August 13, 2017

1968. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Looks Into Gulf of Tonkin Incident

Washington Divided on Responsibility for Involvement in Vietnam
President Lyndon Johnson signs the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in the East Room of the White House, August 10, 1964 (source)
Bill Downs

ABC Washington

February 23, 1968

The second battle of the Gulf of Tonkin is being fought here in Washington, and before the engagement is over the political casualties could be heavy.

Actually, the engagement began several months ago when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee ordered a staff investigation into the events leading up to the Communist gunboat attacks on the US Navy destroyers Maddox and Turner Joy during the first week of August 1964.

It was the attack in the Gulf of Tonkin that caused President Johnson to initiate the bombing of North Vietnam and thereafter escalate the war to its present level. The Tonkin Gulf incident also prompted the US Senate to give its vote of confidence to the president—an action which senators like William Fulbright, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, now regret.

Acting on the confidential advice of an unnamed American Navy officer somehow connected with the Gulf of Tonkin incident, the committee investigators claim to have proof that the destroyers Maddox and Turner Joy were on a secret intelligence mission at the time—in fact, were under orders to provoke some kind of response from the North Vietnamese so the two ships could plot enemy radar and electronic defenses.

The findings indicated that the Communist gunboats were not attacking but attempting to scare the US ships away.

Defense Secretary McNamara appeared before the Fulbright committee on Tuesday behind closed doors. McNamara bluntly denied the reports. He declared the destroyers were on routine patrol, and that he had unimpeachable and secret intelligence proof that the gunboats did attack with torpedoes and machine guns, and that it was "monstrous" to suggest that the United States provoked the incident or to imply that there was a high-level conspiracy to do so.

Against the committee's wishes, McNamara released his testimony to reporters. Senator Fulbright countered by saying McNamara's testimony was erroneous and self-serving. Oregon's Senator Wayne Morse told the Senate the US was guilty of provocative aggression.

McNamara said: "Release the full testimony . . . and let the public judge." This will be done next week.

But personal veracity and political reputations are at stake here—and the battle is just beginning.

This is Bill Downs in Washington for Information Reports.