“False Flag” Attacks–Debunked!
This blog will deal with the claims made in a very small portion of the movie Thrive—small, but important. One of the key claims Foster Gamble makes in the film is the claim that there is a “Global Domination Agenda” where a small elite is plotting to take over the world. As I have already demonstrated, that claim is completely false. One of the pieces of “evidence” that Mr. Gamble employs to reach this finish line is the idea that this “Global Domination Elite” (“GDE” for short) uses what he calls “false flag attacks” as pretexts to start wars and/or institute policies that supposedly advance this imaginary conspiracy. In doing so, Mr. Gamble makes some pretty serious distortions of a few particular events in U.S. history. As American history is my professional field, I feel particularly obligated to set the record straight as to the misleading information and false conclusions invited by Mr. Gamble in Thrive.
What Does Thrive Say About “False Flag” Attacks?
At 1:30:00 (+/- a few seconds) in Thrive, Mr. Gamble asserts that “it is a documented fact that we entered the Vietnam War under false pretenses.” He is talking about the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, an attack by North Vietnamese forces on U.S. warships which caused President Lyndon Johnson to ask Congress for a resolution broadly authorizing expanded use of military force in Vietnam. A few moments later, Robert McNamara, who was Secretary of Defense under Johnson, is shown on the screen acknowledging that the attack on a U.S. ship in the Gulf of Tonkin did not actually take place.
At 1:30:44, after Mr. Gamble mentions that George W. Bush used the idea of weapons of mass destruction (WMD’s) in Iraq to build support for the 2003 invasion, he states, “Tactics such as this are sometimes referred to as ‘false flag’ operations.”
At 1:30:56, Gamble makes the following assertion:
“A growing number of people believe that 9/11 was a ‘false flag’ operation by the global elite as a means of taking over Middle Eastern oil and dismantling U.S. constitutional protections.”
As he says this, on the screen the collapse of World Trade Center 7 is shown. The title on the screen reads, “Building 7, World Trade Center—September 11, 2001—(not hit by any plane).”
In about one minute of screen time, Mr. Gamble has committed a number of serious historical, logical and factual errors. This article will demonstrate three principal factual conclusions: (1) that Mr. Gamble is absolutely wrong, as a matter of historical fact, to claim that the Gulf of Tonkin incident was a “false flag” operation; (2) that belief in “9/11 was an inside job” conspiracy theories is not growing, but in fact shrinking; and (3) the conclusion that Mr. Gamble invites, but does not expressly state, regarding September 11—specifically regarding WTC7, that it was part of a “false flag” operation—is incorrect. Additionally, this article will demonstrate why the whole idea of “false flag” operations, as conceived of by conspiracy theorists, is extremely unrealistic and in fact pretty silly.
What Is a “False Flag” Attack?
If you hear the term “false flag” in ordinary conversation, chances are pretty good you’re talking to a conspiracy theorist. As conspiracy theorists often do, they have taken a fairly obscure term—this one from the world of military and intelligence strategy—and colored its meaning into something not quite the same as its original meaning. Just for the sake of defining the term, I’ll quote the Wikipedia definition:
“False flag (aka Black Flag) operations are covert operations designed to deceive the public in such a way that the operations appear as though they are being carried out by other entities. The name is derived from the military concept of flying false colors; that is flying the flag of a country other than one’s own. False flag operations are not limited to war and counter-insurgency operations, and can be used in peace-time.”
Historically, false flag operations have been confined to fairly small-scale military maneuvers, especially in naval warfare. Did you see the film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, which involves British Navy ships in the Napoleonic era? There is a scene in that film where a British warship disguises itself as a whaling vessel from Brazil so as to lure an enemy French ship into close quarters, whereupon the British standard is suddenly raised and the attack begins. This is a type of false flag operation in its proper context.
When conspiracy theorists talk about “false flags,” what they mean is a tragic event, usually a very large-scale attack or other act of war or aggression, which is entirely staged by a government or elite group as a means to blame a totally innocent party and thus create a cause to retaliate against that innocent party. It’s the same thing in spirit, but not in scope. False flag operations in real life tend to be small and limited in scale. To conspiracy theorists, however, there is no practical limit to the events that can be staged successfully. Indeed the term “false flag” itself is often used as shorthand to allege a conspiracy behind something.
Why Is The Gulf of Tonkin Incident Not a “False Flag”?
Mr. Gamble states boldly that “it is a documented fact that we entered the war under false pretenses.” It’s very clear that he’s alleging that the Gulf of Tonkin incident was a false flag attack. But it wasn’t. The reality is complicated, and considerably different than Mr. Gamble’s conspiracist shorthand.
