The Intercept’s James Risen Gets Basic Vietnam Facts Wrong

  • The Intercept’s Senior National Security Correspondent, former NYT Reporter, gets basic Vietnam facts wrong
  • The political left has meme’d the Gulf of Tonkin being 100% fake into reality, despite solid evidence for the first attack, and weaker evidence for the second attack

  • The Gulf of Tonkin is the central claim for a ‘false flag’ used to start an unpopular war. This isn’t a small matter, the political importance of the actual details of the battle are critical and there’s no excuse a reporter like Risen and an outlet like the Intercept, missed them.

Our Rating: Major Negligence. MSNBC-level basic journalistic negligence

Indicted Outlet: James Risen | The Intercept | Archive | Link | Oct. 7, 2023

So if this fact sounds familiar, it’s because we previously fact-checked Mr. Bald on the wonderful “Bald and Bankrupt” for getting this fact wrong. [1]

Whereas Mr. Bald, aka Benjamin Rich, is a Travel Vlogger and perhaps our fact check was a bit harsh given that he doesn’t hold himself out to be a historian, James Risen at the Intercept certainly holds himself out as someone who wouldn’t make a critical factual mistake like this.

I’ve updated this piece to reflect the response from Mr. Risen, where he indicates that he didn’t clarify the two different attacks. While this is true, it’s still not really an acceptable answer given the context provided here. Saying that the attack was faked, when you acknowledge the first attack was real, is still a significant error. In any case, I’ve posted his entire response at the end of this piece.

Major Violations:

  • Misrepresentation

Let’s start by being absolutely clear what was said and what is factually incorrect about what is being said.

In this article from October 7, 2023, titled, “The Secret History: How Neil Sheehan Really Got the Pentagon Papers”, [2] Risen says:

“In August 1964, when U.S. Navy ships ventured into North Vietnamese territorial waters in the Gulf of Tonkin, President Lyndon Johnson and the Pentagon lied about the North Vietnamese response, falsely claiming the North Vietnamese had assaulted the ships. Johnson then used the trumped-up incident to win congressional passage of what became known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which became Johnson’s justification to dramatically escalate the war by sending in conventional combat forces.”

It’s notable here that Risen refuses to date when the ships ventured into “North Vietnamese waters” in August. He does so to purposefully obfuscate that there were two incidents, the first attack and the second attack.

There is no dispute that the North Vietnamese attacked the U.S.S. Maddox on August 2, 1964. There is dispute about whether or not there was an attack two days later on August 4, 1963.

Even the Vietnamese admit that the first attack happened on August 2, 1964.

So when James Risen says that LBJ “falsely claim[ed] the North Vietnamese had assaulted the ships” it is a major misrepresentation.

When Risen says that “U.S. Navy ships ventured into North Vietnamese territorial waters” he is taking the 12 mile Vietnamese interpretation of their political jurisdictional limits and not the 5 mile limit claimed by the U.S., another major misrepresentation.

As well, and I hate to give that monster LBJ any credit, but the surviving record shows that he genuinely thought that the second attack was legitimate. They may have been play acting for the phone and experts may have known better, but in the heat of the moment it does appear as though Johnson genuinely thought that there was a second attack.

Johnson may have over-used the attack to suit his political purposes, may have recklessly overridden his commanders and subordinates who suspected this was not real, he may have cynically understood this as a way to expand his power, but on the night of August 4th 1964 it does appear he thought there was a second attack. [3][4]

As well, the question of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution being used to “dramatically escalate the war by sending in conventional combat forces” is also up to reasonable debate and not a settled fact. There were advisors in South Vietnam sent there by Kennedy. There were already 23,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam by 1964.[5] There wouldn’t be a large scale battle involving U.S. troops for over a year.

This is one fact in a longer historical piece. On some basis, I can see why it might be considered cherry-picking to focus on this one fact.

But this one fact is perhaps the most critical and crucial one to the story. Getting this fact wrong clouds and colors all subsequent U.S. involvement. Whether a war was started on a cynical lie or an unfortunate series of naval attacks and encounters, are two very different versions of what comes next.

This is a mistake that someone like James Risen shouldn’t make, and his readers shouldn’t have to second guess. Therefore, we’re rating this as major negligence.

This has become such an article of faith on the political left, it has become an unquestioned shibboleth that perhaps started as half true (that there is dispute about the August 4th attack), but sloppiness and left-wing arrogance has allowed the meme to evolve like a historical cancer. You can take the reporter out of the New York Times, but you can’t take the NYT out of the Reporter, apparently.

We contacted James Risen and here was his response:

It’s true I didn’t distinguish between the first and second purported attacks in the Gulf of Tonkin incident in the brief description of it in my story. But the significant event was the second purported attack, which is what Johnson used to go to Congress to get the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. There is a consensus today that the second attack didn’t happen, and that Congress was misled about it at the time.  Here are some relevant links, including one showing that Johnson went to Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman J. William Fulbright about getting Congress to act only after the second purported attack. The other stories go into detail about how the second attack didn’t occur, and that Congress was misled..

Risen is correct that there’s major dispute today about the second attack and most historians believe it didn’t happen. But there’s similarly no good faith dispute that the first one did happen. The two attacks combined were used to pass the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, but to omit and ignore the first attack is not a minor thing in his article.

Our Rating: Major Negligence. MSNBC-level basic journalistic negligence


1 ]
2 ]
3 ]
4 ]
5 ]

Join the conversation

We have no tolerance for comments containing violence, racism, profanity, vulgarity, doxing, or discourteous behavior. Thank you for partnering with us to maintain fruitful conversation.


TGP FactCheck