50 Years After the Gulf of Tonkin, Vietnam Vet John White Looks Back at the Incident that Sparked War
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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.