Three weeks before the June 13 tanker explosions in the Gulf of Oman, Lawrence Korb, former director of National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, raised the haunting specter that a clash much like the Tonkin Gulf Incident of August 1964 might transform the long-simmering conflict between the United States and Iran into a major war. Since last Thursday, several other commentators in the media have drawn a comparison between the two events.
Is the analogy apt?
In at least one sense, it is. The Gulf of Tonkin Incident was a brief, violent encounter between vessels of the U.S. and North Vietnamese navies. The Johnson administration described the incident to the world as a case of blatant and “unprovoked aggression” by North Vietnam in international waters. After a brief consultation with a handful of congressional leaders, President Lyndon Johnson on his own authority ordered an immediate retaliatory attack, destroying a North Vietnamese barracks and sinking several of Hanoi’s PT boats.
The incident had major strategic implications.
With lightning speed, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution nearly unanimously, granting LBJ broad power to “take all necessary steps” to defend a “vital” area. “I didn’t just screw Ho Chi Minh,” Johnson quipped to a reporter at the time. “I cut his pecker off.”
The resolution served as the legal rationale for beginning a major bombing campaign against North Vietnam and committing 500,000 U.S. troops to the war between Communist forces and the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese Army. It also led Hanoi to expand insurgent activities in the South in the hope of defeating Saigon before the Americans arrived in strength.
If Iran bears responsibility for the tanker explosions last week, as most experts believe it does, the odds are very good that the U.S. Navy will respond vigorously, launching a raid against Iran with air and naval forces, just as it did 54 years ago against the North Vietnamese.
The United States has been committed to keeping the waters of the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf secure since the waning days of World War II. Most of the world’s oil supply flows through these waters, and the United States isn’t likely to stand by while Iran drives the price of oil sky high by threatening the safety of the world’s tankers.
When the Iranians attacked Kuwaiti tankers sailing in the Persian Gulf in 1988, the U.S. provided naval escorts to keep the oil flowing. When the USS Samuel Roberts struck an Iranian mine, Ronald Reagan launched a major attack on the Iranian Navy, sinking roughly half its ships and damaging a number of military facilities as well.
That put an end to Iran’s shenanigans in the Persian Gulf.
Today the Iranian navy is a motley collection of obsolete vessels, many of which were designed in the ’60s. According to Mark Cancian, a former Marine colonel and senior adviser to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “The United States has assets designed to take on Russia and China. Iran’s ships are very exposed. I’d expect the United States would be able to sink Iran’s navy in about two days.” Few experts would disagree.
Of course, no one knows how Iran would respond to such an overwhelming show of force, but it’s difficult to believe even the hardliners in Tehran, who are engaged in an ongoing tug of war with moderates, would try to engage in an extended shooting war against the United States. An oblique response, such as stepping up support for proxy forces hostile to America’s allies in the region, or a terrorist attack on an American target in which the Iranians would have plausible deniability, seems much more likely.
Yet the Tonkin Gulf Incident is more important in the context of today’s crisis for the questions it raises generally about the use of force than as a historical analogy.
To most historians of the Vietnam War, including myself, the Tonkin Gulf Incident is both a prime example and a symbol of the lies, distortions, and secretiveness that featured so prominently in the Johnson administration’s disastrous decision-making on Vietnam. In the summer of 1964, the Vietcong insurgency was gaining ground rapidly in its war against the South Vietnamese. The government in Saigon was corrupt, incompetent, and unstable.
A secret consensus emerged within the Johnson administration’s top advisers: Only the deployment of American forces in large numbers could prevent the fall of South Vietnam to the Communists. The first phase of the American war was to be a bombing campaign against North Vietnam and the Ho Chi Minh Trail to stanch the flow of troops and supplies into the South.
But there was a big problem. Johnson was up for election in November. He was running way ahead of Republican Barry Goldwater, largely because LBJ was the “peace candidate.” He’d promised, repeatedly, to keep American boys out of Vietnam. Goldwater wanted to go in with guns blazing.
Thus, Johnson needed a pretext to start the bombing campaign. When North Vietnamese PT boats fired on the USS Maddox on August 2, and were suspected of firing at the Maddox and another ship two days later, Johnson found his pretext. The North Vietnamese had initiated hostilities in international waters, he said. America had to strike back. Congress and the people agreed.
The trouble was, Johnson and his advisers flagrantly misrepresented the incident to Congress and the American people. At the time, the Maddox was cruising off the North Vietnamese coast collecting intelligence, South Vietnamese commandos were conducting sabotage operations on that same coast, directed and planned by the American military. The North Vietnamese navy had every reason to believe the Maddox was operating in support of those operations. No wonder the North Vietnamese squadron commander issued the order to attack.
The United States deliberately provoked the North Vietnamese to respond with force. Thus, the Tonkin Gulf Incident was a classic “false flag”—a covert operation that creates the false impression that an adversary bears responsibility for committing an illegal or heinous act.
If we reflect on the current crisis in the Persian Gulf through the lens of the Tonkin Gulf Incident, several questions spring immediately to mind:
Who has provoked whom in the Persian Gulf?
In ratcheting up pressure on Iran through economic sanctions and deploying additional military forces to the region, does the Trump administration hope to provoke a shooting war with Iran? If not, what does it want?
Can we rely on President Trump’s version of events in evaluating who has done what, and when?
Back in 1964, only two lonely U.S. senators rejected the Johnson administration’s false version of events in the Tonkin Gulf. In the immediate aftermath of the incident, Johnson’s approval rating for his handling of Vietnam among the American public soared from 42 to 72 percent.
Today, after the catastrophe in Vietnam, where the government continued to misrepresent what was actually going on in the war, and in Iraq, where the rationale for intervention—Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction—turned out to be false, the world has every reason to be skeptical of the government’s version of events. Indeed, we have good reason to mistrust what Donald Trump says about the incident, because of his astonishing penchant for making misleading and plainly false claims that suit his immediate needs.
As of June 7, The Washington Post fact checking team has calculated that Trump has made more than 10,000 (!) false or misleading statements.
Before the United States gets into a shooting war with Iran, Congress and the public must be sure there is a legitimate casus belli. In the age of Trump, that’s not going to be an easy trick.