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    The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and the Escalation of the American War in Vietnam


Lyndon Johnson told the nation,
‘Have no fear of escalation.’

– Tom Paxton

“The attacks were deliberate. The attacks were unprovoked. The attacks have been answered.” Thus spoke President Lyndon B. Johnson on August 5, 1964, at Syracuse University. During that speech LBJ took the occasion to expand on the sober, six-minute, nationally televised address he had made the night before (at 11:35 Eastern time) in which he told the American people that there was an attack against United States ships “on the high seas” in the Gulf of Tonkin off North Vietnam on August 2 and 4.

Calling the North Vietnamese torpedo boat attacks an “outrage,” Johnson went on to announce that he’d ordered retaliatory bombing strikes against North Vietnam. And that he would ask Congress to pass a resolution making it clear that “our government is united in its determination to take all necessary measures in support of freedom and in defense of peace in Southeast Asia.”

Three days later the House and Senate took up the matter of the Joint Resolution for the Maintenance of International Peace and Security in Southeast Asia, soon to be commonly known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. The resolution chastised communist North Vietnam for violating “the principles of the Charter of the United Nations and of international law,” by “deliberately and repeatedly” attacking U.S. Navy ships “lawfully present in international waters.”

Said attacks “created a serious threat to international peace” and were “part of a deliberate and systematic campaign” that North Vietnam had been waging “against its neighbors and the nations joined with them in the collective defense of their freedom.”

Therefore, the resolution declared, “Congress approves and supports the determination of the President, as Commander in Chief, to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.” (italics added)

click image to enlarge

Congress quickly and overwhelmingly assented, and LBJ signed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution into law on August 10. That seminal document in the history of the American war in Vietnam amounted to a de facto Declaration of War for a conflict that would drag on for more than a decade and cost some 58,000 American lives.

The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution gave President Johnson a
“blank check” to wage war against North Vietnam, said Clemson University History Professor Edwin Moise, who has studied the incident for nearly three decades and is the author of the definitive book on the subject, Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War.

The Johnson administration reported to Congress that North Vietnamese torpedo boats made two attacks on two U.S. Navy destroyers: the Maddox on August 2, and the Maddox and the Turner Joy on August 4, in international waters with no provocation. The Maddox, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara assured Congress on August 6, was attacked in “international waters” and was “carrying out a routine patrol of the type we carry out all over the world at all times.” Our elected representatives in Congress were in no mood in the Cold War year of 1964 to question the administration about what happened.

“The evidence is overwhelming that our ships on regular patrol duty moving in international waters were subject to deliberate and unprovoked attacks,” Rep. Frances P. Bolton (R-Ohio), said on the House floor on August 7. “This is one of those occasions when all of us, of whatever political persuasion, unite behind our Commander-in-Chief.”

Without much debate, the House of Representatives voted unanimously to adopt the Resolution. There was some skepticism in the Senate. But, in the end, only two senators, Ernest Gruening (D-Alaska) and Wayne Morse (D-Ore.), voted no.

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in the East Room of
the White House, August 10, 1964. (White House Photo)


What Congress and the American public didn’t know in early August of the presidential election year of 1964 was that President Johnson and his brain trust—primarily McNamara; National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy; his brother, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs and former CIA analyst William Bundy; and Secretary of State Dean Rusk—had been looking for a reason to put a plan in place that would significantly step up the American military effort in Vietnam.

The attacks “allowed them to introduce the congressional resolution that they had been holding for several months,” Harvard University History Professor Fredrik Logevall noted in his book Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam. “The Tonkin Gulf affair was tailor-made for them, a golden opportunity to accomplish several objectives with one decision.”

Secretary of State Dean Rusk, President Johnson, and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara during a cabinet meeting. (White House Photo)

Edwin Moise agreed. Johnson, Moise said in a recent telephone interview, was “getting ready to escalate; plans were being drawn up for the American expansion of the Vietnam War.” The Gulf of Tonkin incident “made a very good excuse for escalation.” The administration “would have had to make do with less-good excuses if they hadn’t had such a great one.” What happened in the Tonkin Gulf on August 2 and 4, he said, “smoothed the way for escalation and made it a little easier with less political backlash.”

