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Tonkin Gulf Resolution | John Kuo Wei Tchen

Anti-Asian stereotypes helped dubious incident lead to war

Angela Lansbury, as Mrs. Iselin, and Laurence Harvey as her son, Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw, star in 1962’s “The Manchurian Candidate.”
Angela Lansbury, as Mrs. Iselin, and Laurence Harvey as her son, Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw, star in 1962’s “The Manchurian Candidate.” (United Artists)

Frank Sinatra was having violent recurring nightmares. His sergeant, with icy brutality, strangles a fellow soldier in front of amused Oriental officers. Sinatra feels he’s going crazy until he finds another platoon member also having these sleep terrors. Sinatra realizes they’ve all been the subject of some insidious brainwashing in a commie plot to have the now Medal of Honor-decorated sergeant (Laurence Harvey) become an unwitting assassin of a presidential candidate.

Film buffs know this is a scene from the brilliant, paranoid 1962 John Frankenheimer film “The Manchurian Candidate.” Released at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, less than a year before President Kennedy was assassinated, the successful film play-acted a recurrent script of US political culture: A yellow peril, in one variant or another, was out to get Americans and America.

How could Americans believe Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, about the Gulf of Tonkin “incident”? This was before Watergate; the word of the president was still sacrosanct. But just as important, American culture was saturated with Orientalphobia, a variant of what historian Richard Hofstader, in a famous 1964 essay providing a deep context for McCarthyism, called the “paranoid style of American politics.” The evil “yellow genius” had long been a fixture of Anglo-American commercial culture. The fabulous Boris Karloff in “The Mask of Fu Manchu” (1932), with the delightful Myrna Loy as the evil one’s sexually depraved daughter, still played as television reruns. Yellow-face actors with hokey accents and odd demeanors regularly populated print and electronic media, as they do today.

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Such depictions were not limited to fictional characters. In 1902, Samuel Gompers, the British-born Jewish immigrant who founded the American Federation of Labor, argued for the permanent extension of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act with the pamphlet “Some Reasons for Chinese Exclusion. Meat vs. Rice. American Manhood against Asiatic Coolieism. Which Shall Survive?” And the eugenics-driven National Origins Act of 1924 still constituted US immigration law.

In short, the larger racial culture predisposed voters to believe a yellow-peril war script. And the same culture had true believers imagining that the virile Marines would quickly prevail over short, heathen “gooks.” In hindsight, we know none of this was true at that time. We should also know that this paranoid style has not served our nation well in the half century since (WMDs, anyone?). Putting the Gulf of Tonkin “incident” into this larger historical arc helps us understand why, when stereotypes pervade the public imagination, a democratic society can be vulnerable to systemic misinformation.

John Kuo Wei Tchen is the co-author, with Dylan Yeats, of “Yellow Peril! An Archive of Anti-Asian Fear.” He teaches at New York University and is co-founder of the Museum of Chinese in America.