How LBJ Was Deceived on Gulf of Tonkin

As war hawks today push President Obama into more and more confrontations, there is an echo from a half century ago when Vietnam War hawks manipulated President Johnson into a bombing campaign in retaliation for the phony Gulf of Tonkin incident, as Gareth Porter recalls.

By Gareth Porter

For most of the last five decades, it has been assumed that the Tonkin Gulf incident was a deception by Lyndon Johnson to justify war in Vietnam. But the U.S. bombing of North Vietnam on Aug. 4, 1964, in retaliation for an alleged naval attack that never happened — and the Tonkin Gulf Resolution that followed was not a move by LBJ to get the American people to support a U.S. war in Vietnam.

The real deception on that day was that Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara’s misled LBJ by withholding from him the information that the U.S. commander in the Gulf — who had initially reported an attack by North Vietnamese patrol boats on U.S. warships — had later expressed serious doubts about the initial report and was calling for a full investigation by daylight. That withholding of information from LBJ represented a brazen move to usurp the President’s constitutional power of decision on the use of military force.

Dean Rusk, Lyndon B. Johnson and Robert McNamara in Cabinet Room meeting February 1968. (Photo credit: Yoichi R. Okamoto, White House Press Office)

Dean Rusk, Lyndon B. Johnson and Robert McNamara in Cabinet Room meeting February 1968. (Photo credit: Yoichi R. Okamoto, White House Press Office)

McNamara’s deception is documented in the declassified files on the Tonkin Gulf episode in the Lyndon Johnson library, which this writer used to piece together the untold story of the Tonkin Gulf episode in a 2005 book on the U.S. entry into war in Vietnam. It is a key element of a wider story of how the national security state, including both military and civilian officials, tried repeatedly to pressure LBJ to commit the United States to a wider  war in Vietnam.

Johnson had refused to retaliate two days earlier for a North Vietnamese attack on U.S. naval vessels carrying out electronic surveillance operations. But he accepted McNamara’s recommendation for retaliatory strikes on Aug. 4 based on reports of a second attack. But after that decision, the U.S. task force commander in the Gulf, Capt. John Herrick, began to send messages expressing doubt about the initial reports and suggested a “complete evaluation” before any action was taken in response.

McNamara had read Herrick’s message by mid-afternoon, and when he called the Pacific Commander, Admiral U.S. Grant Sharp Jr., he learned that Herrick had expressed further doubt about the incident based on conversations with the crew of the Maddox. Sharp specifically recommended that McNamara “hold this execute” of the U.S. airstrikes planned for the evening while he sought to confirm that the attack had taken place.

But McNamara told Sharp he preferred to “continue the execute order in effect” while he waited for “a definite fix” from Sharp about what had actually happened.

McNamara then proceeded to issue the strike execute order without consulting with LBJ about what he had learned from Sharp, thus depriving him of the choice of cancelling the retaliatory strike before an investigation could reveal the truth.

At the White House meeting that night, McNamara again asserted flatly that U.S. ships had been attacked in the Gulf.  When questioned about the evidence, McNamara said, “Only highly classified information nails down the incident.” But the NSA intercept of a North Vietnamese message that McNamara cited as confirmation could not possibly have been related to the Aug. 4 incident, as intelligence analysts quickly determined based from the time-date group of the message.

LBJ began to suspect that McNamara had kept vital information from him, and immediately ordered national security adviser McGeorge Bundy to find out whether the alleged attack had actually taken place and required McNamara’s office to submit a complete chronology of McNamara’s contacts with the military on Aug. 4 for the White House indicating what had transpired in each of them.

But that chronology shows that McNamara continued to hide the substance of the conversation with Admiral Sharp from LBJ. It omitted Sharp’s revelation that Capt. Herrick considered the “whole situation” to be “in doubt” and was calling for a “daylight recce [reconnaissance]” before any decision to retaliate, as well as Sharp’s agreement with Herrick’s recommendation. It also falsely portrayed McNamara as having agreed with Sharp that the execute order should be delayed until confirming evidence was found.

Contrary to the assumption that LBJ used the Tonkin Gulf incident to move U.S. policy firmly onto a track for military intervention, it actually widened the differences between Johnson and his national security advisers over Vietnam policy. Within days after the episode Johnson had learned enough to be convinced that the alleged attack had not occurred and he responded by halting both the CIA-managed commando raids on the North Vietnamese coast U.S. and the U.S. naval patrols near the coast.

In fact, McNamara’s deception on Aug. 4 was just one of 12 distinct episodes in which top U.S. national security officials attempted to press a reluctant LBJ to begin a bombing campaign against North Vietnam.

