For most of the last five decades, it has been assumed that the Tonkin Gulf incident was a deception by Lyndon Johnson to justify war in Vietnam. But the US bombing of North Vietnam on August 4, 1964, in retaliation for an alleged naval attack that never happened, was not a move by LBJ to pave the way for war in Vietnam.
The real deception on that day was that Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara’s misled LBJ by withholding from him the information that the US commander in the Gulf who had initially reported an attack by North Vietnamese patrol boats on US warships had now expressed serious doubts about the initial report and was calling for a full investigation by daylight. That withholding of information from LBJ represented a brazen move to usurp the president’s constitutional power of decision on the use of military force.
McNamara’s deception is documented in the declassified files on the Tonkin Gulf episode in the Lyndon Johnson library, which this writer used to piece together the untold story of the Tonkin Gulf episode in a 2005 book on the US entry into war in Vietnam. It is a key element of a wider story of how the national security state, including both military and civilian officials, tried repeatedly to pressure LBJ to commit the United States to a wider war in Vietnam.