DeBenedetti, An American Ordeal, p. 177. The specific FBI instructions noted here were issued in July 1968 but may be assumed to apply to earlier operations. See “Operation MHCHAOS,” ; and U.S. Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (Church Committee), Intelligence Activities and the Rights of Americans (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, April 26, 1976), . The latter study examined efforts of the FBI, CIA, NSA, and other security agencies to “disrupt and discredit the activities of groups and individuals deemed a threat to the social order” (p. 1).
Stephen P. Randolph, Powerful and Brutal Weapons: Nixon, Kissinger and the Easter Offensive (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007); Truong Nhu Tang, A Vietcong Memoir: An Inside Account of the Vietnam War and its Aftermath (New York: Vintage Books, 1985); David Biggs, Quagmire: Nation Building and Nature in the Mekong Delta (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2010), p. 204; Martin Van Crevald, The Age of Airpower (New York: Public Affairs, 2011), p. 366; Mickey Grant, “The Cu Chi Tunnels (59-minute documentary film, 1990), ; Jonathan Neale, A People’s History of the Vietnam War (New York: The New Press, 2003), pp. 99-100; and Stephen Budiansky, Code Warriors: NSA’s Codebreakers and the Secret Intelligence War Against the Soviet Union (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015), p. 259.
The truth is that the two attacks in the Gulf of Tonkin didn't exactly happen the way the government reported them. The government and even the military in the area didn't really know what happened. Evidence was revealed years later that suggested no shots were fired, or even that no Vietnamese ships were present in the first place. It seems as though the U.S. government was so keen on fighting in Vietnam that they twisted the facts to create a story worth going to war over. ()
In the early morning hours of Aug. 2, 1964, naval intelligence personnel manning communications interception equipment on board destroyer USS Maddox, then steaming on a peacetime mission in the Gulf of Tonkin, straightened in their chairs as they listened to a transmission from North Vietnam’s naval headquarters. The communication instructed naval forces to prepare for battle.
What was the result of this confusion, deception, and fear? The Tonkin Gulf Resolution, leading to the only war America has lost—costing more than 58,000 American lives, btw—and the war many Americans would like to forget. ()
It was also possible that the U.S. would achieve its goals in South Vietnam. Judging by other U.S. policies, superior power coupled with convincing propaganda usually came out on top. Such was the case with the Dominican Republic in the spring of 1965. U.S. military forces invaded the country in order to secure a rightist military junta that had ousted the democratically elected government of Juan Bosch. The American people were told that the 20,000 U.S. troops dispatched were sent to save American lives and prevent a communist takeover. Daniel Ellsberg, a Pentagon analyst who was privy to the inside story, reflected, “We were 100 percent lying about what we were doing in the Dominican Republic.” The Dominican Republic, said Ellsberg, was “one of the few communist-free environments in the whole world.” The Johnson administration got away with its lies and Washington added the country to its list of client-states. As in Vietnam, internal developments in the Dominican Republic were touted as a threat to the United States, when in fact there was no threat whatsoever, only a desire on the part of U.S. leaders to establish another pro-U.S. regime.
Truth was not only the first casualty of war, as the Greek dramatist Aeschylus said 2,500 years ago, it was also a continuing casualty of American war plans and operations. President Johnson and his advisers engaged in numerous and elaborate deceptions in order to keep American public opinion on their side, or at least sufficiently confused so as to not interfere with their war plans. Johnson’s deceptions included misrepresenting the nature of the guerrilla war in South Vietnam, the extent of U.S. military operations in South Vietnam, covert operations against North Vietnam, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and U.S. peace proposals (which amounted to ultimatums). Added to these were continuing deceptions fostered by previous administrations concerning the Geneva Agreements, the nature of the South Vietnamese government, and the origins of the war.
With the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution enacted, Johnson had the power to expand the war as he saw fit. His strategy was to increase it in stages, allowing the DRV and NLF to capitulate to U.S. demands at any pause. If they did not, the U.S. would increase the punishment. That fall, Johnson expanded the war in the south without fanfare, increasing U.S. bombing runs, building and expanding air bases, dispatching three additional regiments (about 4,500 soldiers), lifting restrictions on the use of cluster bombs and white phosphorus (napalm was already in use), and expanding the area of “free-fire zones” to encompass larger sections of the countryside, including heavily populated areas. It was still not enough. On October 31, 1964, the NLF used captured American mortars to attack the U.S. air base at Bien Hoa, destroying five B-57 bombers and badly damaging thirteen more; four Americans were killed and thirty wounded.
One such GI, Tom Glen, who served with an American mortar platoon, expressed his moral concerns in a letter to General Creighton Abrams, the commander of all U.S. forces in Vietnam, in the fall of 1968. “The average GI’s attitude toward and treatment of the Vietnamese people all too often is a complete denial of all our country is attempting to accomplish in the realm of human relations,” he wrote.
Surrounded by members of Congress, President Johnson signed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution at the White House on August 10, 1964 (Senator Humphrey is second from left)
The administration rushed the resolution to Congress the following day, August 5, before any investigation of Humphrey’s allegations could be investigated and substantiated. Introduced under the title, “Joint Resolution to promote the maintenance of international peace and security in southeast Asia,” the resolution mixed a deceptive version of events in the Gulf of Tonkin with illusory claims of protecting the people of Southeast Asia, as prelude to authorizing “the President, as Commander in Chief, to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.” This was an open-ended declaration of war, but few members of Congress realized it at the time.
In another mission from May 10-20, 1969, U.S. and ARVN troops fought an intense, uphill battle (literally) for Hill 937, or “Hamburger Hill,” near the Laotian border. The U.S.-ARVN forces succeeded in taking the hill, with significant casualties, but since no territory in the countryside could be permanently retained without sizable forces present, the hill was quietly abandoned on June 5. Two weeks later, military intelligence reported that more than 1,000 North Vietnamese Army troops had moved back into the area. In Washington, Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts asked on the Senate floor, “How can we justify sending our boys against a hill a dozen times, finally taking it, and then withdrawing a week later?”