The Gulf of Tonkin?
Amid all the Syria noise recently you may have missed another foreign policy story in the news over the weekend. On page A11 of today’s NY Times is this headline: U.S. Reroutes Aircraft Carrier and Missile Ships Toward North Korea. The story says that this action, taken on the heels of the Syrian Tomahawk missile strike, is designed to show “if you violate international norms, if you violate international agreements, if you fail to live up to commitments, if you become a threat to others, a response is likely to be taken.” (Rex Tillerson) While that statement is wonderfully vague (“likely to be taken” What, exactly, might that mean?) it is clear that the new administration is flexing its military muscles and, to my mind, the North Korean situation is the far more dangerous one on our horizon.
For those too young to remember --- or those so old they have simply forgotten --- in 1964 an incident off the coast of Vietnam provided Lyndon Johnson with extensive power to wage war, leading to what many historians refer to as the “Vietnam quagmire.” The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution:
gave U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson authorization, without a formal declaration of war by Congress, the use of conventional military force in Southeast Asia. Specifically, the resolution authorized the President to do whatever necessary in order to assist "any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty". This included involving armed forces. (Wikipedia)
What needs to be remembered is that the Gulf of Tonkin “incident” involved a falsified report of two “attacks” on U.S. ships by North Vietnamese PT boats in the Gulf off Vietnam. As it turned out, the first incident was rather minor, in which the USS Maddox fired on three North Vietnamese PT boats (August 2, 1964), even though President Johnson claimed the Vietnamese fired first. In the ensuing “battle,” the Maddox suffered one bullet hole from the Vietnamese and reportedly sunk one PT boat and drove the others off, with one of those damaged. The U.S. later claimed that a second attack occurred two days later (August 4, 1964) and that second “attack” led to President Johnson presenting Congress with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, giving him vastly expanded war powers. Only two senators (Wayne Morse of Oregon and Ernest Gruening of Alaska) voted against the Resolution and the door was opened to what became the long and costly Vietnam War. That second attack never happened and it was only later, in the Pentagon Papers expose, that we learned the truth.
I bring this up because sending U.S. ships to the Korean peninsula could create a scenario that echoes the Gulf of Tonkin. If we look at how Trump’s approval ratings will probably increase as a result of the Syrian missile attacks --- a pointless exercise that changes nothing in Syria but supposedly makes a “statement” (Why can’t we muster international support to conduct a raid like this? Why, all of sudden, has Trump become “President of the World,” when he claims he does not want that title?) There is no doubt that North Korea and its toddler leader Kim Jong-un are unstable, unpredictable, and potentially dangerous. But let’s not get too far out in front of just how dangerous North Korea really is. At this point, their most successful “intercontinental” ballistic missiles have only flown 37 miles from Korea. The development of nuclear weapons by the North Koreans is certainly a cause for concern. We must remember, though, that back in 1964 our infant mass media, led by Time Magazine, the NY Times, and the nightly news shows (Huntley-Brinkley, Cronkite, Howard K. Smith) all made the Gulf of Tonkin incident sound like a heinous attack on U.S. ships --- because that was the information they were fed from the Johnson Administration!
U.S. ships off the coast of Korea may simply prove to be a forgotten military “exercise,” a meaningless show of strength --- or it may become a provocation, an event that causes the little dictator to do something foolish or rash. And who knows what that might be? Firing on the U.S. vessels? Attacking South Korea? Some kind of cyber warfare? Or simply more contentious talk? Whatever the case, moving our ships to the Korean peninsula may be a far more important story than putting it on page A11 leads us to believe. The NY Times lead story on April 10th was about Sallie Mae duping innocent students into signing off on exorbitant (and, apparently, illegal) loans. The second lead was Tillerson Halts Any Thawing Of Russia Ties --- certainly a major story (and maybe the first lead?). But an aircraft carrier and missile ships heading for the Korean peninsula buried on page A11?
Remember the Gulf of Tonkin and stay tuned, folks.