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par Gareth PORTER
For most of the last five decades, it has been assumed that the Tonkin Gulf incident was a deception by Lyndon Johnson to justify war in Vietnam. But the U.S. bombing of North Vietnam on August 4, 1964 in retaliation for an alleged naval attack that never happened -and the Tonkin Gulf Resolution that followed- was not a move by Lyndon Johnson to get the American people to support a U.S. war in Vietnam. The real deception on that day was that Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara’s misled Lyndon Johnson by withholding from him the information that the U.S. commander in the Gulf who had initially reported an attack by North Vietnamese patrol boats on U.S. warships had now expressed serous doubts about the initial report and was calling for a full investigation by daylight. That withholding of information from Lyndon Johnson represented a brazen move to usurp the president’s constitutional power of decision on the use of military force.
McNamara’s deception is documented in the declassified files on the Tonkin Gulf episode in the Lyndon Johnson library, which this writer used to piece together the untold story of the Tonkin Gulf episode in a 2005 book on the U.S. entry into war in Vietnam. It is a key element of a wider story of how the national security state, including both military and civilian officials, tried repeatedly to pressure Lyndon Johnson to commit the United States to a wider war in Vietnam.