Category Archives: History

A Call for Love, Truth, and Justice


Friends have asked me what I thought of Pope Francis’s recent words in Canada during his pilgrimage of penance. As I said earlier, it is up to indigenous people to say whether or not the apology is satisfactory, but I want to comment on some of his other statements.


The vicious Doctrine of Discovery, has for more than 500 years held that it is justifiable for Christians to steal land from indigenous people and brutalize and murder them in the process and then force them to be become Christians. What could be worse than that? Even if the doctrine was dismissed by former Popes, the doctrine was used to exploit indigenous people right up to the 20th century. Pope Francis while in Canada was implored to reject that doctrine  And guess what?” He did it! At least that I is my interpretation of his words, for what he said is clearly incompatible with that doctrine.

According to Niigaan Sinclair, writing in the Winnipeg Free Press, “Pope Francis has rebuked over 500 years of how the church and Catholics treated Indigenous people.” Sinclair pointed out how in 1550, almost 500 years ago, a trial took place among Catholic leaders at Valladolid where the question was: are Indigenous Peoples human? Today, it seems incomprehensible that such a question could even be asked, but in 1550, the idea that indigenous people might be human was radical. Until then, the Popes had declared that indigenous people could be robbed of their land and must be converted while authorizing the use of brutal and even murderous force against them. It was a heinous doctrine that required a heinous world view—white male supremacy—to found it. It was not confined to Catholics but was the common European attitude to indigenous peoples everywhere.

Catholic leaders had a hard time coming to a final decision on the issue and hence acquiesced in violence, evangelization and yes, even genocide for the next 500 years. At least that was the case until now. On July 28 in Quebec City, Canada, Pope Francis asked a monumental question: “How about our relationships with those who are not ‘one of our own,’ with those who do not believe, with those who have different traditions and customs?”

 The question is astoundingly simple and yet astoundingly profound. Then the Pope gave a very clear answer to his own question: “This is the way: to build relationships of fraternity with everyone, with Indigenous brothers and sisters, with every sister and brother we meet, because the presence of God is reflected in each of their faces.”

 Pope Francis gave a theological answer to the question. I would have given a more naturalistic answer. I would have said, this is because ‘we feel the humanity in the indigenous people as we feel it in our ourselves.’ But either way, the answer really is the same.

 Niigaan Sinclair said this in response: “In a simple statement that rebuked over 500 years of Catholic doctrine, the Pope had pronounced Indigenous cultures and traditions are valuable, worthy on their own terms, and represent “the presence of God.”

Sinclair explored the idea further by speculating what this revolutionary idea of Pope Francis means in practice:

 “Bishops and priests must now “build relationships of fraternity” with Indigenous ways, instead of forcing us to give up our songs, stories, and traditions. Because, finally, after 500 years, the church finally recognizes us as human. Forgive me if I don’t give the Pope a standing ovation — as the priests and bishops did — but I do recognize a step when I see one.”


So far, I have not read any other pundit who has recognized the significance of Pope Francis’ remarks, but Sinclair has done so. This is how he characterized those remarks: “The impact of Pope Francis’ new doctrine is nothing short of a game-changer for Catholicism in Canada (and, I guess, the world).

Sinclair showed how significant the Papal comments are:

“It means Indigenous languages, cultures and ceremonies must be recognized as legitimate spiritual expressions by every member of the Catholic Church. It means any effort to destroy Indigenous traditions is to attack the “presence of God.” It means the purpose of the Canadian residential school system — to eradicate “the Indian in the child,” to use an infamous phrase — was invalid in the eyes of this Pope.”


I acknowledge that I scoffed at the suggestion that the Pope would discard 500 years of Catholic history—even ignominious history such as the Doctrine of Discovery—but that is exactly what he did. It was a historical moment! Indigenous people should be proud of what they have achieved. It is truly, deeply momentous.

Pope Francis summed up his thoughts in Quebec this way:

 Thinking about the process of healing and reconciliation with our Indigenous brothers and sisters, never again can the Christian community allow itself to be infected by the idea that one culture is superior to others or that it is legitimate to employ ways of coercing others.”


I am not aware of any more profound remarks made by any Pope in the past 500 years and they were made in Canada at the behest of the indigenous people of Canada! This was a great day.

So forget about the Pope’s apology, forget about the doctrine of discovery, what Pope Francis said in Canada was a miracle.  It was magnificent.   I think in his own humble way, without fancy words, Pope Francis did do what Niigaan Sinclair wanted him to do—he called for truth, love, and justice.

