Aug. 4 is the 50th anniversary of the infamous Gulf of Tonkin incident. On that day in 1964, officers of a destroyer, the USS Maddox, which had been gathering intelligence data in North Vietnamese waters, claimed that three North Vietnamese Coast Guard patrol boats fired at them without provocation. It was a bald-faced lie.
The Lyndon Johnson administration used the alleged shots from the patrol boats as a pretext to escalate U.S. intervention in Vietnam. The Pentagon immediately bombed North Vietnam’s port city of Haiphong and the capital, Hanoi. And on Aug. 7 the U.S. Senate approved by a vote of 98-2 the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which gave Johnson a free hand to intervene in Vietnam.
The war ended nearly 11 years later when the Vietnamese drove the U.S. and its puppet regime out of South Vietnam, liberating the entire country. But this war cost 3 million Vietnamese and 58,000 U.S. lives.
In August 1964, the vast majority of the U.S. population believed Johnson and all the media that parroted the government’s claims. The lie fooled many people and browbeat others.
By 1971, the tide had turned. Most people opposed the war. With the publication of the Pentagon Papers, anyone following the news could read that the government had been lying through its teeth all along in order to get backing for the war and that the corporate media went in lockstep to repeat these lies. Like Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction,” the Tonkin incident was proven to be a Big Lie.
The reason it’s important to repeat this history — it won’t be repeated too loudly in the corporate media, and they won’t draw the correct conclusions — is that it arms the working class and anti-war movement against the Big Lies of the capitalist government and its monolithic media machine.
When you hear the rants of the government and media blaming Russia and the Ukrainian rebels for the crash of the Malaysian plane, remember the Gulf of Tonkin.
When you hear the repetition in the imperialist and pro-Zionist media blaming Hamas for the fighting in Gaza, even though Israeli bombs, shells and rockets are killing mostly civilians and hundreds of children, remember the Gulf of Tonkin.
There’s another reason to bring up this event. It is important to have a working-class party that has the determination to stand up to the Big Lie and face down ruling-class public opinion.
Following the first bombing raids in Vietnam in 1964, today’s Workers World Editor-in-Chief Deirdre Griswold and Contributing Editor Fred Goldstein, then young leaders in Youth Against War & Fascism, stayed up all night to write a leaflet that nailed the alleged attack as a phony pretext for expanding the war. Others active in Workers World Party distributed that leaflet at an all-day protest at the United Nations the next day.
It is vital even for a small revolutionary group to swim against the tide. In the case of Vietnam, that act of protest led to the anti-war flood in the years to come.
When you think about why we need a revolutionary party that can hold its ground in a crisis, remember the Gulf of Tonkin incident.