I remember it well. That was back in August 1964, over forty years ago now, but it still seems like just last week. I was watching TV that evening when suddenly President Lyndon Baines Johnson came on the screen and announced that American warships had been attacked by Vietnamese torpedo boats in international waters.
Before I could even feel shock or anger, President Johnson went on to say that we were not going to let them get away with this. Our planes were at that very moment over Vietnam, he said, pounding the aggressors. I burst out cheering. I was alone in the room, nobody there to hear me cheering or share the moment, but I cheered anyway. Tears ran down my cheeks. I was so glad that we were fighting back!
It never crossed my mind to wonder if our people might've provoked the attack, or maybe even just lied about it, or that Vietnam was a small, third world country and that we might be a Goliath, stomping on a little David. No, none of that occurred to me. Not for an instant. I remember that I had the misbegotten notion back then that we Americans were so pacifistic that we allowed ourselves to get pushed around and taken advantage of all the time. So there we were, finally and at long last, standing up for our rights on the high seas, and I was so proud, cheering at the bombing and killing of people on the other side of the world.
Today I wonder how I could've applauded for anything like that. The fact is I did, and it's not a proud memory. I also remember that 1964 was an election year, and the bombing may have helped Johnson get re-elected. The Tonkin incident was sort of an election year October surprise, though it happened in August.
And now I read of US Navy ships heading out again, as the 2006 election day nears and Karl Rove schemes to keep the Republican hold on Congress.
September 28, 2006
Several people commented on the above essay, some in emails and others in conversation. Here are a few of the responses; the first is an email exchange with a friend here in Oakland.
Thanks, Daniel. I was fortunate to be a reader of The New York Review of Books at that time, and at that time they immediately gave the true account of what happened in the Bay of Tonkin. But members of the U.S. House and Senate do not read The New York Review of Books.--Jim
Jim.-- So the truth about the Gulf of Tonkin was actually known even at the time? Well, it shouldn't surprise me. About 95% of what's come out about the non-existence of WMDs in Iraq, no ties to bin Laden, etc. was pretty well known even before Bush launched his war. I guess for the most part, the corporate media doesn't want to tell us, and Congress doesn't want to know.--Daniel
Another person, Dave, suggested that my 20/20 hindsight was a bit off in calling the Tonkin incident an "election year October surprise." The object of the incident was to get Congress to pass the war powers act known as the "Tonkin Resolution." It had nothing to do with the upcoming election of 1964, which LBJ already had pretty much in the bag.
Well, I do concede that power to make war was the primary object of the incident. But I also believe that it probably added to LBJ's landslide victory of that year. And, I suspect that crafty old LBJ was thinking of that too.
But will such a ploy work today--after these years of war in Iraq and the endless stream of exposures of Bush's lies and incompetence? Some observers are suggesting that NO, there'd be no outpouring of support for an additional war. So it wouldn't help Republican congresspersons win the upcoming 2006 elections. However, the actual winning of votes would be irrelevant because the Republicans can steal the election. The purpose of the attack would be a ploy to cover the fraud and make it look as though the Republicans won. The corporate media would go along with the subterfuge and the spineless Democrats will once again pretend that foul was fair.