The Doctrine of Discovery Moves from Religion to Politics and Law

The Doctrine of Discovery originated as policy in the 15th century as a result of Papal Bulls (decrees) to the monarchs of Portugal and Spain.  According to According to Olive Patricia Dickason and William Newbigging in their book A Concise History of Canada’s First Nations this amounted to a “virtual declaration of war against all non-Christians and an official sanction of the conquest, colonization, and eventual non exploitation of non-Christian people and their territories.”

Yesterday, I promised that I would opine on the historic comments of Pope Francis in Quebec last week.  I have decided to make a few more comments on the Doctrine of Discovery today before I do that tomorrow.

As a result of a conversation yesterday, with a friend who is a professor of Religious studies, and clearly knows a lot more about the Doctrine of Discovery than I do, and says that the Doctrine of Discovery was repudiated by Catholic Popes and church leaders more or less from the beginning. However, the attitudes that underpinned it, namely white supremacy and its corollaries, dominated western thinking for centuries. Those attitudes allowed the people from Europe to believe they had an inherent right, if not a religious right, to dominate the people of what they referred to as the New World. According to Olive Patricia Dickason and William Newbigging,


“The main principles of the discovery doctrine was accepted by European colonizers and remained an unspoken assumption until the famous U.S. Supreme Court case of Johnson v. McIntosh in 1823. Writing for a unanimous court, Chief Justice John Marshall noted that the European colonizers had assumed dominion over North and South America during the Age of Discovery, and that the indigenous peoples had lost their rights to absolute sovereignty, but they did retain the right of occupancy in their own lands. In addition, Marshall claimed that the United States of America, upon winning it independence from Great Britain, simply assumed this right of discovery and the authority of dominion from the British. Succinctly put, the colonizing powers assumed the right to claim possession of the Americas by virtue of their belief in the superiority of Christianity and its adherents . In turn, the US Supreme Court ruled that they had inherited their right of possession, by way of the British, from the doctrine of a fifteenth century pope who was attempting to curry favour with the King and Queen of Spain.”


The basis of the policies that flowed from the doctrine were based on a fundamental assumption of European superiority over indigenous people. That attitude poisoned the relationship between Europeans and Indigenous peoples for centuries even if Popes repudiated it.  The religious leaders could not erase the attitudes of assumed European supremacy.


Doctrine of Discovery: As Vile as Vile can Be

People have been asking me what I think about the recent apologies of Pope Francis. Some were complaining it did not cover everything he ought to have covered. Others told me they hate apologies. I have been resisting a reply as I consider an answer.  I know this is not like me. I usually allow whatever inane thought has entered my head to plop out ungraced. This time I wanted to do better. I am glad I waited because on his second last day in Canada, Pope Francis made a momentous statement, which in my opinion dwarfs all else. He got to the root of the problem and he apologized for that and said we must do better. Frankly, it was a shocking statement that many have not taken note of. He has effectively ended, in words at least, more than 500 years of an important plank of white supremacy and hate that has been a stain on western civilization that urgently required redress.


First, about the apology I don’t claim the right to tell indigenous people what form of apology they should accept or what wording is good enough. That is for them to decide.  I think however I can comment on what Pope Francis has done to remove a deep dark stain on so-called western civilization for the benefit of beneficiaries of that civilization like me. Pope Francis made some astounding remarks about the foundational notion of white male supremacy and its corollary doctrine of discovery. Few have commented about that.

I have often said that Pope Francis is my Pope. I have never been taken seriously in comments because I not a member of any organized religion and certainly not the Catholic Church. So I have no claim to ownership of the Pope.  Part of the reason I have been opposed to organized religion is that it has been used for so long to buttress the thinking that produced the Doctrine of Discovery. That doctrine is based on an underlying philosophy of white male supremacy, which is the real original sin.

The Doctrine of Discovery is a doctrine as vile as vile can be and it was produced in the name of religion by Catholic Popes starting in the 15th century. In those days statements by the Pope were important. They were almost like laws. To many they were laws because  all of Europe was Catholic. But on July 28, 2022, in Canada, the current Pope poked a hole in it so deeply that it is bound to sink. This was a truly historic moment. I applaud the Pope.

