What Few Know About the Tonkin Bay Incidents

I.F. Stone, What Few Know About the Tonkin Bay Incidents. I. F. Stone’s Weekly, 24 August 1964. “The American government and the American press have kept the full truth about the Tonkin Bay incidents from the American public.”

From NPR, 5 September 2006: “On August 4, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson spoke on national television, asking Congress for authorization to use force in Vietnam in response to a claimed “unprovoked attack” against a U.S. destroyer on “routine patrol: in the Tonkin Gulf on August 2, followed by a “deliberate attack” by North Vietnamese PT boats on a pair of U.S. ships two days later. Three days later, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was passed by Congress, unanimously by the House (416–0), and by the Senate 88–2, with Senators Wayne Morse of Oregon and Ernest Gruening of Alaska casting the only dissenting votes. That resolution was the slender reed on which the subsequent vast escalation of the war was built. Here I. F. Stone offers one of the first investigative reports into the omissions and deceptions in mainstream reporting of the Tonkin Gulf incidents.”

Excerpts from I.F. Stone’s What Few Know About the Tonkin Bay Incidents:

The American government and the American press have kept the full truth about the Tonkin Bay incidents from the American public. Let us begin with the retaliatory bombing raids on North Vietnam….

Even in wartime, reprisals are supposed to be kept within narrow limits. Hackworth’s Digest, the State Department’s huge Talmud of international law, quotes an old War Department manual, Rules of Land Warfare, as authoritative on the subject. This says reprisals are never to be taken “merely for revenge” but “only as an unavoidable last resort” to “enforce the recognized rules of civilized warfare.” Even then reprisals “should not be excessive or exceed the degree of violence committed by the enemy.” These were the principles we applied at the Nuremberg trials. Our reprisal raids on North Vietnam hardly conformed to these standards. By our own account, in self-defense, we had already sunk three or four attacking torpedo boats in two incidents. In neither were our ships damaged nor any of our men hurt; indeed, one bullet imbedded in one destroyer hull is the only proof we have been able to muster that the second of the attacks even took place. To fly sixty-four bombing sorties in reprisal over four North Vietnamese bases and an oil depot, destroying or damaging twenty-five North Vietnamese PT boats, a major part of that tiny navy, was hardly punishment to fit the crime. What was our hurry? Why did we have to shoot from the hip and then go to the Security Council? Who was Johnson trying to impress?…

Morse said he was not justifying the attacks on U.S. ships in the Bay of Tonkin but “as in domestic criminal law,” he added, “crimes are sometimes committed under provocation” and this “is taken into account by a wise judge in imposing sentence.” Morse revealed that U.S. warships were on patrol in Tonkin Bay nearby during the shelling of two islands off the North Vietnamese coast on Friday, July 31, by South Vietnamese vessels. Morse said our warships were within three to eleven miles of North Vietnamese territory, at the time, although North Vietnam claims a twelve-mile limit. Morse declared that the U.S. “knew that the bombing was going to take place.” He noted that General Khanh had been demanding escalation of the war to the North and said that with this shelling of the islands it was escalated. Morse declared the attack was made “by South Vietnamese naval vessels — not by junks but by armed vessels of the PT boat type” given to South Vietnam as part of U.S. military aid. Morse said it was not just another attempt to infiltrate agents but “a well thought-out military operation.” Morse charged that the presence of our warships in the proximity “where they could have given protection, if it became necessary” was “bound to be looked upon by our enemies as an act of provocation.” The press, which dropped an Iron Curtain weeks ago on the anti-war speeches of Morse and Gruening, ignored this one, too….

Everything is discussed except the possibility that the attack might have been provoked. In this case the “information agencies,” i.e. the propaganda apparatus of the government, handed out two versions, one for domestic, the other for foreign consumption. The image created at home was that the U.S. had manfully hit back at an unprovoked attack — no paper tiger we. On the other hand, friendly foreign diplomats were told that the South Vietnamese had pulled a raid on the coast and we had been forced to back them up…. That our warships may have been providing cover for an escalation in raiding activities never got through to public consciousness at all….