Lie Witness: How We Got Into Vietnam
Next Monday is the 25th anniversary of the shameful day when mendacity swept America into its longest war.
On August 7, 1964, the two houses of Congress passed Lyndon Johnson's Tonkin Gulf Resolution by a combined vote of 504 to 2. The resolution was sort of an experiment. The idea was not to call war war, and see if in that way it could be waged without agitating the public. And this approach had its benefits. It left congressmen free to insist later on that war was never what they had in mind. It left Lyndon Johnson free to bomb North Vietnam yet campaign against Barry Goldwater as a peace candidate. For the resolution did no more than authorize the president "to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression." The language was boilerplate, furnished by Assistant Secretary of Defense William Bundy months before in anticipation of an appropriate provocation.
The provocation that came along was double-barreled. On August 2, an American destroyer, the Maddox, was attacked by North Vietnamese patrol boats a few miles off the coast of North Vietnam. Two days later, the Maddox and a second destroyer, the Turner Joy, reported a renewed attack.
The Maddox had not been sailing innocently along when it came under fire. It had been hugging the shore to monitor Communist radio traffic during a South Vietnamese commando raid. This complicity remained a secret because when Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara testified before Congress on the need for the resolution, both men lied.
And Congress wasn't told that the second attack never happened at all. A malfunctioning radar, freakish weather conditions, and jumpy nerves caused the two destroyers to open fire on an enemy that wasn't there. Soon Lyndon Johnson realized it. "Hell," said LBJ a few days later, "those dumb, stupid sailors were just shooting at flying fish."
But we were in the war.
Today, Vice Admiral James Bond Stockdale is a 65-year-old fellow of Stanford's Hoover Institution who writes books and papers with such titles as "On Public Virtue." The night of the attack that never was, Commander Stockdale crisscrossed a lightning-raked sky in his F-8 Crusader, scouring the South China Sea for enemy boats to point his guns at. He found none. A few hours later, when the president ordered reprisals, and Stockdale went back up to lead a bombing raid on a North Vietnamese oil dump at Vinh, he recognized the fiction being written. Not that war bothered him, all the signs pointed to war in Southeast Asia sooner or later; and Stockdale, however intellectual his cast of mind, was a warrior. Yet shouldn't war, of all things, be entered on the square?
"The bad portents of the moment were suffocating," he'd recall years later, in the memoir Of Love and War. "We were about to launch a war under false pretenses."
Thirteen months after the Vinh raid, Stockdale was shot down and captured and put in a terrible spot. As he'd write, "I was in possession of the most damaging information a North Vietnamese torturer could possibly extract from an American prisoner of war." The legal basis of the war was illegitimate.
Everyone knew that already but the American people, and Stockdale understood that he could be turned into the propaganda coup of the war. For the seven and a half years he was captive he protected his secret any way he could, going so far at one point as to attempt suicide.
Meanwhile, at home, the truth sort of dribbled out and became a small part of the general rot contaminating the war. The prisoners, "clinging to self-respect with their fingernails," as Stockdale puts it, were made well aware of this rot by their captors, but refused to let it beat them down. "We were the world, as we saw it," he said in a 1987 speech with the title "Our Personal and National Resolve." The prisoners believed they must keep faith with each other; the civilization they endured torture to defend was their own.
Those years he was a prisoner, we felt a sort of obligation to Stockdale. We remembered him. He'd flown off a carrier into prison. A few weeks earlier, we flew off the same carrier, on which we'd been a noncom, and went home. We wrote Stockdale the odd letter after he was released in 1973, and he's sent us copies of some of his essays and speeches.
A few months ago, while reading A Bright Shining Lie, Neil Sheehan's book on John Paul Vann, we had some second thoughts about Stockdale. Vann had been a U.S. Army adviser as early as 1962--when the U.S. was still leaving the war to the South Vietnamese to fight--and he told his American reporter friends at every opportunity how badly it was going, how deluded American assumptions were.
Should Stockdale have done the same thing? When he'd landed that night he'd made a full report. When the Pentagon, days after the resolution cleared Congress, sent a couple of men out to his ship to put it to him straightaway--"Were there any fuckin' boats out there the other night or not?"--Stockdale had said no, there weren't. He'd told Navy friends what really happened.