In September 1964, McNamara and other top officials tried to get LBJ to approve a deliberately provocative policy of naval patrols running much closer to the North Vietnamese coast and at the same time as the commando raids. They hoped for another incident that would justify a bombing program. But Johnson insisted that the naval patrols stay at least 20 miles away from the coast and stopped the commando operations.

Six weeks after the Tonkin Gulf bombing, on Sept. 18, 1964, McNamara and Secretary of State Dean Rusk claimed yet another North Vietnamese attack on a U.S. destroyer in Gulf and tried to get LBJ to approve another retaliatory strike. But a skeptical LBJ told McNamara, “You just came in a few weeks ago and said they’re launching an attack on us – they’re firing at us, and we got through with the firing and concluded maybe they hadn’t fired at all.”

After LBJ was elected in November 1964, he continued to resist a unanimous formal policy recommendation of his advisers that he should begin the systematic bombing of North Vietnam. He stubbornly argued for three more months that there was no point in bombing the North as long as the South was divided and unstable.

Johnson also refused to oppose the demoralized South Vietnamese government negotiating a neutralist agreement with the Communists, much to his advisers’ chagrin. McGeorge Bundy later recalled in an oral history interview that he concluded that Johnson was “coming to a decision … to lose” in South Vietnam.

LBJ only capitulated to the pressure from his advisers after McNamara and Bundy wrote a joint letter to him in late January 1965 making it clear that responsibility for U.S. “humiliation” in South Vietnam would rest squarely on his shoulders if he continued his policy of “passivity.” Fearing, with good reason, that his own top national security advisers would turn on him and blame him for the loss of South Vietnam, LBJ eventually began the bombing of North Vietnam.

He was then sucked into the maelstrom of the Vietnam War, which he defended publicly and privately, leading to the logical but mistaken conclusion that he had been the main force behind the push for war all along.

The deeper lesson of the Tonkin Gulf episode is how a group of senior national security officials can seek determinedly through hardball – and even illicit – tactics to advance a war agenda, even knowing that the President of the United States is resisting it.

Gareth Porter, an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy, received the UK-based Gellhorn Prize for journalism for 2011 for articles on the U.S. war in Afghanistan. His new book Manufactured Crisis: the Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare, was published Feb. 14.

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19 comments on “How LBJ Was Deceived on Gulf of Tonkin

  1. acomfort on said:

    LBJ only capitulated to the pressure from his advisers after McNamara and Bundy wrote a joint letter to him in late January 1965 making it clear that responsibility for U.S. “humiliation” in South Vietnam would rest squarely on his shoulders if he continued his policy of “passivity.”
    How many people did Johnson have killed to keep himself and the country from being humiliated?? IMHO, This is almost as bad as leading the war into North Vietnam.

    • fair & balanced fredrico on said:

      “In retrospect, the reason for the assassination is hardly a mystery. It is now abundantly clear … why the C.I.A.’s covert operations element wanted John Kennedy out of the Oval Office and Lyndon Johnson in it. The new President elevated by rifle fire to control of our foreign policy had been one of the most enthusiastic American cold warriors…. Johnson had originally risen to power on the crest of the fulminating anti-communist crusade which marked American politics after World War II. Shortly after the end of that war, he declaimed that atomic power had become ‘ours to use, either to Christianize the world or pulverize it’ — a Christian benediction if ever there was one. Johnson’s demonstrated enthusiasm for American military intervention abroad … earned him the sobriquet ‘the senator from the Pentagon….’” –Jim Garrison, On the Trail of the Assassins

      “[Richard] Schweiker told me in his opinion the CIA was responsible for the [JFK] assassination. That’s a heck of a statement to come from a United States Senator and one who had even been Ronald Reagan’s running mate in 1976.” –Robert Tanenbaum, former Deputy Counsel for the U.S. House Select Committee on Assassinations, “The Probe Interview: Bob Tanenbaum,” Probe, July-August 1996

      “When I mentioned about Adlai Stevenson, if he was vice-president there would never have been an assassination of our beloved President Kennedy.” –Jack Ruby’s comment to reporters while being transferred to his prison cell. When asked to explain what he meant, Ruby (Oswald’s killer and a probable conspirator in the JFK assassination) replied, “Well the answer is the man in office now [Lyndon Johnson].” Note: Adlai Stevenson advocated a conciliatory approach to international affairs in stark contrast to Democratic Party hawks like Lyndon Johnson. Johnson assumed the presidency following JFK’s murder and escalated the Vietnam War exponentially. With his comment, it seems that Ruby was dropping a hint about the assassination — that the JFK conspirators could not have achieved their goal of putting a hawk in the White House had Stevenson been Kennedy’s vice-president instead of Johnson.

