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Countries aren’t monopoly cards: An Air Force officer’s Gulf of Tonkin reflections — 50 years later

Two children suffering from the effects of Agent Orange living at Friendship Village outside of Hanoi, Vietnam.
A. Strakey via Flickr
Two children suffering from the effects of Agent Orange living at Friendship Village outside of Hanoi, Vietnam.
Posted Aug. 01, 2014, at 10:04 a.m.
Last modified Aug. 01, 2014, at 11:43 a.m.

In 1968, I was an Air Force intelligence officer flying reconnaissance missions over Laos and Vietnam. Back in the U.S., war protests were raging, President Lyndon Johnson decided not to run for re-election, Richard Nixon claimed to have a secret plan to end the war and riots occurred at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. With declining support from home, the U.S. military was doing the best it could.

Four years earlier, on Aug. 4, 1964, Johnson announced, in response to an unprovoked North Vietnamese attack on U.S. Navy destroyers earlier that day, he was ordering air strikes against North Vietnamese torpedo boats and bases.

Capt. John Herrick, in command of the two destroyers, sent messages that “freak weather effects on radar and overeager sonar operators may have accounted for the reports” of the attack. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara read these messages but failed to inform Johnson. It was later established this “attack” never happened.

On Aug. 7, 1964, the U.S. Congress, without being informed of Herrick’s recent messages, overwhelmingly passed what became known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, giving the president permission to conduct military operations in Southeast Asia without a declaration of war. This resolution was the basis for all of our military activities there. It was based on an incident that never happened.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of that attack that never happened — the beginning of a war based on a lie. Fifty years later, there’s much we can learn from our government’s breach of the people’s trust.

The U.S. was in Vietnam as it attempted to halt the spread of communism following the communist North Vietnamese government’s ouster of France, which attempted to colonize Vietnam.

After France’s defeat, the U.S. stepped up efforts to support an anti-communist government in South Vietnam — which never had the allegiance of the majority of people in the south — and engaged in covert military actions against the country’s northern, communist government. The North Vietnamese saw the U.S. Gulf of Tonkin activities as part of those covert actions.

As a result of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, U.S. forces in Vietnam went from about 16,000 advisers in 1964 to increasingly large numbers, reaching 525,000 personnel by 1968. Some 58,209 U.S. military personnel died in the war, and 153,303 were wounded. An unknown number — probably well over a million — Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian citizens died in the war.

Between 1964 and 1975, the U.S. dropped a greater tonnage of bombs on Vietnam, Laos and, ultimately, Cambodia, than it had dropped in all of World War II.

Under Operation Ranch Hand, the U.S. sprayed 20 million gallons of defoliants, mostly Agent Orange, on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, to reveal targets and destroy crops.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has an Agent Orange program to assist U.S. veterans and their families suffering from the terrible effects of Agent Orange exposure. Despite recent criticism, the VA works hard to care for veterans. I’m grateful for the excellent care the VA has given me.

The Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian people could not go home to be cared for. They were home. Hundreds of thousands have died, been sickened or had children born with birth defects because of these chemicals. Dioxin, a component of Agent Orange, lasts a very long time in the soil. Dioxin continues to sicken people and cause birth defects in Vietnam.

The U.S. military and U.S. society were severely damaged as a result of this tragic war.

So, what can we learn from this disastrous episode?

— Question government. Expect news organizations to question and investigate government claims. Inform yourself. Let your elected representatives know how you feel about issues.

— Countries are not ours to “lose.” They aren’t monopoly cards. Fear of “losing” Vietnam drove Johnson to wage a massive, unnecessary war based on falsehoods.

— Resist war as a first choice in solving problems; it should always be the absolute last choice. In my ROTC classroom in college, there were two posters. One read “Power for Peace.” The second read, “Peace is our Profession”. I believed them. They should have been true.

When our government sends our military personnel to war based on falsehoods, it is not supporting them; it is betraying them.

Rick Whelan is a real estate broker, former teacher and former Air Force officer who lives in Hope.

 

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