McNamara asks Giap: What happened in Tonkin Gulf?

(c) 1995 Copyright
(c) 1995 Associated Press
  • While McNamara visits Hanoi, old soldiers attack his stewardship

    HANOI, Vietnam (Nov 9, 1995 - 16:06 EST) -- When former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara met the enemy's leading strategist Thursday, he raised a question he'd saved for 30 years: What really happened in the Tonkin Gulf on Aug. 4, 1964?

    "Absolutely nothing," replied retired Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap.

    Both sides agree that North Vietnam attacked a U.S. Navy ship in the gulf on Aug. 2 as it cruised close to shore. But it was an alleged second attack two days later that led to the first U.S. bombing raid on the North and propelled America deep into war.

    Many U.S. historians have long believed the Johnson administration fabricated the second attack to win congressional support for widening the war. But for McNamara, Giap's word was the clincher.

    "It's a pretty damned good source," he said after the meeting.

    As defense secretary from 1961-68 under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, McNamara was one of the leading proponents of U.S. support for South Vietnam against the Communist North. But he left office convinced the war was doomed to failure, he says, revealing his change of heart in memoirs published this year.

    The 85-year-old Giap, wearing his olive green uniform with four gold stars on his shoulder, greeted him with an understatement: "I heard about you long ago."

    McNamara laughed. "I heard about YOU long ago," he rejoined.

    Then they talked for more than an hour, with McNamara frequently leaning forward and jabbing his finger for emphasis as he talked about the lessons of history.

    McNamara, 79, emerged from the meeting describing it as extraordinary and saying he was struck by the lack of hostility.

    McNamara came to Hanoi for the first time to ask the Vietnamese to take part in a conference of top Vietnam War decision-makers. The New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, which is organizing the gathering, says it would be an opportunity to share archival materials and correct the historical record.

    "You lost ... 3,200,000 people," McNamara told Giap. "We lost 58,000." He said the conference would help "ensure that our nations and other nations learn how to avoid such conflicts in the future."

    He elaborated to reporters afterward: "The major questions are: Could we have avoided a tragedy -- a tragedy for them and a tragedy for us -- or could we have minimized it?"

    Giap and Vietnamese officials have said they will give the conference serious consideration.

    McNamara wasted little time in raising a question that clearly had nagged him for decades.

    "To this day I don't know what happened on August 2 and August 4, 1964, in the Tonkin Gulf," he said to Giap. "I think we may have made two serious misjudgments. ... Did what we thought was an attack on August 4, 1964, the so-called second attack -- did it occur?"

    Giap replied, "On the fourth of August, there was absolutely nothing."

    Reporters were ushered from the room soon after, but McNamara later quoted Giap as saying he believed U.S. surveillance ships were trying to provoke an attack so President Johnson would have an excuse to step up U.S. involvement.

    McNamara, speaking later to reporters, disputed that interpretation: "That point that Giap made is absolutely without foundation."

    Johnson quickly won congressional approval of the "Tonkin Gulf Resolution" authorizing him to "take all necessary measures" to repel attacks on U.S. forces. The first U.S. combat troops landed in South Vietnam seven months later.

    McNamara said the administration believed the second attack had taken place and that it had to respond forcefully.

    McNamara and the rest of the delegation from the Council on Foreign Relations also met Thursday with Deputy Premier Phan Van Khai and Deputy Vice President Nguyen Thi Binh, former foreign minister in South Vietnam's pro-Communist "provisional revolutionary government" during the war.