Paper presented at the

Triennial Vietnam Symposium

Texas Tech University

March 17, 2005


Edwin E. Moise


Tonkin Gulf and the WMD Issue



Both the Vietnam War and the US-Iraq War of 2003 were triggered, to a significant extent, by false reports—claims that the governments against which the United States decided to go to war had done things that they later were discovered not to have done. 

On August 2, 1964, there was a minor shooting incident between a US Navy destroyer and three North Vietnamese torpedo boats, near the North Vietnamese coast in the Gulf of Tonkin.  This was the first Tonkin Gulf incident.  President Lyndon Johnson decided not to exaggerate its importance.  But two-and-one-half days later, on the evening of August 4, two US Navy destroyers reported that they had been subjected to a much more prolonged attack, much farther from the North Vietnamese coast.  If this second Tonkin Gulf incident had been genuine, it would have indicated a more aggressive attitude, on the part of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, than had been shown in the first incident on August 2.  That was why President Johnson decided to use it as the basis for the first overt American bombing of North Vietnam, and for passage by the Congress of a resolution authorizing the use of US military force in Vietnam.  But it now seems plain that the second incident had been imaginary; no hostile force had been within twenty miles of the US destroyers.[1] 

The Iraqi government of Saddam Husain acquired chemical weapons, and used them on a considerable scale against Iranian armed forces and to some extent against Kurds within Iraq, during the 1980s.  Iraq was also working to acquire biological and nuclear weapons.  Programs for the acquisition of these so-called “weapons of mass destruction” (WMDs) suffered severe setbacks in the 1990s, but by 2002, the administration of George W. Bush was asserting that Iraq’s WMD programs were being reconstituted on a large scale.  These assertions, which later turned out to have been false, were the primary triggers for the United States invasion of Iraq in 2003, more important even than the second Tonkin Gulf incident had been as a trigger for escalation of the Vietnam War.

Neither case was a matter of simple lies.  It seems clear that Lyndon Johnson believed what he was saying, when he announced to the world on August 4, 1964, that North Vietnamese vessels had made a second attack against United States ships.  It seems equally clear that George W. Bush genuinely believed that Saddam Husain had a large-scale and active program for construction of “weapons of mass destruction,” and substantial stockpiles of weapons available for use, in 2002 and 2003.  

There are some similarities in the mechanisms that led top policymakers to their mistaken views in the two cases.  One was that people at policy levels were basing judgments on intelligence information that had not really been analyzed, and judged for validity and reliability, by intelligence specialists at lower levels.  Once, in the distant past, this had been the norm.  George Washington in the Revolutionary War, and George B. McClellan in the Civil War, had routinely made their own evaluations of the raw intelligence data.[2]  Gradually, leaders had learned that they would be better off if they had intelligence specialists to analyze the data for them.  But they still like to look at the raw intelligence sometimes, which they are not well qualified to evaluate.  They were doing this more than usual when dealing with the Tonkin Gulf incidents, and the issue of Iraqi WMDs.


Time Frames

The biggest differences between Tonkin Gulf and the issue of Iraqi WMDs relate to their vastly different time scales.  The issue of Iraqi WMDs festered for many years, and even its final acute phase lasted months.  The United States began actively attempting to strip Iraq of its WMD programs in 1991.  By the end of 2001, the administration of George W. Bush was at least seriously thinking of launching an invasion of Iraq in order to accomplish this goal.  By September 2002, the Bush administration was actively lobbying the U.S. Congress and the United Nations Security Council, trying to obtain resolutions authorizing, in reasonably clear language, war against Iraq.  The Congress complied; on October 10 both houses passed a resolution authorizing the President “to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate” to deal with the problem.[3]  The administration tried to get the Security Council to authorize “all necessary measures” to disarm Iraq.  This phrase was euphemistic, but not ambiguous; everyone understood that it meant war.  But the Security Council refused to put the matter in language that clear.  Security Council Resolution 1441, passed on November 8, only contained a reminder that the Security Council “has repeatedly warned Iraq that it will face serious consequences as a result of its continued violations of its obligations…”

The Bush Administration then launched a major effort to persuade the world that Iraqi WMD programs posed a serious threat.  This effort reached its climax with President Bush’s State of the Union address on January 28, 2003, and Secretary of State Colin Powell’s presentation of evidence to the U.N. Security Council on February 5.  Debate over the issue continued until the United States launched the actual war, on March 19. 

