On the Way to Tonkin II?
by Mina Hamilton
March 13, 2003
Check, but not mate.
Bush & Co has always reserved the option to go to war against Iraq, with or without the blessing of the United Nations. Sometimes known as 'the poodle,' Britain's Prime Minister, Tony Blair, can't be so cavalier. Trapped by rising political opposition in the UK, Blair needs a new UN Security Council resolution.
France, Germany and Russia continue to loudly say no to the war. The old bullying and bribery tactics of the US continue at various UN missions. Extremely poor states like Guinea would be devastated if US economic aid is turned off and Mexico and Chile are nervous about important trade agreements biting the dust. Even if the strong-arming pays off and the US gets its nine votes on the Security Council, there's still the French veto.
No matter how much Bush talks of a "coalition of the willing" or tries to isolate the French the international endorsement for war will be remarkably thin.
Is there a way out of this dilemma for both Bush and Blair? What would be better than a Tonkin Gulf incident?
A two-liner in the New York Times on March 12 reminds us of how easy it would be for the US to stage Tonkin II. According to anonymous US officials, on March 11 Iraqi jets threaten an American U-2 reconnaissance plane. After what the Times describes as a "tense and confusing incident," two U-2's are recalled to base.
End of incident. But what if a U-2 were to deliberately fly outside of agreed-upon flight paths? What if a F-16 were to provoke an Iraqi fighter jet into a counter-attack?
Imagine the news headlines around the world: US PLANES DOWNED BY IRAQ. AMERICAN PILOTS PRESUMED DEAD. PRESIDENT BUSH TO ADDRESS NATION…
Different country, different characters, but it all happened before.
In August 7, 1964 the Gulf of Tonkin incident catapulted the US into the Vietnam War. After three hours debate, hawks rushed through the US Senate a resolution "to use all necessary means to repel any armed attack." And so began a war that would wreck three countries - Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos - and cause two million Vietnamese and 58,000 US soldiers to die.
For years, controversy swirled around the details of the Tonkin incident. The official story? US destroyers on a "routine" mission in international waters off of the coast of North Vietnam were attacked.
Eventually bits and pieces of the true story come out. The patrol wasn't "routine." The USS Maddox, loaded to the gills with high-tech spy equipment, was sailing inside what North Vietnam's considered its territorial waters. The Maddox opened fire on approaching North Vietnamese PT boats and then withdrew from the area. Most importantly, this supposedly "routine" patrol was the day after an extremely provocative attack by OPLAN (Operations Plan) 34-A.
A top-secret CIA operation, OPLAN 34-A, is still unknown to most Americans. It supplied, armed and gave intelligence to South Vietnamese vessels. The vessels dropped saboteurs into the Gulf of Tonkin. The saboteurs swam to shore armed with explosives and blew up military targets. On July 31st, 1964, this CIA operation shelled North Vietnamese radar installations. It was the very first time that the territory of North Vietnam was bombed.
Over forty years later it's hard to remember just how provocative the act was. Our minds have long since glazed over with images of B-52's flying bombing raids over North Vietnam. In 1964, before the carpet-bombing of North Vietnam, the CIA-sponsored attack was a major escalation.
There were actually two "incidents" in the Gulf of Tonkin. In both US destroyers were patrolling right after OPLAN 34-A attacks.
The second incident that triggered the Tonkin Resolution to this day remains murky. According to a detailed analysis in Joseph Goulden's exhaustive study, Truth is the First Casualty: The Gulf of Tonkin Affair - Illusion and Reality, the second "incident" took place on August 4th, the day after yet another OPLAN 34-A attack on North Vietnam.
Picture it: The Maddox and a second cruiser the Joy Turner are cruising in the highly sensitive area of these attacks. It's a pitch-black night of heavy rainsqualls. The Captain of the Maddox learns from radio intercepts that the North Vietnamese believe the destroyers are linked to the CIA attacks. Everybody's nerves are on edge. Suddenly, the Joy Turner is blasting torpedoes into the night.
The only problem: the Captain of the Maddox subsequently says, "many reported contacts and torpedoes fired appear doubtful…Freak weather reports and overeager sonar men may have accounted for many reports. No actual visual sightings by the Maddox." Another problem: The Maddox's chief gunnery officer says no North Vietnamese PT boats had come within gun range. More problems: Pilots of US jet fighters called in for support also see no signs of North Vietnamese attacks.
These reports are squashed. The US Congress hands the President full authority to attack the North Vietnamese. Washington makes a quick decision to retaliate.
At the time a highly placed official in President Johnson's administration says, "Tonkin saved the war for us."
In 2003 amidst jittery pre-war days, a dogfight of Iraqi and American jets over Iraq would be equally easy to engineer and exploit. The details of what actually happened would quickly go up in the flames of the US-UK Blitzkrieg. George W. Bush and Tony Blair would have "saved" the war. Messy, inconclusive votes at the UN would be moot.
This time the world might not let them get away with it.
Mina Hamilton is a writer in New York City. She has a MA in History from Radcliffe-Harvard and has taught American History at Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn.