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