When Dissent Dies: The Impact and Genesis of False Pretexts in the Vietnam and Iraq Wars

The principal public justifications for the American escalation in the Vietnam War and for the 2003 ground invasion of Iraq were unfounded. President Lyndon used two North Vietnamese attacks on U.S. destroyers conducting “routine surveillance” in the Gulf of Tonkin as a pretext to ask Congress for a resolution authorising the use of military force (AUMF).1,2 The destroyers, however, were participating in a covert action campaign, and the commander of the destroyer group doubted that the second attack occurred.3 39 years later, President George W. Bush outlined his rationale for a preemptive war against Iraq in his 2003 State of the Union Address: “Imagine those 19 [9/11] hijackers with other weapons and other plans, this time armed by Saddam Hussein. It would take one vial, one canister, one crate slipped into this country to bring a day of horror like none we have ever known.”4 This nightmare scenario belied Saddam’s lack of al-Qaeda ties and active weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program. 1,118,0005 individuals in Vietnam and 464,4246 in Iraq paid the ultimate price for these pretexts. If history does indeed rhyme, American policymakers must understand the impact of these pretexts and their genesis to prevent a similar war. Using declassified memos and accounts by administration officials, this paper examines war deliberations from Johnson’s inauguration to the Gulf of Tonkin Incident and from September 11, 2001, to the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom. These sources reveal that efforts to circumvent inconvenient intelligence and advice engendered both pretexts. Without the pretexts, both conflicts would have remained limited interventions.

The Gulf of Tonkin Pretext: Genesis and Impact

The Gulf of Tonkin pretext has two components that paint a picture of North Vietnamese aggression. One, American ships were not engaging in offensive operations. Two, the North Vietnamese attacked the destroyers twice. Secretary of Defense McNamara is primarily responsible for the first component. In the debate over Vietnam strategy, McNamara sidelined the dissenting Joint Chiefs of Staff. As a result, Johnson adopted a strategy that included the type of naval operations that brought the destroyers to the Gulf of Tonkin. McNamara with President Johnson and Secretary of State Rusk then misrepresented the destroyers’ operations. Conflicting reports, Johnson’s willingness to politically exploit the second attack, and McNamara’s continued disregard for military advice produced the second component. Without this pretext, American involvement in Vietnam would have likely been limited to training South Vietnamese units and bombing raids on the North.

When Johnson became President, he asked Secretary McNamara to develop a coherent strategy for the US mission in Vietnam. As military statistician during the Second World War, McNamara “left the Army an ardent believer in the need for statistical management and control over military organisations.”7 As Secretary of Defence, this experience translated into a general suspicion of the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s advice and a reliance on civilian political appointees to develop military strategy. The development of a graduated pressure strategy for Vietnam exemplifies this suspicion.

When McNamara returned from a trip to Vietnam on March 12, 1964, he authored a memo outlining a strategy of graduated pressure, which proposed covert action operations and bombing raids to dissuade North Vietnam from arming and training the Viet Cong.8 At the time, the JCS remained divided on how to address Vietnam but advocated either overwhelming military force or non-intervention.9 Predicting opposition from the JCS, McNamara sent his memo to the White House before the JCS could see it.10 McNamara then cut off all channels of communication between the President and the JCS.11 When the JCS saw the memo and responded with a memo detailing their reservations, McNamara ensured it never left his office.12 When the National Security Council met on March 17, 1964, to finalise the policy change, McNamara and the JCS Chairman Maxwell Taylor – under pressure from McNamara – misrepresented the JCS’s misgivings as minor and detail-oriented rather than complete and strategic.13 At the end of the meeting, Johnson adopted McNamara’s graduated pressure memo as US military policy.14 Only a few days later, Johnson learned of the JCS’s opposition.15 Without this policy, the destroyers would not have entered the Gulf of Tonkin to collect intelligence for a covert action operation, and the Gulf of Tonkin Incident would have likely never occurred.16

When the supposed attack on the second destroyer occurred, Johnson and McNamara misrepresented the ships’ mission. In addition to Johnson’s August 4th speech saying the ships were conducting “routine surveillance,” Johnson, McNamara, and Rusk did not mention the covert operations in their August 4th meeting with Congressional leaders to ask for an AUMF.17 When Senator Wayne Morse (D-OR) with a tip from a Pentagon official pressed McNamara on the destroyers’ operations, McNamara indicated that South Vietnamese ships, without the knowledge of the US, might have conducted more aggressive naval operations.18 These misrepresentations facilitated the quick passage of an AUMF on August 7th, three days since Johnson’s request. The resolution’s quick passage and its text indicate that Congress was directly responding to the administration’s narrative of the incident.