Compare this with the time frame of the second Tonkin Gulf incident.  Two U.S. Navy destroyers, the Maddox and the Turner Joy, were cruising in the Gulf of Tonkin, off the coast of North Vietnam.  At 7:15 p.m. local time on August 4, 1964, they got word of an intercepted North Vietnamese radio message, which was interpreted as an indication the North Vietnamese Navy was preparing to attack the destroyers.  They soon began to see objects on their radar, interpreted as hostile vessels, and at 9:39 p.m. the Turner Joy opened fire.  Firing continued intermittently for about two hours.  The following day, two U.S. aircraft carriers launched retaliatory air strikes against North Vietnam; the first bombs fell at 12:15 p.m. local time on August 5.

In Washington, where the times were 11 hours earlier than in the Gulf of Tonkin, President Johnson get the word at 9:12 a.m. on August 4 that an attack on the destroyers might be about to occur.  Planning for retaliatory air strikes, and work on the text of a congressional resolution, began quickly.  Some doubts were raised early in the afternoon as to whether an attack actually had occurred, but these doubts were resolved by late afternoon, and a “strike execute” message went out at 5:19 p.m.[4] The first four planes from the aircraft carrier Ticonderoga were on their way to their targets at 11:35 p.m., and when the first bombs fell, it was 1:15 a.m. on August 5, Washington time. 

Discussion of the resolution in Congress began on August 6, and it passed, almost unanimously, on August 7.  It authorized the president “to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force, to assist any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty requesting assistance in defense of its freedom.”[5]

The whole process in Washington, from the first indication an incident might be about to occur, up to the passage of the resolution by both houses of Congress, occurred in four days.  And the Johnson administration had committed itself beyond any easy turning back, by bombing North Vietnam in retaliation for the imaginary incident and announcing that the Congress would be asked to pass the resolution, during the first seventeen hours. 


Willingness to Doubt

This short timing was crucial to the outcome, since analyses revealing the flaws in the evidence were done in multiple places in the government, and many people in the upper levels of government in 1964 seem to have been relatively willing to accept these analyses, at least in private.  General Bruce Palmer, Jr., who at the time was the U.S. Army’s deputy chief of staff for military operations, says that he realized within twenty-four hours that the reported attack probably had not happened.  He says that this conclusion was shared by most of the people in the Joint Staff environment, particularly those at his own level—the deputy chiefs of staff for military operations of the various services.[6]  Ray Cline, deputy director for intelligence at the CIA, and Thomas Hughes, head of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) at the State Department, both quickly developed doubts as to the reality of the August 4 incident.  There is no explict record of when and how the doubts were first reported to President Johnson, but it is plain that they were reported, probably through at least two channels.[7]  President Johnson found the doubters convincing, and was willing to say so—in private.  He complained to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara that McNamara had told him U.S. ships had been fired upon, but “When we got through with all the firing, we concluded maybe they hadn’t fired at all.”[8]  To Under Secretary of State George Ball, he was more blunt. “Hell, those dumb, stupid sailors were just shooting at flying fish!”[9]  The president had not gone to the world with his announcement of the August 4 incident because he was unreceptive to arguments that there had been no incident, but simply because he had been impatient.  He was determined to make his announcement to the world on August 4, and indeed was seriously annoyed at the delays that forced him to wait until late evening of that date.  This did not allow time for anyone to get to him with evidence that the attack had been imaginary.

