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Lessons From the Tonkin Gulf | The Nation

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Lessons From the Tonkin Gulf

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This archival footage from the documentary War Made Easy explores the events that led up to the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, approved by Congress on August 7, 1964.

About the Author

Ernest Gruening
Ernest Gruening (February 6, 1887-June 26, 1974) was an editor of The Nation from 1920 to 1923, territorial Governor...


Editor's Note:

The late Ernest Gruening--

Nation editor in the early 1920s, former territorial Governor of Alaska and longtime senator from that state--was one of only two senators to vote against the Tonkin Gulf Resolution of August 1964, which initiated the Vietnam War. In this essay from the May 5, 1969, issue, he argued for immediate withdrawal from Vietnam.

It is, and for some time has been, obvious that the most important issue facing our nation is to get out of the war in Southeast Asia. All our other issues and problems are slighted, impaired and unresolved until we halt the fighting, stop the concomitant continuing drain of blood and treasure, and turn to the long-neglected and pressing needs at home.

During his election campaign Richard Nixon told the American people that he had a plan to end the war, but did not want to disclose it for fear of interfering with the negotiations in Paris. After three months in office President Nixon gives us no indication of any formula or proposal for achieving that widely desired objective.

On the contrary, draft calls are undiminished, casualties mount and we continue, as we have for the last five years, to be winning the war only in the optimistic pronouncements of our military leaders and their supporting newspaper columnists. The President has shown a commendable restraint in not re-escalating the battlefield activity, having no doubt learned that every time our military propose just one more upmanship we get in that much deeper. But the prospect is for continued warfare.

A new approach is desperately needed, and I offer it in the fervent hope that President Nixon who, I doubt not, would like to rid his Administration of the albatross bequeathed him by President Johnson, will lay aside his preconceptions and the assumptions that have underlain our policies to date. For that purpose a review of what has happened is appropriate.

Five years ago, on March 10, 1964, I delivered the first major opposition speech on this issue made in Congress. It was entitled, "The United States Should Get Out of Vietnam." With exhibits, it occupied 30 pages in the Congressional Record. It would have been easy for President Johnson to accept that counsel and to withdraw at that time, since no United States units had been committed to combat, and the casualties had been very few.

The opening sentence of that March 10 address was: "The mess in Vietnam was inherited by President Johnson.'' That holds true for President Nixon today; he is under no more obligation than was President Johnson to perpetuate his predecessor's policies.

That we have lost some 34,000 young Americans killed in action, several thousand more through other causes, more than a quarter of a million wounded, some horribly crippled for life, have killed tens of thousands of innocent noncombatants, created more than a million homeless refugees, sunk in excess of $125 billion unrecoverably in the Asian quagmire, and sacrificed our moral standards before the conscience of mankind, does not lessen but increases the need for an alternative course. To continue to permit our men to die in vain--as they all have died in this war--is not short of criminal.

The extent of our folly, despite official propaganda and the ever optimistic and misleading reports of military and diplomatic experts in the scene, has dawned increasingly on the American people. The desire and need to disentangle ourselves have been widely expressed, and as widely countered with the hopeless and unimaginative retort: "Well, maybe we shouldn't have gone in but we're there now," with the accent on the "there," implying that we have to keep on with what we have been doing.

More recently, this has been refined by acknowledgments "that, while we must find a way out, it must be an "'honorable" way--which can be translated to mean victory for our position. The "unthinkable" proposal that we withdraw unilaterally (why not, since we barged in unilaterally and in violation of all our treaty commitments?) is met with the loaded cliché, "You wouldn't scuttle and run, would you?" I'll examine that in a moment.

Let me urge that any way out would be more honorable than to continue the needless slaughter, and the ever deepening submergence of our nation's interests and values. But actually the most honorable way out would be to repudiate the whole dishonorable episode (made even more demonstrably so, since the Fulbright Committee hearings last year revealed that the Tonkin Gulf incident was spurious), to make an "agonizing reappraisal" and confess error.

Defense Secretary Laird has recently revived the shopworn proposal that we strengthen the South Vietnamese army and turn the war over to it--Congress to appropriate additional millions of dollars for that purpose. This would mean merely further subsidy to the corrupt and dictatorial Saigon regimes which have been successively self-imposed by military coups or by electoral fraud, thereby stultifying the struggles of the anti-Communist opposition, as well as of the Vietcong against puppet regimes which have no popular support and are maintained solely by American armed might and financial aid.

On February 26 of last year, addressing the Senate shortly after the rigged South Vietnamese elections and the sentencing to years at hard labor of the defeated non-Communist opponents of the Thieu-Ky ticket (it was as if President Nixon after his victory had ordered Mr. Johnson and Mr. Humphrey to the chain gang!), I made a specific recommendation to the President. It appeared in the Congressional Record under the heading, "One Possible Solution to the Vietnam Dilemma," and follows:

Recommendations for extrication of the United States from its Vietnamese folly are not the responsibility of those who for years have dissented from United States policy in Vietnam. It is the responsibility of those who got us into the Southeast Asia mess.

However, if President Johnson really wants to get the United States out of the morass in Vietnam, and save us from ever-mounting and ever-deepening disaster and the increasing slaughter of the flower of our youth and of thousands of Vietnamese noncombatants, his opportunity is here and now.

