If the 1960s can be said to have ended with the resignation of Richard Nixon in August of 1974, then that defining American epoch essentially began a decade earlier, almost to the day, with the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Throughout 1964, elements of a distinctive culture of “youth” had been falling into place. The Mississippi Freedom Summer, the Berkeley-based Free Speech Movement, the music-transforming invention of the cassette tape, the Civil Rights Act, the Beatles’ world tour, the War on Poverty, the Warren Commission Report, the Second Vatican Council, the pill-based rise of feminism, a “riot” in Philadelphia’s inner city — such were the trend-setting events that gave rise just then to a new counter-establishment that stamps American style, ideology, and politics to this day. But no echo of the ’60s still resounds more than Tonkin, because of what it eventually came to justify: the nation’s soul-destroying skepticism toward its own government.
At the time, few Americans had reason to disbelieve Lyndon Johnson when he told us that innocent US naval vessels had been attacked in the high seas, a Communist provocation that could not go unmet. Only weeks before, the supremely hawkish Barry Goldwater had been nominated as the Republican candidate for president. Compared with him, Lyndon Johnson was a man of peace. If he said the United States had been attacked by North Vietnam, an unsuspecting nation could be grateful that the necessary reply would be prudent and measured.
Little more than six months later, Johnson had launched Operation Rolling Thunder, a massive air war against North Vietnam, and hundreds of thousands of young Americans were being forced into the line of fire in Southeast Asia. That the peace candidate turned out to be a warmonger was shocking, but that the inciting incident in the Gulf of Tonkin turned out to have been falsely characterized was transforming. Had they not felt betrayed, the young Americans of the ’60s might have exhausted their eccentric impulses in apolitical matters of style and personal behavior — LSD, bell-bottoms, folk-rock, long hair on men, short skirts on women. But all of that abruptly took on a political meaning when government justifications for the uncorked violence in Vietnam were taken to be lies. The young were the first to know that almost nothing of what Johnson had said about the Tonkin Gulf was true. The “credibility gap” was born.
The sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll — the ’60s — became a way of saying no. That’s all. Vietnam changed the character of what might, without the war, have been a passing set of fads, with little or no deeper meaning. With the war, though, the flower children became radicals, a mundane rite of passage became a social revolution, the ideal of the citizen soldier was permanently trashed, and a proper contempt for government deceit became a generational habit of civic cynicism. If an enemy had sought to do all this to the United States, it would indeed have been mortal. But as it was, in Tonkin Gulf that August, our own desire for such an enemy was the only real enemy we had.