Elisabeth Bumiller: Wrong on the Tonkin Gulf Incident

In an article in last Thursday’s New York Times, “Senate Records Show Doubts on ‘64 Vietnam War Crisis,” senior national security correspondent Elisabeth Bumiller writes: “Even at the time, there was widespread skepticism about the Gulf of Tonkin incident . . . ”

Wait a minute! Is that so?

“Widespread skepticism?”

The New York Times and the Washington Post did not express any of this “widespread skepticism” in February and March 1968 (the period covered by the recently released Senate Foreign Relations Committee documents). Neither did the television news networks CBS, NBC, ABC. Nor did any of these news sources ever offer a correction or a retraction of their breathless reportage of the “Reds” who fired on the U.S.S. Maddox and the C. Turner Joy in an “unprovoked attack, in international waters, while on routine patrol.” I don’t know what history books Bumiller is looking at but I can assure her that there was NOT “widespread skepticism” about the Gulf of Tonkin Incident in the mainstream news media in February and March 1968.

Who is Bumiller kidding?

Bumiller’s take on the truthfulness of the Johnson Administration’s version of what took place in early August 1964  is nothing but after-the-fact rubbish. Bumiller of all people. A bona fide graduate of the Judy Miller school of journalism who wrote a hagiography about Condi Rice — even while Condi was lying about the WMD in Iraq (which was just as egregious as LBJ’s lies about the Gulf of Tonkin).  Bumiller — of all people — makes this assertion?  Wow!

If Bumiller really believes that her peers in the establishment press in February/March 1968 were expressing “widespread skepticism” about the facts concerning the Gulf of Tonkin Incident then shouldn’t she have been a little more “skeptical” herself when her good friend Condi Rice (along with Rummy and Cheney and the rest of the gang) were launching their own pretext for invading Iraq?

The media critic and author, Norman Solomon, long ago asked the Washington Post for a retraction on its terrible, falsehood-laden reportage on the Gulf of Tonkin Incident and they told him that there’s no way they would offer a retraction because they’d have to repudiate virtually all of their reporting on the Vietnam War. (War Made Easy .)

Tom Brokaw does the same thing that Bumiller did in this piece: Pretend she knew all along that the Vietnam War was based on a pack of lies when in reality the establishment press that Brokaw and Bumiller represent helped sell the war in Vietnam by its martial and virulently anti-communist reporting (as they did the war in Iraq). Bumiller, like Brokaw, is rewriting history to make herself and her establishment news colleagues appear like they are (and were) better journalists than they really are (or were).

The fact is that in February/March 1968 if anyone wanted to see “widespread skepticism” about the facts of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident they wouldn’t find it in the pages of the New York Times or the Washington Post — they’d have to pick up a copy of Ramparts or some other radical magazine, whose reporters were smeared as commies or leftists.

Bumiller wasn’t skeptical about WMD in Iraq, so why should we believe her when she makes a claim (without evidence) that there was “widespread skepticism” about the Tonkin Gulf Incident in February/March 1968? The American People didn’t learn the facts about the lies around the Gulf of Tonkin Incident until 1971 with the publication of the Pentagon Papers .  In early 1968, the public had no clue about the extent of the lies relating to the super-secret CIA/DoD “OPLAN-34A” and the “Desoto missions” where the U.S. was coordinating coastal raids north of the 17th parallel.  And even after Daniel Ellsberg

spilled the beans representatives of the establishment news media refused to cop to the fact that they had been stenographers for the powerful who wanted war.

What Bumiller is showing us is that 40 years from George W. Bush’s 2003 WMD scare we can expect establishment journalists to claim there was “widespread skepticism” about the WMD, when in reality they were once again stenographers for the powerful who wanted war.

Bumiller and the gang are even worse than their early-’60s predecessors though because they had the example of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident to draw on and adjust their reportage of 2002-2003 accordingly.  A lot of good that “widespread skepticism” served!  They dismissed those of us who were making the Gulf of Tonkin comparisons during the run-up to the Iraq War.

Joseph Palermo

Crossposted with Joseph A Palermo

Published by the LA Progressive on July 21, 2010
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About Joseph Palermo

Joseph Palermo is Professor of History, California State University, Sacramento. Professor Palermo's most recent book is The Eighties (Pearson 2012). He has also written two other books: In His Own Right: The Political Odyssey of Senator Robert F. Kennedy (Columbia, 2001); and Robert F. Kennedy and the Death of American Idealism (Pearson, 2008). Before earning a Master's degree and Doctorate in History from Cornell University, Professor Palermo completed Bachelor's degrees in Sociology and Anthropology from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a Master's degree in History from San Jose State University. His expertise includes the 1980s; political history; presidential politics and war powers; social movements of the 20th century; the 1960s; and the history of American foreign policy. Professor Palermo has also written articles for anthologies on the life of Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J. in The Human Tradition in America Since 1945 (Scholarly Resources Press, 2003); and on the Watergate scandal in Watergate and the Resignation of Richard Nixon (CQ Press, 2004).