Disorder and Decision 8

The missing pilot was Lieutenant (jg) Everett Alvarez, Jr., of San Jose, California. Stationed aboard the Constellation, he had been as¬signed his objective in advance, a patrol boat base near the coal-mining town of Hongay, northeast of Hanoi. Years afterward, he would recollect the experience that was to begin one of the worst ordeals for any American in the war:
I was among the first to launch off the carrier. Our squadron, ten airplanes, headed toward the target about four hundred miles away—a good two hours there and two hours back. It was sort of like a dream. We were actually going to war, into combat. I never thought it would happen, but all of a sudden here we were, and I was in it. I felt a little nervous. We made an identification pass, then came around and made an actual pass, firing. I was very low, just skimming the trees at about five hundred knots. Then I had the weirdest feeling. My airplane was hit and started to fall apart, rolling and burning. I knew I wouldn’t live if I stayed with the airplane, so I ejected, and luckily I cleared a cliff.
He landed in shallow water, fracturing his back in the drop. Local North Vietnamese militia soon arrived and took him to a nearby jail, where he was briefly visited by Prime Minister Pham Van Dong, who had been coincidentally touring the region at the time. Alvarez became something of a celebrity—the first of nearly six hundred American airmen to be captured by the Communists during the Vietnam conflict. Transferred to the “Hanoi Hilton,” as U.S. prisoners of war dubbed their grim internment center, he was held until the signing of the cease-fire agreement more than eight years later.
Subsequent research by both official and unofficial investigators has indicated with almost total certainty that the second Communist attack never happened. It had hot been deliberately faked, but Johnson and his staff, desperately seeking a pretext to act vigorously, had seized upon a fuzzy set of circumstances to fulfill a contingency plan. Much of the truth was to trickle out in the years ahead—yet some relevant evidence has remained confidential, presumably to spare prominent U.S. bureaucrats who concealed or twisted the facts, either inten¬tionally or inadvertently, then and later.
McNamara was probably sincere when he told Admiral Sharp that reprisals against the Communists could not be carried out until “we are damned sure” of what happened. However, Johnson ordered the retaliatory air strikes against North Vietnam despite a lack of hard evidence, leaving McNamara with the job of justifying the action. Testifying before the Senate foreign relations committee in early 1968, McNamara divulged that he had “unimpeachable” proof: four inter¬cepted radio messages revealing Communist intentions to attack the U.S. destroyers on the night of August 4. He refused to disclose the text of the messages, arguing that making them public might compromise clandestine intelligence methods. The intercepts have re¬mained classified since. But McNamara either misinterpreted them— or, as seems more likely, deliberately dissimulated during his testi-mony more than three years after the controversial episode.
According to former American officials familiar with the enemy transmissions, they were not “attack orders,” as McNamara termed them, but directives from a North Vietnamese shore command to its patrol boats to prepare for “military operations” that may well have been defensive—especially since the Communists knew that the Mad¬dox and Turner Joy were linked to the covert South Vietnamese raids. Moreover, the “time-date groups” on the messages referred to the first incident—and not, as McNamara contended, to the illusory sec¬ond event. He further obfuscated the story by citing details obtained from the interrogation of a captured North Vietnamese naval officer, claiming that they verified his version. That account as well as one from another captured Communist officer, however, only confirmed the first attack—which the North Vietnamese never denied.
Ray Cline, deputy director of the CIA at the time, had discerned the crucial difference during the events, as he recalled to me years later: “I felt from the start that the first incident had been questionable, but I simply wasn’t sure. However, after a number of days of collating and examining the reports relating to the second incident, I concluded that they were either unsound or that they dealt with the first incident. ” Admiral Stockdale, who devoted years to studying the episode, finally called the mix-up “a tragic way to commit a nation to war.” Even Johnson had privately voiced doubts only a few days after the pur¬ported second attack, confiding to an assistant, “Hell, those dumb stupid sailors were just shooting at flying fish.”
But despite his misgivings, Johnson was not about to forgo the chance to gain bipartisan support on Capitol Hill for whatever policies he chose to pursue in Southeast Asia. His aides had broadened the draft of the proposed congressional resolution so that it now autho¬rized him to “take all necessary measures” to repel attacks against U.S. forces and to “prevent further aggression” as well as determine when “peace and security” in the area had been attained. In short, as Johnson later quipped, the resolution was “like grandma’s nightshirt— it covered everything.”
He now mobilized two men to promote the document. One was McNamara, who could dazzle legislators with his maps and flip-charts. The other was Fulbright, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
On August 5, though the Tonkin Gulf puzzle had not yet been pieced together, Johnson sent his resolution to Congress for approval. A day later, McNamara appeared before a joint session of the Senate foreign relations and armed services committees to persuade their members to endorse the resolution rapidly. It was plain from the beginning that he would face little opposition. Opinion polls showed that 85 percent of the American public stood behind the administra¬tion, and most newspaper editorials faithfully reflected this support. So did the senators. With Fulbright in the lead, they commended Johnson for his prudence and decisiveness. But Wayne Morse of Or¬egon stubbornly refused to go along. And his loud dissent was to haunt Congress for years to come.

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