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