  2. LBJ was a cold war hawk who made a fortune for himself and his Texan backers from this war whilst indeed one of his first acts as President was to issue NSAM 273 which had been drafted before JFKs death and which reversed JFKS NSAM 263 which was JFKs first step towards a total withdrawal.Indeed LBJ exchanged Cuba for Vietnam to offer the National Security State the war it really wanted.
    He did not need to be tricked or manipulated into widening the war-he fully supported it as a massive personal money-spinner for himself and Bird.I seems very unlikely that any researcher will find anything much in the LBJ library which does not present him in the most advantageous light.Next we will be told as theres no reference to Mac Wallace being on the 6th floor in the library he couldnt have been there and therefore LBJ had no foreknowledge of the assassination and wasnt involved and didnt insist on his name being cleared by Warren before the 64 election.

  3. acomfort:

    Seems to me that the next guy expanded the war into Laos and Cambodia and continued it for years under the whole stupid “peace with honor” crap.

    Regard the point the as meaning that others have tried to game Obama into attacking Syria and now Russia. Libya was enough.

    • Anonymous on said:

      Libya was to much! I was thinking this today as I witnessed Africa Summit in dc.

  4. fair & balanced fredrico on said:

    “Just let me get elected and then you can have your war.” –Lyndon Johnson, cited by Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History (Johnson made this comment to the joint chiefs of staff at a White House reception on Christmas Eve 1963, one month after the JFK
    assassination.)

    “I am not going to lose Vietnam. I am not going to be the President who saw Southeast Asia go the way China went.” –Lyndon Johnson, cited by Tom Wicker, J.F.K. and L.B.J. (This is what Johnson told Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge in the
    Executive Office Building, on the Sunday afternoon following Kennedy’s murder.)

    “Well, what [Lyndon] Johnson did was, he did one thing before he expanded the war [in Vietnam] and that is he got rid of one way or another all the people [in the Kennedy administration] who had opposed making it an American war. Averill Harriman, he was Under Secretary of State, he made him roving ambassador for Africa so he’d have nothing to do with Vietnam…. He found out that I’d spent part of my childhood in the Philippines, and he tried to persuade me to become ambassador to the Philippines…. Johnson was a very clever man…. He knew who were the hawks and who were the doves. He systematically rid the top layers of the American government of the doves….” –Roger Hilsman, Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs under President Kennedy, interviewed on CNN.com/ColdWar, 8 June 1996

    • Joe Tedesky on said:

      fredrico it’s always nice to learn something new everyday & you helped do that here today thanks J.T.

  5. terryA on said:

    I thought LBJ was a hawk as well.
    I am curious if anyone can comment on National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) 263 and NSAM 273. On Oct. 11, 1963, Kennedy signed NSAM 263, which ordered a withdrawal of 1,000 troops out of roughly 16,000 Americans stationed in Vietnam by the end of 1963, with the complete withdrawal by the end of 1965. On Nov. 26, 1963, four days after JFK was assassinated and the day after he was buried, now President Johnson signed NSAM 273, overturning NSAM 263 and ordered the planning of increased activity in Vietnam. The memorandum also authorized open-ended covert operations against North Vietnam. The draft of NSAM 273 was dated Nov. 21, 1963, the day before the assassination; however, Kennedy had not ordered its creation and did not see it.

    This info is taken from a JFK assassination conspiracy site, so it may be tainted (e.g. that NSAM 273 was totally unknown to JFK, but I believe the dates must be a matter of public record.

    The secret drafting of NSAM 273 seems to indicate pre-knowledge that it would somehow be signed. And Johnson took no time to apply a presidential signature. I don’t want to go down the JFK conspiracy rabbit hole, but from what I have read, this article casts Johnson in a much more favorable light than he deserves.

    • Joe Tedesky on said:

      terryA you are not going down any rabbit hole. The NSAM263 and the NSAM273 reversal is real. Yes, this article slants a new light on LBJ, but for me it doesn’t change a thing. Being Ex-Navy I often wonder about LBJ’s involvement as to the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty. Thanks for the good post! J.T.

  6. I have a real problem with Lyndon as victim. I wouldn’t doubt the old prick seeded his papers prior to his death to cover up his lying, blunders, and crimes. Fifty years ago the old reprobate was promising “that we have no intention of sending American boys eight thousand miles away to fight for Asian boys”. We all know how that worked out. Lyndon was the puppet master, not McNamara or Bundy.
    As for Nixon, his faults are legendary. He did, however, reverse course and eventually get us out of what LBJ got us into. Vietnam was the result of Johnson’s hubris and mendacity. He is the American left’s crazy uncle in the closet.

