 88th Cong., 2nd Sess., p. 310.

  18. 35

    NYT, June 19, 1964, p. 5.

  19. 36

    Charles J. V. Murphy, “Vietnam Hangs on US Determination,” Fortune (May, 1964), pp. 159, 162, 227. In 1961 an article under Murphy’s name attempted to vindicate the CIA for its role in the Bay of Pigs by blaming Eisenhower and Kennedy. The CIA had the gall to seek an official State Department clearance for Murphy’s distorted attack. (See Paul W. Blackstock, The Strategy of Subversion, Quadrangle Books, 1964, p. 250.)

  20. 37

    Bernard Fall, Viet-Nam Witness (Praeger, 1966), p. 203.

  21. 38

    In 1966 it was revealed that CINCPAC’s (Admiral Sharp’s) formal mission was to maintain a “forward strategy on the periphery of the Sino-Soviet bloc in the Western Pacific” (NYT, Mar. 27, 1966, IV, p. 10). As early as June 22, 1964, the Times wrote of America’s new “forward strategic position to face Communist China,” of “an anti-Communist strategy that is far broader than the present war effort within South Vietnam.”

  22. 39

    Aviation Week, June 22, 1964, p. 15.

  23. 40

    Denis Warner, Reporting South-East Asia (Angus and Robertson, 1966), p. 191.

  24. 41

    It has frequently been charged that Khanh seized power on January 30 “after the CIA had decided on him as the new ruler” (Alfred Steinberg, Sam Johnson’s Boy, p. 762). Robert Shaplen, whose book seems based to some extent on CIA sources, denies this, but admits that “some of the high-ranking Americans in town knew what was going on” (The Lost Revolution, p. 232). If so, how was it that “the swift coup put the US Secretary of Defense in the humiliating position of having had no inkling from his intelligence sources of the imminent downfall of an allied government” (Newsweek, Feb. 10, 1964, p. 19)?

  25. 42

    As this goes to press, the Nixon Administration is reported to have suggested that, even if peace were achieved in Vietnam, it might be necessary to continue the Tonkin Gulf resolution in force, to back America’s other “international obligations” in Southeast Asia (San Francisco Chronicle, December 18, 1969, p. 13).

  26. 43

    Hearing, p. 80.

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