Beware The Gulf Of Tonkin

lemon party hand job There’s been a lot of people on the InterWebz recently warning “Watch out! Trump and Bannon are looking for a Reichstag fire!” to which a lot of people cry “Foul! Inappropriate use of Godwin Law!”

To which -- Surprise! Surprise! -- I agree.

There’s no need to dip into the history of Nazi Germany and invoke the Reichstag fire as a warning against the Trump administration.

Not when America has its own Gulf of Tokin incident.[1]

On Aug. 2, 1964 the U.S.S. Maddox, a U.S. Navy destroyer, opened fire on three North Vietnamese torpedo boats.[2]

The Maddox was about 120 miles off the coast of North Vietnam conducting electronic espionage (Fun Factoid! Currently there is a Russian warship doing the exact same thing to us about 70 miles off the coast of New England and there’s not a thing we can do about it since they are in international waters). A South Vietnamese commando raid, vetted by the United States, hit a North Vietnamese radar station.

The North Vietnamese responded by sending three torpedo boats to shadow the Maddox. When the Maddox intercepted radio transmissions that indicated the North Vietnamese boats might attack, they opened fire.

The North Vietnamese fired back…from a distance of five miles. In the ensuing combat the Maddox and fighter-bombers from the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Ticonderoga sank one torpedo boat, badly damaged another, and killed four North Vietnamese sailors.

The United States sustained one single bullet hole from an North Vietnamese machine gun, which struck the Maddox more by sheer chance than deliberate intent.

The next day the Maddox detected false radar readings that initially led them to believe they were being pursued against by North Vietnamese patrol boats, but eventually realized these were not real.

Nonetheless, President Lyndon Baines Johnson used both the real incident and the non-existent second one to justify escalating U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, to the tune of 58,220 American dead by April 30, 1975.

Why?

Because he was afraid the alt-right was going to label him “soft on communism” if he didn’t commit ground troops to Southeast Asia.[3]

Johnson, to be fair, was in a tough position. Never a popular leader, he had accepted John F. Kennedy’s offer to be vice president in order to shore up the increasingly reactionary conservative Southern Democrats in 1960.

Kennedy’s assassination was terribly traumatic for the United States.[4] Kennedy was a popular president, though his handling of Cuba set pretty much everyone’s teeth on edge.[5] His assassination turned him from an average president with a mixed record and a philanderer’s potential for scandal into an American icon, and gave Johnson (a Southerner) the political leverage to push through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on July 2 of that year.

The Civil Rights Act was massively important, long overdue, and absolutely justified, but the alt-right and their white supremacist allies had long been fighting against civil rights for African-Americans and other minorities, claiming the civil rights movement was actually a front for communist agitators to take over the country.

In this face of this bigotry, Johnson could ill afford to appear “soft on communism” and since fighting communists in America had the double drawback of (a) actually persecuting American citizens and (b) not having any actual communists in this country to fight, he opted to fight real communists halfway around the world.

Now, the next eleven years is a fascinating history, one that would be hilarious in its ineptitude if not horrifically tragic in its outcome, but doesn’t concern us today.

No, today we are looking at the following situation:

  • An administration facing large scale sustained opposition across the country
  • An occupant of the Oval Office who has repeatedly demonstrated again and again and again that he is untrustworthy, will lie about anything and everything simply because he doesn’t want to face the truth, and who has already betrayed and pissed off a huge hunk of his extremely narrow electorate
  • A chief advisor to said occupant who also has a long career as a demonstrable liar, albeit one driven by a far right / alt-right agenda instead of his so-called boss’ mere rapacious greed

This is not a reassuring position for the citizenry of the United States.

There is a great need for us to remain eternally vigilant in the face of evil people -- both in our government and in other governments -- who simply do not care about the lives of others so long as they maintain power.

They can be stopped, but only if we refuse to allow ourselves to be stampeded.[6]

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[1] In a nutshell: Capitalists, particularly those of the robber baron variety, have long been opposed to organized labor. Their violent opposition and suppression to organized labor in Europe ended up creating the nascent socialist movement, and the violent suppression to socialism ended up creating the Marxist communist party, and the attempt to crush communism led to fascist governments in Germany, Hungary, Romania, Finland, Italy, and Spain and we all know how well that turned out.