McNamara’s disregard for military advice similarly led to the second component of the pretext. When McNamara received a flash report of a second attack on the USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin, he began developing options for retaliation. Then, the commander of the destroyer task force reported that the attack was “doubtful” and that “freak weather” and “overeager sonar-men” triggered the initial report.19 He then recommended “a complete evaluation before further action.”20 The U.S. Pacific Command Commander, Admiral Sharp, argued that the “weight of evidence” supported the existence of a second attack.21 Sharp, however, similarly recommended that McNamara wait for confirmation before ordering an attack.22 McNamara ordered the attack anyway, asked Sharp to provide an update in a few hours on the second attack, and then reconfirmed the order before Sharp called.23 In interviews after leaving the Navy, Sharp has insisted that McNamara overstated his certainty to Johnson in addition to disregarding his recommendation to wait for confirmation.24 Although the first component of the pretext influenced Congress but not the administration, the second component of the pretext convinced the administration and Congress to retaliate.

The supposed second attack in the Gulf of Tonkin altered Johnson’s political incentives in Vietnam. Deeply committed to his Great Society programs, Johnson used defence-spending cuts in his 1964 budget to fund them.25 In the 1964 Presidential Election against Barry Goldwater, President Johnson worked to position himself as the “peace candidate,” recognising the American public’s disinterest in a major war in Vietnam.26 Johnson, however, feared the political consequences of a Communist takeover in South Vietnam.27 These positions explain Johnson’s strong support for graduated pressure and his decision to not retaliate after the first attack on August 2, 1964.28 The supposed second attack, however, created a golden political opportunity and grave political risk for Johnson. A defensive military response to the second attack would allow Johnson to present himself as a strong leader - three months before the 1964 election. No response would expose Johnson to attacks from his Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater.29 In the August 4, 1964 lunch when Johnson decided to retaliate, the majority of the discussion focused on the political consequences of such a decision.30 In a meeting with Congressional leaders that afternoon, Johnson outlined his version of events and his desire to retaliate.31 While the true mission of the destroyers was absent from the discussion, the second attack featured prominently in Johnson’s argument for an AUMF.32 Congressional leaders agreed to then pass an AUMF.33

When considering the likely US course of action in Vietnam without this pretext, it is essential to remember that, on the eve of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, 16,000 American military advisors were in South Vietnam training their local counterparts.34 If the Incident never occurred, American soldiers would likely have remained in Vietnam to as part of graduated pressure; however, the escalation after the AUMF, which included 500,000 soldiers, would have been inconsistent with Johnson’s political incentives. Given the salience of political cost and benefit in Johnson’s decision-making, these incentives would have shaped US policy in Vietnam and maintained the status quo.

WMD Terrorism Pretext: Genesis and Impact

The WMD terrorism pretext’s two components – Hussein’s WMDs and his Al-Qaeda ties - lay the foundation for preemptive military action. Al-Qaeda is committed to attacking Americans. If Hussein has WMDs and Al-Qaeda connection, Al-Qaeda could launch an attack on U.S. soil and produce a death toll far exceeding September 11th. This pretext originates in discredited intelligence reports. In an effort to circumvent and suppress intelligence that contradicted their preexisting policy preferences, Vice President Cheney and Secretary Rumsfeld revived these reports. The certainty of Cheney and Rumsfeld coupled with their manipulation of intelligence analysis processes convinced President Bush and Congress of their validity.

In a Congressional hearing on the intelligence failures in Iraq, Congressman Walter Jones asked Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff, “How could professionals see what was happening and nobody speak out?”35 Wilkerson replied, “the Vice President.” When the CIA concluded that “there was no connection between Al-Qaeda and Saddam” and expressed doubts about Hussein’s WMDs, Cheney was unwilling to take those assessments at face value.36 As White House Counterterrorism Advisor Richard Clarke recalls, Cheney remembered that the CIA failed to foresee Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and the creation of Hussein’s nuclear weapons program.37 Clarke concluded that "Cheney had etched in his mind that Iraq wanted a nuclear weapon, Iraq wants a nuclear weapon, and the CIA hadn't a clue."38 Cheney’s boss in the Ford administration and longtime friend, Rumsfeld shared Cheney’s skepticism of the CIA intelligence and his enthusiasm for a military solution in Iraq. At Cheney’s request, Rumsfeld created the Office of Special Plans (OSP) in October 2001 to re-examine the intelligence on Iraq’s weapons programs and Al-Qaeda ties.39

