AUSTIN - Thirty-eight years ago Sunday, network television was interrupted
at 11:36 p.m. EDT so President Lyndon B. Johnson could tell the nation that U.S.
warships in a place called the Gulf of Tonkin had been attacked by North Vietnamese
In response to what he described as "open aggression on the open seas,"
Johnson ordered U.S. airstrikes on North Vietnam.
The airstrikes opened the door to a war that would kill 1 million Vietnamese
and 58,000 Americans and divide the nation along class and generational lines.
Over the years, debate has swirled around whether U.S. ships actually were
attacked that night, or whether, as some skeptics suggest, the Johnson administration
staged or provoked an event to get congressional authority to act against North
Recently released tapes of White House phone conversations indicate the attack
probably never happened.
The tapes, released by the LBJ
Library at the University of Texas at Austin, include 51 phone conversations
from Aug. 4 and 5, 1964, when the Tonkin Gulf incident occurred.
Two days earlier, on Aug. 2, North Vietnamese forces in Russian-made "swatow"
gunboats had attacked the USS Maddox, a destroyer conducting reconnaissance in
But from the get-go, many have doubted anything really happened to the Maddox
and a sister ship, the USS C. Turner Joy on Aug. 4.
Even LBJ seemed skeptical, saying in 1965: "For all I know, our Navy
was shooting at whales out there."
The released tapes neither prove nor disprove what may have happened that
night, but they do indicate jittery sailors in a tense area thought they were
"Under attack by three PT boats. Torpedoes in the water. Engaging the
enemy with my main battery," the Maddox radioed.
Indeed, the destroyers fired 249 5-inch shells, 123 3-inch shells and four
or five depth charges, according to Navy records.
Many of the taped conversations from that night are between Defense Secretary
Robert McNamara - who was trying to verify something actually happened so he could
brief LBJ for his TV bulletin - and Adm. U.S. Grant "Oley" Sharp, commander
of the U.S. Navy's Pacific Fleet.
| Gulf of Tonkin
Resolution: To Promote the Maintenance of International Peace and Secunty
in Southeast Asia
Whereas naval units of the Communist regime in Vietnam, in violation of the
principles of the Charter of the United Nations and of international law, have
deliberately and repeatedly attacked United States naval vessels lawfully present
in international waters, and have thereby created a serious threat to international
Whereas these attacks are part of a deliberate and systematic campaign of
aggression that the Communist regime in North Vietnam has been waging against
its neighbors and the nations joined with them in the collective defense of their
Whereas the United States is assisting the peoples of southeast Asia to protect
their freedom and has no territorial, military or political ambitions in that
area, but desires only that these people should be left in peace to work out their
own destinies in their own way: Now, therefore, be it?
Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of
America in Congress assembled.
That the Congress approves and supports the determination of 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.
SEC.2. The United States regards as vital to its national interest and to
world peace the maintenance of international peace and security in Southeast Asia.
Consonant with the Constitution of the United States and the Charter of the
United Nations and in accordance with its obligations under the Southeast Asia
Collective Defense Treaty, the United States is, therefore, prepared, as the President
determines, to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force, to
assist any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty
requesting assistance in defense of its freedom.
SEC. 3. This resolution shall expire when the President shall determine that
the peace and security of the area is reasonably assured by international conditions
created by action of the United Nations or otherwise, except that it may be terminated
earlier by concurrent resolution of the Congress.
Sharp was feeding McNamara information from the field and trying to get a
strike force in the air to retaliate for the alleged attack before the president
went on television.
"If it's open season on these boys, which I think it is, we'll take if
from there," Sharp said about noon on Aug. 4.
Later, in a 1:59 p.m. EDT conversation with Air Force Lt. Gen. David Burchinal
of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Sharp was elusive, saying, "many of the reported
contacts and torpedoes fired appear doubtful."
He blamed the reports on "overeager sonarmen" and "freak weather
effects on radar."
But, asked Burchinal: "You're pretty sure there was a torpedo attack?"
"No doubt about that, I think," Sharp replied.