But in the few months allotted to him to put the truth before the country, he hadn't. So we put down the book on John Paul Vann and wrote Stockdale a letter asking him why.
"Your insistent question," he wrote back, "about why I did not notify the American people about the documentary inaccuracies behind the Tonkin Gulf Resolution (that is to say, the absence of an attack on the Maddox and Joy on the night of August 4th, 1964) seems to ignore the practicalities of what a person in my position could do." (The emphases are his.)
"I was on active duty, out of the country, a voice in the wilderness. There was no problem with my conscience. I had done the right thing. I had reported 'no boats' to my ship, and my ship had accurately forwarded my report to the right office in Washington, at the highest priority. It was received there 12 hours before the 'reprisal' at Vinh occurred.
"There are still people in Washington who put out government documents insisting that I (and dozens of other eye witnesses) are wrong--and when pressed, hide behind 'highly classified, unavailable sources'--all of which I know to be B.S.--that prove that they were right after all . . ."
Stockdale wrote, "There are some very big names who are fighting for their lifelong reputations over this one. . . . Insiders say there will not be a free flow of truth on this until the last of them are in their graves."
He'd strayed from our question, but he returned to it. "I have one afterthought," he wrote, "and it deals with loyalties. Suppose somebody said to me (which they have never done) 'If you were loyal to your country you would have sacrificed their position of leadership, bowed out of the scrap and become an (ineffectual I'm sure) protestor.'
"Well, what about loyalty to my pilots? I knew. And it was true that their survivability was best served by having me up in the lead on that Vinh raid. 'Loyalty' is not served by saying 'I quit--you're on your own, gang.'"
Stockdale was like Vann in not wanting to discredit the war. He wanted to fight it and win it. Stockdale has written, "It came to me on more than one occasion, as I checked and rechecked my private package of moral leverage in that filthy solitary cell as I waited for that inevitable showdown torture session, that it is not an intolerable analogy to compare a leader taking a nation into war with a political prisoner building resolve, preparing himself for what lies ahead."
Stockdale's resolve got him through. Johnson's didn't. "The penalty that sneaks up on you is the breakdown in your resolve if you know you have got where you are by being an opportunist."
That's what happened to LBJ, Stockdale believes. He took a long, hard fall from the careless August 5, 1964, when Stockdale says that Johnson looked over a stack of conflicting messages out of Tonkin Gulf and joked, "Well, boys, I guess we'll never know what happened, will we?"
Stockdale observes, "I sometimes think of myself as the phoenix who arose from the ashes to answer that question."
Vernon Jarrett went to bat for Gus Savage in the Sun-Times last week, and this week Frank James wrote a sympathetic profile in the Tribune. Both got burned. Relying on Savage's Chicago office for basic competence and responsibility, each journalist wrote that last year the AP cited Savage as "the most effective legislator in the Illinois delegation."
James, and presumably also Jarrett (whom we couldn't reach) made this claim on the strength of a newsletter last February in which Savage called his bill for a new Loop federal building "my greatest legislative achievement in eight years of service in the U.S. Congress." The newsletter went on to boast:
"The Associated Press listed Savage's two-year-long successful crusade as one of the reasons why it rated him 'the most effective legislator in the Illinois (congressional) delegation last year.'"
But the AP hadn't. The basis of the claim was an '88 AP story on the legislative records of Illinois congressmen the year before. It mentioned that Senator Alan Dixon had sponsored 21 bills, of which 9 eventually became law, though none under his name. For example, "Credit for designating a federal building in Chicago as the Harold Washington Social Security Center went to the House sponsor"--who was Savage.
"Savage had the highest success rate in the Illinois delegation," said the AP, "with two laws passed out of three bills sponsored." The AP did not interpret this batting average as effectiveness.
"We do not rate congressmen," said Lee Hughes, who's the AP bureau chief in Chicago. "We're a news organization."
Frank James wishes he'd made that one extra call to the AP to double-check the newsletter, which he felt there was no reason to doubt.
But hasn't Savage said all along the press can't get its facts straight?