THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Friday, November 10, 1995 TAG: 9511100463 SECTION: FRONT PAGE: A1 EDITION: FINAL SOURCE: FROM WIRE REPORTS DATELINE: HANOI, VIETNAM LENGTH: Long : 107 lines
Two old adversaries came face to face here Thursday, and former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara asked his Vietnamese counterpart a question that he said has plagued him for 30 years: What really happened in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964?
``Absolutely nothing,'' replied retired Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap.
Both sides agree that North Vietnam attacked a U.S. Navy ship in the gulf on Aug. 2, 1964, as it cruised close to shore. But it was an alleged second attack two days later that led to the first U.S. bombing raid on the North and propelled America deep into war.
Many U.S. historians have long believed either that the Johnson administration fabricated the second attack to win congressional support for widening the war, or that the White House had only flimsy evidence of a real attack.
McNamara was Johnson's secretary of defense at the time, but even he admitted Thursday that the administration may have made ``serious misjudgments.''
For McNamara, Giap's word was the clincher.
``It's a pretty damned good source,'' he said after the meeting.
As defense secretary from 1961-68 under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, McNamara was one of the leading proponents of U.S. support for South Vietnam against the Communist North. But he left office convinced the war was doomed to failure, he says, revealing his change of heart in memoirs published this year.
The 85-year-old Giap, wearing his olive-green uniform with four gold stars on his shoulder, greeted him Thursday with an understatement: ``I heard about you long ago.''
McNamara laughed. ``I heard about you long ago,'' he rejoined.
Then they talked for more than an hour, with McNamara frequently leaning forward and jabbing his finger for emphasis as he talked about the lessons of history.
McNamara, 79, emerged from the meeting describing it as extraordinary and saying he was struck by the lack of hostility.
McNamara came to Hanoi for the first time to ask the Vietnamese to take part in a conference of top Vietnam War decision-makers. The New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, which is organizing the gathering, says it would be an opportunity to share archival materials and correct the historical record.
``You lost . . . 3,200,000 people,'' McNamara told Giap. ``We lost 58,000.'' He said the conference would help ``ensure that our nations and other nations learn how to avoid such conflicts in the future.''
He elaborated afterward: ``The major questions are: Could we have avoided a tragedy - a tragedy for them and a tragedy for us - or could we have minimized it?''
Giap and Vietnamese officials have said they will give the conference serious consideration.
McNamara wasted little time in raising a question that clearly had nagged him for decades.
``To this day I don't know what happened on August 2 and August 4, 1964, in the Tonkin Gulf,'' he said to Giap. ``I think we may have made two serious misjudgments. . . . Did what we thought was an attack on August 4, 1964, the so-called second attack - did it occur?''
Giap responded that on Aug. 2, a ``small, local coast guard vessel'' did fire on a U.S. ship in the gulf. But, he said, ``on August 4th, there was absolutely nothing. . . . Nothing happened from our side on the day, August 4th, 1965.''
Reporters were ushered from the room soon after, but McNamara later quoted Giap as saying he believed U.S. surveillance ships were trying to provoke an attack so President Johnson would have an excuse to step up U.S. involvement.
McNamara, speaking later to reporters, disputed that interpretation: ``That point that Giap made is absolutely without foundation.''
Johnson quickly won congressional approval of the ``Tonkin Gulf Resolution,'' which authorized him to ``take all necessary measures'' to repel attacks on U.S. forces. The first U.S. combat troops landed in South Vietnam seven months later.
McNamara said the administration believed the second attack had taken place and that it had to respond forcefully.
McNamara and the rest of the delegation from the Council on Foreign Relations also met Thursday with Deputy Premier Phan Van Khai and Deputy Vice President Nguyen Thi Binh, former foreign minister in South Vietnam's pro-Communist ``provisional revolutionary government'' during the war. MEMO: This story was compiled from reports by The Associated Press,
Knight-Ridder News Service and The New York Times.
THE VIETNAM WAR
U.S. military personnel involved: 8,744,000
United States - 58,169
Cost (in 1995 dollars): $722.7 billion
Source: Center for Defense Information ILLUSTRATION: Top: Associated Press color photo; Below: Associated Press file
Former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, center, meets retired
Vietnamese Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap in Hanoi on Thursday. Giap greeted
McNamara with an understatement: ``I heard about you long ago.''
These Marines were part of the first combat troops sent to Vietnam
on March 8, 1965.