To begin with, we should note that the doctrine of discovery (or discovery doctrine) is a concept of public international law that was produced by the Roman Catholic Church and adopted by the European monarchs in order to justify and legitimize the colonization and evangelization of lands outside of Europe. These lands were often ludicrously described as “uncivilized” or “savage.”  The inherent dehumanization of non-Europeans in the eyes of Europeans was used to legitimize the theft of foreign lands by Europeans by giving a thin veneer of legality and religion to that organized theft.

This doctrine was used from the mid-fifteenth century to the mid-twentieth century to permit European countries to seize land that was inhabited by indigenous people around the world and in particular in the recently contacted western hemisphere.

The idea of the doctrine was that any land not occupied by Christians could be seized by Christians for their own uses. This idea was the basis of colonization. It really was doctrine invented by Popes and European monarchs to try to justify (weakly) their invading, of the western continent, and raping and pillaging its inhabitants  in the name of the Catholic Church and European monarchs. it really was a doctrine that authorized exploitation.

The doctrine was often promulgated by written statements made by Pope that were called Papal Bulls. A papal bull is a type of public decree, such as  letters patent, or charter issued by a pope of the Catholic Church. It got the name from the lead seal the Popes used to make their statements look official.  Most of now think of them as bullshit, but actually for centuries those decrees were very important and had serious consequences attached to them because of the prestige of the Popes.

The doctrine emerged during the Age of Exploration. In 1452, Pope Nicholas V issued what was called, most appropriately, a Papal Bull, Dum Diversas that authorized Portugal to conquer non-Christian lands seize the inhabitants as slaves and consign them to perpetual servitude. Is it possible to imagine a viler doctrine that this? In 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued another Papal Bull that permitted Spain to claim the lands visited by Christopher Columbus on behalf of his patron Spain. In 1494 the two competing Christian nations concluded the Treaty of Tordesillas that divided the western “New World” between the two of them. As if they had the right to do that. It showed the extreme arrogance of Christian Europeans that gave them the confidence that they could own and control the world while ignoring the wishes of people that already lived there.

France and England, for a while at least, also used the Doctrine of Discovery to justify their dubious claims in the New World even though they refused to recognize the Spanish-Portuguese hegemony. Francis I of France said he wanted to see the “testament of Adam” that divided the world between Spain and Portugal. When Christian nations quarrelled over disputed western territories, they sometimes asked the Pope to arbitrate the disputes. Inhabitants of course, being savages, had no say in what was decided. Their lives did not matter.

After the English Reformation when England no longer recognized the supremacy of the Papal Bulls, it retained the Doctrine of Discovery to sanction its own bloody deeds. It was just that after that the English monarchs had the supreme authority, rather than the Pope but it did not cede jurisdiction to local people. The effect on indigenous people was the same.

In 1537 Pope Paul III issued a Bull Sublimis Deus that forbade the enslavement of the indigenous people of the Americas that he called the “Indians of the West and the South.” The Pope stated that “Indians” are fully rational human beings who have the rights to freedom and private property even if they are not Christians. That was a radical idea. It was so radical that European monarchs often ignored it.

The Doctrine of Discovery continues to this day to be referred to in American and Canadian judicial decisions and it continues to influence American treatment of indigenous people. The doctrine was expounded upon by judges of the U.S. Supreme Court in a series of cases most notably Johnson v. M’Intosh in 1823. In that case, demonstrating the poverty of American common law, the Supreme Court Justice John Marshall had large real estate holdings that would have been adversely affected if the case were decided in favor of one of the litigants, Johnson, so rather than recusing himself, Justice Marshall wrote the decision of the unanimous court in a manner that protected his personal interests. The court ruled that the ownership of land came into existence by virtue of discovery of the land which in that case was discovered by Great Britain and then lawfully transferred to the United States, again without consent by the indigenous inhabitants.

The Doctrine of Discovery has been roundly criticized as socially unjust, racist, and in violation of basic human rights. In 2012, the UN called for a mechanism to investigate land claims. Speakers at the UN conference noted how the doctrine had been used repeatedly over centuries to allow for the transfer of land from indigenous people to colonizing authorities or dominating nations without consent of the indigenous.

Numerous religious bodies have condemned the doctrine, including the Episcopal Church in 2009, the Unitarian Universality Association in 2012, the United Church in 2013, the Christian Reformed Church in 2016, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) also in 2016 and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. In November 2016, a group of 524 clergy publicly burned copies of Inter caetera, a specific Papal Bull that underpinned the doctrine as part of the protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline protests near Standing Rock  Indian Reservation.

