In any event, Johnson made his choice and he stuck to it, the evidence be damned. These tapes reveal, for the first time, that he understood--as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara apparently did not--that not very much had happened in the Gulf of Tonkin on August 4, 1964, and that the resolution he secured from Congress giving him the authority to wage war in Vietnam had been secured on the basis of false evidence. Johnson blames the generals and admirals for leading him astray, in his own inimitable language:
I don't want them just being some change o'life woman running up and saying that, by God, she was being raped just because a man walks in the room! And that looks to me like that's what happens in the thirty years that I've been watching them. A man gets enough braid on him, and he walks in a room and he just immediately concludes that he's being attacked.
Cute, but the truth is that on that fateful summer day, the military was a great deal more circumspect about the imaginary attack on the USS Turner Joy and the Maddox than were Johnson and McNamara. Both men exerted tremendous pressure down through the chain of command to confirm the nonexistent attack so that Johnson could announce a U.S. retaliation in time to make the news that night--a bit of unforgivable moral expediency that may have resulted in U.S. pilots being downed over Vietnam. Earlier that day, Johnson had falsely informed congressional leaders: "Some of our boys are floating around in the water."
The news that no such attack had occurred may have prevented Johnson from responding to another Gulf of Tonkin incident six weeks after the big one, but it does not seem to have affected Johnson's judgment about the wisdom of the war or the constitutional basis for its conduct.