He could go on nationwide radio and television and, in effect, say to the American people:

My fellow Americans, I have tried for four years and my predecessors have tried for a decade previously to bring a semblance of self-government and democracy to the people of South Vietnam. It has become clear beyond peradventure that it is not their desire, and that the United States, despite its prodigious efforts in manpower and money, and the sacrifice of thousands of American lives, cannot achieve these desired results for them.

I have today ordered the unconditional cessation of all bombing of North Vietnam and of all offensive operations in South Vietnam. In addition, I have directed there be an immediate in-place cease-fire in South Vietnam on the part of the United States, and I have requested the South Vietnamese Armed Forces to do likewise, with only defensive action authorized. I have called upon the forces of the National Liberation Front and of North Vietnam in South Vietnam to do the same. It is my purpose, which I now declare, to initiate a phased military withdrawal which should be completed within a year. In the meantime, behind the shield of American military forces with the leverage afforded by U.S. military and economic aid, U.S. representatives in South Vietnam will insist that the Thieu-Ky government broaden the base of its government to include their non-Communist opponents, represented in large measure by those whom they have now jailed and put in protective custody, and that this broadened South Vietnamese government begin immediate negotiations with the National Liberation Front so that all these Vietnamese components can work out their own destinies.

In addition, I have directed our Ambassador to the United Nations to work with other nations there to find places of refuge in other lands for those who would not want to live in South Vietnam under the new regime which will be formed and I will ask the Congress for such additional authority as may be needed to admit such refugees to the United States and to assist in their resettlement elsewhere.

Further, I have instructed our Ambassadors to Great Britain, the Soviet Union, Canada, India and Poland to propose a greatly strengthened International Control Commission to supervise any elections to be held in South Vietnam to obtain an expression of the people's will.

The United States will assist in the reconstruction and rehabilitation of the burned villages, destroyed buildings and defoliated forests, and give suitable fiscal assistance to economic development. But our military efforts will cease. We will make every effort to assist the people of both North and South Vietnam to establish whatever form of government they can develop.

Here lies a solution which both Americans and Vietnamese, I am confident, will welcome.

This proposal in substance--with a few minor emendations because of changed conditions and its enunciation by a different President--is as valid for President Nixon today as when I proposed it to President Johnson fourteen months ago. President Johnson, of course, turned a deaf ear to it as to all other proposals for U.S. extrication. Instead, he extricated himself by announcing his withdrawal from office, a move which averted his certain defeat at the November elections.

This withdrawal was a confession of error even if he could not bring himself to admit such. He was lucky to have escaped impeachment proceedings which might have been his not undeserved fate, because of his betrayal of his campaign pledges, but was never a possibility because a supine Congress with its Democratic majority was a particeps criminis in the whole Southeast Asian affair.

Johnson's withdrawal, however, diminished the tension at home and allayed the mounting opposition to the war based on the hope that the "peace talks" in Paris could bring peace. This is an utterly vain hope because the premises of the two adversaries are diametrically opposed and irreconcilable. We have proceeded on the premise that we are there to repel aggression. Our adversaries maintain that the United States is the aggressor--a view substantiated by an objective review of the facts, many of them kept from the American people. That being so, our adversaries will naturally insist that we withdraw from Asia and let Asians settle their own problems. I doubt whether this proposition is negotiable and that peace by negotiation will be achieved. We should ask ourselves by what right we are there, what we have to gain by maintaining that presence, and whether the price is worth the costs--human, material and spiritual--which will haunt us for generations.

As for the secondary justification for our military intrusion to Southeast Asia--we must halt communism--it should be clear by now that we are actually aiding communism; that if the rulers of Communist Russia and Communist China desire our nation's debilitation and downfall, they could never devise a policy more likely to achieve that objective than the one our country is pursuing. To date, neither the Russians nor the Chinese have committed a single soldier to combat. And if our aim was to prevent the southward expansion of mainland China we have pursued the worst possible policy: we have weakened and sought to destroy Vietnam, which has been hostile to the Chinese for centuries and would fight their aggression as it has successively fought that of the French, the Japanese and the Americans.

What would be the consequences of a unilateral American withdrawal? It would not be "scuttle and run." A phased withdrawal would require months and could be replaced by a nation-wide coalition government more responsive to the Vietnamese Nationalist aspirations.

Would there be a blood bath? One is going on now and it will continue as long as the United States clings to its present policies. We can be confident that long before our withdrawal was far advanced the few hundred corrupt Vietnamese officials would have retired to Paris or the Riviera, to enjoy in luxury and ease the fortunes they have filched from our bounty. If some thousands of others would prefer to leave Vietnam, it would pay handsomely to arrange for their relocation and sustenance, if necessary for life, in other climes. It would be far less costly and more humane than the present $3 billion monthly military bill.

The others--the peasantry--would be absorbed and return to the life they had anticipated in the independent countries of Laos, Cambodia, and reunited Vietnam which the Geneva Agreements predicated and we had agreed to support.

President Nixon has the opportunity to end the war and end it honorably by re-adherence to principles upon which our nation was founded and through which it grew to greatness until a faulty leadership began to abandon them and got us into the present tragic disaster. That disaster--already great--will only be magnified and intensified unless President Nixon reverses the policy that has brought our nation to unfathomable depths. The Congress, too, has a responsibility to change its course and stop voting the military authorization and appropriations which have supported Presidential misleadership.

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