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From Dealey Plaza to Gulf of Tonkin: Where Lay The Rub?
By John Crandell
PART 2: (The second of a three-part dissection of LBJ)
At the very least, one can acknowledge that in our time, we have witnessed a monster become President of the United States fifty-three years in the wake of an earlier president having entrapped the nation in a foreign conflict far more monstrous than any words or actions by the abominable D.J. Trump. Lyndon Johnson had not changed course due to the August 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Incident. There had been no turning point. He and his staff had been intent on waging war in Vietnam from that year's outset. As vice president, he objected to JFK's ordering a withdrawal of one thousand MAAG personnel from the war zone. Having wagged his tail in approval of JFK's order, Robert McNamara turned and wagged his tail for LBJ once Kennedy was buried across the Potomac. It has long been alleged that following a lame attack on the USS Maddox by North Vietnamese in the Gulf on August 2nd, a mistaken NSA translation of a radio intercept led to the infamous imaginary attack two nights later. The intercept had picked up communication regarding the towing of Vietnamese torpedo boats damaged in the one and only attack.
Thirty-five years later, a CIA engineering executive analyzed available evidence and judged that the White House staff's interest was insidious, aimed solely at confirming the purported second attack. Johnson knew of doubts relayed by CINCPAC on August 4th. NSC officials and McNamara informed him of such before congressional leaders arrived in the Oval Office. Both of them covered up the gray area and lied to the representatives from Capitol Hill. Orders to carry out an aerial attack on the North Vietnamese mainland had already been issued. McNamara proceeded to lie before House and Senate committees the next day. Only Wayne Morse of Oregon voiced skepticism, having been tipped off regarding gray issues by a confederate in the Pentagon. It was political season; no doubts were to be entertained at political necessity's ground zero. There was an election to be won and profits to be had.
Following the phantom incident of August 4th, somehow, eighteen sailors were rounded up to testify at a hearing at Subic Bay. These men averred that both the Maddox and the USS Turner Joy had been attacked by torpedo boats—one of which had been damaged by return fire.
Interestingly, James Stockdale had flown circles overhead that night, had a clear view of the area, and later revealed that the US vessels were just "shooting at phantom targets" and was soon given direct orders not to speak further of what he'd observed. When downed and captured, he kept the facts secret from his North Vietnamese captors for eight and a half years. No report of a second attack had been made to CINCPAC by the commander of either US vessel. It'd been Stockdale who'd fired upon the torpedo boats on August 2nd.
Eventually, an Oval Office tape recording nailed Lyndon Johnson for posterity: "Hell, those damn stupid sailors were just shooting at flying fish." As a result of his experience under his father in the Hill Country, he was paranoid of failure of any sort. After Kennedy's rocking chair and PT-109 coconut had been cleared from the Oval Office, National Security Action Memorandum 263 was relegated to the dustbin. NSAM 273 was issued the day following, directing that the entire US effort in South Vietnam be unified, that particular efforts be expended in the Mekong Delta, and that increased activity be planned according to four possibilities: whatever level of damage to the North, the plausibility of denial by the US, retaliation by North Vietnamese and adverse international reaction.
Lyndon had always demanded and received only what he wanted to hear from his staff: a unified front, no dissension, and no contradictions. His zeitgeist for conformity was implicit in the House, the Senate, and the Oval Office. Otherwise, any male had to go to the shitter with him and take notes. The following June, he told Russell of South Carolina—that "Americans will forgive you for anything except being weak." A few weeks later, in Laurel Lodge at Camp David, Brain Trust member Clark Clifford would relate his doubt to LBJ and Mac: "I don't believe we can win in Vietnam... I can't see anything but catastrophe for our nation in this area." He had once served as naval adviser (and friend) to Harry Truman during the Korean War. He had witnessed Truman's having to cope with Douglas MacArthur's disastrous push to the border with China [hence, MacArthur would warn JFK to stay clear of any involvement in Asia—circa 1961]. Johnson has not been forgiven for his monstrosity, his effect on our lives.
Covert ops resumed along the coast of North Vietnam on September 10th. Planning began for a land incursion into Laos by puppet South Vietnamese forces. POTUS told Earl Wheeler that the Southerners wouldn't last one round in a ten-round bout but that he was ready to do more later. Furthermore, he wanted to avoid any problems interfering with the coming election. As Army Chief of Staff, Harold Johnson had never uttered a word of doubt to McNamara. At LBJ's pleasure, he'd been appointed to the position over and above thirty of his seniors and eventually admitted having felt a lack of requisite experience for the top job. He had weighed only ninety pounds at the end of World War II, the result of three years' imprisonment by the Japanese.
