Today marks the 45th anniversary of a 1964 attack by North Vietnamese P-4 torpedo boats upon the American destroyer USS Maddox in international waters in the Gulf of Tonkin. The incident remains shrouded by confusion and misinformation and continues to be misperceived by many as the reason America went to war in Vietnam. Today may be a useful time to set the record straight.
First, contrary to popular belief, the Aug. 2 attack definitely did occur. No less an authority than Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap -- North Vietnam's defense minister at the time -- admitted so in a 1995 meeting with former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara.
Nor is there a scintilla of evidence that President Johnson sought to provoke North Vietnam so he could take America to war. On the contrary, Mr. Johnson's focus was on his domestic Great Society programs. His primary concern about Vietnam was that the war not be lost on his watch. Indeed, he was under considerable pressure from Congress and public opinion to respond more firmly to growing communist aggression in South Vietnam.
There remains uncertainty about why the Aug. 2 attack occurred -- Hanoi may have associated the presence of the Maddox off its coast with a series of covert CIA naval operations far to the south and involving South Vietnamese assets. If so, that clearly was not the intention of the Johnson administration or the U.S. military.
It now seems clear that reports of a second attack, on Aug. 4, 1964, were mistaken -- largely a product of "freak weather effects on radar and overeager sonarmen," as the ship's skipper would conclude later. It also seems clear that there was a midlevel "coverup" at the National Security Agency when it was discovered that communications intercepts on Aug. 4 had been mistranslated -- which may have contributed to the confusion about a second attack.
One of the greatest myths of the Vietnam War is that America went to war because of the reported "incidents" in the Gulf of Tonkin in early August 1964. It is true that on Aug. 7 Congress enacted a statute by a combined vote of 504-2 (99.6 percent approval) that Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman J. William Fulbright, in answer to a question from another senator during the floor debate, agreed would authorize the president to "use such force as could lead into war." But the resolution noted that "these attacks are part of a deliberate and systematic campaign of aggression that the communist regime in North Vietnam has been waging against its neighbors," and it authorized the president "to take all necessary measures, including the use of armed force, to assist any ... protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty requesting assistance in defense of its freedom."
Those "protocol states" were South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia -- countries we had solemnly pledged to defend by treaty and that the president had been authorized to defend by an almost unanimous Congress. Yet when President Nixon sent U.S. forces across the Cambodian border in 1970 to attack North Vietnamese and Viet Cong supply areas, congressional liberals and "peace" activists insisted there was no legal authority to use force in Cambodia.
It was not until May 1984 that Hanoi publicly confirmed the decision that really started the Vietnam War. A cover story in the English-language monthly Vietnam Courier detailed the "absolute secret" decision made by the Lao Dong Party on May 19, 1959 -- more than five years before the Gulf of Tonkin incident -- to open the Ho Chi Minh Trail and start sending tens of thousands of troops and countless tons of military equipment into South Vietnam to overthrow its government. It was to stop the communist takeover of South Vietnam by force that America went to war, just as we did in 1950 to protect South Korea.
By preventing a communist military victory in South Vietnam for more than a decade, we bought time for Thailand, Indonesia and other potential targets to become stronger. While we were doing that, China -- which in 1965 had been supporting guerrilla movements in Indochina, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and as far away as Mozambique in Africa -- went through an internal upheaval called the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. By 1971, China was no longer in the business of exporting revolution. Had America walked away from Indochina in 1965, things might have worked out very differently.
Many scholars today argue that under Gen. Creighton Abrams Jr. the war in South Vietnam had been virtually won by the spring offensive of 1972, when South Vietnamese forces held their own against all Hanoi could throw against them with only American air power for support. The Viet Cong already had been destroyed as an effective fighting force in South Vietnam, with all major battles being fought by uniformed North Vietnamese regulars.
But Congress and the American people were tired of the war, and in May 1973, Congress enacted a new law making it illegal for the president to spend money for U.S. combat operations anywhere in Indochina.
America threw in the towel and, in the eyes of many experts, snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Hanoi sent virtually its entire army behind columns of Soviet-made tanks to conquer its neighbors, and in the first three years after the communist victory, more people were killed in Indochina than had died in combat during the previous 14 years.
The Yale University Cambodia Genocide Project estimated that in tiny Cambodia alone, 1.8 million human beings -- more than 20 percent of the country's population -- were slaughtered by the communist victors.
Was going to war in Vietnam a wise decision in retrospect? Was it worth the price? Honest people differ. But one thing the Vietnam War clearly was not. It was not a consequence of a minor little misunderstanding in the Gulf of Tonkin 45 years ago today.
Robert F. Turner has taught undergraduate and graduate seminars on the Vietnam War at the University of Virginia for many years. He wrote the 1975 book "Vietnamese Communism: Its Origins and Development." He served twice in Vietnam as an Army officer.