Thursday, September 05, 2013

The Gulf of Tonkin and U.S. Foreign Policy: A Personal Note

By John White, 
Cheshire, Connecticut

The U.S. war in Vietnam essentially began in August 1964 in response to what our government claimed was an unprovoked attack upon two naval ships, the destroyers Maddox and Turner Joy, while they were steaming peacefully on the high seas in the Gulf of Tonkin.  Although there was a U.S. military presence in Vietnam prior to that, the Tonkin events led to congressional action which allowed President Lyndon Johnson (and, later, President Richard Nixon) to escalate our military presence enormously and to wage war not only in Vietnam but also covertly in Southeast Asia.

Among the many books written about the Vietnam War, half a dozen note a 1967 letter to a Connecticut newspaper which was instrumental in pressing the Johnson administration to tell the truth about how the war was started.  The letter was mine.  It became, in the words of one book about the Tonkin Gulf events, "a national sensation."  

I wrote the letter to my local newspaper, the New Haven Register in December 1967, accusing President Johnson, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and the Joint Chiefs of Staff of giving false information to Congress in their report about American destroyers being attacked in the Gulf on August 4, 1964.  I identified myself as a former naval officer and said I based my charge on two sources of information:  (1) reading the classified radio messages sent at that time by the two allegedly attacked destroyers, USS Maddox and USS Turner Joy, and (2) talking, a few months later, with the chief sonarman (whose name I did not recall) of the Maddox.  (It became clear later that I was mistaken about him being on the Maddox.  He was on the Turner Joy.)

My letter got international attention.  I was covered by everything from the wire services, The New York Times, The Washington Post, CBS Evening News and TV crews from Japan and the Netherlands to local media, radio interviews across the country and a documentary film, In the Year of the Pig.  Even the Soviet Military Review got into the act, saying I had "confessed" to a frame-up in Vietnam.  Change “national sensation” to “international.”

My letter helped Senator J. William Fulbright (D-Arkansas) to launch the Senate Foreign Relations Committee into a full-scale investigation of the Tonkin events.  He brought me to Washington to testify, and was soon locking horns with the Administration.  

My intention in going public was to help end the war.  It was a matter of conscience for me.  While I was in Vietnam, I'd felt the U.S. was right to be there defending democracy against Communism.  But after leaving naval service in June 1965, I began to have doubts as I learned things contrary to the military mindset and to what my fellow officers and I had been told by a Vietnamese general who briefed us in Danang, where my ship, the USS Pine Island (AV-12), had gone in response to the Tonkin events to set up a seaplane base immediately after the alleged attack.  The Pine Island, which had been in Japan at the time, was the first ship to enter the war zone from outside, although several other U.S. naval ships were already there.  I was the Pine Island's nuclear weapons officer.  The ship’s nuclear weapons storage area held 40 Mark-101 nuclear depth bombs, each with a 10-kiloton payload.  That is what we would have loaded aboard P5M seaplanes to be dropped on enemy submarines, if so ordered.  Thankfully, no such order was given, and after two weeks in Danang we went back to normal peacetime steaming around the Pacific.

In time, I came to feel I'd been conned and that America had no moral right to be in Vietnam.   I saw the U.S. policy not as making the world safe for democracy, but as making the world safe for hypocrisy.  Moreover, the war itself looked increasingly unwinnable by America.  As the body count mounted in an action I regarded as militarily and morally wrong, I became active in the antiwar movement as a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.  I didn’t march in the streets carrying a placard, but I did sign on to an ad by VVAW which was published in The New Republic over the names of several hundred Vietnam vets, including mine.  (I left the VVAW about 1969, after two years’ membership, because my inclination toward that sort of political action waned.  I recognized that the antiwar movement was not the same thing as the peace movement.  The former was political, the latter was spiritual.  The former was based on anger, the latter was based on “the peace which passeth all understanding.”  Moreover, the peace movement—the process of developing inner peace or enlightenment as the basis for outer peace or world unity—applied to all aspects of society and culture, not just the political.  Cessation of hostilities is a necessary step but it is not the final step.  The peace movement, as slow, difficult and uncertain as it may be, is senior to the antiwar movement because it has a more fundamental aim.  Inner peace is world peace.)

Although I felt that an ad wouldn’t be enough to end the war, I was unsure of what else I might do.  Then in November 1967, I heard Senator Wayne Morse (D-Oregon) say on the evening news that President Johnson was replacing the Constitution with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.  Morse’s remark dissolved my perplexity and crystallized something deep within me.  Because of his comment, I thought I could help the antiwar effort and my country by undercutting the basis on which the war was conducted, namely, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.  

I knew the resolution was based on false information.  Johnson had a draft of it in his back pocket, so to speak, when he addressed Congress on August 5, 1964; his staff had written it six weeks earlier.  He called for Congress to rally ‘round the flag and then stampeded it into authorizing a legal instrument which allowed him to "take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent any further aggression."  So, after several weeks’ anxious reflection on the situation—”Am I sure about this?” “Will I get fired from my job?” “Will I hear a knock on the door from the FBI?”—I wrote my letter.

