The Tonkin Gulf Resolution was a
joint resolution passed by the United States Congress on August 10th,
1964 after a military incident between the United States and North Vietnam in
the Gulf of Tonkin bordering the coast of Vietnam. The military incident was an
attack by North Vietnamese patrol boats on an American Destroyer on August 2nd,
1964 and two days later there was an alleged second attack on the American
destroyer. These two attacks by the North Vietnamese resulted in the Tonkin
Gulf Resolution. The resolution authorized the president “to take all
necessary steps, including the use of armed force, to assist any member or
protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty requesting
assistance in defense of its freedom”1(H.J.
RES 1145)which led to the United States engaging more directly in the Vietnam
President Lyndon B. Johnson used the
ill-defined and vague grant of authority to significantly escalate the U.S.
military presence in Vietnam with the introduction of combat troops. Many
consider this to be a pivotal event in the United States congressional history
as it was the turning point that allowed Johnson to conduct an undeclared war
without direct congressional sanction. The Tonkin Gulf Resolution was passed as
a result of the second attack on August 4th, 1964 which was later
proved that the attack did not occur. This research paper will analyze the
Tonkin Gulf Resolution by examining its origins and explaining its
implementation. The paper will place
particular emphasis on analyzing the argument that the Tonkin Gulf Resolution was
misused by the Johnson Administrations and the constitutional and ethical
dimensions of the policy that was based on false pretenses.
the Tonkin Gulf Resolution:
The origin of the Tonkin Gulf
Resolution can be traced back to a highly classified covert program called
Operation 34A. This program was designed for the United States to clandestinely
support South Vietnamese special-forces operations. The primary objective of
these operations was for the South Vietnamese special-forces units to sabotage
the North Vietnamese coastal transportation facilities by raiding. “The program
required the intelligence community to provide detailed intelligence about the
commando targets, the North’s coastal defenses and related surveillance
Operation 34 A was a major cause in the crisis that occurred in the Tonkin
On the night of August 2nd,
1964, the United States Navy destroyer, the USS Maddox, was patrolling the
waters near the coast of North Vietnam to perform an intelligence-gathering
operation under the authority of Operation 34A. The USS Maddox was responsible
for an intelligence-gathering operation coined ‘Desoto Patrol’ in which a “highly
classified team aboard the USS Maddox was feeding sensitive North Vietnamese
communications back to the National Security Agency headquarters at Fort Meade,
pg. 72) While performing the Desoto Patrol, the USS Maddox detected that was
being pursued by three North Vietnamese Navy torpedo boats. “As the North
Vietnamese patrol boats continued their pursuit of the American destroyer, the
USS Maddox was ordered to fire warning shots if they closed inside ten thousand
yards.” (Schuster pg. 30) The North
Vietnamese patrol boats and the USS Maddox exchanged fire yet none of the ships
inflicted significant damage.
When the USS Maddox reported back to
Washington that the destroyer was attacked by the North Vietnamese patrol
boats, President Johnson met with his senior advisers to consider a response. The
President along with his senior advisors agreed that it was possible that a
local North Vietnamese commander, rather than a senior official, had ordered
the attack on the USS Maddox therefore they decided not to retaliate. Instead
of retaliation, President Johnson ordered the continuation of the Desoto
patrols and added another Destroyer the Turner Joy to escort the USS Maddox.
Two days later, the USS Maddox was
once again patrolling the coast of North Vietnam for the ‘Desoto Patrols’ yet was
accompanied by another destroyer, the Turner Joy, because of the earlier attack on the USS
Maddox. During the patrol, the USS Maddox received signals that the destroyer
was being attacked once again by North Vietnamese patrol boats. Because of the signals of aggression,
the USS Maddox reported back to Washington that it was under fire from the
North Vietnamese once again. When the
reports were received in Washington, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara urged
the President to respond to the attack. And within hours, President Johnson
launched air strikes on Northern Vietnamese bases in retaliation to the attack.
The first air strikes that hit North Vietnam were four North Vietnamese
patrol-boat bases, as well as an oil-storage depot located in the city of Vinh.