An effort was made to gather evidence that would support the reality of the August 4 incident.  On August 6, the Joint Chiefs of Staff sent a “flash” message to US naval commanders in the Pacific: “An urgent requirement exists for proof and evidence of second attack by DRV naval units against TG 72.1 [the destroyers] on night 4 Aug . . .  Material must be of type which will convince United Nations Organization that the attack did in fact occur.”[10]  Some plausible looking evidence was gathered.  But senior officials had no heart for a public presentation of the evidence they had gathered, because a public presentation would be likely to trigger a detailed public discussion.  The government did not get around to publishing even a moderately comprehensive and detailed argument for the reality of the August 4 incident until long after the Vietnam War had ended.[11]

The mindset of the Bush administration, in 2002 and 2003, appears to have been very different.  It was firmly attached to the idea that Saddam Husain had large quantities of “weapons of mass destruction,” and it vigorously rejected arguments to the contrary.  (There is of course the possibility that this appearance is misleading, and that Bush and his top officials felt far more doubts than they have allowed to show in public.  Not much sign of the Johnson Administration’s doubts about Tonkin Gulf showed in public, until many years after the events.  But I think this unlikely.  I am prepared tentatively to assume, unless and until evidence to the contrary appears, that the Bush administration believed what it said it believed, on this issue.)

In the early months of the debate over Iraqi WMDs, the Bush administration’s firm belief in their existence was entirely reasonable.  International inspectors, some from the International Atomic Energy Agency and some from the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM),[12] had gone into Iraq in 1991, after the first US-Iraq War, to preside over the elimination of Saddam Husain’s WMD programs.  Saddam Husain seems at first to have assumed that he would be able to conceal from the inspection teams the numerous and large WMD programs that he had at that time.  He quickly found he had been mistaken; inspectors repeatedly either found evidence of WMD programs, or were blocked from conducting searches when they seemed to the Iraqis to be getting too close.  Saddam Husain then dramatically downsized his WMD programs, seeking to reduce them to a size that could successfully be concealed.  There followed years of cat-and-mouse, as the inspectors attempted to find what remained of the WMD programs.  Periodic blocking of searches continued to occur, and relations especially between UNSCOM and the Iraqi government remained very tense, until both the International Atomic Energy Agency and UNSCOM withdrew from Iraq late in 1998.  Iraq paid a heavy price in economic sanctions for its failure to cooperate with the international inspectors.

Several things seemed obvious after the withdrawal of the international inspectors (although please note: to say that something seemed obvious does not necessarily mean that it was actually true).  It seemed that Saddam Husain must still have had significant WMD programs in 1998, and must have valued those programs very highly, else why would he have showed such determination, and been willing to pay so high a price, not to cooperate with the international inspectors?  Given how much he valued WMDs, it seemed he surely must have reconstituted his WMD programs to a significant extent, once there were no more international inspectors in Iraq from whom to conceal such programs.

This logic led US officials to a firm conclusion that Saddam Husain must have, in 2002, substantial active WMD programs.  They also believed that he had substantial ties to Al Qaeda.  They wanted concrete evidence with which to convince doubters, and grew impatient with the process by which evidence was evaluated and judged for plausibility by intelligence analysts.  When the analysts found much of the evidence unconvincing, many officials seem to have suspected that this represented a defect in the analysts, rather that a defect in the data.[13]  They wanted to see, and did see, all the juicy pieces of evidence, not just the ones that the intelligence analysts found convincing.  Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet intervened at the White House to prevent President Bush from using the story of Iraq trying to obtain uranium from Africa, in a speech Bush gave in October 2002, because the story seemed unsubstantiated.[14]  Despite this, the story continued to be believed in the White House, and was included when the State of the Union Message was written in January.

The Johnson administration had bypassed the intelligence evaluation process, in August 1964, for a very different reason—sheer haste.  As Ray Cline later put it, “everybody was demanding the sigint [signals intelligence]; they wanted it quick, they didn’t want anybody to take any time to analyze it.”[15]  But while the reasons were different, the results were somewhat similar.

