NEXT MONTH MARKS THE 50th ANNIVERSARY of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident – the de facto beginning of full-scale American involvement in the Vietnam War. Washington’s escalation of the conflict began in earnest following the events of Aug. 4, 1964. That’s when the U.S. Navy destroyers, Maddox and Turner Joy, reported that they were under attack by communist torpedo boats 11 miles off the coast of North Vietnam. The two warships returned fire and reportedly drove off the raiders. The Maddox, which was in the area conducting intelligence-gathering operations, had already exchanged shots with hostile vessels a couple of days earlier.* Within minutes of this second skirmish however, President Lyndon Johnson was in front of the media condemning what he characterized as repeated acts of aggression by Hanoi and vowing retaliation. Just a few hours later, 64 American warplanes struck a series of targets in North Vietnam. On Aug. 10, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution granting the president a free hand to wage war in Indochina. Only two senators opposed the measure: Wayne Morse (D) Oregon and Ernest Henry Gruening (D) Alaska.
Subsequent investigations revealed that the Aug. 4 raid by North Vietnamese attack boats probably never actually occurred. The destroyers had likely detected only false radar returns or “ghosts” and no enemy torpedoes were ever fired. But for the White House, which had been looking to ratchet up American involvement in the ongoing war between North and South Vietnam, the incident was an opportunity not to be squandered. A full on air campaign followed the initial strikes and by the following spring, American combat troops were on the ground in Southeast Asia, joining more than 20,000 advisors already in country. By the time the United States had finally quit Vietnam a decade later, more than 2.7 million Americans had fought in the conflict — 58,000 of them would never return home. More than 3 million Vietnamese would also perish.
The Tonkin Incident was not the only case of a major war being launched under dubious circumstances. Here are some other examples:
Swedes in Russian Clothing
Facing a torrent of domestic political upheaval, Sweden’s King Gustav III was keen to somehow distract the restless masses clamoring for his ouster. So in 1788, the unpopular 42-year-old ruler set out to fomented war with his nation’s long-time rival Russia, which at the time was neck-deep in a conflict with the Ottoman Empire. The king’s agents ordered costume makers from the national opera company to supply a detachment of royal troops with Russian uniforms. Then on June 27, the disguised soldiers raided a friendly outpost along the border. Believing the attack was the handiwork of Empress Catherine’s army, the national legislature in Stockholm authorized the monarch to retaliate in kind. The two-year war, which ultimately ended in stalemate, led to the deaths of 6,000 people. And although Gustav managed to rally his people, things didn’t end well for the Swedish sovereign. He was assassinated by a military officer in 1792 while attending a masquerade ball.
In a feat of skullduggery worthy of Niccolo Machiavelli, Prussia’s Otto Von Bismarck not only engineered a conflict he had long sought with France, he actually hoodwinked Napoleon III into declaring war first. For years leading up to 1870, France had watched with growing unease as the famous German statesman fused an assortment of Central European duchies and principalities into a powerful new confederation. But when Kaiser Wilhelm I accepted an offer from Madrid to place a German prince on the empty throne of Spain, Paris’ outrage was so vociferous that Prussia was compelled to refuse the invitation. Following the diplomatic row, France dispatched its foreign minister to meet with Wilhelm who was vacationing at Bad Ems at the time. The German ruler cordially assured the envoy that Prussia no longer had any designs on the Spanish throne, but stopped short of categorically ruling out any future bids. Following the dialogue, Bismarck shrewdly issued a communiqué to the press that falsely characterized the polite tête-à-tête as a volatile confrontation in which Wilhelm icily rebuffed the foreign minister. It was a skillfully crafted interpretation of the events designed specifically to raise France’s dander. And it worked. Napoleon III declared war as a matter of national honour and within days, Prussian soldiers were charging across the border on their way to Paris. Weeks later, the French capital would be under German guns.
“Remember the Maine, To Hell With Spain!”
Chilly relations between Spain and the United States over the fate of Cuba suddenly became red hot in Feb. 1898. That’s when the American battleship USS Maine inexplicably exploded while anchored off Havana, killing 260 sailors. Thanks to a torrent of incendiary press coverage orchestrated by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, Americans rushed to blame Spain for the blast. Angry mobs gathered nationwide, chanting: “Remember the Maine. To hell with Spain!” Washington soon declared war. In three and a half months, U.S. troops had ejected the Spanish not just from Cuba, but Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam as well. Investigators later concluded that the blast that destroyed the Maine was probably the result of a coal explosion, not a Spanish mine or torpedo. To this day, many Cubans maintain that the United States intentionally detonated a bomb on board the battleship to precipitate an imperialist war of conquest.
