Just let me get elected, and then you can have your war. – Lyndon Johnson
The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was built on a foundation of lies. Contrary to what President Johnson claimed, there was no unprovoked “act of aggression” against the American destroyers that had been provocatively patrolling the area, and a second alleged incident never even took place. But the Johnson administration was looking for a pretext to escalate the war.
My essay How – and Why – to Start a War describes how James Stockdale led the fighter squadron searching for the North Vietnamese boats that had allegedly fired upon an American ship. Years later, Stockdale admitted, “I got so low I had salt water on my windshield and there’s no boats out there!” So he knew very well that the President was lying when, the next day, Johnson announced that the U.S. was responding in force to this unprovoked North Vietnamese “aggression”:
They had already signed it (the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution) and Johnson had withheld it. Now I don’t know what happened to it…I laughed to myself. I didn’t put it on the air but I said, Here we go. I’m starting a war under false pretenses…August 5th, 1964, and I was the guy that did it.
How could a liberal Congress pass this dangerous nonsense? Only in a nation whose deeply ingrained mythology combined paranoia and fear of the Other with absolute faith in American good intentions. Only in a nation where liberal politicians were afraid of being labeled “soft on communism” (or more recently, “anti-Israel”). Once it passed, however, it set events into motion that would profoundly influence American and world history for the next half century.
Historian Leonard Steinhorn writes:
Perhaps the most significant decision President Johnson made…was to hide the cost of the war and resist any tax increase to pay for it. Johnson feared that any congressional debate over funding the war would come at the expense of his Great Society program. He wanted both guns and butter, but he worried that Congress would choose guns over butter. So once again he resorted to obfuscation and deception to get his way.
To pay for the war without gutting his robust domestic agenda, Johnson resorted to deficit spending. The result: by 1970, inflation more than quadrupled.
Barely three years after birthing his “Great Society” of social programs, writes Steinhorn, Johnson began to starve it to pay for the war. It never fully recovered. Soon, his base of Democratic voters saw
…higher taxes, higher domestic spending, and lots of fanfare for a Great Society that didn’t seem to include them. They also saw domestic unrest and urban riots. To them, they were hard-working Americans who played by the rules yet were now forced to tread water just to keep from falling behind while government seemed to be giving everything away to the poor…From their perspective, the liberal elites were taxing them to coddle the poor, yet when it came to defending our nation these same liberal elites sheltered their sons in colleges and universities.
Those seeking to understand the rise of Reagan Democrats and white working class Republican populists – and the corresponding demise of the New Deal majority – need look no further. The cultural and political divide that began in the Sixties was a direct result of the deceit that brought us the Vietnam War.
And the war became a primary factor in America’s disillusionment with and seemingly permanent distrust of government. Trust in government peaked in 1964 (the same year as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution) and has declined continually since (except for the brief spike of patriotic fever that followed the events of 9/11). Not all of this decline is due to Vietnam, writes Steinhorn, “but a war built on the original sin of deception, fiction, and illusion deserves a good deal of the blame.”
Watergate, which calcified the credibility gap, also grew out of Vietnam when President Richard Nixon authorized his secretive White House Plumbers to retaliate against Daniel Ellsberg, whose leak of the Pentagon Papers laid bare the duplicity behind…the U.S. prosecution of the war. Years later Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon, one of two who voted against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, told Ellsberg that if members of Congress had seen the evidence from the Pentagon Papers in 1964, “the Tonkin Gulf Resolution would never have gotten out of committee, and if it had been brought to the floor, it would have been voted down.”
What Lyndon Johnson saw as a ploy to get support for his liberal domestic policies from the military-industrial complex had the unintended consequences of emasculating his liberal ideals, bringing on the Reagan reaction of the 1980s and wrecking faith in the democratic process itself. Indeed, in 1986, Reagan said, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help,” confidant that millions agreed with him. Now, the only thing Americans have in common is our shared distrust of government, and only half of us bother to vote at all.
In 2014, in another August event that we may look back at decades from now, President Obama authorized new airstrikes in Iraq (without, by the way, getting Congressional authorization), effectively bringing America back into that permanent quagmire. Two weeks after authorizing another quarter of a billion dollars to enable the Israeli military to continue its destruction of Gaza, he evoked the mythology of American good intentions: “America is coming to help…to prevent a potential act of genocide.”
“America is coming to help.” If you live in a Third World country, these are the most terrifying five words you’ll ever hear.