The use of lies to get a people into war didn't arise yesterday. The article below looks at how the failsafe method of stirring up public opinion was used in the Gulf on Tonkin incident in 1964.
The 'Honest Mistakes' of Vietnam and Iraq
By Ko Colijn
Translated By Meta Martens
December 28, 2005
Recently declassified documents from the U.S. National Security Agency reveal that just as in Iraq, the escalation of the Vietnam War was based on mistaken intelligence. According to this op-ed article from Vrij Nederland of The Netherlands, lies that originated somewhere down the bureaucratic chain take on a life of their own when intelligence officials cover up their own errors, and political leaders seize on bad information to launch the nation into war.
According to some historians, on August 4th 1964, American citizens began to mistrust their own government. Back then, a North Vietnamese attack on an American destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin was reason enough for a ten-year war to stop the communist threat. About 59,000 American soldiers and millions of Vietnamese would die, in a war which in retrospect was waged for nothing. But it was only four weeks ago that we told with almost complete certainty the [Gulf of] Tonkin incident was a sham used to wage that war.
The comparison with Iraq and the mistaken intelligence about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction is obvious. But it may take 41 years before we know beyond doubt that the Iraq War wasn’t only about bad information but rather information composed of lies.
For years of course, there has been a buzz about the [Gulf of] Tonkin incident. The official reading was that on August 2nd 1964, an American destroyer, the USS Maddox, was on patrol along the North Vietnamese coast. [RealVideoOfficial Chronology]. Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked the Maddox. Two days later they are said to have attacked the Maddox again, after which President Johnson ordered retaliatory air strikes. On August 7th, Congress passed the notorious [Gulf of] Tonkin resolution, which was the start of the Vietnam War. There are many doubts about this official version.
The legendary journalist I.F. Stone was the first to raise doubts. Within a few weeks he questioned whether the second attack had really taken place. Even President Johnson joked: "As far as I know, our Marines returned fire on whales," which didn’t stop him from shipping thousands of Marines to Vietnam. At the height of the war in March, 1969, more than half a million Americans were fighting in the Vietnamese jungle, as B-52s turned the country into one big bomb crater. During those years, there was no mention of an Axis of Evil, but a variation thereof. It was called the Domino Theory. Washington argued that America was forced to take action against this relatively unimportant regime because if the communist regime in Hanoi were permitted to take power in South Vietnam, other regimes in Southeast Asia would one by one fall into communist hands.
But this wasn't quite a black and white case; and those who are now reflexively saying "I told you so, it is a lie" in regard to the war against Saddam Hussein should pay attention. In December of 2001, an article appeared in Cryptologic Quarterly, the internal publication of the National Security Agency, written by the NSA historian Robert Hanyok.
In this article he investigated the role of the intercepted North Vietnamese communication messages during the Tonkin incident. After patient insistence this article was released to the public on December 1, 2005. And what does Hanyok write? The alleged second attack on the Maddox was partially based on bad translations (honest mistakes) by decoders in the American intelligence service of North Vietnamese army messages. When diligent NSA employees discovered the error, they chose to cover it up instead of correcting the mistake. Higher officials passed "the honest mistakes" on to politicians who used the intelligence to escalate the war they wished to fight in the first place. What is now making headlines as "the lie of Tonkin" is a rather nuanced tragedy. While there is every indication that President Johnson and his Secretary of Defense used the August 4th attack as a pretext and made no effort to halt the story, the lie itself originated somewhere down the bureaucratic chain and started to take on a life of its own.
Just imagine, the pathology of the bureaucracy has remained unchanged during the 40 years between Tonkin and Iraq. In the present case, the debacle of Bush in regard to Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction could well have been the result of a cover-up by a frightened intelligence bureaucrat and the myopic vision of a president on the war path. The lie of one enabled the other to make an "honest mistake" - but in 40 years Bush will not be judged with that type of distinction.