To staff the OSP, Rumsfeld hired neoconservative intellectuals critical of the CIA’s social science approach to intelligence.40 While the traditional intelligence community sought to scrutinise and verify details of intelligence reports before accepting them, the OSP began with the assumption Hussein had WMDs and Al-Qaeda connections and tried to corroborate these assumptions. This approach led the OSP to revive discredited reports on uranium purchases from Niger and 9/11 hijacker Mohammad Atta’s supposed Prague meeting with an Iraqi intelligence officer.41 The CIA found no information corroborating the Prague meeting report and, through Ambassador Joseph Wilson, concluded that the uranium purchases were near impossible.42 Despite its deficient procedures for confirming intelligence, the OSP became Bush’s main source of intelligence on WMD terrorism.43 Reporting directly to Rumsfeld, the Office of Special Plans (OSP) could bypass Tenet and peer review by the intelligence community. Through Rumsfeld, it would hand its findings to Cheney who would present them directly to Bush.44 With a steady stream of unconfirmed intelligence from the OSP, Cheney presented Bush with a picture of the Iraqi threat that did not mirror the CIA’s Presidential Daily Briefing.45

To marginalise dissenting voices, Cheney pressured CIA analysts to confirm the OSP’s conclusions. When Congress asked for a National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq in two weeks, the Vice President came to CIA headquarters ten times to ask CIA analysts whether they had examined a particular line of evidence or request them to re-examine a particular line of evidence.46 As a result, the intelligence on aluminium tubes for nuclear weapons, a discredited theory by the CIA, found its way onto page 16 of the NIE, and the uranium purchases discredited by Ambassador Wilson appeared on page 25. Some authors of the NIE, notably Paul Pillar, have publicly blamed the Vice President’s office for the inclusion of imprecise intelligence.47

At the same time, Rumsfeld worked to eliminate dissent within the Pentagon. For example, he received a report from the Director of Intelligence for the Joint Chiefs of Staff that concluded, “our knowledge of the Iraqi weapons program is based largely - perhaps 90% - on imprecise intelligence.”48 Rumsfeld forwarded the report to the Chairman of the JCS - but not to the White House.49 Patrick Lang, the former chief of Middle East intelligence at the DIA under Rumsfeld, said that Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz had “intimated the DIA and beat it into a pulp.”50 In effect, Pentagon officials skeptical of the WMD terrorism pretext had no means to communicate their findings to the White House.

Two factors oiled this Cheney-Rumsfeld intelligence machine. First, time constraints forced analysts, particularly working on the NIE, to draw on intelligence from the 1990s and to assume little had changed.51 As Congress faced time pressures to pass a resolution, members relied heavily on the summary of the NIE. When the Bush administration tasked Powell with delivering the case for military escalation to the UN, Powell’s staff had a few days to prepare his speech and had to draw directly from the NIE.52 These time constraints signified less intergovernmental scrutiny of the OSP intelligence. Second, as the intelligence flowed in from the OSP, the administration suffered from groupthink. Officials with initial misgivings about the war suppressed their doubts. For example, Tenet fought to remove the uranium purchases in Niger from a Bush speech but then referred to the NIE, including a conclusion on these purchases, as “ironclad” to Powell.53 This conformity further reduced potential sources of scrutiny and allowed both aspects of the WMD terrorism narrative pushed by Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the OSP to become a pretext for war.

Without the WMD terrorism pretext, Bush would have likely avoided a ground invasion and failed to obtain Senate authorisation for the invasion. Before September 11th, American pilots were frequently evading Iraqi anti-aircraft fire to enforce no-fly zones over the country’s Kurdish majority north and Shia-majority south.54 While Bush considered sanctions against Hussein and the no-fly zones as a failure, his aversion to a ground invasion consistently emerged throughout war deliberations in 2001 and 2002. In his memoir, Secretary Rumsfeld mentions that, during his September 26th, 2001 meeting with Bush about military options in Iraq, the President wanted “something different from the massive land force assembled during the 1991 Gulf War” and had not “made up his mind on the merits of toppling the regime.”55 After considering a range of options to address Iraq in January 2002, the President eventually settled on coercive diplomacy, which leveraged the threat of force to compel Hussein to comply with his international obligations.56 In her memoir, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice writes that Bush, in a June 2002 meeting, did not want to put “boots on the ground.”57 It was not until September 2001 that a substantial ground invasion became a part of deliberations.58 In Bush’s memoir, he attributes his decision to the intelligence and Hussein’s non-responsiveness to sanctions. He recalls, “I had been receiving intelligence briefings on Iraq for nearly two years. The conclusion that Saddam had WMD was a nearly universal consensus.”59 He then assumed that, if Saddam did not have WMDs, he would cooperate.60 While some might question Bush’s sincerity, he is the expert on his decision-making and the Rice and Rumsfeld memoirs support Bush’s story.