The Canadian bishops have called on the Catholic Church to issue a new Doctrine of Discovery and stated that they “reject and resist the ideas associated with the Doctrine of Discovery in the strongest possible way.”

Finally, in July of 2022, without mentioning the doctrine specifically, Pope Francis during his penitential pilgrimage to Canada  made some profound comments that seriously undermine the legitimacy of the doctrine. It really was a historical moment. I will get to that in my next blog post.

Icelandic Punk MuseumIceland





Iceland has many attractions. I am not sure that this is one of them, but I loved the anarchic spirit of the posters around this former site of a public washroom. I don’t think my tour guides would have recommended it. the museum wanted to make sure there was no mistaking it for its former position.


The museum wants to make sure that it not mistaken for the former “loo.” It  was formally opened in 2016 by Johnny Rotten. The museum claims to be a small museum with a big attitude. It contains photos, sounds, posters, instruments, clothes and various other memorabilia from the 80-90’s punk scene in Iceland.



Thankfully, it makes few claims for redeeming social merit.  Who needs that anyway?



Start the revolution without me



Wild, Wild Horses


On a exploration of the Tonto National Forest by car, we stopped at Butcher Jones Road where we were surprised by a herd of wild horses walking through the picnic area and beach. Many, including us, ambled up to them trying to take photographs. I counted 13 horses in the herd. It is amazing to see wild horses. One onlooker explained to me that this was the only place the horses could access water so they came almost every day for a drink. We watched carefully to make sure we were not trampled. Apparently no one has ever got hurt by them though he recommended standing close to a tree since they never ran into trees.

Another photographer explained to me that he was part of a conservation group that successfully pleaded with the governor to halt efforts to send them to a glue factory. For now at least their tenure is secure. I applauded him for his efforts. We took many photographs of them today. How could we not?

The  volunteer group called the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group (‘SRWHMG”) has made the protection of these wild horses their mandate. They believe that the horses and their ancestors have been roaming free along the lower Salt River in Arizona, for centuries. Arizona’s State Archives hold historic evidence of their existence in the Salt River Valley, dating all the way back to the 1800’s when they were already referred to as “native stock”.  But in 2015 they were threatened with total removal.

SRWHMG monitors daily the horses and keeps records of them. Sometimes they rescue and rehabilitate suffering and injured Salt River wild horses. Part of the problem is that the horses wander onto highways. As a result this group maintains and repairs miles of fencing along Bush Highway and recreation areas. They want to keep a small piece of “wild” for future generations to come.

The mustangs may be descendants of Spanish or Iberian horses that were brought to the Americas by the Spaniards in the 16th century. The name “mustang” was derived from the Spanish word mustengo, which means “ownerless beast.” Today the word “mustang” and “wild horse” are used interchangeably.

In 1687 one of the first European explorers of the region, Missionary Father Eusebio Keno journeyed to Southern Arizona (then part of the Mexican Sonora). Due to his efforts, missions and stockyards were developed. He reportedly left hundreds of horses and cattle at each mission. His many expeditions on horseback covered over 50,000 square miles. He had 6 successful missions in Arizona including in Phoenix and Tubac.

By the 1800s wild horse herds were found all over the western plains and were noticed by many settlers and explorers. For example, Meriweather Lewis and William Clark saw them on their historic exploratory expedition from 1804-1806. Sadly, the horses were treated like the bison. Mass extermination started around 1850 because wild horses were considered competition for cattle. Many were shot or poisoned. The United States Forest Services (“USFS “) and ranchers organized roundups to shoot them. Even as late as 1908 the Forest Service put out a standing order to kill every wild horse on sight in Lander County. The wonderful animals were considered “worthless.” In the Phoenix area they were slaughtered in the thousands. The Bureau of Land Management now believes that there are about 500 left in Arizona.

The USFS  believes that they are not wild, but are escaped “livestock.” They did not want to be responsible for their management. They were not able to find any wild horses when they went looking, but  SRWHMG today believes they did not look very hard. SRWHMG suggests that they based their analysis on only one faulty outing. Yet as a result the USFS said they intended to sell the horses unless someone claimed them. In 2015 they issued a “notice to impound” to the public, but no one came to claim ownership. Even the Native American tribes did not claim them. The SRWHMG therefore takes the position that they are not truly feral or stray livestock. What is clear is that the horses are indeed wild and unowned. The SRWHMG believes that they are part of Arizona history and ought to be preserved. As a result they are doing their best to protect them from possible destruction by the USFS. For the time being it appears that they are safe, but this protected status is fragile. Ironically, the wild horses now rely on the advocacy efforts of humans, their long time foes. In the world of wild life conservation this is a frequent anomaly. Life is strange.