First, and most importantly, he does not tell the audience that what is referred to as the “Gulf of Tonkin incident” was actually two incidents. There were two alleged attacks on U.S. warships by North Vietnamese patrol boats on two separate occasions in early August 1964. One such attack clearly and definitely occurred. In fact it has been admitted by Vietnamese officials. The second attack did not occur. This is the attack that Robert McNamara is speaking of in his brief clip shown in Thrive, which is taken out of context.
Because we know for a fact that one attack definitely occurred, this automatically disqualifies the Gulf of Tonkin incident as being a “false flag.” However, the second attack—the one that did not happen—doesn’t satisfy the definition either. It didn’t happen, but it wasn’t staged. Gamble clearly wants you to believe that elements of the imaginary “Global Domination Agenda” staged the incident in order to give the U.S. a pretext to go into Vietnam. That’s not what happened. Whatever did happen in the Gulf of Tonkin that night was misperceived by U.S. military personnel as an attack. They made a mistake; but that’s different than staging an attack.
What Happened in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964?
The United States had been supporting the government of South Vietnam since 1954, when a complicated cease-fire ended France’s war there (much of Southeast Asia had long been a colony of the French). This accord separated Vietnam into two countries, North Vietnam which was Communist, and South Vietnam which was pro-Western. American military and intelligence forces, euphemistically called “advisers,” were in the country beginning in the late 1950s, helping the South Vietnamese resist the civil war going on within its borders to unify all of Vietnam under Communist rule. Inch by inch the United States was being pulled in to a more active role, but by August 1964 there were no U.S. combat troops directly engaged in warfare with the Vietnamese.
On August 2, 1964, the destroyer USS Maddox, cruising in the Gulf of Tonkin on a mission to collect intelligence about North Vietnamese military activity, fell under attack by North Vietnamese patrol boats. The U.S. returned fire and sank one of the boats. Part of the reason this small battle occurred was because North Vietnam claimed a zone of up to twelve miles from its coasts were its territorial waters, and this claim was not recognized by the United States. Historically, there is no question that the August 2 attack did occur. The only question was who in North Vietnam’s military had ordered it and whether they had authority of the government to do so.
In 1998, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara—the exact person who a brief clip of appears in Thrive—and other U.S. officials, in an effort to repair relations with Vietnam (which ultimately was unified under Communist rule in 1975), went to Vietnam to talk about the war with officials who had been in command of the North Vietnamese government at that time. These fascinating discussions were recorded and became the basis of a book by Robert S. McNamara, James G. Blight, and Robert K. Bringham called Argument Without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy (New York: Public Affairs, 1999). On page 203 of this book, McNamara and his opposite numbers from Vietnam discuss the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Here was the record of the exchange about the first attack:
“Robert McNamara: The first question I have is: was there an attack on the Maddox on August 2, 1964? The answer to that is almost surely ‘yes.’ I say this because I have a fragment of a North Vietnamese shell that I took off the deck of the Maddox, so I think there had to be an attack. But I’d like this on the record. I see my Vietnamese colleagues nodding agreement. Okay, we’ll accept that.”
“Gen. Nguyen Dinh Uoc: Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap said that one of the responsibilities of the Vietnamese navy in Thanh Hoa was to guard against any vessels violating the national waters of Vietnam. And if there were violations, the navy had the right to attack in order to protect those waters. That was the general policy adopted by the central authority to defend the country’s sea coast, at the time. It was not a decision made centrally. That is the answer.”
“Robert McNamara: Thank you for a very clear answer. It points to something that we certainly did not understand or anticipate at the time…There was a far greater decentralization of authority and command with respect to the North Vietnamese military than we understood at the time…”
So you see here that even the North Vietnamese admit that the August 2 attack did in fact take place. This is proof positive that Foster Gamble (A) is wrong that the Gulf of Tonkin was a “false flag,” because it is clear that an attack did take place; and (B) that he took the McNamara quote out of context. Before I explain where the McNamara quote comes from, let’s look at the second part of the Gulf of Tonkin incident.
Two days after the August 2 incident, the USS Maddox and another ship, the USS Turner Joy, claimed that they were under attack again. Technicians aboard these ships saw radar blips and there were also visual sightings of what people interpreted as patrol boats headed toward the U.S. ships. In fact, they misinterpreted what they saw. I will quote from another book, Edwin E. Moise, Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), where it states on page 203-04:
“Several participants in the incident who contend that there really was a PT boat attack on the night of August 4 have summarized for the author the reasons for their belief. John Barry firmly believes that his ship actually was attacked by torpedo boats…Ensign Douglas Smith was completely convinced, on the basis of what he could see on his radar screen, that the Turner Joy was under PT boat attack. Despite contrary evidence of which he has become aware since, he is still inclined to believe in the reality of the attack…The evidence of the radar screen returns was convincing then, as it is now…
When the documentary evidence is added, the weight of the evidence is overwhelming: no attack occurred. There exist rational explanations of how all the evidence of an attack could exist without there having been an attack.”
