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08-13-04, 07:14 AM

Tonkin Gulf Incident: Lessons for Today

By William F. Sauerwein

This week marks the 40th anniversary of the controversial 1964 Tonkin Gulf incident, the encounter between two U.S. Navy destroyers and North Vietnamese gunboats that escalated our involvement in the war in Southeast Asia.

As Americans watch the ongoing struggle to create a stable nation out of the chaos of Iraq, and as we brace for another possible strike by the al Qaeda terrorists, the subjects of presidential leadership, potential for misuse of intelligence and even the “fog of war” dominate our political discourse and private conversations, just as they did back then.

To that end, what happened off the North Vietnamese coast four decades ago can serve as a useful reminder of the larger issues in play today.

That incident has resurfaced in comparison with the ongoing war in Iraq but unfortunately most Americans overlook all of its circumstances. Anti-Vietnam War activists widely accepted the Tonkin Gulf incident as a “deliberate provocation” indicative of our “imperialist ambitions.” However, it did not happen in a vacuum, and must be understood from all aspects.

Both the Tonkin Gulf incident and 10-year war that ensued, occurred as part of our greater global Cold War struggle against the Soviet Union. Those who led the United States during that time were shaped by the most significant event in their lives, World War II. They learned the West’s lesson, that ignoring the growing threat of the Axis Powers only encouraged them. Subsequently, we could not ignore the aggression of the Soviet Union and its Communist-bloc allies.

The United States and its allies checked Soviet expansion in Europe through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and a significant forward deployment of American forces.

Consequently, that struggle seemed to shift to Asia, a weak spot in our strategy. Mao ze Dong’s communist forces won the Chinese civil war in 1949, resulting in a “fifty year alliance” with Josef Stalin. Both encouraged North Korea’s Kim Il-sung to invade South Korea in 1950, which ended in a tense armistice.

During the Korean War we opened an American military assistance group in then-French Indochina. With Soviet and Chinese support increasing across the Chinese border, the United States supported France’s war effort.

Simultaneously, British and Commonwealth forces engaged communist terrorists during “the emergency” in modern Malaysia and Burma. Americans also assisted the Philippines in defeating communist guerrillas known as “Huks.” In Indonesia then-President Sukarno strengthened ties with China, while his forces raided into nearby Malaysia.

Many dismissed the strategic value of Southeast Asia to the United States, but that is untrue. Whoever controlled Southeast Asia controlled the Straits of Malacca, the major passage point between the Pacific and Indian Oceans. When Japan occupied French Indochina in 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) enacted an embargo against Japan.

Michael Lind states in his book, Vietnam: The Necessary War, that the United States as the Free World’s champion had to fight in Vietnam. Otherwise we would have sent a clear message to our allies that we feared risking war. Subsequently, the Communist bloc would have grown bolder in its aggression, tempting some of our allies to seek accommodations with them.

In Vietnam, the United States struggled to develop an independent nation for a population who had never known it. We also struggled to build armed forces from troops previously led by their colonial masters. Difficult under peacetime conditions, this proved virtually impossible with the growing North Vietnam-supported guerrilla war.

The situation deteriorated quickly following the 1963 coup, and murder, of the unpopular South Vietnamese president, Ngo Dinh Diem. James Olson and Randy Roberts point out in their book, Where the Domino Fell, that subsequent coups further destabilized South Vietnam. This demoralized the South Vietnamese troops, whose officers had become more concerned with staging coups than fighting the communists.

North Vietnam saw great opportunities with South Vietnam’s chaos, and Ho Chi Minh called for an all-out effort. Shortly thereafter, North Vietnamese Army (PAVN) troops began training for deployment to the South. PAVN forces already actively supported communist insurgencies in Laos and Thailand, and used “neutral” Cambodia as a sanctuary.

As American involvement increased, so did American casualties from growing Viet Cong attacks against American installations. President Lyndon Johnson wanted to retaliate for these attacks short of a full-scale war. He did not have to wait long for an incident for implementing this policy.

South Vietnamese commandos conducted nighttime raids on North Vietnamese coastal installations, known as OPLAN 34-A. American intelligence-gathering ships operating in the South China Sea then collected information regarding Northern defensive tactics. This was a standard “cat and mouse” game played during the Cold War by us, the Soviets and the Chinese.

On Aug. 1, 1964 the destroyer USS Maddox patrolled between ten and twenty miles offshore monitoring such an operation. North Vietnamese patrol boats attacked the Maddox, and aircraft from the USS Ticonderoga attacked the patrol boats. The destroyer USS C. Turner Joy joined the Maddox, and LBJ ordered the patrols continued.

Olson and Roberts state the controversial attack occurred on Aug. 4 during a similar OPLAN 34-A mission. Amid rough seas and high tensions, both ships picked up radio traffic from Northern naval vessels. Crewmen on both ships saw blips on the radar that they believed to be patrol boats. A Maddox sonarman reported underwater noise he believed to be incoming torpedoes. Both ships took evasive action, fired in the direction of the radar blips and reported up the chain of command.