The historian Robert Dallek, in Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961-1975, cited three main reasons why Johnson was looking for an excuse to up the American involvement in Vietnam in the summer of 1964: to “bolster South Vietnamese morale;” to “put Hanoi on additional notice of U.S. determination to stand fast;” and to “deprive the Republicans of any advantages they hoped to gain from Vietnam in the [presidential] campaign.”

Johnson, indeed, was taking heat from Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, his Republican challenger in the upcoming presidential election, for being weak in the face of the communist aggression in Vietnam. In April Goldwater called for the U.S. to bomb North Vietnam. In a speech in late May he suggested that the military employ low-grade nuclear weapons. The hawkish Goldwater took criticism for that, but by late July, national polls showed that he was gaining ground on LBJ.

The war, Goldwater said the day LBJ signed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, “is being fought under policies that obscure our purposes, confuse our allies, particularly the [South] Vietnamese, and encourage the enemy to prolong the fighting.” The U.S., Goldwater said, “must prosecute the war in Vietnam with the object of ending it along with the threats to peace that it poses all over the world.”

As Dallek noted, the political situation in South Vietnam was becoming increasingly unstable less than a year after President Ngo Dinh Diem had been assassinated in a military coup, and Gen. Nguyen Khanh eventually seized power. Khanh’s increasingly authoritarian government was descending into chaos in the summer of 1964 and struggling to survive. It appeared that the communist insurgency would triumph, despite the fact that there were some 16,000 American military advisers on the ground in South Vietnam.

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara briefs the press from the Pentagon. (U.S. Army Audiovisual Center)

Johnson and his advisers “wanted desperately to show that [the U.S.] was in the war to stay,” as Logevall put it. That way, they could counter Goldwater’s rise in the polls, show the American people that LBJ was taking action in Vietnam, and prop up the shaky Khanh government.

Getting the resolution passed was a “short-term political win” for Johnson, the historian Michael Beschloss wrote in his book Presidents of War. “Goldwater toned down his complaints about the issue, and for the remainder of the 1964 campaign, Johnson saw fit to mention the word ‘Vietnam’ in public only a half a dozen times.”


The North Vietnamese, without doubt, did attack the Maddox on August 2. But the Johnson administration knew that there was—at best—sketchy evidence of a second attack on August 4 against the Maddox and the Turner Joy. (It later was determined that no second attack took place.) They also well knew that the North Vietnamese were, in fact, provoked into retaliatory strikes against American warships. That came in reaction to a series of clandestine military raids on the North Vietnamese coast carried out since February 1964 by U.S Navy ships with South Vietnamese crews.

Drawn up by the CIA and the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV), and known as Operations Plan (OPLAN) 34, the raids consisted of what one planner called “hit and run” operations. They included, as Moise put it, “the landing of commandos for raids or sabotage missions.” Those raids, he wrote, “were not really [a South Vietnamese] program carried out with American assistance; they were an American program carried out with [South Vietnamese] assistance.”

What’s more, the Maddox had been sent to the Gulf of Tonkin in July 1964 as part of another covert naval operation known as DESOTO patrols. They began late in 1961 against the People’s Republic of China, and later against North Korea, North Vietnam, and the Soviet Union. The Maddox’s DESOTO mission in the summer of 1964 was to monitor the movements of a fleet of North Vietnamese junks that were believed to be carrying Viet Cong guerrilla fighters to South Vietnam, as well as to gather “navigational and hydrographic data and acquire intelligence on the North Vietnamese Navy,” as a National Security Agency report later put it.

As with the other DESOTO Navy destroyers, the Maddox was equipped with special signals-intelligence—known by the acronym SIGINT—equipment designed to covertly monitor enemy activity on the high seas.

U.S.S Maddox (DD-731) (U.S. Navy Photo)


The passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution immediately sparked an escalation—by North Vietnam and China. “It promoted escalation on the other side,” Moise said. “It probably pushed the North Vietnamese and the Chinese who thought, ‘The Americans are going to escalate, we had better be ready to deal with it.’ ”

Soon after Johnson ordered the air strikes on North Vietnam “three dozen MIG aircraft had been flown in from China to be stationed at Phuc Yen airfield near Hanoi,” Logevall wrote. After the resolution was signed a few days later, Moise added, China “started to invest substantial sums of money in preparation for the possible involvement in the war,” although the Chinese didn’t send military personnel and antiaircraft units to Vietnam until June of 1965.

