30-Year Anniversary: Tonkin Gulf
Lie Launched Vietnam War
By Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon
Media Beat, July 27, 1994
Thirty years ago, it all seemed very clear.
"American Planes Hit North Vietnam After Second
Attack on Our Destroyers; Move Taken to Halt New
Aggression", announced a Washington Post headline on
Aug. 5, 1964.
That same day, the front page of the New York Times
reported: "President Johnson has ordered retaliatory
action against gunboats and `certain supporting
facilities in North Vietnam' after renewed attacks
against American destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin."
But there was no "second attack" by North
Vietnam -- no "renewed attacks against American
destroyers." By reporting official claims as
absolute truths, American journalism opened the
floodgates for the bloody Vietnam War.
A pattern took hold: continuous government lies passed on
by pliant mass media...leading to over 50,000 American
deaths and millions of Vietnamese casualties.
The official story was that North Vietnamese torpedo
boats launched an "unprovoked attack" against a
U.S. destroyer on "routine patrol" in the
Tonkin Gulf on Aug. 2 -- and that North Vietnamese PT
boats followed up with a "deliberate attack" on
a pair of U.S. ships two days later.
The truth was very different.
Rather than being on a routine patrol Aug. 2, the U.S.
destroyer Maddox was actually engaged in aggressive
intelligence-gathering maneuvers -- in sync with
coordinated attacks on North Vietnam by the South
Vietnamese navy and the Laotian air force.
"The day before, two attacks on North Vietnam...had
taken place," writes scholar Daniel C. Hallin. Those
assaults were "part of a campaign of increasing
military pressure on the North that the United
States had been pursuing since early 1964."
On the night of Aug. 4, the Pentagon proclaimed that a
second attack by North Vietnamese PT boats had occurred
earlier that day in the Tonkin Gulf -- a report cited by
President Johnson as he went on
national TV that evening to announce a momentous
escalation in the war: air strikes against North Vietnam.
But Johnson ordered U.S. bombers to "retaliate"
for a North Vietnamese torpedo attack that never
Prior to the U.S. air strikes, top officials in
Washington had reason to doubt that any Aug. 4 attack by
North Vietnam had occurred. Cables from the U.S. task
force commander in the Tonkin Gulf, Captain John J.
Herrick, referred to "freak weather effects,"
"almost total darkness" and an "overeager
sonarman" who "was hearing ship's own propeller
One of the Navy pilots flying overhead that night was
squadron commander James Stockdale, who gained fame later
as a POW and then Ross Perot's vice presidential
candidate. "I had the best seat in the house to
watch that event," recalled Stockdale a few years
ago, "and our destroyers were just shooting at
phantom targets -- there were no PT boats there.... There
was nothing there but black water and American fire
In 1965, Lyndon Johnson commented: "For all I know,
our Navy was shooting at whales out there."
But Johnson's deceitful speech of Aug. 4, 1964, won
accolades from editorial writers. The president,
proclaimed the New York Times, "went to the American
people last night with the somber facts." The Los
Angeles Times urged Americans to "face the fact that
the Communists, by their attack on American vessels in
international waters, have themselves escalated the
An exhaustive new book, The War Within: America's Battle
Over Vietnam, begins with a dramatic account of the
Tonkin Gulf incidents. In an interview, author Tom Wells
told us that American media "described the air
strikes that Johnson launched in response as merely `tit
for tat' -- when in reality they reflected plans the
administration had already drawn up for gradually
increasing its overt military pressure against the
Why such inaccurate news coverage? Wells points to the
media's "almost exclusive reliance on U.S.
government officials as sources of information" --
as well as "reluctance to question official
pronouncements on `national security issues.'"
Daniel Hallin's classic book The `Uncensored War'
observes that journalists had "a great deal of
information available which contradicted the official
account [of Tonkin Gulf events]; it simply wasn't used.
The day before the first incident, Hanoi had protested
the attacks on its territory by Laotian aircraft and
South Vietnamese gunboats."
What's more, "It was generally known...that `covert'
operations against North Vietnam, carried out by South
Vietnamese forces with U.S. support and direction, had
been going on for some time."
In the absence of independent journalism, the Gulf of
Tonkin Resolution -- the closest thing there ever was to
a declaration of war against North Vietnam -- sailed
through Congress on Aug. 7. (Two
courageous senators, Wayne Morse of Oregon and Ernest
Gruening of Alaska, provided the only "no"
votes.) The resolution authorized the president "to
take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack
against the forces of the United States and to prevent
The rest is tragic history.