In early August 1964, President Lyndon Johnson faced Republican Senator Barry Goldwater in the November elections. Differences between the candidates were clear. President Johnson’s agenda focused on building the “Great Society,” a culmination to FDR’s New Deal. Senator Goldwater, a major general in the U.S. Air Force Reserve, advocated a more robust national security agenda. Less than two years after the Cuban missile crisis, the intensifying war in South Vietnam increasingly threatened LBJ’s domestic agenda. Nevertheless, he could not let opponents label him “soft on communism” and still hope to carry the conservatively patriotic and still traditionally Democratic South.
On the evening of August 1, two U.S. destroyers operating in North Vietnamese waters as part of a covert intelligence gathering operation prompted an attack by three torpedo boats. The attack failed with the three boats suffering varying degrees of damage and crew casualties from destroyer gunfire and strafing planes from the carrier Ticonderoga. President Johnson, aware of the situation, opted to forego retaliation because it was unclear as to whether the attack resulted from a local commander’s initiative or was a deliberate decision by Hanoi leaders to escalate the war. Other than the rules of engagement allowing for planes from the Ticonderoga to protect U.S. ships under attack, there was no further action. Covert naval operations in or near North Vietnamese waters continued.
On the night of August 4, there were indications of a second attack. While some on the scene held radar and sonar returns indicated an attack was underway, others saw no such indications. The weight of evidence is that weather-generated anomalies like foam on waves, seagulls flying close to the water, and sonar returns from the destroyers’ own screws generated a case of “fog of war.”
Despite conflicting evidence, President Johnson seized on a political opportunity by ordering a retaliatory strike. He also asked for a congressional support, rendering the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution passed with only two dissenting votes. Although the military response was limited, LBJ looked tough while also showing restraint. The political message was President Johnson could be trusted not to seek a wider war that might escalate into World War III. The president also had congressional authority “to repel any armed attack against forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression in Vietnam.”
On September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush made a series of critical decisions during and in the immediate aftermath of terrorist attacks. He ordered all civilian airliners to land and closed U.S. airports to incoming international flights. When it became evident Flight 93 heading east over Pennsylvania was on its way to Washington, he authorized the Air Force to shoot it down. He also put U.S. military forces on full alert before leaving the safety of the underground command center at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska for Washington. That evening he addressed the nation from the Oval Office.
While politics hovers over the decision-making process in Washington like a greasy film on dishwater, the first responsibility of the president is that of commander in chief. That means making difficult decisions affecting lives immediately as well as through the inevitable consequences that may occur. Americans expect men and women in uniform and in our diplomatic and intelligence services to sacrifice their lives in defense of the nation. Should they not also expect political leaders, including the president in his role as commander in chief to sacrifice political expediency in the interest of national security?
On the evening of September 11, 2012, U.S. warplanes, which were stationed close enough to Benghazi to have responded both quickly and effectively, remained in their hangers. Meanwhile, Air Force One was on the ramp at Joint Base Andrews, prepped to depart on a campaign fund-raising trip to Las Vegas.
Earl Tilford is a retired Air Force officer and college professor who lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He is the author of several books on the air war in Vietnam. His latest book, Turning the Tide: The University of Alabama in the 1960s has been accepted for publication by the University of Alabama Press.