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Gulf of tonkin incident probably never occured { August 4 2002 }

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Sunday, August 4, 2002
Tapes: Incident that opened door to Vietnam war may not have happened
by Bob Richter

SAN ANTONIO (AP) - North Vietnam's 1964 unprovoked attack on U.S. navy ships, which opened the door to the Vietnam War, probably never occurred, according to tapes released by President Lyndon B. Johnson's library at the University of Texas at Austin.

Thirty-eight years ago Sunday, Johnson interrupted network television to tell the nation that U.S. warships in the Gulf of Tonkin had been attacked by North Vietnamese PT boats. Congress responded by giving Johnson the go-ahead to escalate war.

Johnson described the incident as "open aggression on the open seas," and ordered airstrikes on North Vietnam which opened the door to a war that would kill 1 million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans and divide the nation along class and generational lines.

For decades, skeptics have debated whether the Aug. 4 attack really occurred, with some suggesting the Johnson administration staged or provoked it to get the congressional nod for aggression against the communist country.

Recently released tapes of White House phone conversations, which include 51 conversations from Aug. 4 and 5, 1964, when the Tonkin Gulf incident occurred, indicate that the attack probably never happened, according to a review of the tapes by the San Antonio Express-News for Saturday's editions.

From the start, many have doubted anything really happened to the Maddox and a sister ship, the USS C. Turner Joy, on Aug. 4. Even Johnson seemed skeptical, saying in 1965: "For all I know, our Navy was shooting at whales out there."

The released tapes neither prove nor disprove what may have happened that night, but they do indicate jittery sailors in a tense area thought they were under attack.

"Under attack by three PT boats. Torpedoes in the water. Engaging the enemy with my main battery," the Maddox radioed.

Indeed, the destroyers fired 249 5-inch shells, 123 3-inch shells and four or five depth charges, according to Navy records.

Many of the taped conversations from that night are between Defense Secretary Robert McNamara - who was trying to verify something actually happened so he could brief Johnson for his TV bulletin - and Adm. U.S. Grant "Oley" Sharp, commander of the U.S. Navy's Pacific Fleet.

Sharp was feeding McNamara information from the field and trying to get a strike force in the air to retaliate for the alleged attack before the president went on television.

"If it's open season on these boys, which I think it is, we'll take if from there," Sharp said about noon on Aug. 4.

Later, in a 1:59 p.m. EDT conversation with Air Force Lt. Gen. David Burchinal of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Sharp was elusive, saying, "many of the reported contacts and torpedoes fired appear doubtful."

He blamed the reports on "overeager sonarmen" and "freak weather effects on radar."

But, asked Burchinal: "You're pretty sure there was a torpedo attack?"

"No doubt about that, I think," Sharp replied.

At 8:39 p.m., McNamara asked Sharp why the retaliatory strike was delayed.

Bad weather, Sharp said, and an agitated McNamara replied: "The president has to make a statement to the people and I am holding him back from making it."

Thirty minutes later, at 9:09, Sharp said the launch still was 50 minutes off.

"Oh my God," McNamara said.

Shortly after 11 p.m., the counterstrike was under way and Johnson went on air to tell the American people the "attack" on U.S. ships was an "outrage."

James Stockdale, a Navy pilot who responded to the "attacks" on the Maddox and Turner Joy, says it all was hogwash.

"I had the best seat in the house to watch that event, and our destroyers were just shooting at phantom targets -- there were no PT boats there. There was nothing but black water and American firepower," Stockdale wrote in his 1984 book, "In Love and War."

Regardless of whether the U.S. response was a mistake or a charade, there is ample evidence the United States was a provocateur in 1964, not an innocent bystander.

The Johnson administration had approved covert land and sea operations involving U.S. forces earlier in 1964, the so-called Op Plan 34-A.

Two days before the disputed attack, North Vietnamese forces in Russian-made "swatow" gunboats had attacked the USS Maddox, a destroyer conducting reconnaissance in the gulf.

On Aug. 3, 1964, Johnson, according to White House tape recordings, said: "There have been some covert operations in that (Tonkin Gulf) area that we have been carrying on -- blowing up some bridges and things of that kind, roads and so forth. So I imagine (the North Vietnamese) wanted to put a stop to it."

History has seemed to coalesce around the belief that the Aug. 4 incident was a mistake, but not a charade.

As the LBJ Library tapes indicate, the Navy was not ready to launch a retaliatory strike Aug. 4 against North Vietnam, but it would have been if the event had been staged, says Professor Edwin Moise, a Vietnam War expert at Clemson University.

Professor David Crockett, a presidential scholar at Trinity University, calls the incident an accident, but says the greater problem was that Congress "rolled over" and gave Johnson what he wanted: "a virtual blank check to make war."

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