But instead of learning their lessons and finding a reasonable accommodation with labor and the middle class, the far right wing capitalists (those whom we refer to as alt-right today) declared de facto war on communism and socialism before Hitler’s ashes completely cooled, and as a result from Sept. 3, 1945 to Dec. 26, 1991 anyone suggesting peaceful co-existence between capitalist West and communist East was branded a commie-simp-pinko and a traitor to America.

[2] A little more history:  After World War One, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson championed for every nation to be allowed self-determination. A delegation from what was then called French Indo-China that included Nguyễn Sinh Cung attempted to gain his support for their independence and self-determination.

Wilson blew them off.

During World War Two, Nguyễn Sinh Cung (now known as Ho Chi Minh) led the Viet Minh against both the French colonialists and the Japanese invaders in Southeast Asia. The United States supported his efforts and promised to recognize Vietnamese independence after the war.

Instead, we double crossed them and allowed the French to reclaim their colonies in Southeast Asia. Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh fought the French and their ex-Wehrmacht mercenaries, defeating them at Dien Bien Phu on May 7, 1954.

Now at this point, most of the rest of the world shrugged, congratulated Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh on their victory, and recognized them as the legitimate government of Vietnam.

The U.S., however, opted to set up a puppet government in South Vietnam, triggering a faux civil war (the overwhelming majority of Vietnamese, North and South, preferred Ho Chi Minh’s government over any government supported and influenced by the West; we knew this and kept the fake civil war and puppet government going regardless).

In the intervening decade, the South Vietnamese puppet government proved remarkable inept and corrupt but despite this managed to continue fighting although unable to gain any significant headway against North Vietnam. The United States set “advisors” to help the South Vietnamese but in the aftermath of the 1950-53 Korean War (54,246 American dead) there was great reluctance to get involved in another land war in Asia.

The Gulf of Tonkin incident was about to change all that.

[3] And the kneeslapper is that the alt-right labeled every American president “soft on communism” including Dwight David Eisenhower who had a true warrior’s common sense reluctance to provoke unnecessary confrontations that would result in millions of deaths.

[4] I would argue more traumatic than the 9/11 terrorist attacks and almost as traumatic as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

[5] He gave permission for the C.I.A. to attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro by landing exiled Cubans at the Bay of Pigs; this failed ignobly and in no small reason because the Cubans, like the Vietnamese, preferred one of their own as their leader instead of a foreign influenced government. Kennedy followed this by putting medium range nuclear missiles in Turkey to threaten the Soviet Union, and the Soviet Union responded by setting up similar missile bases in Cuba. This lead to the Cuban missile crisis, which ended with the U.S. agreeing to take their missiles out of Turkey and stop interfering with Cuba in return for the Soviet Union withdrawing its missiles. Before this agreement was reached, however, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. came within an eyelash of nuclear war, including the U.S. depth bombing a Soviet sub carrying nuclear torpedoes.

[6] Some of you may ask “Well, what about the attack on Pearl Harbor or 9/11 in the context of the Gulf of Tonkin; weren’t those the same thing?”

In a word: No. Pearl Harbor was the first salvo in an all-out hemisphere wide attack by Imperial Japan against the United States and our Pacific allies, launched after they had already invaded and occupied mainland China. It was not a single incident in direct response to aggression by the United States and our allies but part of a well thought out and competently executed strategy to drive the United States and our Western allies from Asia and most of the Pacific, and only because of a slow typist at the Japanese embassy in Washington D.C. did it occur before Japan’s formal declaration of war.

9/11 is a closer fit, but here, too, it was a real event, a genuine attack coordinated and launched against the United States with a specific reaction in mind: To provoke a weak minded administration to commit to a course of action that would forever damage our credibility and influence in the Middle East. If George W. Bush had treated 9/11 as a horrendous but aberrant criminal act, much the same way we treated the white supremacist far right Oklahoma City bombing as a horrendous but aberrant criminal act, and not as an act of war, we would have still tracked down and killed Osama bin Laden and probably have crushed Al-Q’aeda instead of stirring up a stink pot in the Middle East that will never go away in our lifetimes.

fictoid: Thanks But No Thanks

The Enemy Is Not At The Gate But At Our Table