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At a Reader's Request...

Ben Bradlee's Speech on Tonkin Gulf

Full text of his 1987 remarks about the lie that sold the Vietnam War.

[Posted 26 February 2003]


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The Guardian (London) April 29, 1987

HEADLINE: Deceit and dishonesty - The first James Cameron Memorial Lecture


I would like to talk about government lying. Calculated lies. The wilful deception of the public for political end, especially under the disguise of national security, and what an awful price we pay for such lies under any name: misinformation, disinformation, deceit, deception, or just plain dishonesty.

In America, the press is curiously shy, even embarrassed when faced with the need to use some form of the verb 'to lie' even now when public tolerance for the unexplained and for the unbelievable explanation is wearing thin. We seem to drop quickly into a defensive crouch, when even, as now, we are accused of abusing our power by not accepting explanations which often defy acceptance. We are, too often, close enough to the Establishment ourselves to be [un]comfortable in calling a lie, a lie. I am not talking about little lies as in Vice-Admiral Poindexter asked to give up his job as National Security Adviser to return to active duty in the Navy. Little lies as in we did not trade the Soviet spy TK Sakharov for the American journalist Nick Danilov. Little lies like Margaret Heckler has been promoted from Secretary of Health and Human Services to be Ambassador to Ireland. Little lies like that take forever to damage the bonds of confidence that link the people and the press and public policy.

Let us talk about the big lies, lies that change history. Two of them have to do with Vietnam, that war that so outraged Jimmy Cameron. Let me take you back to December 1963 and Tansonhut airport in Saigon. At the end of his first fact finding trip to Vietnam for the New American President Lyndon Johnson, the Defence Secretary Robert McNamara was holding a press conference. He told reporters that he was 'optimistic as to the progress that had been made and could be made during the coming year' in the fight against the Vietcong. This was duly reported to an anxious world on that night's television and in next day's newspapers.

Landing at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington next day, he told another press conference: 'We have every reason to believe that (US military plans for 1964) will be successful. ' And he disappeared into a helicopter for the White House lawn, and a one-on-one session with the President in the Oval Office. Also duly reported.


What McNamara really thought


For 7 1/2 years, there was no report of that conversation. Not until July, 1971 and then only after the Nixon administration took the New York Times and the Washington Post all the way to the Supreme Court in a vain effort to keep them from publishing the so-called Pentagon Papers, did we hear what McNamara really felt.

Buried in those Pentagon papers (which so few people ever read) lay the revelation that McNamara had told President Johnson exactly the opposite of what he had told the press and through us, the world, the Secretary of Defence returned from Vietnam 'laden with gloom ' according to documents in the Pentagon papers. 'Vietcong progress had been great,' he reported to the President, 'With my best guess being that the situation has in fact been deteriorating to a far greater extent than we realise. The situation is very disturbing. '

Think for a minute how history could have changed if those comments had been made at Tansonhut airport, if those lies had gone unspoken at Andrews Air Force Base. Reflect on one of the eternal verities of our profession - insufficiently understood by us or by our readers - that the truth, the whole truth, emerges over time, and that's the way its supposed to be, as Lippmann pointed out more than 60 years ago. We don't get it all, the first crack out of the box, for lots of reasons, including the fact that people occasionally lie. It can take a long time to get it all, and get it right.

Now let me ask you to jump ahead some eight months to August 1964, still more than 20 years ago, to an issue of Time magazine. 'Through the darkness, from the West and South, the intruders boldly sped. There were at least six of them, Russian-designed Swatow gunboats armed with 37-mm and 28-mm guns, and P-4's. At 9.52 they opened fire on the destroyers with automatic weapons, and this time from as close as 2,000 yards. The night glowed earily with the nightmarish glare of air dropped flares and boat's searchlights. Two of the enemy boats went down. '

That's the kind of vivid detail that the news magazines have made famous. I don't mean to single out Time. On the same date Life said almost the same thing and that week's issue of Newsweek had torpedoes whipping by, US ships blazing out salvo after salvo of shells. It had a PT boat bursting into flames.


Only one trouble...


There was only one trouble. There was no battle. There was not a single intruder, never mind six of them. Never mind Russian designed Swatow gunboats armed with 37mm and 28mm guns. They never opened fire. They never sank. They never fired torpedoes. They never were.

It has really taken 20 years for this truth to emerge. My authority is Admiral Jim Stockdale, who has written a fascinating book. In Love and War. Jim stockdale was shot down over Vietnam a few days later and was a prisoner of the Vietnamese for more than seven years.

But on the night in question he was in a Sabre jet fighter flying cover over the Maddox and the Turner Joy, and he scoured the seas for more than two hours; and he is as sure as man can be that they were fighting phantom blips on a radar screen.

In case the Vietnam years have blurred in your minds, or even disappeared from your screens, may I remind you that this so-called Battle of Tonkin Gulf was the sole basis of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which was the entire justification for the United States' war against Vietnam. This non-event happened on August 4, 1964. President Johnson went on television that very night to ask the country to support a Congressional resolution. The resolution went to Congress the next day. Two days later it was approved unanimously by the House and 88-2 by the Senate.

The 'facts' behind this critically important resolution were quite simply wrong. Misinformation? Disinformation? Deceit? Whatever! Lies.

(C) Guardian 1987 * Reprinted for Educational Use Only


[Footnotes Follow The Appeal]


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