The following is an excerpt from a 2005 speech that Bill Moyers gave at the National Security Archives on the occasion of its 30th anniversary.
In it, he talks about the events leading up to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which was signed into law 40 years ago this week. The resolution — created and adopted in response to two altercations that reportedly took place between US and North Vietnamese warships on Aug. 2 and 4, 1964 — authorized President Johnson to escalate the war in Vietnam.
In his speech, Bill references a trove of declassified documents that the National Security Administration had just released that indicated the second incident had never actually happened.
In 1963, Bill Moyers was hired as special assistant to President Lyndon B. Johnson and later served as the White House press secretary. Bill Moyers left the White House in 1967.
Because of the Freedom of Information Act and the relentless fight by the Archive to defend and exercise it, some of us have learned more since leaving the White House about what happened on our watch than we knew when we were there. Funny, isn’t it, how the farther one gets from power, the closer one often gets to the truth? Consider the recent disclosures about what happened in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964. These documents, now four decades old, seem to confirm that there was no second attack on US ships on the fourth of August and that President Johnson ordered retaliatory air strikes against North Vietnam on the basis of intelligence that either had been “mishandled” or “misinterpreted” or had been deliberately skewed by subordinates to provide him the excuse he was looking for to attack North Vietnam.
I was not then a player in foreign policy and had not yet become the president’s press secretary — my portfolio was politics and domestic policy. But I was there beside him during those frenetic hours. I heard the conversations from the president’s side, although I could not hear what was being told to him by the Situation Room or the Pentagon.
I accept now that it was never nailed down for certain that there was a second attack, but I believe that LBJ thought there had been. It is true that for months he had wanted to send a message to Ho Chi Minh that he meant business about standing behind America’s commitment to South Vietnam. It is true that he was not about to allow the hawkish Barry Goldwater to outflank him on national security in the fall campaign. It is also true that he often wrestled with the real or imaginary fear that liberal Democrats, whose hearts still belonged to their late fallen leader, would be watching and sizing him up according to their speculation of how Kennedy would have decided the moment.
So yes, I think the president’s mind was prepared to act if the North Vietnamese presented him a tit-for-tat opportunity. But he wasn’t looking for a wider war at that time, only a show of resolve, a flexing of muscles, the chance to swat the fly when it landed. Nonetheless, this state of mind plus cloudy intelligence proved a combustible and tragic mix. In the belief that a second attack suggested an intent on the part of an adversary that one attack alone left open, the president did order strikes against North Vietnam, thus widening the war. He asked Congress for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that was passed three days later and opened the way for future large-scale commitments of American forces. Haste is so often the enemy of good judgment. Rarely does it produce such costly consequences as it did this time.But did the president order up fabricated evidence to suit his wish? No. Did subordinates rig the evidence to support what they thought he wanted to do? It’s possible, but I swear I cannot imagine who they might have been –- certainly it was no one in the inner circle, as far as I could tell. I don’t believe this is what happened. Did the president act prematurely? Yes. Was the response disproportionate to the events? Yes. Did he later agonize over so precipitous a decision? Yes. “For all I know,” he said the next year, “our Navy was shooting at whales out there.” By then, however, he thought he had other reasons to escalate the war, and did. All these years later, I find it painful to wonder what could have been if we had waited until the fog lifted, or had made public what we did and didn’t know, trusting the debate in the press, Congress and the country to help us shape policies more aligned with events and with the opinion of an informed public.
Watch “Bill Remembers LBJ’s Road to War,” in which Bill looks back on President Johnson’s deliberations over America’s role in Vietnam and his decision to escalate and send in more troops.