This week marks the 50th anniversary of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which led to the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, resulting in the escalation of the Vietnam War. It is a history worth remembering at a moment when the US faces so many crises in so many corners of the world. There were actually two reported Tonkin Gulf incidents. The first, largely undisputed, occurred on August 2, 1964, when North Vietnamese patrol boats fired on a US vessel engaged in surveillance operations. It is quite possible that the second incident, two days later, never took place: If there were North Vietnamese boats in the area at all, they never engaged the US fleet.
Nevertheless, US sailors had been fired upon and what had been one of many brushfire wars to which the nation had sent military advisers suddenly was the centre of popular attention. Congress adopted the Tonkin Gulf Resolution by an overwhelming bipartisan vote on August 7, 1964 — three days after Barack Obama’s third birthday. That is how long ago it was. And yet the war it enabled continues even today to cast its grim shadow over US foreign policy. Seven months after the resolution was adopted, the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade arrived at Da Nang. In the years to come, the number of US troops escalated fast and by the end of 1968, more than half a million Americans were serving there. Vietnam, successive presidents insisted, could not be allowed to “fall” to the Communists.
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Vietnam gave my generation an entire vocabulary with which to doubt what we are told: Quagmire. Light at the end of the tunnel. Body count. Collateral damage (an old engineering term repurposed as euphemism for tragedy). Even the original “Green Zone” was established not in Baghdad but in Saigon.
The war was confusing not just at home but also in theatre. The North Vietnamese army was a foe the US understood. They were classically trained by the Russians, moved men and material according to staff command and never once defeated US forces in a set battle. The Viet Cong irregulars, however, blended into villages and jungles, relying on stealth and surprise rather than numbers and weapons. Sustained urban warfare against guerrilla fighters proved challenging, for the US military had relatively little experience with this new-old form of warfare. Vietnam gave us the phrase “hearts and minds”. and the effort to win both somehow led to Operation Phoenix, in which US personnel promised bounties to farmers in the outer provinces who would turn in informers and collaborators. Evidently it hadn’t occurred to the program’s architects that even farmers might lie to settle scores with neighbours, or that people might take unkindly to the killing of tens of thousands of their fellow citizens. (Estimates of the dead vary, but everyone agrees that the body count is in the five figures.)
Yet Vietnam, like every war, was also an occasion for heroism and patriotism. Some 246 Medals of Honour were awarded, the great majority of them posthumously. The feats for which they were earned — throwing oneself on a live grenade, for example, or returning again and again to a firefight to evacuate the wounded — were the stuff of legend.
Members of violent underground groups, including Weatherman, used the war as an excuse for their terror attacks. Opposition to the war became so strident — and, in certain quarters, so unquestionable — that in 1967, so esteemed an intellectual as John Updike had to take to the pages of the New York Times to defend his position that the war, horrid though it was, should be debated on its merits, not according to whether one happened to like the president.
Vietnam was the first war America watched on television. Often, in its hunger for a story and its inexperience in covering this kind of war, the news media got the news badly wrong. The Tet Offensive, in 1968, was widely reported as a great success for the North Vietnamese, even though 45,000 of the 84,000 troops committed by North Vietnam were killed and not a single major strategic objective of the battle was gained. Other reporting, about the pains and complexities of the war, was far more accurate: We learnt, for example, that the swankiest clubs in Saigon were not open to locals. And that the going rate paid by the US for the accidental killing of a Vietnamese civilian was $30 (Dh110.34).
And all the while, domestic resistance mounted. Demonstrations were huge. In May 1970, National Guardsmen killed four protesters at Kent State University in Ohio. The war’s end was coming. Some 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam. The death rate, about 11 per day, was among the lowest of any war the US has fought. The high number of casualties is due in part to how long the war dragged on. America was not the same country after the Vietnam War. The crisis of confidence the war engendered was made worse by rising inflation in America and, abroad, a series of tiny but noticeable defeats (the Iranian hostage crisis of 1980-1981, for example). It seemed to many that the “American Century” had run its course. Some say the wound to America’s spirit did not heal until the Reagan era. Others argue that the US grew its way out of it during the enormous economic expansion of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Iam afraid I cast my vote with those who contend that America is still not free of the shadow of Vietnam.
Something in the American character was broken in that war. A generation that had defeated the armies of fascism abroad and the forces of Jim Crow at home was suddenly full of self-doubt. The doubt is with America still.
We dream no big dreams any longer, we Americans. We want new apps for our smartphones and better health insurance. As for dreaming of a better world — when we think of that, we tend to think of Iraq, and think again. Unbuoyed by America’s occasionally grating but often indispensable self-confidence, the world nowadays is taking care of itself. The results are plain to see.
— Washington Post
Stephen L. Carter, a Bloomberg View columnist, is a professor of law at Yale University.