The "phantom battle" that led to war; can it happen again?
Secretary of State Dean Rusk spoke first for the administration. He observed that the language of the legislation closely resembled the authority granted in previous resolutions regarding Formosa, the Middle East and Cuba. Departing briefly from his prepared statement, Rusk underscored the "primary purpose" of the resolution: "[To] make it quite clear to the entire world that we are prepared to take the steps that may be required to insure the security of those to whom we are committed, and to bring such aggression to a halt."
Rusk's remarks were a short, unexceptional statement of U.S. policy, which raised few questions then or later. Defense Secretary McNamara's testimony, however, would become one of the wider chasms in the Johnson administration's "credibility gap." At the height of the Vietnam War, congressional critics of the conflict charged they had been misled by McNamara's account of the attacks.
McNamara's testimony portrayed the complex, ambiguous incidents in the Tonkin Gulf as a simple case of unprovoked aggression against U.S. ships on the high seas. His prepared statement made no mention of the destroyers' mission, the OPLAN 34A raids along the North Vietnamese coast or Captain Herrick's doubts about the second attack. Moreover, while most knowledgeable Johnson administration officials had concluded the attacks were retaliation for the OPLAN 34A raids, McNamara was at a loss to explain enemy motives for the attacks. "I personally consider the action of the North Vietnamese a form of suicide," he said.
Most senators uncritically accepted McNamara's testimony, with one vocal exception: Senator Wayne Morse (D-Oreg.). A scathing critic of U.S. policy in Vietnam, Morse was a mustachioed, 59-year-old former law professor who held the Senate record for the longest continuous oration. Spurred by a tip from an anonymous Pentagon source, Morse relentlessly tried to link the OPLAN 34A raids with the attacks on the U.S. destroyers. "I think what happened is that Khanh got us to backstop him in open aggression against the territorial integrity of North Vietnam," he speculated.
Stung by Morse's charges, McNamara combatively denied them: "First, our Navy played no part in, was not associated with, was not aware of, any South Vietnamese actions, if there were any. I want to make that very clear to you. The Maddox was operating in international waters, was carrying out a routine patrol of the type we carry out all over the world at all times. It was not informed of, was not aware of, had no evidence of, and so far as I know today has no knowledge of any possible South Vietnamese actions in connection with the two islands that Senator Morse referred to."
Morse's colleagues were not inclined to pursue his line of questioning. Instead, they innocuously asked McNamara about the strength of the North Vietnamese Navy, contingencies for a challenge by Communist China and the 64 retaliatory sorties that pounded four North Vietnamese patrol-boat bases and a supporting oil-storage depot. "They did not ask the right questions," reflected Pat Holt, a Foreign Relations Committee staffer. "They asked very few questions at all. That could partially be explained on the grounds that they didn't know what questions to ask at that point. But that's a pretty lame excuse. If you're not sure which questions to ask, you better start asking a lot, and then you will hit on the right one."