He was referring to congressional passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the decisive step into one of the greatest tragedies in American history. That resolution would be used for nearly a decade by Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon as authorization to conduct war in Vietnam.

A look at Vietnam today makes plain just how mistaken and tragic the American venture into war there was. First, though, a brief summary of how the decisive turn into that disastrous mistake a half century ago occurred.

A blank chek for war

Nearly unanimous (of the 516 members of Congress who voted, only Morse and Sen. Ernest Gruening of Alaska opposed) passage of the resolution was secured on August 7, 1964, on the basis of the claim that three days earlier North Vietnamese boats had launched an unprovoked attack on two American ships. Believing that the argument that he was "soft" on communism and the fight in Vietnam was the only thing that Republican nominee Barry M. Goldwater had as a potentially effective argument against him in the November election, President Johnson seized upon the apparent attack to get what he had wanted for months: a Congressional resolution giving him a blank check to conduct whatever military operations in Vietnam he deemed necessary and that would pass "quickly, overwhelmingly, and without too much discussion of its implications."

An attack that didn't happen

As Johnson was moving to launch retaliatory airstrikes against North Vietnam on August 4, reports reached the Pentagon from the scene off the coast of North Vietnam that there was serious doubt that an attack had occurred and from Admiral Ulysses S. Grant Sharp, Jr., at Pacific Command in Hawaii, suggesting that "a 'complete evaluation' be undertaken before any further action." There is no indication that Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara informed the President of these communications during the crucial hours when the airstrikes were being set in motion.

A 2000 National Security Council historical study reached an unambiguous conclusion about the alleged North Vietnamese attack on August 4: "No attack happened that night." But an event that didn't happen led to a resolution that served as the concept sketch for the script of a major tragedy.

Fifty years later, the magnitude of that mistake is unmistakable in Vietnam.

VIETNAM AND CHINA

Among the reasons given for undertaking the war, the most prominent were to block the expansion of Chinese influence into Southeast Asia and to oppose communism.

What was needed to accomplish the first objective was a strong, unified Vietnam. The Vietnamese have hated China for two thousand years, and having a communist government would not alter that basic fact in any way. Ho Chi Minh was by far the best bet to achieve this American goal.

Less than four years after Hanoi's reunification of Vietnam in 1975, the Communist regime was engaged in a brief but bloody border war with its putative comrades from China. And currently tensions between the two countries over islands in the South China Sea (Vietnam rejects that name and calls it the Eastern Sea) are high. Vietnam and the United States find themselves virtual allies in opposing Chinese expansionism.

More social darwinist than socialist

As for the other main war aim, how communist is Vietnam in 2014?

There is a store in Hanoi called "Shop Aholic." There must be steel cables restraining the preserved body of Ho Chi Minh so it doesn't spin in its glass coffin in the nearby mausoleum.

On a walk in Saigonits current official name notwithstanding, it is not now and never has been Ho Chi Minh's cityfrom Notre Dame down Dong Khoi (the famous Rue Catinat in the days of the French Empire, when it was considered Saigon's Champs Élysées) to the Hotel Continental, the Opera House, and beyond, one passes all the familiar ration outlets of a communist country: Cartier, Versace, Dior, Piaget, Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Rolex . . . . "Dong Khoi" means "Total Uprising Street." The total uprising taking place along it and throughout Vietnam is an explosion of capitalism.

When one visits the still more-or-less-communist country of Cuba, among the many indelible impressions is the nearly complete absence of trucks on the highways. They have no products to move around. Has anyone ever seen "Hecho en Cuba" on anything? They make, in a word, nada. Superimpose the roads in Vietnam on those in Cuba and the result would be a chiaroscuro painting. Vietnam's highways are clogged with trucks moving goods around, reflecting the entirely market-based economy in this nominally socialist country.

If they look at many aspects of Vietnam today, conservative Republicans in the United States might see the paradise of which they dream. This "socialist" nation has a paddle-your-own-canoe-or-sink economy. There is no welfare, no minimum wage, no unemployment insurance, no national healthcare, no old-age pensions for most people, no free education beyond middle school ....

Ho Chi Minh's countenance appears everywhere in contemporary Vietnam, benevolently smiling upon policies that he strongly opposed. It is much like the situation with many "Christians" in the United States who do the opposite of what Jesus taught. The farther self-identified followers get from the teachings of their supposed leader, the louder they proclaim his name. Uncle Ho has been deified--to the point of being portrayed like the Buddha on a lotus blossom. But when it comes to actual economic practice in Vietnam today, the altars at which worship takes place are those of William Graham Sumner and Ayn Rand.

But outside the economic realm the role of government is large. Vietnam remains a one-party political system in which corruption is rife and basic freedoms are restricted. The Vietnamese receive none of the benefits of positive government, but bear all the burdens of negative government. There are neither political nor economic checks and balances.

