The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Sunday, January 30, 2005

Tonkin Gulf Incidents: Le Monde had what the Times and the Post had not

The history of the Gulf of Tonkin Incidents is to be treasured for all sorts of reasons, not least their narrow compass which enabled Edwin Moise pretty much to wrap the whole business in his book (oft mentioned here).

For one, there's the demonstration of pure stenography on behalf of America's top papers. Pravda, Granma or The People's Daily could not have done a better job for their regimes [1].

Having Daniel Hallin's Uncensored War to hand once more, I find (p20) an excellent compare and contrast with the Le Monde article of August 8 1964 [2], under hed Les circonstances du second combat naval demeurent imprécises:
On the second incident Le Monde provides a striking contrast to the U.S. press. "Now that the first armed clashes and the threats have passed," the paper reported on August 8, "it is time to explain the...circumstances in which the 'incidents' in the Gulf of Tonkin took place. As our correspondent in Washington has reported, the American 'dossier' contains serious gaps. Even if Hanoi and Peking need to be taken with a grain of salt in their presentation of the facts, it is nevertheless useful to consider their claims, at least to reconsider the facts as they can be known." The article went on to review the public statements of Washington, Peking and Hanoi (Hanoi had acknowledged the first attack on the Maddox, but had called the second a "fabrication"), concluded that the evidence was fragmentary, and speculated that the incident might have been the product of tension and confusion. Neither the Times nor the Post made any such analysis of the record. There was even, despite the administration's fairly tight control of information about policy debates, a good deal on the public record that suggested that a change in U.S. policy toward North Vietnam was in the offing, for the administration had at times been using the press to warn North Vietnam of the fact.

In his previous paragraph, Hallin says
There was, in fact, a great deal of information available which contradicted the official account: it simply wasn't used. The day before the first incident, Hanoi had protested the attacks on its territory by Laotian aircraft and South Vietnamese gunboats. It was generally known, moreover, and had been reported in the Times and elsewhere in the press, that "covert" operations against North Vietnam, carried out by South Vietnamese forces with U.S. support and direction had been going on for some time. But neither the Times nor the Washington Post mentioned them at all, either at the time of the incidents or in the weeks that followed, aside from inconspicuous sidebars on Hanoi's "allegations", and a passing reference in James Reston's column.

Was this the result of Graham and Sulzberger or their subordinates having received the infamous Johnson treatment? Graham certainly figures on LBJ's telephone tapes - but I doubt it. Stenography, then as now, came instinctively, was the default method. Objectivity included signing up to the Cold War ideological consensus.

And note the way in which information (such as the ongoing escalation via the OPLAN 34A raids [3]) may be in the public domain, but still not be operative.

The classic recent example was the August 6 PDB Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US (April 30 and May 24 2004), the name of which caused such a stir when it came out in Condi Rice's testimony to the 9/11 Commission but had previously appeared on the front page of the Post!

Facts reported by the media just seem to vanish after a time, as in Mission Impossible: "this tape will self destruct in ten seconds." Even though the original articles are still available online and in dead-tree form, they just don't count - unless in some way giving the kiss of life, by being referred to some public official or body.

  1. At the New York Times, Daddy Sulzberger was in charge (as publisher), having succeeded Orville Dryfoos in June 1963; at the Washington Post, Katherine Graham had also taken over the reins in 1963, following her husband's suicide.

  2. The hed is the only part of the article which Hallin gives in the original French. Searching thereon produces nada online.

    Note that Le Monde is an afternoon newspaper, dated with the following day's date. Thus, the earliest edition of the August 8 Le Monde would have appeared in Paris around lunchtime on August 7 (which was a Friday). In order to get round the confusion, the paper would have been referred to as the Le Monde daté du 8 août - even though, functionally, it was an August 7 paper. (In Paris, that is; but then, in those days, Paris was France.)

  3. The name, I believe, was not generally known; but the fact that escalation was in progress was.


On coverage of escalation in the Times, Moise cites two pieces which ran on page 1:
  • Raid from Laos Alleged by Hanoi - an AP piece (August 2); and

  • Sabotage Raids on North Confirmed by Saigon Aide (July 23).

He also mentions Des commandos sud-vietnamiennes entrâinées par les Américains opèrent depuis longtemps au Tonkin in Le Monde of August 7.

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