Happy Gulf of Tonkin Day!

Secretary of Defense in 1964 creates a role that would be reprised by Secretary of State Colin Powell in 2003.

Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara in 1964 creates a role that would be reprised by Secretary of State Colin Powell in 2003.

Forty-nine years ago today, the first of two incidents occurred in the waters off Vietnam, which would later provide the supposed legal justification for the Johnson Administration to commit the fatal blunder of committing ground troops to the civil war that was raging there.

In the first, on August 2, 1965, the USS Maddox encountered three North Vietnamese torpedo boats. The destroyer pummeled the boats with extensive fire, and four U.S. jets strafed them. The second incident took place two days later when  the Maddox, evidently patrolling the waters as a show of strength or defiance, again unleashed fire on what was supposed to be North Vietnamese boats,. It was later concluded that it fired on false radar images. There were no American casualties in either incident.

A later historical analysis by the NSA found that although the Maddox reported it was under fire on August 2, the ship actually initiated the firefight. You can read the entire report on the NSA’s own website. (Of course the NSA will collect the data on your visit. But,  as Glenn Greenwald showed on Wednesday, they will collect your internet activities anyway. There is the added risk that looking up the Gulf of Tonkin document—or indeed anything that involves history or the national security state or our government—might be considered “suspicious,” which will fire some analyst up to track you. But then again, if you are reading this, you’ve already entered into “suspicious” territory.)

The story of how these incidents were parlayed into war whoops is one that rivals (and for deaths of American servicemen exceeds in turpitude) the manufactured “evidence” for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. That story won’t be told here. Nor will we try to decide which will have longer-term adverse consequences to the world and this Republic.

There are two forgotten footnotes to these incidents that might interest those not conversant in the details of the Vietnam morass. First, the Pentagon officer on duty on August 4 who received the report of the firefight was Daniel Ellsberg. Second, the commander of U.S. naval forces in the Gulf of Tonkin at the time was Rear Admiral George Stephen Morrison, father of Jim Morrison, whose own notoriety would exceed his father’s, but in a different field and by displaying a different temperament.  The father and son do, however, show the ying-and-yang of the modern American experience: the military-entertainment complex.

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