Fifty years ago today, President Lyndon Johnson launched strikes against North Vietnam for attacking U.S. warships without provocation in the Tonkin Gulf. Six days later, Congress passed a "Gulf of Tonkin resolution" giving Johnson carte blanche to make war in Vietnam. It was a thin pretext for protracted conflict.
After the "Tonkin Gulf Incident," inconvenient facts arose. DOD leaker Daniel Ellsberg—who had received reports of the attack while on his first day of work in the Pentagon on August 4, 1964—revealed in his leaked Pentagon Papers that a U.S. gunboat on an intelligence mission had probably provoked the North Vietnamese by venturing past their declared sea borders and firing first.
More alarmingly, the second attack—which was spun by LBJ as an act of "naked aggression" by Vietnamese communists, an act that had to be met with force—was imaginary. As an NSA analyst concluded in 2005: "It is not simply that there is a different story as to what happened; it is that no attack happened that night." Johnson reportedly knew this; he is said to have told his press secretary, Bill Moyers, "For all I know, our Navy was shooting at whales out there."
Eleven years later, as the U.S. withdrew its final forces from a transformative Vietnam conflict that had begun with that Tonkin Gulf Resolution, nearly 60,000 Americans and as many as 2 million Vietnamese were dead.
It may have been one of the largest deliberate mistruths to start a war, but it's by no means the only one. Here's a not-at-all comprehensive list of conflicts begun with false assumptions or flat-out lies:
Pretty sure God didn't actually want you to get dysentery, get robbed, and get killed on your grueling trek to Jerusalem to fight some infidels and get a piece of splintered wood that was supposedly stuck into Jesus Christ's side on the cross. But your passion is admirable, crusaders!
The Spanish-American War
Remember the Maine? The brand-new cruiser's deadly explosion in Spanish-controlled Havana harbor was drummed up in the news as the result a hostile attack by the Spaniards. It helped speed America into a war that was more about imperial expansion than self-defense or retribution. And also, the Maine explosion was probably an accident.
The Pastry War
France actually went to war in 1838 to force Mexico to reimburse a French pastry chef whose Mexico City shop was looted in a rebellion a decade earlier. (Also, Mexico had reportedly defaulted on millions in loans from the French.) France's blockade succeeded, the chef's 600,000 peso award was paid, and Mexican general Santa Anna lost a leg to one dumb cause.
Hitler's Invasion of Poland and the start of World War II
We tend to forget about it now, but Germans under Hitler referred to their invasion of Poland as "the 1939 Defensive War," because Hitler said it was self-defense against terrorism. "Germans in Poland are persecuted with a bloody terror and are driven from their homes," he said in his declaration of war. "The series of border violations, which are unbearable to a great power, prove that the Poles no longer are willing to respect the German frontier." By war's end, a larger percentage of Poland's population had been killed than any other nation's—about 16 or 17 percent.
Russia's Invasion of Ukraine
After the pro-Russian president of Ukraine was overthrown by a popular coup this spring, new leaders in Kiev suddenly had to contend with "separatists" and unhappy "residents" of Eastern Ukraine taking local control and declaring their cities to be Russian. There were undeniably local uprisings. There were also Russian agents provocateur drumming up the eastern revolt, and Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to use the well-being of his "countrymen" in Eastern Ukraine as a pretext for a hot-and-cold conflict with Kiev, with sometimes catastrophic results.
You seem to vaguely remember something about the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens two months ago in Hebron, nowhere near Gaza. The Israeli government swiftly blamed Hamas leadership and started rolling up suspects in the West Bank. A Palestinian was kidnapped and killed by Israeli teens in retaliation. Israeli calls for war intensified. IDF air strikes on Gaza began in earnest.
Hamas leaders in Gaza, who insisted they had nothing to do with the initial kidnappings, reportedly went to ground in anticipation of a siege. Rocket fire started emanating from Gaza, though it's unclear how much of it came from freelancers out of Hamas' control. It's also unclear whether Gaza would have been attacked after the kidnappings, rockets or no.
In any case, last week—after roughly 1,000 civilians had been killed amid Israeli shelling in Gaza—Israel acknowledged the kidnappers were a "lone cell" and may not have been acting under Hamas' control, after all. The former editor of the Jewish Daily Forward goes a step further and argues the Israeli government knew that from day one, the abducted teens were dead, and not because Hamas ordered it. He adds that the military and even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were reluctant to go to war in Gaza, but by that point, right-wingers in the government and their constituents were demanding it.
The Clone Wars
Ostensibly fought by the Galactic Republic against a rebellion of secessionist planetary systems with droid soldiers, the whole shebang—including the mass-killing of most Jedi knights—was orchestrated by Supreme Chancellor Palpatine, who sowed fear, uncertainty and doubt to gain wartime control over the Republic's Senate and ultimately transform the galaxy into an empire with him at the helm.
The War on Crime
Officially declared by Richard Nixon shortly after entering the Oval Office, this sounded like a great idea. Violent crime rates had risen significantly in the previous decade. But there were basic demographic explanations for that, like the baby boom. And the war on crime was also a hell of a dog-whistle for "law and order" conservatives and Southern Democrats aghast at student unrest, war protests, and LBJ's Great Society. The war never ends, but it still gets invoked whenever a little racial and cultural animus looks like it can sway an election.
Every other war known to mankind, basically
It's possible that conflict is a natural state for humans. But that doesn't mean the conflicts we've chosen have made any kind of sense. The misplaced assumptions that our side can control outcomes, or that we're good and use only good means to achieve good ends, basically mean any war is predicated on deception on some level. But then, most things in life are predicated on deception.
Clearly, this is not a complete list. Help us fill it out with your suggestions in the comments.
[Photo: U.S. Navy]