“The Chinese,” Moise said, “were more ready to do that than they would have been without the Tonkin Gulf Resolution.” 

The North Vietnamese decided that they, too, would rev up their war machine in the wake of the resolution. “At high-level meetings in mid-August,” Logevall wrote, “senior officials decided to expand insurgency activities in the South in the hope of winning a ‘decisive victory in the next one or two years.’ They opted to increase aggressive actions against the strategic hamlets, to expand liberated areas, and to increase propaganda and agitational activities in the cities of the South in preparation for a general uprising.”

Soon thereafter, North Vietnam’s Central Committee “made the fateful choice of ordering [NVA] main-line units to the South,” the historian Pierre Asselin wrote in Hanoi’s Road to the Vietnam War, 1954-1965. That decision, Asselin noted, “effectively culminated the gradualist approach that had characterized the party’s revolutionary strategy since 1954.” In late September the North Vietnamese high command officially decided to, in the words of a government report, “take advantage of this opportune time to try and defeat completely the puppet army [the ARVN] before American forces intervened.”

Johnson, despite getting congressional authority to do so, did not immediately order a build-up of U.S. forces in Vietnam. Johnson “was happy to have the Tonkin Gulf incident to give him an excuse to get Congress to give him a blank check, even though once he had it, he was desperately hoping to find some way of not cashing it,” Moise said.

That’s because Johnson “was deeply conflicted” about escalating, Moise said. “He really, really, really did not want to be a war president. He had no faith that the war would be a small, cheap, easy one. He remembered the optimism about the Korean War [in 1950] being over fast and easy, and he thought we’d been wrong then. He did not think the war would go well. He was not nearly as optimistic as most of his people were about how well escalating would work.”

In the six months after the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, LBJ “actually was shrinking the U.S. armed services,” Moise said. “There were fewer men in uniform in March of 1965 when the ground war started than there were when the Tonkin Gulf Resolution passed” seven months earlier. “He was shrinking the armed forces in the hope that he wouldn’t be fighting a big war.” Even as Johnson was about to escalate early in 1965, “he was hoping he would not be fighting a big, bloody war.”

In the summer of 1964 LBJ did not seek a wider war; in that regard he was truthful in his August 4 speech. But the Tonkin Gulf Resolution convinced the enemy that Johnson soon would escalate, and they significantly upped the ante militarily.

That included a February 7, 1965, Viet Cong attack on Camp Holloway, a joint U.S.-South Vietnamese base near Pleiku that took the lives of eight Americans and scores of South Vietnams troops, and the February 10 VC bombing of a maintenance barracks in Qui Nhon that killed 23 U.S. service members. Those two attacks and the deteriorating military situation in South Vietnam in general convinced the Johnson administration to cash the Gulf of Tonkin blank check seven months after Congress issued it.

LBJ ordered the start of Operation Rolling Thunder bombing campaign against North Vietnam, which began on March 2, 1965, and would continue for three-and-a-half years. At the same time he ordered the deployment of ground troops to Vietnam for the first time. The first American combat troops—the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade—went ashore at Red Beach in Danang on March 7.

By the end of 1965, the number of U.S. military personnel in Vietnam skyrocketed to 184,300. The number peaked in 1969 at more than 550,000.

The rest is Vietnam War history.

The brain trust: Secretary of State Dean Rusk, President Johnson, and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. (White House Photo)


As the American public began to sour on the Vietnam War in the late sixties, Congress had second thoughts about the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. On June 24, 1970, the U.S. Senate voted 81-10 to repeal it. That mostly symbolic action—the Nixon administration announced that it was not basing its prosecution of the war on the resolution’s authority—made what Sen. Wayne Morse had said during the August 1964 Senate debate prophetic.

“I believe this resolution to be a historic mistake,” Sen. Morse, who served in the Senate until 1969, had said. “I believe that within the next century, future generations will look with dismay and great disappointment upon a Congress which is now about to make such a historic mistake.”




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