McNamara Versus McNamara





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Did Lyndon Johnson lie to the American people about the Tonkin Gulf attack, as alleged by Daniel Ellsberg in his memoirs (and in countless other publications and forums)? LBJ claimed that in early August of 1964 the North Vietnamese attacked U.S. ships traveling in the Tonklin Gulf on two separate occasions, first firing upon the Mattox on August 2, then on the Turner Joy on August 4.

In his memoirs Ellsberg, his first full day on the job, recounted in detail the procession of messages that crossed his desk in the Pentagon after the alleged second attack took place:

The messages were vivid. [Captain John J.] Herrick must have been dictating them from the bridge in between giving orders, as his two ships swerved to avoid torpedoes picked up on the sonar of the Maddox, and fired in the darkness at targets shown on the radar of the Turner Joy:"Torpedoes missed. Another fired at us. Four torpedoes in water. And five torpedoes in water. . . . Have. . . successfully avoided at least six torpedoes."

But a couple of hours later the story changed.

[A]nother message from Herrick summarizing positive and negative evidence for an attack, concluded:"Entire action leaves many doubts except for apparent attempted ambush at beginning. Suggest thorough reconnaissance in daylight by aircraft." The reconnaissance in daylight, still three or four hours away in the Gulf, would search for oil slicks and wreckage from the boats supposedly hit, indications that an attack, not just a fight with radar ghosts, had actually taken place.

In Robert McNamara's own memoirs, In Retrospect published in 1995, McNamara wrote:

The key questions and my answers are these:

Attacks by North Vietnamese patrol boats against U.S. destroyers reportedly occurred on two separate occasions: August 2 and August 4, 1964. Did the attacks actually occur? Answer: The evidence of the first attack is indisputable. The second attack appears probable but not certain.

By 1996 McNamara had changed his mind. The paperback edition of the book, which appeared a year later, includes this correction:

Attacks by North Vietnamese patrol boats against U.S. destroyers reportedly occurred on two separate occasions - August 2 and August 4, 1964. Did the attacks actually occur? Answer: The evidence of the first attack is indisputable. In the first edition of this book I stated"The second attack appears probable but not certain." On November 9, 1995, as the second edition was going to press, I learned in a meeting in Hanoi with General Vo Nguyen Giap, North Vietnam's Defence Minister during the war, that the presumed attack on August 4 did not occur.

Thanks to Charlotte Alston, in a post on H-Diplo.


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Dave Livingston - 12/29/2003

McNamara a Democratic Party loyalyist IMHO wrote In Retrospect primarily to provide Clinton an alibi for his Viet-Nam War draft-dodging. If the war in error then Willi's draft-dodging was morally and politically acceptble & should pose no impediment to his race for the Presidency against Bob Dole, a WWII combat veteran.

McNamara dishonored himself in In Retrospect in the name of a short-term political goal, aiding the election of an otherwise unelectable Democrat to the Presudency.


Dave Livingston - 12/29/2003

McNamara a Democratic Party loyalyist IMHO wrote In Retrospect primarily to provide Clinton an alibi for his Viet-Nam War draft-dodging. If the war in error then Willi's draft-dodging was morally and politically acceptble & should pose no impediment to his race for the Presidency against Bob Dole, a WWII combat veteran.

McNama dishonored himself in In Retrospect in the name of a short-term political goal, aiding the election of an otherwise unelectable Democrat to the Presudency.


DIANA MASIERI - 9/18/2003

Dear Mr. Clyde Howard,
You are certainly entitled to your opinion. However, I do believe you do not know completely the story Mr. McNamara lived through.It is understandable to judge and to condemn especially when we experienced something awfull like you did serving in Vietnam for one full year. The problem is that we tend not to put ourselves in the place of the person who is in the hot seat. I am sure however, that you agree with me that McNamara at least had the courage to write books and make a movie (for which he was not paid) to explain the whole story.


Clyde W. Howard III - 5/15/2003

Well, as a veteran of the Vietnam War (and I probably wouldn't have had that "interesting" year if it hadn't been for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution) i've got some personal interest in the matter. And some experience in the "Fog of War".


So - did the second attack take place? Probably (I'm not prepared to say "Certainly" - but probably, and to a high degree of probability, not) not. Did the people involved THINK they were under attack (and did they have reason to so believe)? Yes, they did think so, and ahd reasons. Did they develope some questions about this as things progressed? Yes. Did they report these amtters? Yes.

So - what did the politicals (like Ellsberg - who was certainly a disgrace to the name his uncle Edward had made one of honor) do? well, they took waht tehy wanted and did what they thought their political advantage called for. That included MacNamara, who unquestionably slanted what LBJ got.

Did LBJ lie to the American people? Probably not, at elast in the sense of making it all up and telling the American people that things had happened taht he (LBJ) KNEW hadn't. Did he tell all? Probably not. Did LBJ have an accurate and complete knowledge of affairs? Probably not - and that was MacNamara's doing. Would LBJ have acted as he did with a fuller understanding of events, including the questions about whether the second attack had actually happened? Don't know, but suspect he'd have at least attempted to get something like teh Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Would Congress ahve gone along? My guess is yes.

Will we ever know? I don't think so - but teh more i see of MacNamara, the more do I deem him a pusillanimous and worthless excuse for a human being.

Clyde W. Howard III
Attorney at Law

Once Captain, OrdC, US Army and of service in Vietnam from August 1968 untikl August 1969


Wesley Smart - 5/13/2003

i'm gonna defer to those Vietnam scholars who drop in here on this, but i recall that this whole thing occurred in an environment where there had been earlier coastal action between north and south vietnamese gunboats (with the U.S. standing off and observing). in that context, an attack on the warships would not have been unexpected...the implication from this piece is that the attack story was made up out of whole cloth, which it may well have been, but also that the whole thing came from out of the blue to everyone monitoring the situation.


Bill Berman - 5/12/2003

In an interview published in the Washington Post, November 11, 1995, Robert McNamara, while visiting Hanoi, said: "I am prepared to say without a doubt there was no second attack." He added, revealingly, that the White House would probably have sent the same resolution to Congress later in the year,which he hoped, would have led to a more useful congressional debate.