New documents released by the National Security Agency last month indicate that advisors in the U.S. government misled top officials about the 1964 military attack in the Gulf of Tonkin.
On November 30, the NSA released hundreds of previously classified articles, interviews and intelligence reports about the perceived North Vietnamese attack on Aug. 4, 1964. The records included one article written by NSA historian Robert Hanyok in 2001 in which he accuses officials of intentionally distorting the facts to support the case for more troops.
The “deliberately skewed” attack, as Hanyok described it, led to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, passed by Congress three days later. The resolution facilitated heavier U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, though the exact details of the event continue to ignite controversy.
“The conclusion that would have been drawn from a review of all . evidence would have been that the North Vietnamese not only did not attack, but were uncertain as to the location of the (U.S.) ships,” Hanyok writes in the article.
The internal document was classified as top secret after it was published, but some authorized historians who read it requested its declassification in 2003 under the Freedom of Information Act.
The article describes the evidence that the attack occurred as a “conjunction of two unrelated messages into one translation.” Hanyok claims that reports of signals intelligence also showed several analytic errors and unexplained translations.
“Information was presented in such a manner as to prelude responsible decision makers in the Johnson administration from having the complete and objective narrative,” Hanyok writes.
The release of the article four years after its publication has led some officials to question if it was suppressed in order to prevent comparisons to the pre-war intelligence issues in the Iraq war.
The public’s support of the government’s original case for war has declined, with 43% believing the government lied and 41% who say the administration was misinformed by bad intelligence, according to a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center in November 2005.
The number of people who believe that the Bush Administration lied about Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) increased 12 percent since early 2004, according to the poll.
Included in the declassified material is a taped conversation in which Robert McNamara, Johnson’s defense secretary, expressed doubts about the validity of the attack to Johnson a few weeks after the Gulf of Tonkin resolution was passed. McNamara has recently reasserted that claim, saying on a trip to Vietnam in 1995 that the North Vietnamese had not attacked American ships.
Some students linked the latest revelations about Vietnam to the current campaign in Iraq. Brian Walsh, a history major at the University of Maryland-College Park who spent the summer as an intern at the U.S. Navy Memorial Foundation, said the two situations are strikingly similar.
“History repeats itself,” Walsh said, adding that the new documents “underscore the importance of up to date, reliable military intelligence before engaging in military conflicts.”