The war between the United States and Vietnam cost over 58,000 American and more than one million Vietnamese lives. It left one country physically devastated and the other socially splintered. It began, President Lyndon Johnson told the world, with an “unprovoked attack” on American ships on the night of August 4, 1964.
What we know today is that the incident that was reported to have taken place in the South China Sea off the coast of Vietnam didn’t ever happen. Yet three days later it was cited as the justification for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution which authorised “the President, as Commander in Chief, to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.”
The Gulf of Tonkin was the crucial turning point. In 1960 there were 900 American troops in Vietnam – by the end of 1965 there were nearly 200,000.
Did President Johnson take his country to war on a lie, or was he misled?
Journalist and historian D D Guttenplan explores these dramatic events through archive recordings and new interviews with the key players, bringing all the evidence together for the first time. Taped White House phone calls transport us back to that day – we’ll listen in on President Johnson as he discusses the situation with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and hear the situation unfold through conversations between key military personnel.
Daniel Ellsberg remembers being in the Pentagon receiving reports of the incident on the day, and Jim Stockdale tells us how his father was flying above the USS Maddox when the attack supposedly happened.
This special aired on Friday August 8, 2014 at 10 AM and 8 PM.