The Mukden Incident
On Sept. 18, 1931, a small bomb exploded beneath a railway bridge near Shenyeng, China (then known as Mukden). The structure, which sustained only minor damage, was part of a Japanese-owned railroad that passed through Manchuria. Elements of the Japanese Kwantung Army stationed in China blamed the incident on hostile locals and the following day attacked a gamut of targets throughout the region in response. In reality, the blast was the work of a lone Japanese officer acting on direct orders of three army colonels who were keen to precipitate renewed conflict in Manchuria. Other have even suggested that the whole operation was actually hatched by government officials in Tokyo who were seeking to expand the empire’s reach throughout Asia. In any event, the international community saw through the ruse and roundly condemned Japan for its aggression. Nearly 200,000 civilians died at the hands of the invaders. The invasion of Manchuria was one of a series of events that led to the breakdown of relations between Japan and the United States and eventually war.
On Sept. 1, 1939, the world woke to news that Nazi Germany had invaded Poland. Few accepted Adolf Hitler’s paper-thin justification for the onslaught, namely that the Polish army had attacked the Reich first and the war had been launched by Berlin as an act of self-defence. Hours before the Blitzkrieg began, a team of Nazi commandos in Polish uniforms staged a mock raid on a border radio transmitter in Gleiwitz. The German casualties of this supposedly ‘unprovoked’ assault were actually murdered concentration camp inmates that had been dressed as Wehrmacht troops. The unfortunate prisoners had been machine gunned earlier that day and their bodies were randomly scattered about the scene as proof of Polish aggression. The Gleiwitz Incident was just one of a series of similar actions conducted by Hitler’s agents days before the invasion of Poland. Others included an attack on a railway line along the Polish Czech border, a raid on a customs post and even the beating of German civilians in Katowice. The top-secret campaign was dubbed Operation Himmler. In a speech the very day his Panzers were rolling east, Hitler cynically announced that he’d been forced into action because he could no longer abide Polish “atrocities.”
On more than one occasion, the Soviet Union engaged in similar schemes to rationalize their own wars of aggression. For example, on Nov. 26, 1939, Joseph Stalin ordered his army to shell a Russian town on the Finnish border by the name of Mainila. The Kremlin then blamed Helsinki for the attack. The incident was fully leveraged to justify the Soviet invasion that took place four days later. More than 70,000 Finns died fending off the Russians during the Winter War; the Red Army lost 320,000 before the peace treaty was signed in March of 1940. Twenty-eight years later when Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia to violently crush the 1968 pro-democracy movement known as the Prague Spring, Moscow published a letter in the state-run newspapers supposedly penned by an unnamed Czech citizen urging “immediate assistance with armed forces” to help quell the reformers. The Kremlin claimed its incursion was a response to this anonymous cry for help. The western press denounced the letter as a fig leaf for what was little more than Warsaw Pact crackdown on liberalization. It was revealed in the 1990s, that top officials in the Czechoslovakian communist party had indeed requested Soviet intervention during the summer to counter what it referred to as a national “psychosis”, but it hardly amounted to a grassroots appeal for an armoured invasion.
Sixteen Words that Changed History
“The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” George W. Bush uttered those now infamous 16 words in his 2003 State of the Union address in which he laid out his administration’s shaky case for war with Iraq. The president warned that Baghdad was recklessly building an atomic weapon and America had to disarm the regime (by force if necessary) before it nuked the United States. Of course, Bush’s bold claims about an Iraqi Manhattan Project were widely rejected internationally and ultimately proven to be entirely incorrect (not to mention knowingly misrepresented), as were the White House’s repeated assertions that Saddam Hussein had played a role in the Sept. 11, 2001 attack. It’s also a matter of historical record that Washington’s repeated declarations that the Baghdad regime was actively pursing a chemical/biological weapons program at the time were also false. Entire volumes have since been written about the litany of canards, mistruths and factual distortions leading up to Operation Iraqi Freedom, as well as the botched occupation that followed. Sadly, the effects of the war, which eroded the United States’ standing abroad, divided Americans at home and cost tens of thousands of lives as well as untold billions of dollars, continue to play out in Iraq to this very day.
* Despite U.S. claims at the time that the Maddox was attacked without justification on Aug. 2, 1964, Defense Department documents released in 1971 (the so-called Pentagon Papers) revealed that the American destroyer likely fired first during this initial (and genuine) Tonkin encounter.