A mutual JCS agreement regarding North Vietnam was never arrived at under JFK or LBJ. LBJ's only use of the Joint Chiefs that summer was in service of Wheeler as a prop during meetings with congressional leaders. Competing with the Marines, Curtis LeMay had submitted a list to McNamara, ninety-four targets for attack as part of an open-ended commitment to aerial bombardment. John McNaughton, assistant secretary under Mac, wagged his tail in approval over the list yet secretly divulged the opposite to Dan Ellsberg. Slapping his hand on his desk, he exploded, "Out, out, out! You don't understand, Dan! Six months from now, I don't want us to be in Vietnam!" Weeks earlier, he'd said that his wife had said that she felt what he was participating in was "insane."
Clifford's revelation at Camp David was duly recorded and kept in a super-secret eyes-only binder in McNaughton's walk-in safe. Ellsberg was allowed free access to the safe but was forbidden to touch the binder. Curiosity led the future master of the Pentagon Papers to "go there"—open the binder in July of '65 and discover Alibaba's treasure of correspondence between Johnson, McNamara, Rusk, and Central Intelligence. Also, a June '65 memo from McGeorge Bundy replied to Mac's latest brainstorm: "My first reaction is that this program is rash to the point of folly." Other written doubts were reflected in memos to LBJ submitted by Hubert Humphrey, Mike Mansfield, George Ball, and Richard Russell. All high-level advice against involvement became highly secret in the forcefield of Bob McNamara. The day after Ellsberg opened the binder, McNaughton had him reassigned. No copies were made; ironically, none of the doubts expressed would eventually be included in the Pentagon Papers.
Blockhead LeMay, obsessed with Strangelovean domination, rationalized that bombardment of the North would negate the need for US ground troops being required and would surely prevent China from entering the fray. Killing had been his mantra in the leadup to Hiroshima, wherein he'd sent Air Force bombers to annihilate nearly half a million people in Japan. Mac had drafted those plans.
A staff meeting was held in the Oval Office on September 7th, and a holding action was adopted. In Saigon and despite his doubts, newly established ambassador Max Taylor was forced to issue an artificially optimistic assessment of the southern government's success. The Joint Chiefs had remained divided—Army and Navy vs. Marines and Air Force. McNamara took advantage of their ambiguity by rejecting their opinions, further sidelining their influence. Taylor's advance from JCS chairman to ambassador to Saigon further exacerbated policy regarding Vietnam. At the White House, he'd fostered Johnson's holding action. But on arrival in Saigon, he flip-flopped, acceded to LeMay's position, and warned Johnson that on balance, the current South Vietnamese ruler—Nguyen Khanh, was in a more "uncertain condition than before." Also, he lost all previous doubts regarding corruption among officials. It had been Khanh who'd given orders that the assassin of the Diem brothers be exterminated, forced to kneel, and shot in the head.
Ol' Hang Dog won it in a landslide on November 3rd, and he was all set. The US had ceased being a colonial power in 1946, but the ensuing years seemed to change that fact. The guy was a master of positioning, illusions, and distraction. Men had died in Texas, allowing his rise to his innermost summit of power. But that was not enough. Many would argue that the violence he would wreak on southeast Asia was only his being a prisoner of Joseph McCarthy's having swayed the country. Others to this day can cite the leverage over him that had accumulated during his decades in Washington and particularly—back home in Texas, long, long before.
On October 4th—fifty days before John Kennedy died, Taylor—as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, issued the following memorandum to the four chiefs:
"On October 2nd the President approved recommendations on military matters contained in the report of the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The following actions derived from these recommendations are directed: … all planning will be directed toward preparing RVN forces for the withdrawal of all US special assistance units and personnel by the end of calendar year 1965. The US Comprehensive Plan, Vietnam, will be revised to bring it into consonance with these objectives, and to reduce planned residual (post-1965) MAAG strengths to approximately pre-insurgency levels… Execute the plan to withdraw 1,000 US military personnel by the end of 1963…"
Taylor's edict remained classified until 1997. In December 1965, McNamara privately conceded to Robert Kennedy that the war could not be won by military means and that a political solution was necessary. Yet he would remain as Secretary of Defense until the last day of February 1968. Ironically, Clark Clifford would have the misfortune of replacing him.
John Crandell served in II Corps with the 4th Infantry in 1969. Camp Enari, then the division's base of operations, is now solidly covered with uniform rows of tea plants. Only the faint trace of the base perimeter remains.