Today, August 2, is the 50th anniversary of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and Jessica Desvarieux of the Real News Network interviews Daniel Ellsberg about his experiences of those days (and journalist Gareth Porter).
For those who came in late, Daniel Ellsberg was the Edward Snowden of his time (the 60s). And the Iraq War wasn’t the first war we went into where “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy” (discussion here). Before Bush’s WMDs and Iraq, there were LBJ’s torpedoes in the Gulf of Tonkin and Vietnam.
You should listen to the whole thing, especially where Ellsberg contextualizes Flight MH17, but what amazes me, and I did not know, was that Ellsberg was present, physically, when the Gulf of Tonkin “facts” were “fixed” around the Vietnam policy. Note that there were two putative “incidents,” one on August 2 and one on August 4, and that August 4 provided the casus belli for the Johnson administration to go to war in Vietnam:
DESVARIEUX: Daniel–I just want to get Daniel into this conversation a little bit more, ’cause on August 4.
Can you just give us your take? Tell us what happened.
ELLSBERG: Well, the way it came to me, my boss–the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, John McNaughton–with McNamara in his office on the morning of August 4, when I came into the office at 9 o’clock they were actually already planning the possible response to an attack that they expected because of indications that the commodore on the spot, he thought that he was being shadowed for a possible ambush. These were mistaken inferences that the commander was drawing. But in any case, they were already considering the possibility of an attack. At the time I came in, a little after 9 o’clock in the Pentagon, a courier rushed in, ran in from the communications office of the Department of Defense with a flash cable saying that the commodore Herrick on the patrols in the South China Sea, which was then in the middle of the night, or roughly nine o’clock there, was under attack at that very moment, that there was a torpedo coming at him, he was taking evasive action. And in subsequent moments, more cables came in, running in, all very urgent, the fastest priority flash, saying two torpedoes, four torpedoes, eight torpedoes. He seemed to be awash in torpedoes as he was maneuvering his boat. In fact, eventually he had reported something over 20 torpedoes, which was larger than we estimated was in the entire arsenal of the North Vietnamese fleet. So that was a little strange right there. But in any case, it seemed a very desperate situation, the first time that a destroyer had been attacked like this since two days before, but that had been the first since Second World War. So a very [urgent (?)] situation. We were preparing to respond with air attacks, the first air attacks against North Vietnam.
But as Gareth has indicated, at about 1:30, while my boss was now over at the White House–or McNamara, actually, was over at the White House, and I think McNaughton was with him, conferring with the president on the exact nature of the retaliation, comes a very dramatic table from Commodore Herrick saying, hold everything, in effect, as Gareth has said.
And there was other evidence for casting very much doubt on what had happened.
Now, I took it for granted that anything I was seeing was, of course, also available to the president and to McNamara. And it certainly was to McNamara. So I assumed that they were quite well aware that there was a good deal of uncertainty about what had happened. The commodore at the time, Herrick, did say that there was one torpedo, but one had to take that with a good deal of salt, because he had been just as certain about the next 20 torpedoes, and it really took him many years before, looking at the evidence, he finally acknowledged that he had been mistaken about the first one as well. , as many years later it turned out that the assertions by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld that they had unequivocal evidence of WMDs, weapons of mass destruction, in Iraq were false and known to be false at the time, that the evidence was extremely equivocal at that time. And just like the Tonkin Gulf, it turned out there were no WMDs. Well, that’s what happened on the Tonkin Gulf, as was increasingly clear within hours, to some extent, but certainly within days as new evidence came in, where the overwhelming evidence was that there had been no attack. the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which was, just like the Iraq Resolution, essentially a predated declaration of war given by the Congress to the president, in violation of the Constitution.
Now, before we go all “same as it ever was” over Gulf of Tonkin:Vietnam :: WMDs:Iraq, I should point out that not only did LBJ end up not running for a second term because of opposition to the war, he didn’t make jokes about the lies, either. Nor did the entire political class crack up when he did.
So there’s that.