Express-News Austin Bureau
Web Posted : 08/03/2002 12:00 AM
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 PT boats.
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 Vietnam.
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 the gulf.
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.
"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.
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 off.
"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 told LBJ.
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, said:
"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," he recalls.
"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 often lamenting.
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.
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