An Ominous Non-Event: The Gulf of Tonkin and the Strait of Hormuz
by Robert Fantina
As the U.S. government continues to demonstrate its inability to learn from history, an alarming report from the Strait of Hormuz was broadcast to the world on January 7. The Associated Press reported the following: “In what U.S. officials called a serious provocation, Iranian boats harassed and provoked three U.S. Navy ships in the strategic Strait of Hormuz, threatening to explode the American vessels.” These Iranian ships are believed to part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s navy, the organization that the U.S. Congress officially decreed a ‘terrorist’ organization.
Those either old enough to remember, or cognizant enough to understand history, will immediately be reminded of the infamous ‘Gulf of Tonkin’ incident, reported on August 2, 1964. On that day, the U.S. destroyer Maddox, on an espionage mission in the Gulf of Tonkin off the Vietnam coast, reported being fired on by North Vietnamese torpedo patrol boats. In response the Maddox fired back, sinking one boat. Tensions in the area were already growing, and now the world watched and waited.
On August 4 of that same year, the Maddox and the C. Turner Joy, another destroyer, were again patrolling the Gulf of Tonkin. Instruments on the Maddox indicated that it was either attacked or was under attack, and both the Maddox and the C. Turner Joy began firing back, with assistance from U.S. air power.
It was less than 24 hours later when the captain concluded that there might not have been an attack; why the instruments indicated otherwise was not clearly explained. The pilot of a Crusader jet, James B. Stockdale, undertook a reconnaissance flight over the gulf that evening. He was asked if he saw any North Vietnamese attack vessels. Mr. Stockdale did not equivocate in his response. Said he: “Not a one. No boats, no wakes, no ricochets off boats, no boat impacts, no torpedo wakes–nothing but black sea and American firepower.”
Yet this non-event, either misinterpreted or fabricated altogether, was seen by an hysterical U.S. Congress, ever willing to protect America from its enemies, real or imagined, as aggression against the U.S. It also provided members of that august body with some additional ‘I’m-strong- on-Communism’ credentials, which were ever in demand from the end of World War II until the dawn of the world’s newest bugaboo, ‘terrorism.’ Congress quickly passed the so-called ‘Gulf of Tonkin Resolution,’ which empowered President Lyndon Johnson to take all measures he deemed necessary to repel aggression. While this was not the start of the Vietnam War, it represented the first major escalation that did not end for over a decade, and cost the lives of over 50,000 U.S. soldiers, and between 1,000,000 and 2,000,000 Vietnamese citizens. It caused havoc with the U.S. economy, brought near-revolution to American streets and campuses and drew hostility towards the U.S. from most of the world.
Today, an unidentified Pentagon official called this ‘incident’ in the Strait of Hormuz “a serious provocation.” Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman referred to it as a “serious incident.” Mr. Gordon Johndore, National Security Council spokesman said the United States urges the Iranians “to refrain from such provocative actions that could lead to a dangerous incident in the future.”
It must be remembered that it was just a month ago that the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) determined that Iran ceased its nuclear weapons program four years ago. As President Bush was busy rattling his saber, and apparently itching to start yet another war, the NIE took the wind out of his bloody sails. He huffed and puffed and said, inexplicably, that the NIE report proved that Iran was still a great threat to the U.S., but it seemed that no one took him too seriously. Now, however, we have an ‘incident.’ Obviously, we are told, like in the Gulf of Tonkin 44 years ago, the U.S. has been the victim of ‘aggression.’
It is, of course, unimportant to consider that Iran might understandably be a little trigger-happy when it sees U.S. naval vessels approaching. Just because Iran’s next-door neighbor was invaded by the U.S. without provocation, and now is in the midst of a deadly occupation, should not in any way justify Iran’s wariness. The fact that it was only a year ago that Mr. Bush sent a second aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf for no other reason than to intimidate Iran, and to participate in ‘war games‘ (an oxymoron if ever there was one) in clear sight of one of the members of Mr. Bush’s ‘axis of evil,’ should simply be ignored by Iran. The fact that the U.S. has a long and violent history of invading countries that displease it in some way (perhaps they have a democratically elected government that does not bow and scrape to the occupant of the White House throne) should not alarm Iran. Mr. Bush and his spokesman have not said that they plan to invade Iran; they simply said
no options are off the table.
One waits in anxious impatience to see how Congress will react. Surely the slowly-dwindling multitudes seeking the Republican and Democratic presidential nominations will race each other to the microphone to denounce Iranian aggression, thus shining their patriotic credentials. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY), who last fall voted to name Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization, can gloat and glow with jingoistic satisfaction that that organization has now proven her right and her critics wrong, at least in her own mind. Perhaps former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, stumbling along on the path if not towards the Republican nomination, at least in its general direction, will endorse whatever Mr. Bush proclaims; after all, Mr. Romney has stated that it is Mr. Bush who has kept America safe (save for one or two unfortunate incidents in September of 2001). Will former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who never tires of reminding the voters that he and he alone was mayor of New York on September 11 2001 (whatever that may be worth), now raise the specter of Iranian terrorism in the U.S?
