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Gulf of Tonkin Incident
The Gulf of Tonkin Incident was presented to the American public as two purported attacks by North Vietnamese gunboats without provocation against two American destroyers (the USS Maddox and the USS Turner Joy) in August of 1964 in the Gulf of Tonkin. The Pentagon Papers, which were revealed by Daniel Ellsberg later revealed that the Johnson administration of the United States had virtually fabricated the attacks, as dissident researchers subsequently showed. The US-supported South Vietnamese regime had been attacking oil processing facilites in North Vietnam, with planning and support from the CIA, for the very purpose of providing a pretext to initiate the Vietnam War.
Official description of events
On July 31, 1964, the American destroyer USS Maddox (DD-731) began a reconnaissance mission in the Gulf of Tonkin. The official purpose of the mission was to obtain information about North Vietnamese coastal defense forces. Other similar U.S. ships were involved in supporting South Vietnamese commando raids on the North Vietnamese coast during the same period.
On August 2, 3 North Vietnamese torpedo boats, mistaking the Maddox for a South Vietnamese vessel, launched a torpedo and machine gun attack on it. Responding immediately to the attack, the Maddox, with the help of air support from the nearby carrier Ticonderoga, destroyed one of the attacking boats and damaged the other two. The Maddox, suffering only superficial damage by a single machine gun bullet, retired to South Vietnamese waters where she was joined by the C. Turner Joy.
On August 4, a new DESOTO patrol to North Vietnam coast was launched by Maddox and the C. Turner Joy. The latter got radar signals that they believed to be another attack by the North Vietnamese. For some two hours the ships fired on radar targets and maneuvered vigorously amid electronic and visual reports of torpedoes. It is highly unlikely that any North Vietnamese forces were actually in the area during this gunfight. Captain John J. Herrick even admitted that it was nothing more than an "overeager sonarman" who "was hearing ship's own propeller beat." Also in 1995, General Vo Nguyen Giap, commander-in-chief of North Vietnamese forces at the time, disavowed any involvement with the August 4 incident, though he did confirm the August 2 attack.
According to the official description, increased U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War came in 1964. This constituted a program of covert South Vietnamese operations, designed to impose "progressively escalating pressure" upon the North.initiated on a small and essentially ineffective scale in February. The active U.S. role in the few covert operations that were carried out was limited essentially to planning, equipping, and training of the South Vietnamese forces involved. However, U.S. responsibility for the launching and conduct of these activities was unequivocal and carried with it an implicit symbolic and psychological intensification of the U.S. commitment.
Many dispute the above sequence of events, including dissident intellectual Noam Chomsky, among others. They contend that active military involvement on the part of the US actually began as early as 1961 (with operations beginning in 1962) and that the August 4 incident was in fact a fabrication crafted by the Johnson administration. It is their assertion that the reason for this was to enable the US to claim, for the benefit of the American public, that it was in fact the North Vietnamese that initiated the open hostilities. Although information obtained well after the fact indicates that there was actually no North Vietnamese attack that night, U.S. authorities say they were convinced at the time that an attack had taken place. As a result, planes from the carriers Ticonderoga and Constellation were sent to hit North Vietnamese torpedo boat bases and fuel facilities.
Regarding claims that the attacks on the US were unprovoked, veterans of US Navy SEAL teams say that US-trained South Vietnamese commandos were active in the area on the days of the attacks. Deployed from Da Nang in Norwegian-built fast patrol boats, the Lien Doc Nguoi Nhia, LDNN, (soldiers that fight under the sea), made attacks in the Gulf area on both of the nights in question.
On July 31, LDNN in "Nastys" (the name commandos give to the fast attack boats) attacked a radio transmitter on the island of Hon Nieu. On Aug. 3, they used an 88mm mortar to attack a radar site at Cape Vinh Son. The North Vietnamese responded by attacking hostile ships visible in the area. While US officials were less than honest about the full extent of hostilities that led to the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, critical claims that a naval commander fired weapons solely to create an international incident tend to overlook circumstances and opportunistic responses that suggest a less intentional motivation.