Twenty Years Later

There was social uproar, but there was no knock on the door, so I got on with my life.  In 1987 the radio messages were declassified and confirmed my story.  Twenty years after I'd come forward, with more than a bit of apprehension about the possibility of being charged with treason for revealing secret information, I was pleased to have my story completed and to feel "cleared" of the "crime" of speaking out against what I saw as government deception.  That deception was real and, as we now know, ultimately led to the tragic loss of more than 58,000 Americans, billions of dollars of materiel, and a clear sense of national unity and purpose.  

It was far worse for Vietnam and Southeast Asia, of course, where the destruction was enormous and the death toll ran into the millions.  (But note that many of those deaths were committed by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong against their own people.  Note also that China and the Soviet Union were the main weapon suppliers to the North.  There is plenty of blame to go all around.)  

In his 1995 book In Retrospect, Robert McNamara acknowledged that the Vietnam war was a mistake, but he only admitted errors of judgment, not deception and coverup.  Furthermore, in the 2003 documentary The Fog of War, McNamara admitted that the August 4 attack never happened.  (For more on this, see the “Gulf of Tonkin Incident” Wikipedia page.)  Shame on him! 

As for me, I never felt unpatriotic about what I did, although I was considered so by some people.  I was antiwar but not antimilitary.  I supported our troops but not our foreign policy which put them there.  I separated the war from the warriors, some of whom were my friends and comrades-in-arms.  I opposed the former but honored the latter.  I respected their service and sacrifice.  I didn't want to see them come home in body bags because of an unconstitutional and just-plain-wrong conflict.  At a time when the debate was between the hawks and the doves, I sought to be an eagle.  Eagles spread their wings and soar on an updraft of the American Spirit.  (But note well:  it’s hard to soar like an eagle when you’re surrounded by turkeys and thinking like one!)

True America or False America?

I believe America's freedom must be defended from all enemies, foreign or domestic.  I also believe there are more than a few of the latter kind in positions of social, commercial, industrial, financial and political power who use their influence and resources in what can be called conspiratorial fashion—i.e., the New World Order—to extend their power and to increase their wealth through manufactured situations such as the Vietnam debacle.  (Three of the current phrases for such phony ventures are "nation-building," “pacification” and “stability mission”.)  

Therefore I challenged a government policy because I felt it was unconstitutional and contrary to the best interests of our nation, our armed forces and the world itself.  Defense of the homeland is noble; offensive tactics beyond our borders is not.  Our internal enemies are destroying the American Republic and American freedom—True America—to advance their objective of an American Empire ruled by them—False America.  Make no mistake about it:  if they are successful, America will become a totalitarian tyranny run by an oligarchy.  For an insider look at the origins of the Vietnam War, see Laurence H. Shoup and William Minter’s 1977 Imperial Brain Trust:  The Council on Foreign Relations and United States Foreign Policy. 1

It is the duty of soldiers to follow orders, not to question the mission they’re sent on by their government.  However, in a self-governing republic such as ours, it is the duty of citizens to inspect, question and, if need be, challenge the missions on which government sends soldiers into action.  Patriotism requires close citizen scrutiny of government policy and practice, especially where the commitment of American lives is involved.  Being a serving soldier does not mean being nonpolitical.  As George Washington put it, “When we assumed the soldier, we did not lay aside the citizen.”  

We the People are the owners of the country and the masters of the government—including, through the right to vote, those in uniform—and if you have to take some heat for asserting that against scoundrels who wrap themselves in the flag to justify their illegal, immoral actions, so be it.  As Americans have learned the hard way, the U.S. government sometimes sacrifices American GIs for worthless causes such as “nation-building” in Haiti and Serbia, and “pacification” in Mogadishu and Kosovo, where there is no threat to our national security, but a lot of power and wealth to be gained by what President Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex.  In his Farewell Address of January 17, 1961, he said:  

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

Today it’s more accurate to call it the military-industrial-financial-intelligence complex because so much of our foreign policy gets generated by intelligence agencies and think tanks advising the State Department and the President, who themselves are in the hands of Wall Street.  Saddam Hussein was a U.S. ally before Gulf War One.  So was Osama bin Laden.  America armed them both in an effort to secure the Middle East for ourselves—that is, our commercial and industrial corporations and banks.  

Civil War General William T. Sherman famously said, “War is hell.”  Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler expanded on that in his 1935 book War Is a Racket, which condemned U. S. adventurism and the profit motive behind warfare.  It could be summed up like this:  “War is sell.”  To quote Butler:  “The trouble with America is that when the dollar only earns 6 percent over here, then it gets restless and goes overseas to get 100 percent.  Then the flag follows the dollar and the soldiers follow the flag.”

