A new look at the Tonkin Gulf incident finds the event that plunged Americainto full-scale war to be ‘a genuine mistake.’
By Captain Ronnie E. Ford, U.S. Army
Dr. Edwin E. Moise of Clemson University has written a valuable addition to literature on the Vietnam War. In Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1996, $34.95), he painstakingly explores the incident that plunged the United States into full involvement in the Second Indochina War, an event that remains shrouded in controversy–the Tonkin Gulf incident.
To date, the claim that President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration may have deliberately triggered the Vietnam War via an orchestrated Tonkin Gulf incident, and then duped the U.S. Congress, has endured. In fact, a recent book by Sedgwick Tourison, Secret Army, Secret War: Washington’s Tragic Spy Operation in North Vietnam, from Naval Institute Press, and recent revelations of Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the so-called Pentagon Papers, indicate that the claim could be more plausible than ever. Indeed, 34 years after the fact, Vietnam War historians and researchers continue to wonder: Did the United States intentionally instigate the first attack in the Gulf of Tonkin on August 2, 1964? Did Hanoi actually attack USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin a second time on August 4, 1964? And, if the Communist Vietnamese did not commit the second attack, did then Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara knowingly mislead the U.S. Congress to obtain support for what would become the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, passage of which ensured victory for President Johnson in the upcoming election and ultimately led the United States down the road to war?
The Operation Desota patrol personnel on USS Maddox and USS C. Turner Joy believed they were under attack at the time. Some of them continue to believe it. Others now conclude that they thought they were being attacked because of the so-called fog of war. Moise demonstrates that the North Vietnamese did not attack on August 4. But, in a most welcome change from the many conspiracy theorists, Moise concludes that the original report was not a devious plan to allow the Johnson administration an excuse to escalate the war. Rather, it was simply a genuine mistake.
Most examinations of the events in the Gulf of Tonkin have focused on the actions occurring between the two destroyers and Admiral Ulysses S. Grant Sharp’s staff in Hawaii, and between Hawaii and the secretary of defense and the White House. (Also see Joseph C. Goulden’s 1969 book, Truth is the First Casualty: The Gulf of Tonkin Affair–Illusion and Reality, from Rand McNally.) Moise does more. He recounts the battle between North Vietnamese torpedo boats and Maddox two days prior to the mysterious and still controversial events of August 4. He also thoroughly describes the overall historical context that saw the United States drift into the quagmire that would cost nearly 60,000 American lives.
Moise analyzes the U.S. government’s inconsistent fiscal policy for Vietnam, specifically the fiscal year (FY) 1965 defense budget. He points out that even as President Johnson’s military planners were designing the escalation of the war and Hanoi was preparing for total political, diplomatic and military war, Johnson himself was cutting the military budget. Under President John F. Kennedy, defense spending had risen consistently. President Johnson realized that the war’s escalation would force him to spend more on the military than he wanted to. Focused on winning the 1968 election, Johnson cut more than a billion dollars of defense spending from Kennedy’s FY 1964 budget between the time Johnson took office and the end of the fiscal year. The cuts allowed for a tax cut and a variety of domestic initiatives that fell under the umbrella of his “Great Society Program.” Johnson’s 1965 budget also allocated $5.2 billion less than, or 9 percent below, President Kennedy’s 1964 defense budget figure.
Moise makes a clear point here. At a time when serious planning was well underway for the systematic bombing of North Vietnam (during Operation Rolling Thunder) and American combat troops were being introduced into South Vietnam, “for this to have been a year of massive cuts in military spending seems odd to say the least,” Moise asserts.
The author, a history professor, previously published Land Reform in China and North Vietnam and Modern China: A History and continues work on a comprehensive history of the Vietnam War. In his latest work, Tonkin Gulf, he makes use of interviews with actual participants and extensively analyzes recently declassified American documents. This book not only illuminates the events of August 4, 1964, but also presents a different view of American planning prior to the Vietnamese conflict. Moise’s work is a refreshingly welcome addition to Vietnam War literature, and certainly one for the shelves of serious students of the conflict.