The Return of History


One of the best things about an extended stay vacation is that it offers time for things it is harder to do at home–such as reading.  Reading is one of my greatest pleasures.  I will comment on a few of the books I have read on this vacation. Here is the first

Today I am recommending not just a book, but a series of books. I am talking about the Massey Lectures a series of outstanding books by great thinkers co-sponsored by CBC, House of Anansi Press, and Massey College at the University of Toronto. Oddly, I have actually brought the two most recent books in this series on this trip.

The book I just finished is The Return of History by Jennifer Welsh. Welsh’s book is a rethink of an earlier very famous article by American political commentator Frances Fukuyama entitled “The End of History,” in which he argued that the demise of confrontation of East and West epitomized by the apparent end of the Cold War in 1989, was actually much more than that. Fukuyama argued this was the end of humanity’s ideological evolution as it entailed the “universalization of Western liberal democracy.” In other words it was the final form of government and this would lead to a waning of traditional power politics and large-scale conflict and the emergence of a much more peaceful world. Optimistic wasn’t he? Welsh definitively puts an end to this thesis, based on historical events that occurred since then.

What I really liked about the book (and there were many things) was the way she knitted together a broad collection of international historical events into a rational narrative without over-simplifying them. She makes sense of history in other words.

Too many of us (me clearly included) catch only a glimpse of current events, particularly on the international stage, by reading newspapers and magazines, or watching news stories on television, or, horrors, listening to our opinionated buddies at the coffee shop. Naturally we miss parts of each story. Often we miss large parts of the story without realizing it. It is difficult to understand what is going on in the world that way.

It is really nice for someone like Welsh to put them together in a comprehensive and rational way and look at them that way. It makes us feel briefly smarter. Sadly, that feeling soon passes with each new overtaking event.

When we look at places like Syria, Yemen, South Sudan, Afghanistan, and closer to home like the United States Germany and Great Britain, among many others, complacency is hardly justified by the facts. Dread is a much more rational response. It is not the triumph of the west that we can reasonably look forward to, the decline of the west seems much more likely.

Welsh points out that liberal democracy has overcome many crises in its short history during which it has flourished, but this has lulled both its leaders and its citizens into a false sense of complacency that is rapidly crumbling. As she says, “Our relative success in the past has created blind spots that now threaten to take us into a decade or more of great political, as well as economic turmoil. History is back with a vengeance.”[1]

This is a very good book.

[1] Jennifer Welsh, The Return of History, (2016) p. 46

The Tonkin Bay Resolution


When Lyndon Johnson became President after John Kennedy died, he realized that knew new plans and new strategy were urgently needed. The U.S. was getting mired in a war it did not need and Johnson did not want. But he felt he was stuck with it. He chose General Westmoreland to lead the American war effort in Vietnam. He had been a decorated military leader in Korea and Johnson chose him personally. He also replaced Henry Cabot Lodge as Ambassador with General Maxwell Taylor.

By the end of his first year as President, his cabinet and top military generals recommended that he increase the number of American military “advisors” in Vietnam from 16,000 to 23,400 by the end of 1964.

Johnson wanted to gradually increase military pressure on the North. Soon Johnson authorized American aircraft to bomb neighbouring Laos. He allowed American vessels to oversee shelling of coastal bases of the North. Of course, all of this was conducted in secret. “The American people were not to be told. It was an election year.” So the truth was withheld from them.

Misleading the public about critically important matters like war, is abhorrent. It makes one extremely wary of politicians. How can they possibly justify withholding the facts from the people who will have to pay the ultimate price for the decisions the politicians make? Or withholding the truth from parents who see their children volunteer to serve their county in war. No one has the right to withhold relevant information to them, least of all one’s elected officials.

Meanwhile the Joint Chiefs of Staff told the President that they were fighting on the North’s terms. They urged much more massive and dramatic action. They wanted air strikes on the north and the deployment of American forces in South Vietnam. They wanted boots on the ground. Johnson refused believing such aggressive action would pull China into the war just as such actions had pulled them into the Korean War in 1950.