The evidentiary situation regarding Iraqi WMDs began to change in November 2002.  Under the imminent threat of an American invasion, Saddam Husain allowed international inspectors to resume operations in Iraq—some from the International Atomic Energy Agency, some from the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission for Iraq (UNMOVIC), the successor to UNSCOM.  The Iraqi government did not impede their inspections in the fashion it had done in the 1990s, though in other respects the cooperation it gave them was far from perfect.  As the weeks went by, the fact that nothing significant was found did not constitute evidence that Saddam Husain had no WMD programs, but did constitute evidence on the question of scale.  The lessons of the UNSCOM inspections of the 1990s had been that Saddam Husain was aggressive and skilled in his use of concealment, but also that concealment programs are not perfect, and that large programs are harder to conceal than small ones.  There was a limit to how large and diversified the WMD programs could have been, in late 2002 and early 2003, without the International Atomic Energy Agency and UNMOVIC having been able to find some significant part of them.  The longer the inspections continued, the lower that limit was.  By February 2003, it was becoming hard to believe that the WMD programs could be as large and as poorly concealed as the Bush administration was saying, without the inspectors having been able to find them.  The Americans were claiming to have information not only about the existence and nature of Iraqi WMD facilities, but also about their locations.  But checks of those locations were finding nothing.  As Hans Blix, head of UNMOVIC, later put it, “The sites we had been given were supposedly the best that the various intelligence agencies could give.  This shocked me.  If this was the best, what was the rest?  Well, I could not exclude the possibility that there was solid non-site related intelligence that was not shared with us, and which conclusively showed that Iraq still had weapons of mass destruction.  But could there be 100-percent certainty about the existence of weapons of mass destruction but zero-percent knowledge about their location?”[16] By March it was obvious that the American claims about the WMD programs had been seriously exaggerated. 

The Bush administration responded, not by reconsidering its claims, but by attacking the credibility of the international inspectors.[17]  It is hard to tell whether this reflected sincere disdain for international inspectors, or whether it was a disguise for a sense that the details didn’t matter.  It was obvious by March that Saddam Husain could not have concealed from the international inspectors weapons programs on the scale that US spokesmen had ascribed to him.  But it was not nearly so obvious that Saddam Husain could not have concealed a program one-third the size of the one that US spokesmen had described.  And the Bush administration was convinced that WMD programs one-third the size of the ones described would be adequate justification for war.  It is impossible to be sure whether senior officials still believed in March that Saddam Husain had very large WMD programs, or whether they had scaled back their beliefs to something that still might have been possible, in light of the weapons inspectors’ reports.  But all the available evidence indicates they still believed in WMD programs large enough so it would be hard to reconcile them with the international inspectors’ non-findings.  United States forces still went into Iraq expecting to have chemical weapons used against them on a significant scale.

One reason the Bush administration was much more firmly attached to its views about Iraqi WMDs than the Johnson administration had been to the second Tonkin Gulf incident was that the case against Iraq was too diversified to be subject to overall disproof.  When one charge about Iraqi WMDs proved untenable—as several had, by March 2003—there were plenty of others to replace it.  The second Tonkin Gulf incident had been one incident, lasting only a few hours.  It either had happened or it had not.


Persuading the Congress

I shall turn now from issues relating to the truth or falsehood of the Johnson and Bush administrations’ statements to the question of how those statements were used, in moving the United States closer to its wars in Vietnam and Iraq.  The context in which the Congress passed the resolutions authorizing force was very different in these two cases.  In August 1964, when President Johnson sent to the Congress a resolution giving him the authority to use “all necessary means,” take “all necessary steps,” to deal with Communist aggression in Vietnam, it was clearly understood that these words would give him the authority to put substantial US forces into combat in Vietnam if he felt that was what was necessary.  But Johnson conveyed a convincing impression that he did not expect that to be necessary.  There were senators and representatives who did not like the idea of a major American role in the Vietnam War who nonetheless voted for this blank check because they saw little danger it would be cashed.  The facts that the Johnson administration had been drawing up plans for months for a major increase in the US role in the war, and had been considering the problem of how the Congress could be persuaded to pass a resolution authorizing this, were carefully and successfully concealed.