At 8:39 p.m., with McNamara laying plans for LBJ to go on TV, McNamara asked
Sharp why the retaliatory strike was delayed.
Bad weather, Sharp said, and an agitated McNamara replied: "The president
has to make a statement to the people and I am holding him back from making it."
Thirty minutes later, at 9:09, Sharp said the launch still was 50 minutes
"Oh my God," McNamara said.
And about an hour before he went on television, Johnson spoke by telephone
with Barry Goldwater, his Republican opponent in that year's presidential race.
"Like always, Americans will stick together," the Arizona senator
At 11 p.m., McNamara asked Sharp, who was in Honolulu and getting feedback
from the aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga, if Johnson could say "at this
moment air action is now in execution" against North Vietnam.
Sharp chuckled and replied: "I don't think it would be good, sir,"
noting the retaliatory strike had not yet launched.
Shortly after 11 p.m., the counterstrike was under way and LBJ went on the
air to tell the American people the "attack" on U.S. ships was an "outrage."
"I shall immediately request the Congress to pass a resolution making
it clear that our government is united in its determination to take all necessary
measures in support of freedom and in defense of peace in Southeast Asia."
But, says James Stockdale, a Navy aviator who responded to the "attacks"
on the Maddox and Turner Joy, it all was hogwash. Stockdale later was shot down
and spent eight years in a North Vietnamese prisoner of war camp. In 1992, he
was presidential candidate Ross Perot's running mate.
"I had the best seat in the house to watch that event, and our destroyers
were just shooting at phantom targets - there were no PT boats there. There was
nothing but black water and American firepower," Stockdale wrote in his 1984
book, "In Love and War."
Congress, however, responded to LBJ's call to arms, giving him a veritable
blank check to make war.
While the U.S. response, as the tapes seem to bear out, was a mistake rather
than a charade, there is ample evidence the United States was a provocateur in
1964, not an innocent bystander.
The Johnson administration had approved covert land and sea operations involving
U.S. forces earlier in 1964, the so-called Op Plan 34-A.
On Monday, Aug. 3, 1964, the day after the first Tonkin Gulf incident where
the USS Maddox actually was attacked, Johnson, according to White House tape recordings,
"There have been some covert operations in that (Tonkin Gulf) area that
we have been carrying on - blowing up some bridges and things of that kind, roads
and so forth. So I imagine (the North Vietnamese) wanted to put a stop to it."
Later that same day, LBJ, who ironically was about to ask Humphrey to be his
running mate in the '64 election, complained to their mutual friend, James Rowe:
"Our friend Hubert is just destroying himself with his big mouth," LBJ
said, noting the Minnesota liberal told the media after an intelligence briefing
that U.S. boats were running covert operations in the gulf - "exactly what
we have been doing."
Two months before the Tonkin Gulf incident, Undersecretary of State George
Ball, a member of Johnson's inner circle and a member of a committee that oversaw
the 34-A operations, had drafted, but not submitted, a congressional resolution
endorsing "all measures, including the commitment of force," to defend
South Vietnam and Laos, should their governments seek help - in effect, the language
in the subsequent Tonkin Gulf Resolution.
In a May 24 meeting, the National Security Council suggested the best time
to submit such a resolution was after Congress had passed the landmark 1964 civil
rights bill, which occurred in July.
Ball later said, according to McNamara in his 1995 mea culpa, "In Retrospect,"
that "many of the people who were associated with the war ..... were looking
for any excuse to initiate bombing. ....."
However, another close LBJ aide, William Bundy, according to the same source,
said the Tonkin Gulf incident was not engineered.
While the reasons for it either were unclear or false, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution
cleared Congress on Aug. 7, 1964 - 414-0 in the House and 88-2 in the Senate.
History has seemed to coalesce around the belief that the second Tonkin Gulf
incident, on Aug. 4, was a mistake, but not a charade.
It was not a "put-up job," claims Professor Edwin Moise, a Vietnam
War expert at Clemson University.
As the LBJ Library tapes indicate, the Navy was not ready to launch a retaliatory
strike Aug. 4 against North Vietnam, but it would have been if the event had been
staged, Moise theorizes.