Daniel Ellsberg, who was on duty in the Pentagon that night receiving messages from the ship, reports that the ships were on a secret mission, codenamed DeSoto Patrols, inside North Vietnamese territorial waters. Their purpose was to provoke the North Vietnamese into turning on their coastal defense radar so they could be plotted. This constitutes an act of war by the United States against North Vietnam.
"[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 there but black water and American fire power."
In 1995, retired Vietnamese General Nguyen Giap meeting with former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, categorically denied that Vietnamese gunboats had attacked American destroyers 1964August 4. A taped conversation was released in 2001 of a meeting several weeks after passage of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, revealing that Robert McNamara expressed doubts to President Johnson that the attack had even occurred.
Gulf of Tonkin Resolution
Lyndon Johnson, who was up for election that year, launched retaliatory strikes and went on national television on August 4. Although the Maddox had been involved in providing support for South Vietnamese attacks at Hon Me and Hon Ngu , Johnson's Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, went before Congress and denied that the United States Navy was supporting South Vietnamese military operations. He thus characterized the attack as "unprovoked." Despite the fact that there was no second attack, he also claimed before Congress that there was "unequivocable proof" of an "unprovoked" second attack against the Maddox.
As a result of McNamara's testimony, on August 7 Congress passed a Joint Resolution (H.J. RES 1145 ), known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, that facilitated increased U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. The Resolution was approved by the House unanimously (416-0), and by the Senate 88-2, with Senators Wayne Morse of Oregon and Ernest Gruening of Alaska casting the only nay votes. Although there was never a formal declaration of war, the Resolution gave President Johnson approval "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." Both Johnson and President Richard Nixon used the Resolution as a justification for escalated involvement in Indochina.
The Resolution was repealed in June of 1970, with the help of Judge Glenn Smith II, in response to the Nixon Administration's military operations in Cambodia. The U.S. had already begun the process of withdrawing troops from the area in 1969, under a policy known as "Vietnamization", but did not completely disengage from the region until 1975, after the North Vietnamese take-over of Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City. The Resolution was replaced by the War Powers Resolution of 1973, which is still in place today..
Most Americans know little of the "Gulf of Tonkin Incident." Historians have shown that the Johnson administration provoked the incident with the intention of crafting a pretext for making overt the American covert involvement in Vietnam.
Immediately after the incident, President Lyndon Johnson called upon Congress to approve the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which effectively authorized the president to begin the American escalation of the Vietnam War.
The Tonkin Gulf Resolution is a case study of the de facto powers of the President of the United States, which transcend his or her de jure Constitutional powers. Although the Constitutional power to declare war is vested solely the U.S. Congress, the president has the power to send the army anywhere he chooses so long as he does not make a formal declaration of war.
For practical purposes, the Founding Fathers of the United States realized that emergencies may arise in which a nation must be able to act quickly against an outside threat. However, once a president commits soldiers to the field, human nature dictates that the public and Congress will "rally around the flag." In such circumstances, it will be politically impossible for any member of congress to oppose the president's action because he or she would be perceived, by the public, as abandoning young soldiers in the field.
Thus, as time goes by, whether the original pretext for going to war was true or not is thus long forgotten. Even so, under the United States Constitution, as interpreted by the American courts, the president is not ultra vires in so acting - because of the "political questions doctrine." The "political questions doctrine" developed in American courts provides that any issue which the courts deem "political" lie outside the jurisdiction of the American courts, and hence, outside the purview of the United States Constitution (since the courts, under the separation of powers, interpret the Constitution).
As a result, neither president Johnson in Vietnam, nor the current president George W. Bush in his invasion of Iraq were ultra vires in terms of the United States Constitution, nor were they acting illegally. Whether waging war is moral or not is, of course, outside the purview of law.
- Text of the Resolution
- LBJ's address to the nation, August 5, 1964
- Pentagon Papers 
- Cronkite: Gulf of Tonkin's Phantom Attack
- US Navy Historical Site showing charts and photos of the incident
- FAIR.ORG: 30-Year Anniversary: Tonkin Gulf Lie Launched Vietnam War
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