The senators and representatives who voted for the Iraq resolution in October 2002 understood that it was likely to be used as authorization for an actual war.  The fact that the United States was drawing up plans for a possible war against Iraq was quite obvious.  George W. Bush tried to pretend that he was less firmly committed to carrying out those plans than he actually was, but he did not try to pretend that he was not seriously thinking of carrying them out.

Part of the reason for the difference was that the Congress, remembering Tonkin Gulf, was less naïve in 2002 than it had been in 1964.  Another part was the difference in the attitudes of the presidents involved.  Lyndon Johnson, in 1964, really did not want to get the United States into a serious war in Vietnam.  Even if it went well it would divert resources from his “Great Society” programs, and he had no faith that it would go well.  Indeed he was quite pessimistic about it.  When he talked about his desire to avoid such a war he sounded sincere because he was sincere.  What he was concealing was that he had not managed to think of an alternative course he found acceptable.

Johnson continued to hope, during the months following passage of the Tonkin Gulf resolution, that he would somehow find an alternative to a big war.  In a remarkable case of wishful thinking, he refrained from expanding the US armed forces in preparation for war, even a little, for as long as he kept hoping he would find some way to avoid war.  There were actually fewer men in uniform in mid 1965 than there had been when the Tonkin Gulf resolution was passed in August 1964.

George W. Bush was confident that an American war against Iraq would lead to a quick and glorious victory.  He did not, therefore, feel Lyndon Johnson’s reluctance to go to war.  This showed in public, and helped to ensure that members of Congress would understand the implications when they voted for the resolution that gave him the power to go to war if he chose to do so.

Lyndon Johnson concealed in 1964 the fact that he was seriously considering taking the United States into a war in Vietnam.  That concealment ended between February and May of 1965, but Johnson continued for a while to conceal the scale of the war he was contemplating.  The latter concealment significantly interfered with effective planning, in some ways.  Key officials responsible for management of the economy were not told how expensive the war was likely to become.  This left them quite unable to prepare to cope with the economic effects of the war.[18]

George W. Bush did not conceal the fact that he was seriously considering a war, nor the scale or cost that was contemplated.  He did, however, try to maintain for as long as possible the illusion that he had not yet made up his mind actually to go to war.[19]  This interfered with planning, not for the war itself (so far as is now known), but for the aftermath of the war.  Planning for the postwar occupation of Iraq was seriously inadequate.  Part of the reason for this was sheer optimism; officials who did not expect the occupation to face great problems or to require large American efforts felt able to skimp on preparations for it.  (Andrew Natsios, who as Administrator of the Agency for International Development was one of the key officials responsible for the reconstruction, believed that the total U.S. expenditure on the economic reconstruction of Iraq would be $1.7 billion.)[20]   But part of the reason was that a visible process of planning for the occupation would have been a strong clue that an occupation was expected, and the Bush administration wished to avoid giving out such clues.  Natsios explained that the reason the bidding for contracts in the postwar reconstruction of Iraq had been conducted in secret, with only a few companies like Halliburton and Bechtel invited to submit bids, was that if the bidding process had become known publicly, this would have been interpreted as an indication that the United States had decided that there was going to be a war, and a postwar reconstruction.[21]  Andrew P. N. Erdmann, who participated in the occupation as a member of General Jay Garner’s staff, commented on the difficulties of recruiting personnel for that staff, before the war: “How much diplomacy would there have been at the U.N. if people had said, ‘The President is pulling people out of the Departments of Agriculture and Commerce to take over the whole Iraqi state’? . . . That's the political logic that works against advance planning.”[22]  

            All things considered, I cannot say I see a close resemblance between Tonkin Gulf and the WMD issue.  But still the comparison looks interesting.