The captain of the Maddox cabled Washington that his ship was under attack. Not long after he began to send cables hedging on this conclusion and suggesting that perhaps the second attack had not, in fact, occurred. McNamara did not tell President Lyndon Johnson that the Maddox commander was changing his mind. When Johnson made the decision to seek Congressional authority to strike back, on the basis that U.S. forces had been attacked, he did not know that the August 4 attack was in serious question.
In 2003, Robert McNamara gave a lengthy interview to filmmaker Errol Morris. This interview became the basis of a documentary film called Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara. It is from this film that the brief clip of McNamara that appears in Thrive is taken. (I hope Mr. Gamble got the appropriate clearances to use it). In the specific clip that is used in Thrive, McNamara, who died in July 2009, is clearly talking about the August 4 attack. To my knowledge, at no time did he ever hold the opinion that the August 2 attack did not take place.
It is important to view the questions about the August 4 attack in their proper context. The brief and misleading presentation of the Gulf of Tonkin issue in Thrive clearly invites the reader to jump to the conclusion that the Gulf of Tonkin incident was some sort of deliberate fabrication. Indeed, the characterization of the event as a “false flag” attack requires that interpretation. But, as we’ve seen here, the August 2 attack did occur, and the August 4 attack, which did not occur, was a result of mistake, not fabrication. There is not a single shred of evidence anywhere that the apparent August 4 attack on the USS Maddox was a deliberate and knowing fabrication. Thus, it is impossible that it could have been a “false flag.”
Did the Gulf of Tonkin Incident Really “Get us into Vietnam?”
Historically speaking, the answer to this question is clearly no. By August 1964 the United States was already deeply involved in Vietnam. It is therefore a mischaracterization of history to assert that the Gulf of Tonkin incident caused the United States to enter the Vietnam war. It simply didn’t happen that way.
While obviously the point of this section of Thrive is not to engage in any sort of deep historical analysis, again the conclusion that Mr. Gamble invites with his words, and his selective presentation of the issues, is telling. Look at his exact words again: “It is a documented fact that we entered the Vietnam War under false pretenses.” It is not a documented fact, because it simply isn’t true. He’s playing games with the idea of when and under what circumstances the U.S. “entered the Vietnam War.”
I will again quote the Moise book, Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War. In the preface, Moise states:
“The incorrect report of August 4 did not really “cause” the outbreak of large-scale war in Vietnam. By August 1964, Washington and Hanoi were already on a collision course. The level of combat in South Vietnam, and the level of outside support on both sides, were increasing; meanwhile the United States was sponsoring a program of covert operations against North Vietnam…If reports from the Gulf of Tonkin had not caused President Johnson to order airstrikes against North Vietnam in August 1964, something else would have done so within a few months.
“[T]he Tonkin Gulf incidents—the real one of August 2 for which the United States did not retaliate, and the imaginary one of August 4 that provoked the airstrikes and the Tonkin Gulf Resolution—deserve careful attention.”
This analysis is absolutely supported by all historical data regarding the United States’s entry into the Vietnam War. If you go to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., you’ll see two dates on the wall—1959 and 1975, the prior being the first year in which a U.S. serviceman died in Vietnam, and the latter being the last year in which that occurred. Those are, incidentally, also the dates by which the U.S. government, for purposes of veterans benefits and classification, defines the “Vietnam conflict.” It is true that a sustained long-term air campaign (“Rolling Thunder”) and large-scale infusion of American ground forces into Vietnam did not occur until 1965, after LBJ asked for, and received from Congress, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. But it is totally false to state or imply that the war began in the Gulf of Tonkin. If it did, what war did the Americans who died between 1959 and 1965, and whose names are inscribed on the Vietnam War Memorial, die in?
By his misleading use of the term “false flag,” Foster Gamble seems to want you to conclude that the Gulf of Tonkin incident alone took the United States and North Vietnam from peaceful coexistence to open armed conflict, and that, if the Gulf of Tonkin incident hadn’t happened, or if the truth about the August 4 attack had been known, the Vietnam War would not have occurred. This conclusion is ludicrous and is totally at odds with every bit of historical knowledge we have about the war. It simply isn’t true.
