Disorder and Decision 7

If Herrick harbored doubts about the events, Stockdale was certain that there had been no incident. He had flown over the scene for an hour and a half—enjoying “the best seat in the house,” as he later put it. Unlike the destroyer crews, whose vision had been blurred by surface haze and spray, he had observed every movement of the ships. Immediately following his return to the Ticonderoga, he was “de¬briefed” by an intelligence officer, who asked if he had seen any enemy boats. “Not a one,” Stockdale replied. “No boats, no boat wakes, no ricochets off boats, no boat gunfire, no torpedo wakes—nothing but black sea and American firepower.” A message was flashed to Wash¬ington, saying that the returning pilots “report no visual sightings of any vessels other than Turner Joy and MaddoxBack came a response from the joint chiefs of staff urgently requesting “evidence of second attack [to] convince United Nations that the attack did in fact occur. ” Stockdale stuck to his story. In September 1965, he was shot down on a raid over North Vietnam, lost a leg in the crash, spent the rest of the war in a Hanoi prison, and emerged to earn the Medal of Honor and promotion to vice admiral. He learned after his release that other pilots involved in the episode, and who had agreed with him that nothing had happened, changed their versions under a process known as “redebriefing”—thus contributing to the Johnson administration’s “proof package. ”
Though no correspondents had been present, the American press published vivid eyewitness accounts of the incident, dramatized by news editors with inspiration from Pentagon officials. As “the night glowed eerily,” wrote Time, the Communist “intruders boldly sped” toward the destroyer’s, firing with “automatic weapons,” while Life had the American ships “under continuous torpedo attack” as they “weaved through the night sea, evading more torpedoes.” Not to be outdone, Newsweek described “U.S. jets diving, strafing, flattening out . . . and diving again” at the enemy boats, one of which “burst into flames and sank.” Now, having won the battle, Newsweek con¬cluded, “it was time for American might to strike back.”
Presidents usually rush into decisions without waiting for all the details, and Lyndon Johnson was no different. Though his information was sketchy, he announced to key Democratic members of Congress on the morning of August 4 that the U.S. destroyers in the Tonkin Gulf had definitely been attacked. This time, he said, he would retal¬iate against North Vietnam—and he would ask Congress for a res¬olution of support. Not a congressman present demurred.
Johnson strolled back from the meeting to his desk with Kenneth O’Donnell, a former Kennedy disciple who had stayed on as a White House aide. Speculating on the potential domestic political effect of the crisis, they agreed that Johnson was “being tested” and would have to respond firmly to defend himself against Goldwater and the Republican right wing. As O’Donnell later wrote, they felt that John¬son “must not allow them to accuse him of vacillating or being an indecisive leader.”
Yet Johnson was anxious for some verification of the incident—if only to guard against possible future charges of having acted precip¬itously. He leaned on McNamara, the cabinet officer he then trusted most. McNamara, aware of Captain Herrick’s equivocal reports, tele¬phoned Admiral Sharp to stress that retaliation could not be justified “unless we are damned sure what happened.” A stream of messages now flowed back and forth from Washington to Hawaii to the South China Sea. Herrick had been under constant tension for five days, and now Sharp was exerting pressure on him to “confirm absolutely” that the attack had taken place. Again Herrick canvassed his officers and men, but they could produce only inconclusive fragments from their memories of the frantic night.
In Washington, however, the need for a major move was generating its own momentum, eclipsing the mysteries of the affair at sea. Since early on the morning of August 4, administration officials had been braced for a move. They advised the ambassadors of allies like Britain and West Germany to be ready for secret briefings, and they drew up arguments to be presented to the United Nations. They contacted important congressmen, telling them to stand by for an “urgent” meeting with the president. Johnson, hunched over maps in a secluded White House dining room, listened as McNamara pointed to the North Vietnamese targets recommended by the joint chiefs of staff— four patrol boat bases and an oil depot. Johnson approved. At six o’clock in the evening, while Herrick was still struggling to furnish additional evidence, a Pentagon spokesman declared that “a second deliberate attack” had occurred. Just before midnight, nearly an hour after the carriers Ticonderoga and Constellation had sent off their jets on the first U.S. bombing mission of North Vietnamese territory, Lyndon Johnson appeared on television screens across the nation, his manner sober and solemn: “Repeated acts of violence against the armed forces of the United States must be met not only with alert defense, but with positive reply. That reply is being given as I speak to you tonight.”
Johnson’s spokesmen described the reprisals as “limited in scale.” But American aircraft flew sixty-four sorties against four North Viet¬namese patrol boat bases and a major oil storage depot, “severely” hitting all the targets. An estimated twenty-five vessels were destroyed or damaged. Two American airplanes were lost, the pilot of one having reported as he went down that he was parachuting. “His whereabouts is at present listed as unknown,” stated a Pentagon com¬munique.

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