One could sit back and laugh at the nonsense proclaimed by the men and women who seek to lead the United States if their actions were not so dangerous. In 1964 an incident not unlike the one that allegedly took place in the Strait of Hormuz on January 8 of this year caused Congress to officially embark on America’s most deadly imperial disaster. ‘Flawed intelligence,’ at best, and outright lies at worst paved the way for the current imperial mess which has the potential to dwarf America’s Vietnam catastrophe. And now, with a lame duck president seeking to salvage his disgraced reputation, one wonders if this reported incident from Iran will have the same effect as the non-incident in the Gulf of Tonkin 44 years ago.
Mr. Bush & Co. have never been particularly interested in facts. They have not had any desire to listen to opposing opinions. They have happily ignored the wishes of the U.S. citizens. They apparently have been very interested in enriching themselves and their cronies, and have focused their desire for riches on oil, at the expense of the blood of their own, and Iraq’s, citizens. They have used fear to get Congress to support their crimes. There is nothing to cause one to think things will be different now. Congress has proved its spinelessness over and over, and we all know that there is no reason for statesmanship when interesting, pander-to-the-fear-of-the-moment sound bytes are so much easier.
Whether or not this current situation leads Congress to justify an invasion of Iran, or other actions that will lead to an invasion, remains to be seen. But the U.S. has not learned from its own history, and another repeat of an unneeded and catastrophic war is not, unfortunately, unthinkable. That the president will not stop it is not surprising; that Congress will be complicit once again is unspeakable.
Iran Showdown Echoes Faked Gulf Of Tonkin Attack
A dramatic showdown at sea. Crossed communication signals. Apparently-hostile craft nearby. Sketchy intelligence leading to ratcheted up rhetoric.
The similarities between this week’s confrontation between US warships and Iranian speedboats and events off the coast of North Vietnam 44 years ago were too hard for many experts to miss, leading to the question: Is the Strait of Hormuz 2008’s Gulf of Tonkin?
On Aug. 2nd and 4th, 1964, the USS Maddox and the USS Turner Joy, patrolling off the North Vietnamese coast, intercepted signals indicating they were under attack. Within days, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which paved the way to the escalation of the Vietnam War. However, as some intelligence agents suspected at the time, the Aug. 2nd attack took place after the USS Maddox fired first, according to a National Security Agency report released in 1995.
This week another NSA report surfaced, confirming suspicions that the Aug. 4th attack never happened.
The researcher who uncovered the most recent NSA assessment tells RAW STORY that the Strait of Hormuz confrontation, and the immediate saber-rattling from the Bush administration and its allies, demonstrates the extent to which officials must be wary about politicizing shaky intelligence in times of war.
“The parallels (between Tonkin and Hormuz) speak for themselves, but what they say is that even the most basic factual assumptions can be made erroneously [or] can prove to be false,” Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, told Raw Story. “Therefore extreme caution is always appropriate before drawing conclusions … that might leave to violent conflict. That’s almost so obvious that I feel embarrassed saying it, but there is a history of mistaken interpretations of these kinds of encounters that ought to teach us humility.”
Humility and caution, of course, don’t seem to be the most popular buzz words in the Bush White House.
“It is a dangerous situation. … I think it was a provocative act,” Bush warned two days after a handful of small Iranian speedboats spooked a fleet of US Navy warships.
The Pentagon’s initial account of the Jan. 6 confrontation said the Iranian boats “charged” the US ships, dropped boxes in the water that were thought to be mines and threatened to set up “explosions.” An unnamed US Defense Department official told the Associated Press the day after the incident that it was “the most serious provocation of its sort” in the Gulf, although Iranian officials tried to downplay the incident as a simple misunderstanding.
It was not until Thursday, after the Pentagon and Iran had each released videos of the encounter, that the US acknowledged the verbal threats they had associated with the Iranian speedboats from day one could have been broadcast from virtually anywhere.
“I am coming to you …. You will explode after a few minutes,” a voice says on the audio recording but Farsi speakers and Iranians have said the voice did not sound Iranian.
Aftergood said he was surprised at the uncertainty regarding the origin of that message, which was broadcast on a public communication channel and superimposed onto the end of the Pentagon video.
“One might’ve thought that they would be able to pinpoint it exactly, but it turns out that’s not so,” said Aftergood, who runs FAS’s Project on Government Secrecy. “It’s also surprising that President Bush was permitted to get so far out in front on this issue, even though there were significant uncertainties on what transpired.”
Others have questioned the supposed mines that were claimed to be dropped form the Iranian boats.
“The bit about the ‘white boxes’ being dropped into the water seems almost equally dubious,” writes Glenn Greenwald. “Neither the video of the incident released by the U.S. military, nor the video version released by the Iranian government, includes any such event, nor are there any references to it at all on the audio.”
Aftergood said the information should have been more fully vetted before the White House began warning Iran of “serious consequences” of future showdowns.
“What you hear talking is the child on the schoolyard, not the sober national leader,” he said. “And i don’t think that serves anyone’s interest.”
Aftergood noted that America is less poorly equipped to avoid international incidents than it was during the Cold War.
“The credibility at least of the administration has taken a hit by the way this episode played out,” Aftergood said, but the near-confrontation could provide an opportunity for Bush to learn from his mistakes.
The US has largely given Iran the diplomatic silent treatment during the Bush years, which Aftergood said increases the likelihood that the next Strait of Hormuz-type incident won’t de-escalate so quickly.
“If we could have a hotline with the Kremlin while they had thousands of nuclear weapons aimed at our country, one would think we could do the same for Iran,” he said. “With some skillful statesmanship … this could serve as the impetus for that, but it would be one way to turn a negative into a net positive.”