Barry Goldwater, his opponent in the election blamed Johnson for holding back and doing nothing about Communist aggression. On July 30, 1964 South Vietnamese ships under the direction of the US military shelled two North Vietnamese islands in the Gulf of Tonkin. The tiny North Vietnamese navy was on high alert. As the television series said,


What followed was one of the most controversial and consequential events in American history. On the afternoon of August 2nd the destroyer USS Maddox was moving slowly through international waters in the Gulf on an intelligence gathering mission in support of further South Vietnamese action against the north. The Commander of a North Vietnamese torpedo boat squadron moved to attack the Maddox. The Americans opened fire and missed. North Vietnamese torpedoes also missed, but US planes from an American carrier in the bay damaged two of the North Vietnamese boats and left a third dead in the water. Ho Chi Minh was shocked to hear of his Navy’s attack and demanded to know who had ordered it. The officer on duty was officially reprimanded for impulsiveness. No one may ever know who gave the order to attack. To this day, even the Vietnamese cannot agree but some believe it was Le Duan.


Many like Huy Duc a North Vietnamese soldier believed that the North Vietnamese leader who was gradually taking over from Ho Chi Minh wanted to “elevate the war.” Some of the North Vietnamese soldiers, like Nguyen Ngoc, believed that had this not been done the North would have achieved victory in 1965. They already had much of the countryside and the government would likely have collapsed within a year if the Americans had not intervened with a large military force, as they did. However, as we know, these actions drew the Americans in and drew them in big time. Johnson ignored military advice and did not retaliate immediately. However he warned the North that any more unprovoked military attacks against Americans would bring them into the war. He failed to mention of course to the American people that the actions of the North were not unprovoked. They had been provoked by shelling of he South Vietnamese forces. “Both sides were playing a dangerous game.” And, of course, in war dangerous games often lead to violence. I hope the current American President appreciates this, but I seriously doubt it. Trump like so many American Presidents before him is filled with hubris about how easily it will be for the US with all its weaponry to win any war it chooses to engage in.

On August 4, 1964 the American radio operators mistranslated North Vietnamese radio traffic and concluded that a new military operation was imminent. It was not. They were actually getting ready for attacks from the South. Although no attack occurred, hyper alert Americans convinced themselves wrongly that an attack had occurred. Johnson was told an attack had “probably occurred” and decided it should not go unanswered.

Johnson, in announcing relation against this aggression by the North said it would be limited because “Americans know, though others seem to forget, the risks of widening war. We still seek no wider war,” he said. After that, for the first time, American pilots dropped bombs on North Vietnam.

2 months earlier, Johnson had asked McGeorge Bundy one of his military advisors to draft a resolution for Congress to authorize the President to use force in against the North Vietnamese. He now sent that to Congress. The Tonkin Bay incident was what he needed to ask Congress for authorization by way of that draft resolution to deal with aggression against the US by North Vietnam. As a result he got the famous Gulf of Tonkin Resolution from Congress which as Johnson said, was “like my Grandma’s nightshirt, it covers everything.”

Johnson was waiting for the right time to send a message to North Vietnam that we are ready and serious to deal with North Vietnam by supporting South Vietnam. As James Willbanks, an American military commander said, “That message was sent; I think we misread the enemy, because they are just as serious as we are.”

I think Willbanks was wrong. The North Vietnamese were more serious. Much more serious. The Americans talked a great line. They spent a lot of money. They sacrificed a lot of lives, but eventually they cried ‘Uncle.’ The North Vietnamese never did. They defeated the greatest military power in the history of the world! They could only do that with more grit, more determination, and more intelligence. In all of these the Americans were second rate, no matter how loud their barrage of patriotic words.

On August 4, 1964 the Tonkin Resolution was passed by a vote of 88 to 2 in the Senate and in the House it received unanimous approval. When it comes to aggressive military measures, the President of the United States usually gets his way. And he did again. Overnight Johnson’s approval rating for handling the war jumped from 42% to 72%. Even doves considered him measured and reasonable compared to Goldwater who seemed extreme. “The American public believed their President.” Even though he had not been entirely honest with them.

Of course North Vietnam did not believe Johnson. They were not convinced that he sought no wider war. They decided to escalate their efforts in the south before the American sent in their own combat troops. For the first time Hanoi started sending North Vietnamese troops into the south out of the paths they had hacked out of the Laotian jungle–the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The war was ramping up.

