50 Years After the Gulf of Tonkin, Vietnam Vet John White Looks Back at the Incident that Sparked War
In late 1967, a mild-mannered English teacher from Cheshire named John White blew the whistle on the Vietnam War.
At the time, 20,000 American soldiers had already been killed in a war that he was convinced was built upon a verifiable lie. Like many Americans, White was distraught over the casualty figures announced nightly on the news by Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley. That, however, doesn’t fully explain why he went public with facts that he knew contradicted the official story. The truth is he had some inside information about how the war began and it had eaten at his soul ever since he learned about it.
As a naval officer from 1962 to 1965, Lt. White had witnessed the hostilities in Vietnam in person. More to the point, he was on a ship in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964 the moment when a “police action” in Southeast Asia became a full-fledged “war” in Vietnam. [See sidebar on Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.]
“Actually, it was never declared a war in Vietnam,” corrects White, a graduate of both Dartmouth and Yale, author of 16 books and stickler for precision. “We have not declared a war since Korea.”
When his four-year commitment ended in 1965, White recalls deciding, “I’d been part of the war machine and now I wanted to be part of the peace machine.” He joined the Vietnam Veterans Against the War but mostly kept a low profile, concentrating on teaching and raising a family. However, Cronkite and Brinkley kept calling off the casualty figures like bingo numbers at the VFW hall and by late 1967, White had reached his tipping point. It arrived via a saber-rattling editorial in the New Haven Register that rebuked war protesters. [Read the original New Haven Register editorial here]
“I felt I had to do something,” he says. “But what?”
The “what”—the “whistle” he blew—was a letter to the New Haven Register, published on Dec. 6, 1967. It wasn’t so much a letter to the editor as a depth charge to the nation, and it exploded in New Haven, then in Washington, D.C., and around the world.
In his letter, White maintained that “President Johnson, Secretary [of Defense] McNamara and the Joint Chiefs of Staff gave false information to Congress in their report about U.S. destroyers being attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin [in August 1964].” [Read White's orginal letter here]
You did not call the Commander in Chief a liar in 1967. You most certainly did not do so as a former Navy officer. More practically, you did not do so as a teacher with everything to lose. But White went further.
“In August 1964,” his letter continued, “I was serving as a commissioned naval officer aboard USS Pine Island (AV-12) in the Pacific. Pine Island was the first U.S. ship to enter the war zone in response to the ‘attack’ upon the destroyers Maddox and Turner Joy. I recall clearly the confusing radio messages sent at that time by the destroyers—confusing because the destroyers themselves were not certain they were being attacked. Granted that some North Vietnamese motor torpedo boats were in the area and used harassing maneuvers, the question is this: Did they actually fire shells or torpedoes at U.S. warships? The answer is no.”
The kicker to the letter, though—the piece that stuck in the craws of the super patriots and armchair warriors—was that White claimed to have spoken to the sonar man on the Maddox not long after the events in the Gulf of Tonkin and that the man “told me that his evaluation of the sonar scope picture was negative, meaning that no torpedoes were fired through the water, at the ship or otherwise,” White says. “He also said that he consistently reported this to the commanding officer during the ‘attack.’ My naval experience as an antisubmarine warfare officer makes it clear that a chief sonar man’s judgment in such a situation is more reliable than that of anyone else on the ship, including the commanding officer.”
Indeed, it was on such a slim pretext that Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on Aug. 7. With this document, Pres. Johnson now had carte blanche to wage war.
Though fifty years have passed since the events in the Gulf of Tonkin—now generally regarded as the start of the Vietnam War—John White still gets emotional in their recounting. The memories are fresh.
Without much prompting, White, who still lives in Cheshire where he and Barbara, his wife of 52 years, raised four children and have five grandchildren, recalls how in August 1964 he and his shipmates aboard the USS Pine Island, a seaplane tender, were rushed from their home base in Japan to the Da Nang Naval Base in South Vietnam to respond to an alleged aggressive action by enemy patrol boats off North Vietnam. White himself had been thrust into action, having just arrived in Japan the week before to take on the duty as nuclear officer aboard the Pine Island. In Japan, he had all of one day’s training and an hour’s briefing with his predecessor at this highly sensitive post. Prior to that, he’d been based in Newport, R.I., and on maneuvers in the Atlantic and Caribbean.
