This year Americans are commemorating all three of their most pivotal 20th-century conflicts. A century has passed since the start of World War I, 70 years since the D-Day landings, and this month marks the 50th anniversary of the Tonkin Gulf incident, which was used to justify American escalation in Vietnam.
But these are more than mere anniversaries. They are also reminders. Throughout none of those wars, or during America’s more recent conflicts in Afghanistan or Iraq, have American leaders truly grasped what drives their opponents. Tonkin stands as a symbol of that tragic truth.
To the extent they remember it all, most Americans recall that President Lyndon Johnson used the excuse of alleged hostile action by North Vietnamese ships on Aug. 2, 1964 against the U.S.S. Maddox, a destroyer patrolling in the Gulf of Tonkin, as a pretext for going to war. But there was much more to it than that. Even after five decades of scholarly study, historians are still struggling to comprehend Hanoi’s thinking at the time. The Maddox did patrol in North Vietnamese waters, and it reported being attacked on Aug. 2 and again on Aug.4. We now believe that the second alleged torpedo attack by North Vietnamese ships never happened, but the first torpedo strike was real. The question is why Hanoi attacked an American ship at all, since its policy had been to avoid a U.S. escalation. The last thing Hanoi wanted was to face a full-scale ground invasion, as this would severely hinder the communists’ hopes of uniting all of Vietnam. But the bigger puzzle is why Hanoi continued to sanction attacks against American bases for several months after Tonkin, when the risk of provoking the Americans was greatest.
Seeing the world through an enemy’s eyes is arguably the greatest challenge in any conflict. Most of us struggle to do it well. If Washington insiders at the time had tried to think like the North Vietnamese, they would have known that the fateful shots in Tonkin came just after two American strikes against Vietnamese targets. On the night of July 30-31, American ships shelled North Vietnamese islands. On Aug. 1 and Aug. 2, the United States conducted two bombing raids over Laos and North Vietnam. When North Vietnamese ships spotted the Maddox along their coast on Aug. 2, their Navy’s High Command ordered them to shoot.
We do not know if American actions were intended to trigger a North Vietnamese retaliation, but from official Politburo records we can now see that Hanoi believed it was being deliberately provoked. On Aug. 7, the Politburo issued a directive entitled “Increasing Combat Readiness to Counter All Enemy Schemes to Commit Provocations and to Attack North Vietnam.” Hanoi expected America to intensify the war in the south and increase its assaults on the north. But if Hanoi feared such provocation, and if it wanted to avoid an American escalation, why did it continue attacking American bases?
On Nov. 1, the Viet Cong struck the Bein Hoa airbase, killing four American airmen, wounding 72 more, and destroying five B-57 bombers. On Dec. 24, the Viet Cong attacked again, this time at a Saigon Hotel, murdering two American soldiers and wounding 100 others. But the most brazen assault came on Feb. 6, 1965 when VC units hit the Pleiku airbase, killing nine servicemen and wounding 128. By March the first wave of U.S. Marines would arrive in Vietnam. American forces would not depart until 58,000 had died along with an estimated 3 million Vietnamese. This was not the fight that the North Vietnamese party leaders wanted.
Based on the writings of Le Duan, the Politburo’s First-Secretary and the man truly running North Vietnam throughout the war, we can see that the party leader had no wish to confront a flood of U.S. ground troops. But after the multiple incursions surrounding Tonkin, he believed that American escalation was inevitable. Le Duan was savvy enough to know that VC attacks on American bases would not deter the United States; they could only provoke it. But in Le Duan’s view, sanctioning these relatively minor strikes would embolden southern communists and boost their morale for the long fight ahead. And he knew they would need it. As one VC soldier put it in his postwar memoir, he and his comrades viewed an American escalation as a “living nightmare,” one that filled them with “sick anticipation of a prolonged and vastly more brutal war.”
Most likely the Johnson administration was looking for an excuse to escalate the war, fearing that defeat in Vietnam would trigger a domino-like toppling of Southeast Asian nations to communism.The president probably had no interest in Hanoi’s perspective. But the American public and its representatives should have been intensely focused on understanding its enemy before committing to a major war. They failed to ask the hard questions: Why would a tiny, poor nation, intent on unifying Vietnam under communist rule from the north, deliberately pick a fight with America, especially at so sensitive a time?
Today many Americans still believe that their leaders mistook Vietnamese nationalism for internationalist communism. In fact, Hanoi’s leaders were committed Marxist-Leninists. Many of them trained in the Soviet Union, and their ruthless land reform policies led North Vietnamese officials to murder tens of thousands of peasants in the 1950s. But their desire to unify their country under communism no doubt contained strong nationalist elements as well, as evidenced by their decision to pursue military action in the south before sufficiently building a strong socialist state in the north. None of this means that the Johnson administration was wise to escalate the conflict, or to confuse Hanoi’s designs with Moscow’s. Its program of massive bombing no more deterred Le Duan than VC attacks deterred America. Neither side grasped the other’s intentions. Americans never stopped to ask whether Vietnam was central to their national interest. The Tonkin to Pleiku period should have been a time to reconsider whether the United States truly would “bear any burden” to block communism.
Yet once attacked, Americans felt duly wronged. Revenge is a powerful motive, one that easily overrides good judgment. The Senate overwhelmingly endorsed the Tonkin Gulf resolution. Only two senators voted against it.
Did Americans learn from Tonkin? The lead-up to the most recent war in Iraq had a depressingly reminiscent feel. A president seemed intent on invading, presuming to liberate a foreign people that perhaps were not as eager for American liberation as Washington thought. The president failed to fully consider their point of view, just as the public failed to ask how long we would need to stay or how welcome we would be. And in 2002, when George Bush requested a congressional blank check, only 23 Senators and 133 Congressmen voted against the Iraq War Resolution. The great majority in both houses of Congress went along uncritically, only later regretting their insouciance. How many Americans today feel that the war in Iraq warranted the cost in lives and treasure? The question was never whether Saddam was a bad man; it was whether the Iraqi people truly wanted what America hoped to give them. The answer required thinking hard and learning much about the other side.
What should we commemorate on this 50th anniversary of a fateful step? Beyond mourning for the millions dead, massive destruction, savage fighting, and uprooted lives, we must also remember that our enemies often perceive events inversely to our own view. In most conflicts each side sees itself as the aggrieved; the other as aggressor. Both sides need to better understand the grievances of the other. If we seek lessons from the sorrow of war, let us use this awareness when the next conflict comes.
Zachary Shore is an associate professor of history at the Naval Postgraduate School and author of A Sense of the Enemy: The High-Stakes History of Reading Your Rival’s Mind (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).