The WMD terrorism intelligence proved equally persuasive in Congress. Based on their public statements, the NIE’s conclusions convinced many Members of Congress to support the resolution. For example, Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) said before the vote on the AUMF, “When I vote to give the President...the authority to use force to disarm Saddam Hussein, it is because I believe that a deadly arsenal of weapons of mass destruction in his hands is a threat.”61 In 2007 as the lack of WMDs became apparent, 34 Senators in 2002 publicly indicated that, in hindsight, they would have voted differently if they knew there were no WMDs.62 With 34 additional no votes, the AUMF would have never passed the Senate, leaving the Bush administration to rely on Iraq’s alleged Al-Qaeda ties to argue that the 2001 AUMF to combat those responsible for 9/11 applied to Iraq. Without the AUMF, it is not evident that Congress would have appropriated the funds necessary to put tens of thousands of troops on the ground. The combination of Bush’s aversion to “boots on the ground,” his frustration with the status quo, and reduced Congressional support would have likely translated to a bombing campaign and covert action to remove Hussein but no major ground operations.


The documents and historical accounts examined for this paper indicate both pretexts were essential in the escalation of US involvement in Vietnam and Iraq. In both cases, domineering Secretaries of Defence with a small coalition of high-level allies succeeded in circumventing advice and intelligence that contradicted their pre-existing policy preferences. Cheney and Rumsfeld empowered the OSP and marginalised the CIA, DIA, and JCS. McNamara cut the JCS from Vietnam policy discussions and failed to heed the Navy’s recommendation to thoroughly analyse the second attack before responding. These cases indicate four major conclusions.

First, the development of false pretexts for war is not an organic process. When senior policymakers stifle dissent and exercise undue influence on the theoretically apolitical military and intelligence community, the national security process breaks down. With Vietnam, sidelining the JCS and ignoring military recommendations played a key role in the Gulf of Tonkin pretext. With Iraq, the creation of the OSP and pressure on other intelligence agencies to confirm its findings fueled the WMD terrorism pretext. Although Johnson politicized war deliberations, efforts to silence dissent and to influence the outcome of war deliberations were principally motivated by policy preferences. Notably, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and McNamara valued their policy instincts more than expert advice. Second, although popular narratives of war deliberations emphasise the role of lies in going to war, the manipulation of institutions proved to be a more salient factor in the genesis of both pretexts. Third, the Secretary of Defence was at the core of both efforts to bias the outcomes of supposedly apolitical national security processes. As the official normally responsible for overseeing military planning and recommending a military option to the President, a Secretary of Defence that places his or her policy preferences above expertise advice is a national security risk. Fourth, Congress was generally willing to accept the Johnson administration’s Gulf of Tonkin narrative and the WMD terrorism intelligence at face value.

The lessons of the Iraq and Vietnam Wars are particularly pertinent today. President Trump has often shown little tolerance for dissent and a loose relationship with the truth.63 These traits significantly increase the risk of US war based on a false pretext. The third and fourth conclusions, however, point to the best safeguards against this risk. The Secretary of Defense plays a crucial role in war deliberations and can maintain military planning processes that are apolitical and open to multiple views. These processes are more likely to reveal unfounded assumptions, discard poor intelligence, and fully consider the consequences of a war. Congress must then rigorously scrutinise the intelligence and the rationale behind a draft AUMF. A more skeptical Congress in 1964 or in 2002 could have pulled the US back from the brink of war. Finally, despite the President’s impulses, senior national security officials must create an organisational culture that tolerates dissent. If they fail to do so, future generations of Americans may add another country may join the list of Iraq and Vietnam as post-WWII American conflicts based on false pretexts.

1 Lyndon Baines Johnson, “Radio and Television Report to the American People Following Renewed Aggression in the Gulf of Tonkin,” August 4, 1964, archived by University of California Santa Barbara.