“I was reasonably well informed, but I don’t remember hearing much about Vietnam before then,” he recalls.
It was in the previous week, on Aug. 2, an actual, verifiable and undisputed attack by North Vietnamese patrol boats had occurred in the Gulf of Tonkin. Torpedoes were fired at the destroyer USS Maddox, which returned fire, damaging three patrol boats and killing four enemy sailors. Another destroyer, USS Turner Joy, was quickly dispatched to the area.
“From the North Vietnamese point of view, we were well inside their territorial waters, which international limits set at 12 miles,” says White. “The North Vietnamese took action to get the ships away from the coast. They admitted it at the time.”
On the night of Aug. 4, however, while White was en route to his assignment, the alleged exchange that led to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution took place. [At right: White during his Navy days]
Contrary to the assertions by peace activists, the destroyers were not placed there as a deliberate attempt to jumpstart a war. Rather, they were part of a wider operation known by the code name Desoto that had been ongoing since December 1962. U.S. destroyers outfitted with intelligence equipment intercepted messages from the North Vietnamese Army and relayed them to the South Vietnamese Army.
“Their motive was to capture the electronic signature of the enemy,” says White. “It was more of an intelligence-gathering mission than an overtly military one. But it was covert.”
It was during the time that the Pine Island was traveling at “due speed” to Da Nang that White examined the intelligence the destroyers had gathered, later cited in his 1967 letter to the editor. He recalls that it was “while reading a sheaf of classified radio messages, I noticed some from the commodores of the two destroyers that said ‘we are maneuvering to avoid torpedoes.’ These went on for an hour-and-a-half, and then there was a strange reversal of messages ‘looks like sonar was malfunctioning, looks like many if not all reports of torpedoes are false’. Which was a total reversal of the picture we were led to believe.”
Though he had his doubts at the time, White focused on his job.
“In wartime, there is little time to be philosophical,” says White. “I filed it away, thought it didn’t make sense, but I was a young gung-ho naval officer on the way to a war. We steamed into Da Nang waters in full battle gear, gun mounts loaded. We had the mindset to go to war. I was mindful of getting killed and never seeing my kids again but I also felt we were doing this for America, defending freedom and democracy. What is that Latin phrase that means ‘It is sweet and fitting to die for your country’? [Editor’s note: ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,’ from Horace’s Odes.] That’s how I felt.”
The situation on the night in question (Aug. 4) was even more chaotic than White suspected. According to Joseph Goulden’s book Truth is the First Casualty: The Gulf of Tonkin Affair—Illusion and Reality neither U.S. destroyer was under enemy attack. The biggest threat, in fact, came from each other. Goulden quotes the gun director on the Maddox, who had been ordered to lock his six five-inch guns on “the firmest target we’ve had all night” and to “fire before we lose contact.”
Disobeying a direct command from the bridge, the gun director held his fire, saying, “I’m not opening fire until I know where the Turner Joy is.” This was fortunate, because the “firm target” was the Turner Joy, running without lights at point-blank range. Had he followed the order, hundreds of U.S. lives would have been lost to friendly fire.
Still shaken by the episode five years later, the gun director told Goulden, “I could have been shot for not squeezing the trigger.”
It’s a feeling with which White soon became familiar.
After the Pine Island returned to San Diego, and then to Long Beach, Lt. White struck up a conversation one day with Chief Joseph Schaperjahn, the sonar man on the Turner Joy, though White mistakenly identified him in his 1967 letter as having been on the Maddox. This confusion, not cleared up until 1987, was used to cast doubt on what White had written in his letter, a mistake government officials went to great pains to keep him from correcting.
“I only came to doubt what I’d done when I could not find the sonar man I mentioned in my letter to the New Haven Register,” White says today, still vexed by his mistake. “I had the ships wrong. My veracity and my sanity were questioned . . . and, of course, so was my patriotism. I even began questioning my own sanity. I began to wonder aloud ‘Did this happen or was I hallucinating?’ I wanted the truth to come out completely.”
The reaction to White’s letter in the Register was swift and substantial. His students strongly supported him for challenging the official story of the war. But he unleashed far more condemnation.
“One guy was so furious, I could practically see smoke coming out of his ears,” says White, wincing at the memory. “He told me never to come to his house again and if I did, he would kill me. That’s how his patriotism showed itself. The Board of Education was not happy with me, not happy with the publicity I’d drawn to the high school.”
