Anti-Imperialism/Foreign Policy

Our Government Lied About Tonkin. See Them Doing It & Debating It

This TV program aired in late 1967. The Gulf of Tonkin incident refers to two controversial events that occurred in August 1964 involving the United States & North Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin of the coast of Vietnam. The incidents served as a pretext for the United States to escalate its military involvement in Vietnam.

First incident (August 2, 1964): The USS Maddox, a destroyer, was conducting an intelligence-gathering mission in the Gulf of Tonkin when it was approached by 3 North Vietnamese Navy torpedo boats. The Maddox fired warning shots & the North Vietnamese boats responded with torpedoes and machine-gun fire. The Maddox & aircraft from a nearby aircraft carrier retaliated. There were no U.S. casualties but the engagement heightened tensions between the U.S. and North Vietnam.

Second incident (August 4, 1964): 2 days later the Maddox and another destroyer, the USS Turner Joy, reported being under attack by North Vietnamese forces. However this incident has been the subject of controversy, with evidence suggesting that the second attack did not occur or was exaggerated. The Gulf of Tonkin incidents are relevant because they led to the passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution by the Congress a few days later on August 7, 1964. The resolution granted President Lyndon Johnson the authority to use military force in Southeast Asia without a formal declaration of war. Following the incidents and the Resolution the United States began escalating its military involvement in Vietnam. This marked a shift from the earlier policy of providing financial aid & military advisors to support the South Vietnamese government in its fight against communist forces from North Vietnam and the Viet Cong. : In 1964 there were around 23,000 American military personnel in Vietnam, mainly advisors. By the end of 1967 this number had surged to over 485,000.

In March 1965 the U.S. began Operation Rolling Thunder, a sustained bombing campaign against North Vietnam. The operation aimed to weaken the North Vietnamese government and military, reduce the flow of supplies to the Viet Cong and force North Vietnam to negotiate a settlement. The U.S. military added “search and destroy” missions where American and South Vietnamese forces targeted Viet Cong in the countryside. These missions were designed to locate and eliminate enemy forces but often led to significant civilian casualties and increased anti-American sentiment in Vietnam. As U.S. involvement in Vietnam intensified, opposition to the war grew. Protests and demonstrations against the war became frequent and widespread and the conflict’s rising death toll and moral ambiguity fueled public disillusionment and anger.

By the end of 1967 the United States was heavily committed to the Vietnam War. The war had become increasingly unpopular among the American public and was a major issue in both domestic and international politics. These factors would continue to shape the course of the conflict in the years to come. The U.S. military presence in Vietnam led to a long, costly and divisive war that ended in the fall of Saigon in 1975. The Gulf of Tonkin incident and the subsequent resolution remain a subject of debate and controversy as many historians argue that the U.S. government manipulated or exaggerated the events to justify increased military involvement in Vietnam. There is evidence that suggests the U.S. government did manipulate or exaggerate the Gulf of Tonkin incidents, particularly the second incident on August 4, 1964. Communications from the ships involved as well as intelligence information were incomplete, contradictory and unclear. This confusion led to doubts about whether the second incident on August 4 actually took place.

Some experts argue that radar and sonar data from the USS Maddox and the USS Turner Joy was misinterpreted due to poor weather conditions and technical limitations. This misinterpretation led to false reports of North Vietnamese attacks. In 2005, a report from the National Security Agency (NSA) was declassified, revealing that intelligence data was deliberately skewed to support the claim that an attack occurred on August 4. The report concluded that “it is not simply that there is a different story as to what happened; it is that no attack happened that night.” Some crew members from the USS Maddox and the USS Turner Joy came forward stating that they did not believe an attack took place on August 4. Additionally, Captain John J. Herrick, the commander of the task force that included both destroyers, later expressed doubts about the validity of the second attack. In 1971, the New York Times published a top-secret Department of Defense study about U.S. political and military involvement in Vietnam known as the Pentagon Papers. The documents showed that the U.S. government was aware that the second attack might not have occurred but the government still used the incidents to justify escalating the war in Vietnam.

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