Implementation of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution:
President Johnson ordered the launch of air strikes on the North Vietnamese military
bases in retaliation for the alleged attack that happened on August fourth
1964, President Johnson approached Congress for the request to increase the
United States military presence in Vietnam. On August sixth 1964, Secretary of
Defense Robert McNamara testified to a joint session of the Senate Foreign
Relations and Armed Services committees on the events of August fourth in the Tonkin Gulf. McNamara
stressed for “the immediate occasion for this resolution is the course the
North Vietnamese attacks on our naval vessels…”4(McNamara
pg. 136) During McNamara’s testimony, the committees were unaware of the covert
operations of Operation 34A therefore the joint session turned into a
discussion for a resolution to increase the United States presence in Vietnam
as they believed the USS Maddox was attacked unprovoked.
After the testimony
of Robert McNamara, Congress had a floor debate on whether to pass the
resolution. It was decided that the United States will increase its presence in
Vietnam therefore, Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution on August 10th,
1964. The joint resolution authorized the president “to take all necessary
steps, including the use of armed force, to assist any member or protocol state
of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty requesting assistance in
defense of its freedom”5.
Congress understood the resolution would give vast authority to the President
yet the Senate and the House of Representatives passed it by a vote of 88-2 in
the Senate and unanimously in the House, 416-0. With the authority to express
more military power in Vietnam, the United States quickly launched Operation
Rolling Thunder, a large-scale bombing campaign of North Vietnamese targets.
The objective of Rolling Thunder was to implement bombing raids on the Ho Chi
Minh Trail, a network of trails through dense jungle that connected North
Vietnam and South Vietnam. The Ho Chi Minh trail was used by the Viet Cong used
to smuggle supplies and covert troop movement. The President’s goal for
Operation Rolling Thunder was to cutoff the movement of manpower and supplies
from North Vietnam which would result in a boost of morale in the South
Vietnamese government. Not only did the President authorize the increase in air
power, President Johnson also increased the ‘boots on the ground’ in the
Before the resolution was passed,
there were approximately sixteen-thousand American troops in Southern Vietnam.
The role of the American troops was to act as military combat advisors, to
train the South Vietnamese to combat the North Vietnamese and the guerrilla
forces in the countryside known as the Viet Cong. The purpose of the training
was to strengthen the new South Vietnamese government. However, even with the training
of the South Vietnamese troops the United States supported programs of
‘nation-building’, South Vietnam continued to suffer from a weak government and
continual losses to the North Vietnamese military.
When the Tonkin Gulf Resolution
passed, the number of American troops in South Vietnam increased significantly.
By the year 1965, there were over one hundred and fifty thousand American
troops in Vietnam. Many of those troops were injured or killed and by the time
Johnson left office in 1969; “over thirty-thousand American troops had died as
well as hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese”(Pfiffner pg.13). 6
The Tonkin Gulf resolution created a large-scale military conflict in Vietnam
which became increasingly unpopular among Americans.
Dimensions of the Resolution:
There have been many ethical objections
raised about the passing of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. After the second attack
on the USS Maddox and the subsequent response of retaliation air strikes
ordered by President Johnson, the USS Maddox’s crew reported they reviewed the
radar contacts and other information and determined that the second report of attack
by the North Vietnamese may have been doubtful.
“Subsequent SIGINT reporting and faulty analysis that day further
reinforced earlier false impressions. The after-action reports from the participants
in the Gulf arrived in Washington several hours after the report of the second
incident.” (Schuster) Though the information of false impressions was reported
back to Washington, the Johnson Administration still went to Congress to
address the attacks.
During McNamara’s testimony, the
committees were unaware of the covert operations of Operation 34A and that the
second attack most likely did not occur. President Johnson and Secretary of
Defense McNamara were aware that the second attack on the USS Maddox in the
Tonkin Gulf was most likely a faulty analysis. Yet when both men addressed
Congress, they acted as the second attack undoubtedly had happened. The
argument can be made that the President and the Secretary of Defense lied to
the American people and members of Congress on the events that happened on
August 4th in order to escalate the war in Vietnam.
President Johnson’s decision to
escalate the war in Vietnam almost certainly had more to do with domestic
politics within the United States rather than the support of “any member or
protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty requesting
assistance in defense of its freedom”.(H.J. RES 1145) President Johnson had
come into office following the assassination of John F. Kennedy meaning Johnson
served as President for the rest of what would have been Kennedy’s first term
which was a little less than a year before reelection. In order to cement his
own full presidential term, Johnson associated himself with Kennedy’s
popularity and won the Democratic candidacy. However in the 1964 election,
Johnson was then locked into a bitter presidential race with the Republican Senator
of Arizona, Barry Goldwater.