However, Capt. John Herrick, commander of the mission, urged caution as no enemy ships had been visually sighted. Meanwhile, both the Pentagon and the White House moved into high gear preparing for a retaliatory strike. Several hours later, Herrick reported the second attack had probably not occurred, but it was too late.

The controversy affected not just the Americans. North Vietnamese leaders hotly debated their actions. A growing Sino-Soviet policy rift affected the “satellite” communist nations as well. While the Soviets urged caution in provoking America, the Chinese urged confrontation in the “national wars of liberation.” Former PAVN Col. Bui Tin stated in his book, Following Ho Chi Minh that the Chinese faction in Hanoi won the argument. Although American warships had not yet violated North Vietnamese sovereignty, Party General Secretary Le Duan ordered the attack.

LBJ faced many uncertainties when making his decision to escalate the war, all of which had positive and negative consequences. The fear of Chinese designs on Southeast Asia replaced the older fear of international communism. If we failed to save South Vietnam, would our guarantees regarding Berlin be taken seriously?

We know the actions that LBJ took following the Tonkin Gulf incident remain hotly debated today. So too are the decisions that President George W. Bush made in the aftermath of 9/11. In fact, the stakes remain much higher today simply because the 9/11 attacks did not occur in a faraway combat theater, but right in our homeland.

Bush’s critics quickly blamed him for not “connecting the dots” and preventing the al Qaeda attacks. Yet, when he “connected the dots” based on available intelligence and invaded Iraq, these same critics attacked him for acting too hastily.

A leader does not have the luxury of spectator status, he or she must act. With Iraq, as with the North Vietnamese 40 years ago, the choices occur in a swirling fog on contradictory evidence and information.

Most Western governments throughout the 1990s agreed that Saddam Hussein, still defiant of United Nation resolutions and presumed to be developing weapons of mass destruction, represented a long-time regional threat. It was a bipartisan consensus among American political leaders as well (see “For the Record: What the Democrats Said about Saddam’s WMD,” DefenseWatch, Oct. 9, 2003).


08-13-04, 07:14 AM
Another issue all but ignored in the mainstream news media is the Senate Intelligence Committee’s dismissal last month of former Ambassador Joe Wilson’s accusation that the administration falsely linked Iraq of attempting to obtain “yellowcake” (a precursor of uranium) from the African nation of Niger.

Wilson had traveled to Niger at the behest of the U.S. government to investigate the allegation and stated last year he had told officials the accusation was unfounded. It seems from the Senate report Wilson’s closed-door indicated that Iraq was seeking “yellowcake” from Niger: “For most analysts, the information in [Mr. Wilson's] report lent more credibility to the original CIA reports on the uranium deal,” the Committee concluded.

A third issue of today that resonates with the dilemma of conflicting intelligence seen in the Tonkin Gulf incident concerns allegations of links between Saddam’s regime and terrorist organizations, including al Qaeda. Evidence continues to surface despite official denials: Iraqi intelligence agents met with al Qaeda operatives in the Sudan and the Czech Republic. Al Qaeda members also trained at Iraq’s Salman Pak base, including an aircraft fuselage for practicing hijacking.

Before the Pentagon launched Operation Iraqi Freedom, Russian intelligence warned of the possibility of an Iraqi attack. In the post-9/11 world, what leader would sit back and wait for an attack before taking action? We still do not know who launched the anthrax attacks following 9/11, which killed several Americans.

A major criticism of the Vietnam War was our unwillingness to change strategy with changing circumstances. That is also a criticism among those opposing the war in Iraq, and this criticism has merit. Today’s terrorist bombings in Iraq remind us of similar bombings during the Vietnam War.

However, doing nothing surrenders the initiative to the enemy, and discourages our allies. A leader must make decisions based on what may happen, not on what he or she hopes will happen. If LBJ had forfeited South Vietnam, it could have reaped huge repercussions. Had Bush ignored Saddam’s intransigence, including firing on American aircraft patrolling the “no-fly” zones, it would have encouraged further Iraqi intransigence.

Our failure in Vietnam led to several decades of timidity in American foreign policy which still haunts us today. Only today the stakes could not be higher: Whether we win in Iraq will determine our ultimate success in the greater war against terrorism. Al Qaeda is only one terrorist organization, and Iraq was only one state sponsor. Those remaining are closely monitoring our resolve in taking the fight to the enemy and winning the war.

Today’s Islamofascists represent a global threat as dangerous – if not more so – than that of our Cold War adversaries. We must confront and defeat them, and the states that support them. Nineteen years after our defeat in 1975, former President Richard Nixon wrote a book entitled No More Vietnams. In it he stated, “America learned the wrong lesson from Vietnam. We learned we should not try again. What we should have learned is we must not fail again.”

The Islamofascists understand that if they defeat us, they in turn defeat the civilized world. It is a long way from the Tonkin Gulf to Fallujah and the mountains of Afghanistan, but the lessons learned are the same.

William F. Sauerwein is a Contributing Editor of DefenseWatch. He can be reached at mono@gtec.com. Please send Feedback responses to dwfeedback@yahoo.com.