[1] See Edwin Moise, Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War (Chapel Hill: North Carolina Press, 1996), pp. 106-207.

[2] See Edwin C. Fishel, The Secret War for the Union (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996), esp. p. 55, for a refutation of the widespread exaggerations of Alan Pinkerton’s role as intelligence chief for McClellan.

[3] “Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002,”  United States Statutes at Large, 116 STAT. 1498-1502.  It had 23 “Whereas” paragraphs, of which 10 referred directly to weapons of mass destruction, and one other referred to them indirectly by referring to UN Security Council Resolution 687; four referred to Al Qaeda and/or the September 11 attack, and five others referred to terrorism without specifically mentioning Al Qaeda or September 11; four referred to Saddam Hussein’s abuse of the Iraqi people; and one referred to the desirability of bringing democracy to Iraq. 

[4] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, vol. I, Vietnam 1964, p. 610.

[5] Southeast Asia Resolution, Joint Hearing before the Committee on Foreign Relations and the Committee on Armed Services, United States Senate, August 6, 1964 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1966), pp. 1-2

[6] Interview with General Bruce Palmer, Jr., September 21, 1994.

[7] This author is reasonably confident that both McGeorge Bundy, the president’s special assistant for national security affairs, and Clark Clifford, chairman of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, had told President Johnson there was serious doubt as to the reality of the August 4 incident within a week after the event.  But there is no explicit documentary record. See Moise, Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War, pp. 198-99, 243.

[8] Conversation between Johnson and McNamara, September 18, 1964, in Michael Beschloss, ed., Reaching for Glory: Lyndon Johnson’s Secret White House Tapes, 1964-1965 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), p. 39.

[9] George W. Ball, The Past Has Another Pattern (New York: Norton, 1982), p. 379.

[10] JCS to CINCPAC (copies to Ticonderoga, Maddox, Turner Joy, etc.), 061642Z Aug 1964.

[11] Edward J. Marolda and Oscar Fitzgerald, The United States Navy and the Vietnam Conflict, vol. II, From Military Assistance to Combat, 1959-1965 (Washington: Naval Historical Center, 1986), pp. 426-436.  The primary author of this has since recanted; see Edward J. Marolda, "Summary of the Tonkin Gulf Crisis of August 1964," on a US Navy web site at <>.

[12] The IAEA investigated the Iraqi nuclear programs.  UNSCOM investigated chemical and biological weapons programs, and also long-range missiles, which were forbidden to Iraq under the agreement that ended the 1991 war, but are not classified as “weapons of mass destruction.”

[13] Semour M. Hersh, Chain of Command (New York: HarperCollins, 2004), pp.207-236.

[14] Ibid., p. 233.

[15] Ted Gittinger, ed., The Johnson Years: A Vietnam Roundtable (Austin: Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, University of Texas, 1993), p. 29.

[16] Hans Blix, Disarming Iraq (New York: Pantheon, 2004), p. 156.

[17] Blix, Disarming Iraq, chapter 10.

[18] Jeffrey W. Helsing, Johnson's War/Johnson's Great Society: The Guns and Butter Trap (Westport and London: Praeger, 2000), esp. pp. 121, 151, 224.

[19] On January 13, 2003, President Bush told both Secretary of State Colin Powell and Prince Bandar bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia that he had decided on a war.  Bob Woodward, Plan of Attack (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), pp. 265, 267, 270, 274.  It would have been easy for Bush to change his mind after telling Powell, but not easy to do so after telling Prince Bandar. 

[20] Andrew Natsios, on ABC News “Nightline,” April 23, 2003, transcript on LexisNexis. 

[21] Ibid.

[22] George Packer, “War After the War: What Washington Doesn't See in Iraq.”  The New Yorker, November 24, 2003, p. 64. 


Copyright © 2005, Edwin E. Moïse. Revised August 6, 2006. The opinions in this paper are my own, not those of Clemson University. Clemson University does not have opinions on the subjects in question.