The USS Maddox underway at sea in 1963.

The USS Maddox underway at sea in 1963. U.S. Navy Photograph

The Gulf of Tonkin and Lessons for the Global War on Terror

The 50th anniversary of the Gulf of Tonkin incident should give pause to those advocating for aggressive, immediate action to meet today’s challenges. By Lawrence J. Korb

There has been understandable focus this week on the lessons of August 1914 and the events that precipitated World War I. But, with respect to our current national security policy and the wisdom of restraint, Americans—and particularly our elected leaders—should instead recall events that occurred just 50 years ago this month off the coast of Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin.  

In August 1964, with tensions running high in Southeast Asia and U.S. military ‘advisors’ already committed to Vietnam, the Johnson administration claimed that North Vietnamese ships had attacked a U.S. destroyer, the USS Maddox, in international waters in the Gulf of Tonkin. Under pressure to respond, President Johnson ordered the bombing of North Vietnamese targets on August 5 and rushed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution through the Congress on August 7, 1964. The resolution authorized the use of all necessary force to assist any Southeast Asian country threatened by communist aggression, effectively writing a blank check to the Johnson administration, which had long sought to strengthen its containment of perceived communist expansion in Southeast Asia.

After an apparent direct attack on a U.S. vessel, support for the resolution was nearly unanimous; not a single member of the House of Representatives voted against it, and only two senators voted no, Wayne Morse, D-Ore., and Ernest Gruening, R-Ala., both of whom lost the next election. The resolution made it clear that the Johnson administration, the American public, and even major newspapers like The New York TimesThe Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, saw the struggle in Vietnam as part of a global war against communism.

Of course, as it turned out, this was a false analytical frame, and one which led U.S. leaders to lose sight of core American interests in service of what was, in essence, a narrative conceit – that of the “domino theory.” About 60,000 Americans died and 300,000 more were wounded, not to mention the cost to the treasury, pursuing this unwinnable and unnecessary war fought under false pretenses. Vietnam undermined our ability to contain the Soviet Union, eroded American moral standing in the world by killing millions of Vietnamese, including with such horrible weapons as napalm and Agent Orange, divided the country against itself, and turned a generation of Americans against government. 

I was on active duty as a Naval Flight Officer in a squadron preparing to deploy to the Pacific the day of the second alleged attack in the Gulf of Tonkin. Over lunch, my commanding officer, who had fought in World War II and Korea and taken part in the Berlin airlift, disclosed that communication intercepts indicated that an attack may not have taken place, and regardless, that it made no sense for the North Vietnamese to have done it in the first place. Years later, in 1970, Sen. Morse told me that he voted against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution because a Pentagon source had privately expressed the same doubts to him.

During my time in Vietnam, through 1965 and 1966, it became clear that the South Vietnamese government had no popular legitimacy and that they did not see the war as a struggle against communist expansion, but rather as a struggle to prevent another colonial power from taking control. To the Vietnamese, we were the second coming of the French or Chinese.

Our disastrous involvement in Vietnam shaped a generation of American leaders, instructing them in the importance of exercising restraint and keeping an eye on the broader strategic context. But these lessons were lost in the emotional response to the attacks of Sept. 11. Just as Vietnam was not part of a broader war against global Communist expansion, Iraq was not part of the global war on terror. Just as the attacks in the Gulf of Tonkin were manipulated to advance a policy agenda and twisted to fit a misguided narrative, so too was the intelligence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and ties to al-Qaeda. We were not greeted as liberators in Vietnam, nor were we in Iraq.

My own service in Vietnam shaped my thinking and kept me from joining the majority of the foreign policy establishment in supporting the war in Iraq. I often wonder if we might not have rushed into Iraq had leaders like President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz had not avoided service in Vietnam. My hope is that the 50thanniversary of the Gulf of Tonkin incident will give pause to those advocating for aggressive, immediate action to meet today’s challenges in the Middle East and Eastern Europe.

We’re still dealing with the fallout from the disastrous decisions to invade both Vietnam and Iraq—in a crowded graveyard at Arlington, a depleted treasury, a public disillusioned with their government, and an over-stretched VA. And, while the sense that “the world is on fire” can be strong, at times, stoked by 24-hour news and a penchant for sensationalist reporting, it is important to keep the broader strategic picture in mind and remember the lessons of restraint learned at such terrible cost over the last century.

Lawrence J. Korb is senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and was the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manpower, Reserve Affairs, Installations and Logistics from 1981-1985. He has also held senior leadership positions at the Council on Foreign Relations, the American Enterprise Institute and Brookings.