National Interest vs. Personal Agendas

When I’m overwhelmed by grief in remembrance of the gallant men and women who gave their lives in military service to America—more than one million of them since 1775—only part of that grief is for those who didn’t return and for their loved ones who lost them.  The other part of my grief is for the sheer foolishness of nations, governments and factions which think they have to go to war to settle differences, and for the sheer evil of those in command, both civilian and military, who generate wars to advance a personal agenda under the guise of patriotism.

America must never start or generate a war.  We should have a strong military to defend our nation—that can include preemptive strikes if a threat is clear and imminent—and we should thank God for the courageous men and women who volunteer to serve.  But war must never be an instrument of foreign policy or commercial interests.  Offensive war is rightly condemned by a soldier's conscience.

The only sensible and honorable foreign policy for America is strict neutrality.  That means nonalliance, nonintervention, and no meddling in the internal affairs of other nations.  It means free and fair trade with all who want it, friendly relations with all who want that, and a strong national defense, including properly supervised intelligence operations, against those who do not want friendly relations.  

Our nation also should stop acting as policeman of the world and withdraw from all military treaties so we are not drawn into war by proxy.  George Washington warned us in his Farewell Address (1797) to avoid all entangling alliances.  “Tis our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances, with any portion of the foreign world,”  he said.  Thomas Jefferson agreed; in 1799 he wrote, “Commerce with all nations, alliance with none, should be our motto.”   Two decades earlier, Benjamin Franklin put it succinctly:  “The system of America is to have commerce with all, and war with none.”

Their advice is still sound, especially since NATO is being turned into the standing army of the United Nations.  Kofi Annan, the former Secretary General of the UN, has stated publicly that NATO forces will be sent anywhere in the world to impose “stability missions.”  Ban Ki-moon, Annan’s successor, has said the same thing.

As for our country policing the world, I have a question.  America has 200,000 troops stationed at 800 bases in 140 countries around the world, but we can’t control our own borders, especially the U.S.-Mexican border, where illegal aliens and narcoterrorists come and go freely.  What’s wrong with this picture?


1 According to the description given on its web page, Imperial Brain Trust is “the classic study of the Council on Foreign Relations, an organization that has, for decades, played a central behind the scenes role in shaping…foreign policy choices. This private club and think tank, bringing together the New York establishment and the Washington foreign policy elite as well as other powerful forces, took the lead in laying out the plans for post-World War Two international order. The Council also traced the key guidelines for Cold War intervention and vetted and advised generations of White House officials…  [The] Council on Foreign Relations continues to mark the boundaries of what insiders consider to be respectable foreign policy discussion, helping aspirants to policy influence test out their schemes for establishment approval.”  Accompanying reviews of the book say:

...A thoroughly researched expose of the discreet workings of the powerful Council on Foreign influential oligarchy which not only studies but forms U.S. policy. With keen insight, the authors trace the origins of the increased power of the organization... 

American Library Association Booklist

...the first in-depth analysis of the activities and influence of the most important private institution in the formulation of U.S. foreign policy...Shoup and Minter's work is based on detailed research, including examination of material hitherto unavailable to the public...this work will stand as a milestone." 
Library Journal

The Foreword to the book says it reveals how “monopoly capitalists in the Council on Foreign Relations carefully and secretively planned the policies of modern-day imperialism and then introduced them into government.”

With regard to Vietnam and Southeast Asia, Shoup and Minter say, the CFR decided in the 1950s that Southeast Asia must remain under U.S. influence in order to serve as a market for trade and natural resources needed by U.S. businesses.  Military force was recommended as early as the 1950s for maintaining U.S. hegemony in the area. 

The Pentagon Papers
“leaked” by Pentagon official Daniel Ellsberg gave dramatic proof of the devious and dishonest way our government, under five presidents (Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon), maneuvered our nation into the war and escalated it.  For a video summary of the 7,000 pages of top secret documents and the history of their release, see The Most Dangerous Man in America, a documentary film available on DVD.

For more information on the Council on Foreign Relations, see James Perloff’s 1988 The Shadows of Power:  The Council on Foreign Relations and the American Decline.  A history of the CFR, describes it as exposing “the subversive roots and global designs of the CFR.”   It adds, “Passed off as a think-tank, this group is a key ‘power behind the throne,’ with hundreds of top-appointed government officials drawn from its ranks. Traces activity from the Wilson to Reagan administrations.”

The Council, Perloff writes, while remaining largely unknown to the public, has exercised decisive impact on U.S. policy, especially foreign policy, for several decades.  It has achieved this primarily in two ways.  The first is by directly supplying personnel for upper echelon government jobs.  The second major way in which the Council affects policy is in formulating and marketing recommendations.  (See the chapter on the Vietnam War.)

A earlier and longer version of this essay was published in The Barnes Review in September-October 1999.


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