On August 5th, 1964 three fast moving patrol boats of the North Vietnamese Navy’s 135th Torpedo Squadron sped across the black waters of the Gulf of Tonkin towards the United States Navy’s USS Maddox which was conducting an intelligence gathering operation off the coast of communist controlled shores in South East Asia. Taking evasive maneuvers, the USS Maddox expended thousands of rounds of ammunition as a counter-attack, firing on enemy radar signatures in the night. This was the spark the ignited a full blown conflagration in Vietnam, leading to the US military deploying half a million troops into the country, 58,000 coming home in body bags and many more never coming home at all, still listed as Missing In Action.

The problem with the Gulf of Tonkin incident, the inciting action that led to the Vietnam war, is that it simply never happened. A top secret study penned under the auspices of the National Security Agency was recently declassified stating, “It is not simply that there is a different story as to what happened; it is that no attack happened that night” (Hanyok 177). With the passage of time, new information had gradually come to light revealing that the USS Maddox was firing at phantom radar signatures, or as Navy pilot James Stockdale who was circling over head that night said, “our destroyers were just shooting at phantom targets…there were no PT boats there…there was nothing there but black water and American fire power” (Stockdale 17).

In Goulish’s, “39 microlectures in Proximity of Performance: Criticism” the author endeavors to provide several helpful tools for thinking critically, one of them being the metaphor of a glass window being a slow moving liquid rather than a solid. Goulish writes how it was found that the windows in old cathedrals allowed more light to pass through at the top than the bottom. Upon further study, it was found that the glass was slowing running towards the bottom, carried by gravity. “As creative and critical thinkers, we may find it rewarding to attempt works of criticism, which, over time…follow[ing] the example of glass.” (44) Goulish tells the reader that the glass exercise helps us not only understand how time changes perceptions but also how to understand understanding itself. This is a curious claim, but worth looking at through a historical context for relevancy if nothing else.

When a window is first made, less light shines through the thick glass, much as the truth surrounding the Gulf of Tonkin incident was obscured from public, and even government, scrutiny. It was only with the passage of time that gravity thinned the glass and allowed light to be shown on how events actually unfolded.

President Johnson addressed the nation on August 4th 1964, “…today by a number of hostile vessels attacking two U.S. destroyers with torpedoes. The destroyers, and supporting aircraft, acted at once on the orders I gave after the initial act of aggression. We believe at least two of the attacking boats were sunk” (President Johnson, August 4th 1964). A year later, Johnson is said to have remarked to his press secretary, Bill Moyers, “For all I know, our Navy was shooting at whales out there.” It seems that even the leader of the free world is susceptible to the fog of war. The situation was so convoluted that while Secretary of Defense McNamara almost certainly knew that the Gulf of Tonkin was a hoax, he and his staff put off briefing President Johnson until he had already committed himself to the war.

Newspapers across the country parroted government press releases. “Johnson Puts Air Arm in Action-Destroyers Repulse Another PT Attack” (Augusta Chronicle, August 5th 1964), “Torpedoes of Tonkin” (Springfield Union, August 4th 1964), “Action in Tonkin Gulf” (Time Magazine, August 15th 1964). When the Gulf of Tonkin incident occurred, or didn’t as it turned out, there was a rush to judgment. Facts were not checked or verified, assumptions were made. Swept up the the clamor of patriotism, Congress was quick to authorize military action in Vietnam.

While we have the benefit of hindsight, emotions ran high in 1964, the looming threat of the communist menace was at the forefront of the minds of both defense planners and the American public. Where there should have been a thorough, deliberate investigation there was instead a hasty military intervention. Goulish comments, “…we sometimes feel the desire to reject intellectuality altogether in favor of passionate expression” (43) such were President Johnson’s actions in his rush to expand US involvement in South East Asia as he ordered bombers to attack North Vietnamese targets in retaliation for an attack that never happened.

While Goulish’s metaphor for the opaqueness of human perception during initial analysis relates to art and art criticism, it relates equally as well to the political and military arena. We use the melting glass comparison as an analytical mechanism to help us understand how to initiate the process of understanding. “Such acceptance requires a softening of the dividing lines between traditional differences” (44). Reciting press releases simply will not suffice, not in a world cast in the shadows of real politek, simple people, misunderstanding, and outright subterfuge. As Goulish reminds us, “the softening of the dividing lines does not however imply the disintegration of difference” (44), and thus the complex mind but think not just vertically but laterally while wading through the gray areas of international politics.

At the time of this non-event, the truth was anything but self evident. Mission creep and long term political objectives took precedence, hijacking the actions of the USS Maddox and using them to initiate the Vietnam War. While the press refused to conduct their due diligence, this illustrates that our first impression may not be our most accurate or honest one. As Goulish warns us, we should never sacrifice our ability to reason for an emotionally satisfying expression be it political, military, or in his example, artistic. While the glass may be thick in the immediate aftermath of the event, it will thin with time, revealing a truth that is entirely different from initial reports.

