"President Johnson ordered U.S.
bombers to "retaliate" for a North Vietnamese torpedo
attack that never happened. We Americans are the
ultimate innocents. We are forever desperate to
believe that this time the government is telling us
Thirty years ago, it all seemed very clear.
"American Planes Hit North Vietnam After Second Attack on
Our Destroyers; Move Taken to Halt New Aggression",
announced a Washington Post headline on Aug. 5, 1964.
That same day, the front page of the New York Times
reported: "President Johnson has ordered retaliatory
action against gunboats and 'certain supporting
facilities in North Vietnam' after renewed attacks
against American destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin."
But there was no "second attack" by North Vietnam
- no "renewed attacks against American destroyers." By
reporting official claims as absolute truths, American
journalism opened the floodgates for the bloody Vietnam
A pattern took hold: continuous government lies passed
on by pliant mass media...leading to over 50,000 American
deaths and millions of Vietnamese casualties. The
official story was that North Vietnamese torpedo boats
launched an "unprovoked attack" against a U.S. destroyer
on "routine patrol" in the Tonkin Gulf on Aug. 2 - and
that North Vietnamese PT boats followed up with a
"deliberate attack" on a pair of U.S. ships two days
The truth was very different.
Rather than being on a routine patrol Aug. 2, the U.S.
destroyer Maddox was actually engaged in aggressive
intelligence-gathering manoeuvres - in sync with
coordinated attacks on North Vietnam by the South
Vietnamese navy and the Laotian air force. "The day
before, two attacks on North Vietnam...had taken place,"
writes scholar Daniel C. Hallin. Those assaults were
"part of a campaign of increasing military pressure on
the North that the United States had been pursuing since
On the night of Aug. 4, the Pentagon proclaimed that a
second attack by North Vietnamese PT boats had occurred
earlier that day in the Tonkin Gulf - a report cited by
President Johnson as he went on national TV that evening
to announce a momentous escalation in the war: air
strikes against North Vietnam.
But Johnson ordered U.S. bombers to "retaliate" for a
North Vietnamese torpedo attack that never
Prior to the U.S. air strikes, top officials in
Washington had reason to doubt that any Aug. 4 attack by
North Vietnam had occurred. Cables from the U.S. task
force commander in the Tonkin Gulf, Captain John J.
Herrick, referred to "freak weather effects," "almost
total darkness" and an "overeager sonarman" who "was
hearing ship's own propeller beat."
One of the Navy pilots flying overhead that night was
squadron commander James Stockdale, who gained fame later
as a POW and then Ross Perot's vice presidential
candidate. "I had the best seat in the house to watch
that event," recalled Stockdale a few years ago, "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 1965, Lyndon
Johnson commented: "For all I know, our Navy was shooting
at whales out there."
But Johnson's deceitful speech of Aug. 4, 1964, won
accolades from editorial writers.
The president, proclaimed the New York Times, "went to
the American people last night with the somber facts."
The Los Angeles Times urged Americans to "face the fact
that the Communists, by their attack on American vessels
in international waters, have themselves escalated the
An exhaustive new book, The War Within: America's Battle
Over Vietnam, begins with a dramatic account of the
Tonkin Gulf incidents. In an interview, author Tom Wells
told us that American media "described the air strikes
that Johnson launched in response as merely `tit for tat'
- when in reality they reflected plans the administration
had already drawn up for gradually increasing its overt
military pressure against the North." Why such
inaccurate news coverage? Wells points to the media's
"almost exclusive reliance on U.S. government officials
as sources of information" - as well as "reluctance to
question official pronouncements on 'national security
Daniel Hallin's classic book The "Uncensored War"
observes that journalists had "a great deal of
information available which contradicted the official
account [of Tonkin Gulf events]; it simply wasn't used.
The day before the first incident, Hanoi had protested
the attacks on its territory by Laotian aircraft and
South Vietnamese gunboats." What's more, "It was
generally known...that `covert' operations against North
Vietnam, carried out by South Vietnamese forces with U.S.
support and direction, had been going on for some
In the absence of independent journalism, the Gulf of
Tonkin Resolution - the closest thing there ever was to a
declaration of war against North Vietnam - sailed through
Congress on Aug. 7. (Two courageous senators, Wayne Morse
of Oregon and Ernest Gruening of Alaska, provided the
only "no" votes.) The resolution authorized the president
"to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack
against the forces of the United States and to prevent
The rest is tragic history.
Nearly three decades later, during the Gulf War,
columnist Sydney Schanberg warned journalists not to
forget "our unquestioning chorus of agreeability when
Lyndon Johnson bamboozled us with his fabrication of the
Gulf of Tonkin incident."
Schanberg blamed not only the press but also "the
apparent amnesia of the wider American public." And he
added: "We Americans are the ultimate innocents. We are
forever desperate to believe that this time the
government is telling us the truth."