2 Lyndon Baines Johnson, “Remarks at Syracuse University on the Communist Challenge in Southeast Asia,” August 5, 1964, archived by University of California Santa Barbara.

3 McMaster, H. R.. Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Kindle Locations 2734-2740). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

David Sanger, “New Tapes Indicate Johnson Doubted Attack in Tonkin Gulf,” New York Times, November 6, 2001.

4 George W. Bush, “2003 State of the Union Address,” Washington, January 28, 2003, accessible at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/onpolitics/transcripts/bushtext_012803.html

5 Lewy Guenter, “America in Vietnam,” New York: Oxford University Press (1978): 442-453.

6 Amy Hagopian et al, “Mortality in Iraq associated with the 2003-2011 War and Occupation, PLOS Medicine 10(10), 2013.

7 H.R. McMaster, Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Harper Collins, Kindle Edition (Location 93).

8 Ibid. (Location 2289, 1233, 1292).

9 Ibid (Location 1527).

10 Ibid (Location 1551).

11 Ibid (Location 1848).

12 Ibid (Location 1591).

13 Ibid (Location 1596).

14 Ibid (Location 1622).

15 Ibid (Location 1627).

16 Ibid (Location 2724).

17 Ibid (Location 2661).

18 Ibid (Location 2730).

19 Gibbons, The U.S. Government and the Vietnam War, vol. 2, p. 290.

20 Ibid.

21 Ibid.

22H.R. McMaster, Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Harper Collins, Kindle Edition (Location 2628)

23 Ibid 2639.

24 Ibid.

25 Ibid. (Location 1109).

26 H.R. McMaster, Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Harper Collins, Kindle Edition (Location 2128)

27 McMaster, H. R.. Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition. (Location 1004).

28 Ibid (Location 2531).

29 Ibid. (Location 2765-2769).

30 Ibid. (Location 2612).

31 Ibid (Location 2666).

32 Ibid (Location 2661).

33 Ibid.

34 McMaster, H. R.. Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition. (Location 2042).

35 Jonathan Stein and Tim Dickinson, “Lie by Lie: A timeline of how we got into Iraq,” Mother Jones, September/October 2006.

36 Bush’s War, Produced by Michael Kirk and Jim Gilmore, New York: PBS Frontline, March 24, 2008. 52:05-52:45.

37 Ibid. 54:10-54:15.

38 Ibid. 55:40-55:48.

39 Ibid.

40 Ibid.

41 Bush’s War, Produced by Michael Kirk and Jim Gilmore, New York: PBS Frontline, March 24, 2008.

Seymour Hersh, “Selective Intelligence,” The New Yorker, May 12, 2003.

42 Bush’s War, Produced by Michael Kirk and Jim Gilmore, New York: PBS Frontline, March 24, 2008.

Joseph Wilson, “What I Didn’t Find in Africa,” The New York Times, July 6, 2003.

43 Seymour Hersh, “Selective Intelligence,” The New Yorker, May 12, 2003.

44 Seymour Hersh, “Selective Intelligence,” The New Yorker, May 12, 2003.

45 Ibid.

46 Ibid. 1:45:30-1:45:45.

47 Bush’s War, Produced by Michael Kirk and Jim Gilmore, New York: PBS Frontline, March 24, 2008.

48 John Walcott, “What Donald Rumsfeld Knew We Didn’t Know about Iraq,” Politico, January 24, 2016.

49 Ibid.

50 Ibid.

51 Bush’s War, Produced by Michael Kirk and Jim Gilmore, New York: PBS Frontline, March 24, 2008.

52 Ibid.

53 Bush’s War, Produced by Michael Kirk and Jim Gilmore, New York: PBS Frontline, March 24, 2008. 2:08:30-2:08:45.

54 George Bush, Decision Points, New York: Crown Publishers (2010), 228.

55 Donald Rumsfeld, Known and Unkown: A Memoir, New York: Sentinel, 2011.

56 Ibid, 172.

George Bush, Decision Points, New York: Crown Publishers (2010), 230.

57 Rice, No Higher Honor, 178.

58 Ibid. 180.

59 George Bush, Decision Points, New York: Crown Publishers (2010), 242.

60 Ibid.

61 George Bush, Decision Points, New York: Crown Publishers (2010), 240.

62 Jake Tapper, “Senate Regrets the Vote to Enter Iraq,” ABC, January 5, 2007.

63 David Leonhardt and Stuart Thompson, “Trump’s Lies,” The New York Times, December 14, 2017.

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