Turning 50: The tragedy of Tonkin Gulf

They came in from the west: three North Vietnamese patrol boats, halting five miles from the USS Maddox. The Maddox fired first. One Vietnamese boat launched a torpedo. Then the boats raced away, strafed by U.S. jets. One boat sank.

So, at least on the first day there was a battle. A few nights later President Lyndon Johnson was on TV, describing two attacks, reassuring Americans we "seek no wider war," and asking Congress for the power to take "all necessary measures" against "open aggression on the high seas against the United States of America." A year later, we had almost 200,000 troops in Vietnam.

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Aside from noting the Tonkin Gulf anniversary, what is the point of examining what happened 50 years ago this week?

I was in Vietnam last month, leading a U.N.-sponsored speechwriting workshop for Vietnamese diplomats, then traveling. The students, many in their 30s, call this their "grandfather's war." They don't talk much about it — at least to me. But the trip made me think about the resolution that swept through Congress in 1964. There's a lot worth talking about, including the devastation it brought — especially to the Vietnamese.

Three million deaths in a population of 30 million! That's a Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 shot down each day, seven days a week — for 30 years. Sixty Memorial walls the size of our one — not counting the 500,000 to a million victims of Agent Orange.

Could LBJ have seen no other option? Back then, few Americans asked. In his still-classic book about the 1964 presidential campaign, even Teddy White, no LBJ fan, called Tonkin Gulf a "deft response." Hindsight makes analyzing policy easier. There will be a lot of that this week.

But as someone who worked in the White House (for Vice President Gore), what especially strikes me are two issues that link indirectly to policy — but directly to character, and a political culture still in place: how much LBJ lied — and how little he knew.

Lies

Was any of LBJ's speech that night, true? To historians the verdict is clear. No.

"Seek no wider war?" That is exactly what he sought with a resolution written six months earlier, waiting for an event to justify it. "On the open seas," with its implication that the attack was unprovoked? The Maddox, cruising off the Vietnamese coast, was part of a covert and illegal intelligence-gathering mission, designed to provoke exactly the response it got. Two days of attacks? Even Johnson didn't believe the second one occurred.

Aggression? The Maddox fired first. More important, the North Vietnamese were off their own coast. They were home. U.S. sailors were about 8,000 miles from home. If anything, the aggressors were ... us.

Moreover, LBJ didn't limit himself to deceiving the public. He deceived the Senate. During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, sworn to secrecy about what he'd heard in briefings, LBJ had immediately blabbed everything to his friend, Sen. Richard Russell (D-Ga.) — in the process deceiving his boss, President Kennedy. In 1964, the tapes of his private conversations show him furious with his running mate, then-Sen. Hubert Humphrey (D-Minn.), for doing exactly the same thing to Oregon Sen. Wayne Morse (D).

"[Humphrey] just blabbed everything he heard in a briefing!" he tells an aide, Jim Rowe, "[s]aid, 'Well, we have been carrying on ... some covert operations ... '"

"Good Lord!"

"And that is exactly what we have been doing. ... [N]ow he's got ... Morse talking about it. ... You can't talk about war plans. ... He ought to keep his God d----- big mouth shut."

Imagine! Humphrey summarizing "exactly what we're doing" to a colleague in the Senate!

I wish I had space to use more material, especially from later-repentant Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, blithely lying to Congress again and again in the months ahead. Lying to the public and Congress wasn't unusual. It was part of the White House culture.

Of course deception is sometimes necessary in wartime. Why was the need so compelling then? It's commonly thought that Johnson worried about the upcoming election. He did. That month, though, LBJ was ahead of Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) 65 precent to 29 precent. He had little to fear.

But when we look more at Johnson's seeming willingness to lie, another possibility emerges:

Ignorance

The issues surrounding Vietnam included its fierce desire for independence, the promises made at Geneva, the complex set of circumstances that make countries "go Communist" instead of the simplistic "domino theory" enunciated by President Eisenhower. LBJ's private tapes reveal a compendium of cliches ("Let the dominos roll"); infantile name-calling for those who disagree with him, like Ambassador to Japan Mike Mansfield ("Spineless"); and one plaintive question again and again: "Can we win?" Missing is anything that might demonstrate knowledge.

Johnson's ignorance about foreign affairs was no secret. Ted Sorensen, the first Kennedy staffer to leave LBJ, had contempt for Johnson's "understanding of the world." He quotes one of his few comments during the Missile Crisis. After being silent most of the time, LBJ spoke up. His advice: back in Texas, "[if] a rattlesnake rose up ready to strike, there was only one thing to do — take a long stick and knock its head off."

