Lessons from the Past for Syria Hawks

As the Obama administration weighs how to respond to the claims that Syrian president Assad crossed President Obama’s red line by allegedly using a small amount of the chemical weapon sarin, they should keep the lessons of at least three historical incidents in mind.

The first occurred in August 1964, when I was deployed as a naval flight officer and the North Vietnamese were alleged to have attacked American ships in the Gulf of Tonkin. In discussing the incident with my squadron commander, who had flown combat missions in World War II and Korea and had participated in the Berlin Airlift, he argued that what the Johnson administration was saying had happened in Tonkin made no sense. In addition to doubts about what really happened, he contended that it made no sense for North Vietnam to provoke the United States into a retaliatory attack. As it turned out, my commanding officer was absolutely right. Unfortunately, the Johnson administration used the Gulf of Tonkin incident as a pretext to push a resolution through Congress that gave it the cover to launch a decade-long war, which resulted in the deaths of nearly sixty thousand U.S. personnel and millions of Vietnamese as it tore the country apart.

This article was originally published in The National Interest.