One of the major criticisms by
Goldwater on Johnson was that he was soft on communism. “On several occasions,
he criticized the Johnson administration for “being indecisive” and
“failing to take a stronger military stand” on the Vietnam question.”(Cherwitz
The driving force behind the Tonkin Gulf resolution was the effort to prove
that President Johnson was not soft on communism. He used the incident in the
Tonkin Gulf to ensure his victory in the Presidential race, knowing that Congress
would not oppose military action against the North Vietnamese especially during
an election year. Johnson’s political deceit led the American people into a war
that was unwinnable. Not only did the Johnson administration lie about the
justification in escalating military action in Vietnam; the administration exceeded
the intended purpose of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution.
The ethical issues of the Tonkin Gulf
resolution involve the deception of the American people, but as well, the
misuse of power granted by the resolution.
As stated previously, Congress understood the resolution would give vast
authority to the President when Congress over-whelming approved the resolution.
Congress was led to believe that the United States was under attack by North
Vietnam and the powers given to the President were seen to be used for an
emergency. There is no doubt that Congress did not intend to authorize the
President the ability to expand United States forces in Vietnam without full
consultation. Initiating a large-scale military conflict that could have easily
evolved into a conflict with China or the Soviet Union was an outrage to
Congress and the majority of the American people.
Though the Tonkin Gulf Resolution was
dissolved in 1969, right before the end of Johnson’s term, the legacy of the
resolution is still felt today. The Tonkin Gulf resolution set the standard for
the Executive branch to over step its boundaries by misusing its power on
war-making given by Congress. A modern example of the legacy of the Tonkin Gulf
resolution is the Authorization of the use of Military Force (AuMF) passed by
Congress after the terrorist attack in 2001. Much like the Tonkin Gulf
resolution, the AuMF against terrorism was meant to be a temporary grant of authority that allowed the
president to engage in military action against the perpetrators of the attack. “However the Executive branch used their
authority for a decade long, open-ended, transfer of war authority for use
against any group a president may deem dangerous. “8
(Shoon pg. 195)The cause of this ethical dilemma comes from the ambiguous
language of the Constitution. Though the United States Congress has the power
to declare war, the president is the commander in chief and the presidents can
go to war without the popular consent of Congress.
Gulf resolution was a joint resolution passed in the United States Congress
after a military incident between the United States and North Vietnam. The
purpose of the resolution was to take all necessary steps to assist South
Vietnam in the war with North Vietnam and their Viet Cong allies. With the
authority to express more military power in Vietnam, the United States quickly
launched Operation Rolling Thunder, a large-scale bombing campaign of North
Vietnamese targets. The number of American troops in South Vietnam increased
significantly. At the height of the Vietnam War, there were over half a million
American troops in Vietnam.
issues of the Tonkin Gulf come from the fact that the military incident was
determined doubtful. President Johnson decision to escalate the war was,
knowingly, under false pretenses, and almost certainly had more to do with
domestic politics within the United States. Johnson misused of power granted by
the resolution which resulted in a large loss of American lives. Though the
Tonkin Gulf resolution dissolved, its legacy is still carried out with the
Executive branch’s ability to conduct war without the consent of Congress.
Joint Resolution to promote the maintenance of international peace and security
in southeast Asia. Pub.L. 88-408, 78
stat. 384 (1964.)
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Allen. “Gulf of Tonkin Resolution Begins the Vietnam War.” ABA Journal, vol.
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Robert S., and Brian VanDeMark. “The Tonkin Gulf Resolution.” In retrospect:
the tragedy and lessons of Vietnam. New York: Random House, 1996. Pg.136
Resolution to promote the maintenance of international peace and security in
southeast Asia. Pub.L. 88-408, 78 stat.
James P. “Serious Presidential Lies.” The Character Fctor, Texas A&M
University Press, 2003.pg. 13
Richard A. “Masking Inconsistency: The Tonkin Gulf Crisis.” Communication
Quarterly, vol. 28, no. 2, 1980, p. 34.
Shoon Kathleen. “The Contemporary Presidency: Stretching the 2001 AUMF: A
History of Two Presidencies.” Presidential Studies Quarterly, vol. 45, no. 1,
Oct. 2015, p. 195