It was really a small incident, but it was the first that had pitted North Vietnamese forces against US Forces. It is not without significance that this was just before a Presidential election that Lyndon Johnson wanted to win. Just like Kennedy had wanted to win and just like Nixon would want to win after him. Johnson wanted to show that the Vietnamese that America was strong. He wanted to show Americans that he was strong. He wanted to appear decisive.

The Tonkin Bay resolution is seen by many now as the crucial resolution that got America mired in the war in Vietnam. It was the basis–the legal basis–for all that happened from the American perspective.

Of the two dissenting votes one was given by an amazing American. This was Senator Wayne Morse from Oregon. He was interviewed by Dick Cavett. When I was in college we would watch the Dick Cavett show nearly every night. Cavett had intended to have a late night entertainment talk show but he and his viewers were attracted to controversial subjects. None was more controversial than the War in Vietnam. Morse was able to speak the truth to power, when almost no one else was able to do that. He was one of the only 2 Senators that failed to support the resolution. These are the powerful words he said on that show that day,


If the Johnson administration had told the American people 5% of the facts of the Tonkin Bay incident the resolution never would have passed. The second thing I want to express in my conversation with you is watch out for the development of government by secrecy and executive supremacy. You had it manifested in the Tonkin Bay resolution. You just were not told the facts about America’s aggression in Tonkin Bay…We are a very proud people and its good that we’re proud, but we can’t run away from the facts just because we have a false sense of pride. And the difficulty with our Vietnam policy is that we have been the outlaw in South East Asia. We have been the aggressor. We violated one section after another of the Charter of the United Nations. We practically tore up the Geneva Accords. We have to face up to the fact that we cannot conduct a unilateral military course of action around the world without the world organizing against us. We’ve got to get out of Asia.


Dick Cavett later described that show with obvious pride. Cavett said the audience fell dead silent when Morse spoke about why we were so mistaken about this war. Cavett believed that Senator Morse was a great man. “He would be almost the definition of one.” It is not easy to say ‘No” when all around you are clamoring for war. Morse could do that. What a pity that more political leaders were not able to hear him.

On November 1, 1964 the North Vietnamese forces shelled an American air base in the south. 5 Americans died, 30 were wounded, and 5 B-57 bombers were destroyed on the ground, and 15 more were damaged. The Joint Chiefs recommended the President authorize an immediate all out air attack on 94 targets in the north and to send in regular marine units, not as advisors but as combat forces. Johnson refused to this 2 days before the election. Johnson won the election by a landslide.

As soon as the election was over, Johnson approved what he called “a graduated response.” These included limited air attacks along the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos and tit for tat attacks on North Vietnamese targets. He did not want to launch sustained attacks on the North until the South got their own house in order. In private, Johnson doubted that air power alone would ever work. He believed that eventually he would have to send in ground troops. He did not say so publicly. Again, the President did not tell the whole truth. And young men and young women volunteered to risk their lives to support their government. But their decisions to volunteer were made without knowing the truth. That should be a war crime.

All the News (or not)


General Paul Harkins was the America head of the Military Assistance Command in Vietnam in the early 1960s. Robert Strange McNamara was an American business executive and the eighth Secretary of Defense appointed first by President Kennedy in 1961. He kept his position under President Lyndon Johnson until 1968. He was considered a brilliant thinker and was responsible for implementing what was called systems analysis and later called policy analysis. Like so many of Kennedy’s advisors he was a Harvard Graduate. Harvard has never been famous for graduating students filled with modesty. They considered themselves the best and brightest.

McNamara loved data and he constantly demanded more of it from those under his supervision, such as General Paul Harkins. As a result, Harkins, doing as he was told, provided McNamara with mountains of data. In fact, McNamara was provided with “far more data than could ever be adequately analyzed.” As a result alarming reports from field officers such as John Paul Vann were not given the attention they deserved.

General Harkins had little use for sceptical reporters such as Neil Sheehan. Sometimes he even preferred that “bad news was buried.” Why advertise your own shortcomings?

When bad news is not seen or paid sufficient attention to, military analysts like McNamara are not in the best position to make the best decisions, no matter how bright they were. Even the best and brightest need all the news–the good, the bad, and the ugly. If military leaders are not in a position to make the best decisions their soldiers suffer more than anyone else.

The current occupant of the White House at the end of 2017 is famous for treating any news he does not like as “fake news.” As a result he too can fall into the same trap that Kennedy did. In fact this is much more likely in Trump’s case, because Kennedy was not a moron. Morons, more than most, need all the bad news.