White’s wife, Barbara, was “supportive but not a cheerleader.”
He found himself fearing that he might be charged with treason.
“My intention for going public was to help end the war,” he notes. “It was a matter of conscience, but it was a lonely feeling, like being out on a limb that was increasingly shaky and there was no one below to catch me.”
After I.F. Stone reprinted White’s letter in his influential Weekly, CBS News reporter Marvin Kalb came knocking, as did TV news crews from the Netherlands and Japan. A documentarian interviewed White for a film about the war [In the Year of the Pig]. Eventually a copy of White’s letter came to the attention of William Fulbright, the powerful chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who was preparing hearings on the Tonkin resolution.
The Senator asked White if he’d come to Washington to discuss the matter.
“He had not convened hearings yet, and was just gathering information,” says White. “Fulbright wanted it kept quiet. Unfortunately, I told a friend from the Pine Island why I was coming to visit. He lived in a group house in D.C. and one of his housemates worked at the Washington Post. So, of course, when I arrived at the airport, I was greeted by a front-page story in the Post. It was embarrassing, to put it mildly, and I apologized to Fulbright.”
The media frenzy and derision—what he now calls “trial by press”—did not deter White.
“I said what I felt I had to say,” he says, with a sigh. “And for three months I was inundated with the media. But I felt I had to follow through. I told myself, ‘You stuck your neck out, John, you have an obligation.’ Thus, I talked to all the media and pretty much just repeated my story, not adding anything new to the record. After a while it was all such a hassle—I was a new father—I just wanted them to leave me alone.”
The backlash lasted for some time. The following spring, White was speaking at an antiwar event at Yale Law School when someone tossed a billiard ball through a stained-glass window behind where he stood. The glass shattered everywhere, as if hit by a hand grenade. The perpetrator was never apprehended.
Over the past 50 years, White has often reflected on these events. In 1987, with the help of Adm. John Stockdale, he located Chief Schaperjahn and called the former sonar man who confirmed the conversation and reiterated his observations on the Gulf of Tonkin.
Unwavering in his love of country, White has worked tirelessly on veteran affairs, is part of a Veterans Roundtable that has met for the past 20 years and takes part, in uniform, in Memorial Day parades and other special events in Cheshire. He devotes his energies, he says, to “communicating information for transformation.”
While writing about his Vietnam experiences last summer, White had an epiphany about “a previously unrecognized aspect” of post-traumatic stress disorder. In his work with Vietnam veterans, in particular, he frequently come across the condition.
“I talk a lot with Vietnam vets and the opinions about the war vary. Some still feel it was worth it, others say it was bullshit,” says White. “I met an Army first lieutenant recently and we got to talking and he told me about his Vietnam experiences. When he was through, I asked him if it had been worth it. He concluded it was a total waste.”
White refers to such a grim acceptance as “soldier’s soul.”
“Soldier’s soul is caused by the realization that the war in which the soldier fought was not a justified war, not a necessary war, not a matter of national security, not a good war,” White writes in The Gulf of Tonkin Events—Fifty Years Later. “It results from the recognition that the soldier’s government lied to the public about it, deceiving it into supporting offensive warfare . . . . In short, the war involves a hidden but profound violation—a defilement—of the soldier’s conscience, integrity, honor, ideals, trust and patriotic sensibilities. The war was an invisible assault on the soldier’s very soul.”
White now believes he was afflicted with soldier’s soul upon his return from Vietnam. “I bought the administration’s line at the time, that we were defending democracy and stopping Red China,” he says, “but then after disentangling myself from the propaganda I learned that the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution had been drafted by LBJ’s own staff many weeks in advance—just another piece of the puzzle that indicates going to war had been in the planning stages for a long time.”
In his account, White concludes that stuff like this gnaws at a soldier who has returned from a war, that it leaves “a nagging sense of having been corrupted—spiritually defiled—by a war machine . . . Living with oneself under such toxic conditions amounts to death-in-life.”
Would he write that letter today if he had to do it all over again?
After a long pause, White says, “Yes, I would, even if I didn’t know the turnout was as it has been. I have no regrets. I’d do it because I feel blessed to be an American, to understand from the founders’ perspective that we play an important role in the world, as an example not as a war machine.”
50 Years After the Gulf of Tonkin, Vietnam Vet John White Looks Back at the Incident that Sparked War