Professor David Crockett, a presidential scholar at Trinity University, calls
the incident an accident, but says the greater problem was that Congress "rolled
over" and gave LBJ what he wanted: "a virtual blank check to make war."
The irony, Crockett notes, is that LBJ painted Goldwater as a warmonger in
the '64 campaign. A powerful but notorious LBJ TV ad featured a little girl picking
daisies followed by the detonation of a nuclear bomb.
"LBJ campaigned that he wouldn't send American boys to die in Asian wars,"
says Crockett, who is only a year older than the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, "but
he was actually doing it" by pushing the resolution through Congress.
Jerry Paull*, a former U.S. Marine and Vietnam vet, has another perspective.
For six months in 1965, he ferried South Vietnamese forces on Norwegian-made
PT boats into North Vietnam to conduct raids, kidnaps and psychological operations
such as dropping propaganda leaflets.
Although he was a U.S. Marine, Paull says he wore civilian clothes on the
missions - in violation of a 1954 Geneva convention - and the PT boats, called
"nasties," were painted black and had no markings.
"I have heard and read," Paull says, "that at the time of the
Gulf of Tonkin incident that it is suspected that the North Vietnamese mistook
the U.S. destroyers for the nasties, and that the whole Gulf of Tonkin incident
was a mistake on the North Vietnamese's part."
Paull would later turn against the war, but, he reminds younger Americans,
the mid-'60s was an era of idealism, when America's No. 1 foreign policy thrust
was to stop the spread of communism.
"War was what I had trained for and what I wanted to do for my country,"
"At that time, there was a common saying in the Marine Corps: 'It's not
much of a war, but it's the only war we have.'."
A year later, though, while waiting at an air strip at Chu Lai to head into
the field, a newsman asked Paull if he'd noticed a change in attitude among the
Marines between 1965 and 1966.
"I said, 'Yes, the idea of being carried home on a shield was not as
glorious as it had been in 1965. Death is final.'."
"The hard realities of war were realized."
Bob Blackburn, a former college professor who had to give up teaching because
of Vietnam-induced post traumatic stress disorder, served two tours with the Marines
in Vietnam and fought in another turning point in the war, the 1968 Tet offensive.
The North Texas resident says he was bitter toward Johnson then, but now simply
refers to LBJ as a "tragic figure" who got himself into a situation
he couldn't politic his way out of.
"He could never realize why (North Vietnamese leader) Ho Chi Minh wasn't
like a Republican senator who could be bought. He'd have built a TVA (Tennessee
Valley Authority) for (Ho) if he'd just quit fighting," says Blackburn, who
has a doctorate in American political history with an emphasis on Vietnam.
George Christian, who was LBJ's press secretary from 1966 to 1969 and wrote
LBJ's resignation speech in 1968, confirms that.
"There was never a better legislative president," Christian recalls.
"He was a master at working the system and he made honest efforts to try
to reach an honest end to the war.
".' Why can't Ho Chi Minh see that?'." Christian recalls Johnson
Vietnam had a "corrosive" effect on the president, Christian says,
but it wasn't the main reason LBJ resigned.
"It was his health; he was worried about having a stroke and being incapacitated.
"I thought the country was ungovernable," Christian says now. "I
wanted him to go home. Mrs. Johnson wanted him to go home. He wanted to go home."
A lot of Americans never came home, and those who did often weren't welcomed
home as conquering heroes, as their fathers and grandfathers had been.
Still, coming home whole was no less joyous.
Blackburn, for example, was picked up by a helicopter in the field in Vietnam
on May 2, 1968, and was discharged from the Corps 12 days later at El Toro Naval
Air Station, Calif.
He used the money he saved in Vietnam to buy himself a sports car, and as
he drove away from the base, en route back home to Texas, Blackburn removed his
uniform and, piece by piece, threw it into the wind from his convertible.
"There wasn't a sign between El Toro and Needles that didn't have a piece
of my clothing on it," he says.
© 2002 San Antonio Express-News