"Chilling," Sorensen wrote.

Jeff Shesol, also a former White House aide, has written a lot about presidents, including LBJ. Johnson, Shesol says, went to bed each night with a huge stack of reading — hundreds of pages of memos and reports. But Shesol sees a problem with keeping presidents informed that affects even the most avidly curious: the way they get their information.

"Their people," he says, "provide them the information that reinforces rather than challenges their established views. That became the case with Johnson over time." To make sure I know he doesn't think this is an isolated problem, he adds: "And with George W. Bush from the beginning."

To that, I'd add one other problem faced by even the wonkiest presidents. We keep them too busy.

In the White House, I would get the briefing book each morning, spelling out the day's events in 15-minute intervals ("6:45 a.m.: Leave the Residence ... "), and showing the president and vice president on the go till midnight, day after day.

"When can you read a book?' I asked Gore, once.

"You live on your intellectual capital," he said.

How can presidents go beyond that? Do we mandate that for issues of war and peace they submit to disciplined education? Sit through presentations by those with sharply different views? Read — even whole books?

It's not any different than what we ask of students at American University, where I teach. But even putting this in print shows its naivete. Imagine Rowe telling LBJ, "Here's an interesting 400-page book by a guy who disagrees with you. Take a week and read it."

White House staffers often argue that presidents encourage dissent. Google "sharp debate within White House" and you'll find thousands of examples. But anyone who's worked there knows that the debate falls within a narrow range. In 2009, reporters made much of the internal White House "debate" about the U.S. surge in Afghanistan. The debate was about the size of the surge — not whether there should be one. I remember my own experience, of disagreeing strongly with someone in a meeting about something I wrote, and keeping my mouth shut. It's tough for a mid-level aide to be a profile in courage when the veep and six staffers are staring at you.

"Every [p]resident," Bruce Reed, former chief of staff to Vice President Biden, said recently, "would say the hardest commodity to come by in the Oval Office is the truth."

He's right. But "truth" is only part of the problem. It implies that the president needs more facts. Policy decisions aren't just about facts. They're also about values, something not easy to label true or false. Presidents also need to hear from people with different values, not just in an occasional gathering at the White House, easy to bury in the flood of memos the next day from staffers eager to curry favor. And that is part of what links ignorance to deception. If you haven't explored other views, it's hard to ask for more rigor in the misleading talking points staffers urge — or know they are misleading.

Vietnam didn't result from a single incident. And knowledge isn't everything. Robert Caro's massive biographies of LBJ have little about what LBJ knew of foreign affairs but lots of references to his "obsession with secrecy" and "need to win." Personality matters.

Still, naive as it sounds and hard as it is to solve, the problem remains. Presidents who know more might deceive people less and maybe kill less people.

One day during my Vietnam trip, we went to Ha Long Bay, one of the most picturesque places in the world. Our boat floated by amazing limestone cliffs and fishermen in small boats. Some people dove overboard to swim in the placid waters of the bay. Then our guide mentioned that in 1968, the U.S. dropped mines in Ha Long Bay. Hundreds. Big ones.

How did Vietnam get rid of them?

"They're still there," he said. Later I read that they pose a "hazard" for the fisherman we passed. Since the war, unexploded mines buried throughout the country have killed or injured about 100,000 Vietnamese.

"Firmness in the right is indispensible," Johnson said at the end of his Tonkin Gulf speech.

LBJ was too uninformed to know what "right" was. Like me at Ha Long Bay, he needed to find out what lay deeper, where the water gets murky.

Today, world leaders invade Iraq or Crimea, hurl missiles across borders, or pore over a list of drone targets. What if they probed deeper than staff memos? Met regularly with those armed with vastly different views, but too smart to caricature? Confronted the complexities of war and peace?

What if they didn't just live on their intellectual capital, but invested it?

That wouldn't fix everything. But it might make it a little harder to slaughter people by the millions — or lie about the reasons. Fifty years after Johnson's decision to use Tonkin Gulf led to one of the great horrors of the 20th century, here is one lesson we might draw: Before presidents rush to judgment, they should know enough to make one.

Lehrman is the former White House chief speechwriter to Vice President Gore and has published four novels and the widely used Political Speechwriter's Companion. He teaches public speaking and political speechwriting at American University and writes often about politics. This is his third piece for thehill.com.