The Fog of War – Lesson #7: Belief and seeing are both often wrong

The USS Maddox and the USS Turner Joy both claim to have made contact with North Vietnamese water craft and to have drawn torpedo fire from these vessels.  It turns out that the Maddox did, indeed, successfully evade North Vietnamese torpedo fire.  (Shell fragments were recovered from the deck of the Maddox which were proven to be North Vietnamese.)  The reports made by the Turner Joy, on the other hand, have not been verified to this day.  McNamara holds that “we were wrong” about the incident involving the Turner Joy.
After the Maddox incident, the President refused to respond to the act of aggression.  The Tonkin Gulf Resolution, and retaliatory bombing attacks, proceeded from the reports of the Turner Joy’s encounter with North Vietnamese aggressors.  The decision to retaliate and seek congressional approval of military action in Vietnam was made based on the observed pattern of escalating aggression in the Tonkin Gulf and Johnson’:

“belief that it was a conscious decision on the part of the North Vietnamese political and military leaders to escalate the conflict and an indication they would not stop short of winning.  We were wrong, but we had in our minds a mindset that led to that action. And it carried such heavy costs. We see incorrectly or we see only half of the story at times … Belief and seeing, they’re both often wrong.”

“Let me go back one moment. In the Cuban Missile Crisis, at the end, I think we did put ourselves in the skin of the Soviets. In the case of Vietnam, we didn’t know them well enough to empathize. And there was total misunderstanding as a result. They believed that we had simply replaced the French as a colonial power, and we were seeking to subject South and North Vietnam to our colonial interests, which was absolutely absurd. And we, we saw Vietnam as an element of the Cold War. Not what they saw it as: a civil war.”

McNamara travelled to Vietnam in 1995 to discuss “what might have been” with a former Foreign Minister.

“The former Foreign Minister of Vietnam, a wonderful man named Thach said, “You’re totally wrong. We were fighting for our independence. You were fighting to enslave us.” We almost came to blows. That was noon on the first day.
“Do you mean to say it was not a tragedy for you, when you lost 3 million 4 hundred thousand Vietnamese killed, which on our population base is the equivalent of 27 million Americans? What did you accomplish? You didn’t get any more than we were willing to give you at the beginning of the war. You could have had the whole damn thing: independence, unification.”
“Mr. McNamara, You must never have read a history book. If you’d had, you’d know we weren’t pawns of the Chinese or the Russians. McNamara, didn’t you know that? Don’t you understand that we have been fighting the Chinese for 1000 years? We were fighting for our independence. And we would fight to the last man. And we were determined to do so. And no amount of bombing, no amount of U.S. pressure would ever have stopped us.””