Okay, So the Gulf of Tonkin Wasn’t a False Flag. Does That Mean the Vietnam War was Perfectly OK?
No. That is not the argument at all. The issue is whether the Gulf of Tonkin incident was a “false flag.” It was not. The legitimacy or morality of American involvement in Vietnam is a totally different question.
Because I’m sure I’ll be asked about it, I’ll state that, personally and as a historian, I do not believe the Vietnam War should ever have been fought. I have not been able to find in the historical record anything that I regard as a convincing argument having been made by proponents of the war, such as John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson or Robert McNamara, as to why U.S. national interests at stake in Vietnam justified the terrible price of that conflict. I believe the U.S. government sorely misjudged both the stakes and the likely consequences of the war, and compounded the damage by making one disastrous decision after another. That’s what I think about Vietnam. But was it started by a “Global Domination Elite” with a “false flag” in the Gulf of Tonkin? Absolutely not.
Is the Number of People who Believe 9/11 Was a “False Flag” Growing?
Let’s move on to the subject of 9/11. Mr. Gamble is curiously circumspect about 9/11, as we’ll see in the next section, but let’s look briefly at what he specifically says: “A growing number of people believe that 9/11 was a ‘false flag’ operation by the global elite as a means of taking over Middle Eastern oil and dismantling U.S. constitutional protections.”
This statement is utterly false. Although most 9/11 conspiracy theorists refuse to accept it, fewer people believe that 9/11 was an “inside job” now than did four, five, or six years ago. An interesting article from Slate.com charts the rise and fall of 9/11 conspiracy beliefs:
“[I]n the immediate aftermath of 9/11, only a tiny segment of the American population, 8 percent according to one poll in early 2002, was inclined to believe that their government was lying to them about what happened that day….
Although most Americans still believed that the Bush administration was “mostly telling the truth,” by early 2004 16 percent of the population believed it was “mostly lying” about how much it knew prior to the attacks—double the number from the same CBS poll two years prior…By mid-2006, one in three respondents would tell pollsters that they believed the government either orchestrated the attacks or allowed them to happen in order to go to war in the Middle East…
By 2009, with the first-ever African-American president having taken office, the number of Americans who said that Bush let 9/11 happen in order to go to war in the Middle East was at 14 percent. (Because the wording of questions about responsibility for 9/11 has changed over the years, getting a consistent measure of the public’s view is difficult)…. In another poll in 2010, only 12 percent of Americans said they did not believe Osama Bin Laden had carried out the 9/11 attacks.”
Did you follow that? Belief in conspiracy theories started out at 8% in 2002, doubled to 16% in 2004, exploded to 33% in 2006, then slumped to 14% and was still falling as of 2010. If you follow the links in the above quote you can see the raw poll data upon which this summary is based. Any way you slice it, you’ll see that 9/11 conspiracy theories are becoming less popular, not more.
It is very clear: Foster Gamble is simply wrong when he says “a growing number of people” believe that 9/11 was a “false flag” operation. In fact, the reverse is true: a shrinking number of people believe that 9/11 was a “false flag” operation.
Was September 11 a “False Flag” Operation?
Mr. Gamble is curiously circumspect about the subject of 9/11. He doesn’t specifically state in Thrive that “9/11 was an inside job.” All he says specifically is that “a growing number of people” believe that it is, a statement which, as you’ll see above, is incorrect. But let’s not kid ourselves. Thrive is aimed at conspiracy theorists. Among such people, the delusional belief that 9/11 was an “inside job” is an axiom. If Mr. Gamble does not believe that it was, I challenge him to come out and say unequivocally, without reservation, that he believes that 9/11 was done by Osama bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda terrorists without the foreknowledge or assistance of the U.S. (or Israeli) government.
Clearly Mr. Gamble invites you to make the conclusion that 9/11 was an “inside job.” While he makes his incorrect statement about the numbers of people who believe it is, on the screen we see World Trade Center 7 crumbling. 9/11 conspiracy theorists continually point to WTC7, a skyscraper that collapsed several hours after the main WTC towers fell, as “evidence” that it was a conspiracy. I’ll give Thrive a very rare point for factual accuracy when I note that the caption flashed on the screen at this part of the movie, stating that WTC7 was not hit by a plane, is correct. It was not hit by a plane. However, that doesn’t mean that September 11 was a “false flag.”