A proposal was made in 2013 to change the country's official name from the "Socialist Republic of Vietnam" back to what Ho had named it in 1945: the "Democratic Republic of Vietnam." That would constitute a lateral move--from one wholly inaccurate name to another, equally inaccurate, one. By no stretch of the imagination is contemporary Vietnam either socialist or democratic.

If they want to adopt a name that reflects reality, they should call the nation the "Social-Darwinist Dictatorship of Vietnam."

A war for nothing

American policymakers in 1964 sought a Vietnam that was capitalist, would block China, and with which they could have good relations.

The United States fought a war at terrible cost to achieve those ends and lost. Today, though, Vietnam is staunchly capitalist, adamantly opposed to China, and friendly to the United States. Had the war never been fought, it is highly likely that all of those ends would have been achieved at a much earlier date.

What, then, was this "bitch of a war," as Lyndon Johnson would later call it, to which the President proposed marriage a half century ago this week, with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution as the engagement ring, good for?

Absolutely nothing.

By Robert S. McElvaine - The Huffington Post - August 3 , 2014


When presidents lie to make a war

Fifty years on we know the trigger for war with Vietnam was a fiction. Will it be another 50 before we know the truth about Iraq ?

Once there was a president who warned the world about conduct his government would not tolerate. And when this “red line” was crossed, or seemed to be, he took the US to war. Though this might sound like America’s involvement in Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Belgrade, or Libya, and what may yet become a wider war in Syria, this story began 50 years ago, on 4 August 1964.

That was when Lyndon Johnson interrupted TV broadcasts shortly before midnight to announce that two US ships in the Gulf of Tonkin had come under fire in international waters, and that in response to what the president described as this “unprovoked” attack, “air action is now in execution” against “facilities in North Vietnam which have been used in these hostile operations”.

The Americans launched 64 bombing sorties, destroying an oil depot, a coal mine and a significant portion of the North Vietnamese navy. Three days later, both houses of Congress passed a joint resolution authorising “the president, as commander-in-chief, to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the US and to prevent further aggression”. Within three years the US would have 500,000 soldiers in Vietnam. Even today, the Gulf of Tonkin resolution remains the template for presidential war-making.

That 4 August, Daniel Ellsberg was starting work at the Pentagon. A young mathematician who had served as a captain in the marines, then gone on to graduate study at Harvard and a job as a civilian analyst for the Rand Corporation, where he had helped shape America’s response to the Cuban missile crisis, Ellsberg was among the first to receive the classified “flash” signal from the USS Turner Joy, the battleship that claimed to be under attack.

At the time a devout cold warrior, Ellsberg told me his initial reaction was “We must strike back”. Yet within a few days, when Johnson repeated his accusation that “the attacks were deliberate. The attacks were unprovoked”, and assured the world that “we seek no wider war”, Ellsberg knew “all of those statements were false” – the beginnings of a disillusion that would eventually lead him to leak the top secret Pentagon Papers seven years later. What he didn’t know, and what remained for decades one of America’s most tightly guarded secrets, is that the attack on 4 August may never actually have happened.

I recently interviewed Ellsberg for the BBC. His memory of the Gulf of Tonkin incident was vivid, detailed and totally consistent with the documents – many of them classified “top secret” – which historians have spent years tracking down. But what struck me most forcefully in talking to him and to other witnesses and historians about those events were the remarkable parallels with our world today.

Like Barack Obama, Lyndon Johnson was a president who felt “the fierce urgency of now” to address the glaring inequalities of American society. Just a month earlier, with Martin Luther King Jr standing at his side he had signed the civil rights act, ending racial segregation. And as the Pulitzer prizewinning historian Frederik Logevall told me, “Johnson apparently said in the spring of ’64, ‘I don’t think we can win in Vietnam and I don’t think we can get out.’ You can have all the military power in the world, but if you can’t win the thing politically then you’re not going to succeed.”

Reading headlines from Syria, or watching the news from Iraq – where an army which had been trained and equipped at enormous expense simply laid down their weapons and ran away, abandoning territory that had cost British and American troops their lives –it has been impossible to resist the sensation, in the words of the great Yankee catcher Yogi Berra, that this was “deja vu all over again”. Listening to Obama and David Cameron respond to the debacle in Iraq, I kept hearing echoes of President Kennedy declaring in September 1963: “I don’t think that unless a greater effort is made by the government to win popular support that the war can be won out there.”

Thanks to Edward Snowden and the Guardian we know a great deal more about how Britain and America view the world – and their own citizens – than was even suspected in 1964. But we still may have to wait decades to find out what George Bush said to Tony Blair about Iraq, or what Obama told David Cameron about Syria. We can, however, finally tell the full story of what happened – and didn’t – in the Gulf of Tonkin.

By DD Guttenplan - The Guardian - August 2, 2014