Thirty years since the last American soldier left south-east Asia, the word 'Vietnam' still has the power to conjure images of Huey helicopters, soldiers torching grass huts with zippo lighters and war protesters shot dead in Kent State by national guard units.
Prior to 1964, American involvement in Vietnam was in the form of financial aid to France who struggled to regain control over it's south-east Asian colony. While America was more interested in containing the spread of communism than propping up a failed colonial empire, the distinction was likely lost on the people of Vietnam themselves.
Nevertheless, what changed Americas monetary involvement into a military engagement was an incident in the Gulf of Tonkin where naval forces of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam engaged two American destroyers.
However, recently declassified NSA reports show the American people were grossly misled on the actual events of August 2 and 4, 1964 and it was this misrepresentation that gave President Johnson the broad authority to wage war in Vietnam on August 7th, 1964. Five years later, the first lottery drawing since WWII was held to draft men into military service on December 1, 1969.
The war LBJ started would last 11 years and cost over 58,000 American lives. Had the American people known the full truth of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, Congress would never have given authority to escalate American involvement.
"For all I know, our Navy was shooting at whales out there." -- President Lyndon Bains Johnson, 1965.
With these declassified documents, similarities between the lead-up to the Vietnam war and the current conflict in Iraq are self-apparent.
Whether you agree with the Iraq war or not, we all must acknowledge that the intelligence data used to justify the Iraq conflict was grossly skewed. I would not debate the who-knew-what-when's of the matter because without a thorough congressional investigation (and the political will to carry it through) we will never know.
However, the detrimental effects of unjustified conflicts has upon a Democracy cannot be overstated because if a democracy can be led into war as easily as a dictatorship, then the difference between democracy and tyranny has become very small indeed.
An article on www.fair.org about the Gulf of Tonkin incident is an excellent summery of the new findings.