At my other blog, I have written extensively about September 11 conspiracy theories and why they’re false. You can peruse examples here, here and here. I won’t rehash all the material debunking 9/11 conspiracy theories in this article. If you need convincing that 9/11 was not an inside job, I suggest you consult this website, or this one, which has a page devoted specifically to explaining why WTC7 does not indicate conspiracy, or you can go to an article I created in 2010 setting out very carefully what we know about 9/11 and why we know it was not an “inside job.” In a nutshell, WTC7 collapsed because it was severely damaged structurally, and set on fire, by debris that struck it when WTC1 and WTC2 collapsed earlier in the day. Uncontrolled fires raged for hours in the building and authorities knew well ahead of time that it was going to collapse. Here is a recent news article incorporating footage that graphically shows how bad the damage was in WTC7. It is very clear that September 11 was not an “inside job.”
So, Mr. Gamble is 0 for 3. He is wrong when he says the Gulf of Tonkin incident was a “false flag.” He is wrong when he says that a growing number of people believe in 9/11 conspiracy theories. He is also wrong when he invites the audience of Thrive to draw the conclusion that 9/11 was a “false flag.”
“False Flags” in General: They’re a Lot Rarer Than You Think.
For the most part, I’m annoyed when conspiracy theorists like Mr. Gamble assume that certain events must be “false flag” attacks. They always—always–jump to this conclusion without investigating the evidence behind a particular event. They also ignore the fact that, in real life, “false flag” attacks are exceptionally rare. I can think of only one that makes any sort of fit with the concept as Mr. Gamble describes it, and ironically he doesn’t even mention it in Thrive. On August 31, 1939, the day before the beginning of World War II, Nazi commandos attacked a German radio station on the frontier between Germany and Poland, and planted false evidence to make it look like Poles had done it. This is known as the “Gleiwitz Incident.” However, even at that, it wasn’t very consequential. By that time Hitler had been railing at Poland for months, with his usual demand being the return of a piece of Polish territory, known as the Danzig Corridor, to Germany. Had the Gleiwitz Incident not occurred at all, the war would have begun the next day just as scheduled. Furthermore, the Gleiwitz Incident failed to fool very many people in the first place. Virtually no one outside of Germany believed it, and as for belief within Germany, Hitler, being an absolute dictator, did not require public support to launch his war against Poland in the first place. Gleiwitz simply didn’t matter very much—far from being the global game-changer of the kind Mr. Gamble imagines happened in 1964 in Vietnam, or suggests happened in 2001.
Only one other alleged “false flag” even bears mentioning. Whenever you hear the words “false flag,” conspiracy theorists trot out another tired trope—that being “Operation Northwoods.” This was a memo drawn up within the U.S. intelligence community in 1962 suggesting that acts of terror be committed against U.S. interests abroad and blamed on Fidel Castro, so as to galvanize public opinion for an invasion of Cuba. The document was declassified in 1998. What conspiracy theorists forget is that this document, and the scenario it suggests, was so outlandish and outrageous that President John F. Kennedy, to whom it was presented, was aghast at the suggestion and rejected it out of hand. Not only was “Operation Northwoods” never attempted, Kennedy fired the guy who proposed it. Sadly for conspiracy theorists, this document does not help make their case that “false flag” operations are common.
When I hear conspiracy theorists complain that “false flag” attacks are used to justify American action against terrorists abroad, I sometimes present them with a list of terrorist attacks that have occurred in the past 30 or so years and then ask them to identify which ones they are willing to believe as really having occurred—i.e., as not “false flags.” For example, conspiracy theorists love to talk about 9/11 and the 2005 “7/7” London Underground massacre as being “false flags.”
However, what about lesser-known acts of terrorism? What about the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 in the summer of 1985, in which a U.S. Navy diver was murdered and his body thrown on an airport runway? Or the hijacking of the cruise liner Achille Lauro, also in 1985, where an elderly American passenger in a wheelchair, Leon Klinghoffer, was murdered and thrown overboard? Or, at the very end of the year, the machine-gun massacres at airport ticket counters in the Vienna and Rome airports? These are three terrorist incidents that occurred in 1985 alone. Which of these three are “false flag” attacks? All of them? One of them? Two? If any of them were “fals flags,” where is the evidence that they were faked?
When I ask questions like this, conspiracy theorists usually confess that they’ve never heard of these incidents so they can’t opine whether they are “false flags” or not. Some will add a naked and uninformed conjecture that they probably are, because most conspiracy theorists are reluctant to concede that terrorism really exists.
The reality is this: “false flag” attacks are extremely rare, they are of limited size and scale, they are difficult and dangerous to pull off, and even the ones that do occur (like the Gleiwitz attack) are rarely convincing or consequential. The scale and scope of “false flag” activity imagined by Mr. Gamble and other conspiracy theorists is simply the stuff of fantasy.
Thrive is wrong about “false flag” attacks. Period.