When we heard about the alleged confrontation between three U.S. Navy warships and five Iranian Revolutionary Guard speedboats in the Strait of Hormuz on Jan. 6, three words immediately came to mind: "Gulf of Tonkin."
With the Bush administration still gung ho to go to war with Iran, it might be worth remembering how a similar confrontation was used as the pretext for going to war four decades ago.
In the summer of 1964, the country of Vietnam was just starting to enter the consciousness of most Americans. The U.S. had about 20,000 troops there, or "advisors" as they were euphemistically known. By that summer, nearly 300 Americans had been killed and another 1,000 were wounded in the three years since the first substantial American force was committed to Vietnam by President John F. Kennedy.
The great escalation had yet to happen. But this changed when the U.S.S. Maddox, a destroyer on intelligence maneuvers in the Gulf of Tonkin off the North Vietnam coast, was fired upon by North Vietnamese torpedo boats on the afternoon of Aug. 2, 1964. Two days later, another North Vietnamese attack occurred in the same area against another destroyer, the U.S.S. Turner Joy.
That second attack was the pretext for President Lyndon B. Johnson to launch air strikes against North Vietnamese targets later that day. But even as the bombs were falling, top officials in Washington had reason to believe that the second attack never really happened.
According to naval personnel involved in the Aug. 4 incident, there was considerable doubt regarding what took place. "Review of action makes many reported contacts and torpedoes fired appear doubtful," Capt. John J. Herrick, commander of the destroyer task force in the Gulf of Tonkin, cabled back to Washington on Aug. 4. "Freak weather effects and overeager sonarman may have accounted for many reports. No actual visual sightings by Maddox. Suggest complete evaluation before any further action."
In a second cable a short time later, Herrick reported that the Turner Joy also reported "no actual sightings or wake. Entire action leaves many doubts except for appearance of ambush attempt at beginning." There were no U.S. casualties or damage in either incident.
Nobody in the press or in Congress knew this at the time. Nor did they know that the destroyers were monitoring South Vietnamese raids against two North Vietnamese islands -- raids that had been planned by American advisors. They accepted the official explanation that an "unprovoked attack" had taken place, and Johnson's statement that "repeated acts of violence against the armed forces of the United States must be met not only with alert defenses, but with positive reply."
The attacks became the justification for escalating the war. Johnson asked for and received authority from Congress "to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression."
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The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was approved on Aug. 7, 1964, by a unanimous vote in the House and a nearly unanimous vote in the Senate. Sens. Wayne Morse of Oregon and Ernest Gruening of Alaska cast the only "no" votes.
Within a few months, the Marines were landing on the beaches of Da Nang and American troop strength tripled to 75,000 by June 1965. By the end of that year, there were 181,000 troops in Vietnam. By 1967, it was 500,000.
The war that would eventually kill 58,000 Americans and millions of Vietnamese was in full swing. Would the truth about what really happened in the Gulf of Tonkin have changed the course of our involvement in Vietnam? Maybe. But we do know that the most divisive war in our nation's history started with a lie.
We know the Bush administration hyped the case for war with Iraq. We know they selectively picked over the intelligence that supported their goal and ignored what did not. The supposed stash of "weapons of mass destruction" never existed. And, nearly five years after the invasion, U.S. forces remain in Iraq for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with the initial justifications for war.
Knowing this, we fear that in its final year in office, the Bush administration will find a way to justify an attack on Iran. By sheer luck, nothing happened on Jan. 6. However, given that the Strait of Hormuz is one of the busiest waterways in the world, and that there is not a lot of space for ships to maneuver, something could still happen.
Even as the details of the alleged Jan. 6 confrontation started to unravel under independent scrutiny, President Bush continues to use the incident as a justification for going after Iran.
Speaking in the United Arab Emirates on Sunday, President Bush said that "Iran's actions threaten the security of nations everywhere" and that the United States and its Arab allies must band together to confront the danger "before its too late."
Sound familiar? Bush was saying the same thing five years ago, in the runup to the Iraq invasion.
We could use some calmer heads in Washington now, people who recognize that another war in one of the most volatile regions on Earth is not a particularly good idea. But until that day arrives on Jan. 20, 2009, the world is holding its breath and hoping that the Bush administration's desires for war with Iran will be thwarted.
© 2008 Brattleboro Reformer