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.