This week marks the 50th anniversary of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which led to the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which led to the escalation of the Vietnam War. It’s a history worth remembering at a moment when the United States faces so many crises in so many corners of the world.
There were actually two reported Tonkin Gulf incidents. The first, largely undisputed, occurred on Aug. 2, 1964, when North Vietnamese patrol boats fired on a U.S. vessel engaged in surveillance operations. It’s quite possible that the second incident, two days later, never took place: If there were North Vietnamese boats in the area at all, they never engaged the U.S. fleet.
Nevertheless, U.S. sailors had been fired upon, and what had been one of many brushfire wars to which the nation had sent military advisers suddenly was the center of popular attention. Congress adopted the Tonkin Gulf Resolution by an overwhelming bipartisan vote on Aug. 7, 1964 — three days after Barack Obama’s third birthday. That’s how long ago it was. And yet the war it enabled continues even today to cast its grim shadow over U.S. foreign policy.
Seven months after the resolution was adopted, the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade arrived at Da Nang. In the years to come, the number of U.S. troops escalated fast, and by the end of 1968, more than half a million Americans were serving there. Vietnam, successive presidents insisted, could not be allowed to “fall” to the Communists.
Vietnam gave my generation an entire vocabulary with which to doubt what we are told: Quagmire. Light at the end of the tunnel. Body count. Collateral damage (an old engineering term repurposed as euphemism for tragedy). Even the original “Green Zone” was established not in Baghdad but in Saigon.
The war was confusing not just at home but also in theater. The North Vietnamese army was a foe the U.S. understood. They were classically trained by the Russians, moved men and material according to staff command, and never once defeated U.S. forces in a set battle. The Viet Cong irregulars, however, blended into villages and jungles, relying on stealth and surprise rather than numbers and weapons. Sustained urban warfare against guerrilla fighters proved challenging, for the U.S. military had relatively little experience with this new-old form of warfare. Vietnam gave us the phrase “hearts and minds,” and the effort to win both somehow led to Operation Phoenix, in which U.S. personnel promised bounties to farmers in the outer provinces who would turn in informers and collaborators. Evidently it hadn’t occurred to the program’s architects that even farmers might lie to settle scores with neighbors, or that people might take unkindly to the killing of tens of thousands of their fellow citizens. (Estimates of the dead vary, but everyone agrees that the body count is in the five figures.)
Yet Vietnam, like every war, was also an occasion for heroism and patriotism. Some 246 Medals of Honor were awarded, the great majority of them posthumously. The feats for which they were earned — throwing oneself on a live grenade, for example, or returning again and again to a firefight to evacuate the wounded — were the stuff of legend.
But at home, controversy grew. Members of violent underground groups, including Weatherman, used the war as an excuse for their terror attacks. Opposition to the war became so strident — and, in certain quarters, so unquestionable — that in 1967, so estimable an intellectual as John Updike had to take to the pages of the New York Times to defend his position that the war, horrid though it was, should be debated on its merits, not according to whether one happened to like the president.
Vietnam was the first war America watched on television. Often, in its hunger for a story and its inexperience in covering this kind of war, the news media got the news badly wrong. The Tet Offensive, in 1968, was widely reported as a great success for the North Vietnamese, even though 45,000 of the 84,000 troops committed by North Vietnam were killed and not a single major strategic objective of the battle was gained. Other reporting, about the pains and complexities of the war, was far more accurate: We learned, for example, that the swankiest clubs in Saigon were not open to locals. And that the going rate paid by the U.S. for the accidental killing of a Vietnamese civilian was $30.
And all the while, domestic resistance mounted. Demonstrations were huge. In May 1970, National Guardsmen killed four protesters at Kent State University in Ohio. The war’s end was coming.
Some 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam. The death rate, about 11 per day, was among the lowest of any war the nation has fought. The high number of casualties is due in part to how long the war dragged on.
America wasn’t the same country after Vietnam. The crisis of confidence the war engendered was made worse by rising inflation at home and, abroad, a series of tiny but noticeable defeats (the Iranian hostage crisis of 1980-1981, for example).
Something in the American character was broken in that war. As for dreaming of a better world — when we think of that, we tend to think of Iraq, and think again.
Stephen L. Carter, a Bloomberg View columnist, is a professor of law at Yale University.