On August 7th, two days after the supposed attack, a resolution passed through Congress with only two dissenting votes, providing the Johnson administration with a de facto declaration of war.

Following the social and political turmoil of the 1960’s and 70’s, it seems that gravity began to pull away at the facade that was the Gulf of Tonkin myth just as it does with the windows in the cathedral, allowing the light of day to expose the truth. The passage of time allows us to reflect on the same event but through a different, and more accurate, perspective.

Compare more recent headlines regarding the same incident, “Report reveals Vietnam War hoaxes, faked attacks” (AFP, January 8th, 2008), “Vietnam War Intelligence ‘Deliberately Skewed,’ Secret Study Says” (New York Times, December 2nd, 2005), “30-year Anniversary: Tonkin Gulf Lie Launched Vietnam War” (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, July 27th, 1994). The gap in analysis between the 1964 headlines and the 30 to 40 year retrospectives is vast as it is disturbing but what caused this change in perspective?

In 1964 much more was at stake than just the Vietnam War, support for the war was also equated to support for other antiquated government injustices such as racial segregation, the suppression of women, and a host of other social and culture issues. So convoluted was American culture that it became impossible to separate one issue from the other and look at the war from an objective, non-prejudicial perspective. As society has changed, so has our ability to see the Vietnam War clearly. Nothing less than time itself has allowed us to take a second look at the Gulf of Tonkin and expose the lies that surround the alleged attack on the USS Maddox.

The shift in cultural values may have impacted our ability to see the war through a different lens, but it took the actual passage of years for America to come to grips with the incident and see through the glass clearly. Those who made the political decisions at that time have largely passed on, the men who fought in the war are older and learning how to deal with their war time experiences, those who vigorously opposed the war have long since quieted themselves and allowed space for more reasonable debate, and previously classified documents have been released under the Freedom Of Information Act.

Time was the key factor that has led to a true representation of the Gulf of Tonkin incident. It is now widely acknowledged that the entire episode was a pseudo-event that only took place the mind of a few over zealous sailors who thought they saw the radar blip of approaching communist torpedo boats. There was no attack, the crew of the USS Maddox fired their weapons at an empty sea, and Johnson initiated the Vietnam War under false pretenses. Like Goulish’s glass window, what initially appeared as a solid as dripped away with time, to reveal itself as also being a liquid.

A Misaligned, Misguided, and Misunderstood History: The Vietnam War

Read Next: A Misaligned, Misguided, and Misunderstood History: The Vietnam War

Such intense retrospectives can be dangerous as well. “As creative and critical thinkers we may find it rewarding to attempt works of criticism, which, over time, reveal themselves as works of art…” (44). War as creative expression on an international scale, body count included, is indeed the most dangerous type of reflection. And yet, the criticism of Hanyak and Stockdale have shown themselves as works of art, revealing nuances and truth as intensely as any musician or painter. If we look into the past and note how skewed our perceptions were, how wrong we were both individually and as a nation, it calls into question our current paradigm. If the cultural juggernaut that was the Vietnam turned out to be initiated on a lie than what are we to believe about the wars we fight today? Do we still cast aside intellectuality for emotional satisfaction?

It becomes impossible to ignore today’s headlines when Goulish’s paradigm is brought it its conclusion as applied to the Vietnam war. Even as journalists tear down the fraud that was the Gulf of Tonkin in major newspapers across the country, they publish new headlines, justifying new wars. “Bush: Get Ready for a Long Struggle” (San Jose Mercury News, September 16th, 2001), “It’s War” (New York Daily News, September 12th, 2001), “’Curveball’: I lied about WMD to hasten Iraq war” (MSNBC, February 15th, 2011). Goulish writes that glass cannot exist without time, it is both liquid and solid depending on the year in which observer views it.

In time, what will the retrospectives say about our war in the year 2050? When George Bush and Barack Obama have passed on, when the primary source documents get leaked or declassified, when the anti-war protestors move on to something more topical for their time, when the veterans ease into old age, how will we then see the War on Terror when the facade has melted way?


Works Cited:

Hanyok, Robert J. Skunks, Bogies, Silent Hounds, and Flying Fish: The Gulf of Tonkin Mystery. P. 177.

Goulish, Matthew. “Criticism.” 39 Microlectures in Proximity of Performance. Routledge, 2000.P. 43-44.

Johnson, Lyndon B. Radio address regarding the Report on the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. Washington D.C. August 4, 1964

Stockdale, James B. In Love and War. New York: Bantam Books, 1985, p. 17.

Augusta Chronicle, August 5th 1964

Springfield Union, August 4th 1964

Time Magazine, August 15th 1964

AFP, January 8th, 2008

New York Times, December 2nd, 2005

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, July 27th, 1994

San Jose Mercury News, September 16th, 2001

New York Daily News, September 12th, 2001

MSNBC.com. “’Curveball’: I lied about WMD to hasten Iraq war”. February 15th, 2011. Website. Accessed on September 25th 2011.