    • I have a real problem with LBJ as victim. If this research is accurate, I wouldn’t doubt that Lyndon seeded his papers before he died to cover up his blunders, lies, and crimes.
      A half century ago the old reprobate was assuring us that he “had no intention of sending American boys eight thousand miles away to fight for Asian boys”. We all know how that worked out. LBJ was the puppet master. McNamara and the others were not. Vietnam was the result of Johnson’s mendacity and hubris.
      As for Nixon, his faults are are now the stuff of legend. He did reverse course , however, and get us out of the mess Johnson got us into. It took too long, but we got out for the most part in 1973 and then the South fell two years later. What a long and sad tragedy.

  7. F. G. Sanford on said:

    This story may serve to take a little tarnish off Lyndon’s legacy, but I don’t think it rises to an acquittal. If it’s true, if it’s really, really true, then I have to wonder why a little more scrutiny isn’t perhaps in order. For instance, isn’t it a coincidence that at least one of those bastards – Mickey G and Bobby – at least one of them was a member of the “Skull and Bones” mega-money mutual masturbation society? When Kennedy gave that speech about “secret societies”, I somehow just don’t think a President would waste his precious time and eloquence composing soaring oratory about the Frostbite Falls Fellowship Foundation for Fortean Philosophy. He’d probably be trying to warn us about a secret club where the richest, most powerful families foster acquaintances which permit them to keep the game predictably rigged against the rest of us. Just about every morally bankrupt, presumptuous, arrogant, self-serving moral imbecile with a sense of personal entitlement based on inherited wealth and family connections that ever graduated from Yale and entered politics just (Oh, the coincidence!) happened to be a member. Now don’t get me wrong – just because both Bushes and Kerry were members doesn’t necessarily mean they would stoop to the kind of evil collusion it would take to start a war and kill 58,000 American kids just for profit. But just suppose – just for the sake of argument – that every single time we got a war, there happened to be a couple of them at or near the top of the political dung heap? Somebody mentioned the “peace candidate” of 2004. Pretty good trick, huh? Think “Republican” and “Democrat” really makes a difference when both candidates were members of a club where they had to get naked, masturbate and reveal their deepest, darkest sexual fantasies while lying in a real casket surrounded by their filthy rich frat brothers? It’s pretty easy to imagine McNamara in that coffin. He looked like a corpse years before he died. McGeorge looks like the kind of guy who would cherish the memories, maybe even giggle impishly in those solitary moments. Kerry, as a dead-ringer for Lurch of “The Addams Family”, would have felt right at home. As a cheerleader for the ball team, W was probably pretty good at the “spermafyin’” part, but had some doubts about the “coffinator”. Lest anybody accuse me of “satire”, feel free to do your own research. I ain’t makin’ this stuff up.

    • Joe Tedesky on said:

      The wife and I once along time ago were guests at a professional fund raisers house. Wow! Talk about ‘old money’ and a seriously wonderful gracious host. He explained to me why the very rich give to ‘both, parties. I came away wondering ‘who’ maybe the real ones calling the shots…here’s a clue, it wasn’t the candidates! That meant, especially the actor in the White House. Lights, camera, action!

  8. However the personal responsibilities played out, certainly the march to war revealed the ‘groupthink’ dynamics of small administrations. Personal trusts and Madison’s ‘cabals of the few’ should not and need not have broad effects in government.
    1. The administration should be advised, not by a few high advisers, but by debate consensus of a large College of Policy Analysis (CPA), and answerable by impeachment for contravening that consensus. The CPA should be under he Legislative branch, with mechanisms to protect minority opinion and ensure that voluminous essential research is done to answer the very complex broad questions underlying many policy questions, especially war.
    2. There is no Constitutional authority to wage foreign wars, only to “suppress insurrections and repel invasions” and the standing Navy was authorized reluctantly, mainly to protect US shipping. Only treaties alongside the Constitution can permit war. Treaties for such purposes should be rare, and should be renounced when the cause expires. War powers are always abused.
    3. These things are done because the US does not have a democracy. Economic concentrations arisen since the Constitution was written now control the mass media and election funding. We must have amendments to limit the funding of media and elections to registered personal contributions limited to the average day’s pay annually. We will not get those amendments precisely because we do not have free mass media and fair elections, and neither education nor violence will restore them.

  9. fair & balanced fredrico on said:

    This is just the latest attempt by LBJ apologists to
    shift blame away from LBJ.

  10. Is the author discussing the same LBJ that took part in the assassination of JFK and murder of the sailors aboard the USS Liberty? He was “fooled” by the Gulf of Tonkin incident? No war is begun without a false flag and we can rest assured LBJ had at least some knowledge. Got to love this revisionist history.

  11. ChangeDaChannel on said:

    Here’s a video I did that has the LBJ tapes on this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0MjzjTKEBfk
    Seems like he knows whats going on before, during and after. What do you think?