This week marks the 54th anniversary of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the joint act of Congress that gave President Lyndon Johnson the power to combat communist aggression in Southeast Asia.
The resolution, which was passed unanimously by the House of Representatives and all but two votes in the Senate, was the response to a clash between U.S. and North Vietnamese forces in the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of North Vietnam in the early days of August 1964. At the time, the American public and many in Congress believed that U.S. naval forces were the victims of an unprovoked attack by North Vietnamese patrol boats in international waters. For years afterward, the so-called Gulf of Tonkin incident was considered the starting point of the Vietnam War. The truth behind the matter is not that simple.
Johnson was very much a political animal, and his decision to get involved in Vietnam, like many of the decisions he made as president, was heavily influenced by politics -- 1964 was an election year, and he was adamant about winning the White House in his own right, as opposed to inheriting it after the assassination of his predecessor.
Johnson’s opponent, Arizona Republican Senator Barry Goldwater, was a staunch anti-communist who believed that America should do whatever it took to stop the spread of Soviet influence, even if it meant using nuclear weapons in Southeast Asia. It wasn’t hard for Johnson to portray himself as the more moderate of the two candidates. In fact, Johnson’s campaign had a field day painting Goldwater as a radical who would lead America into a nuclear war.
Johnson positioned himself as the even-handed, peaceful candidate, but behind the scenes he was actively making decisions that would ramp up America’s involvement in Vietnam. In early 1964, Johnson approved Operation 34A, a plan to use sabotage, covert warfare, and other means to harass the North Vietnamese and to conduct reconnaissance missions to aid South Vietnamese forces. The boats in the Gulf of Tonkin were conducting tasks for Operation 34A when they were attacked on Aug. 2.
Johnson initially waved a retaliatory response to the North Vietnamese attack, fearing that instigating a wider conflict would jeopardize his standing as a moderate in the presidential race. Two days later, on Aug. 4, another attack was reported. There was confusion as to whether this second attack took place, and the release of declassified documents many years later proved that it in fact did not. But at the time, Americans believed their forces were under attack, and people expected a response from their president.
The resolution Congress gave to Johnson the power “to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.” Johnson later said behind closed doors that the resolution was “like grandma’s nightshirt, it covers everything.” Johnson’s southern witticisms aside, the resolution clearly gave him too much power based on too few facts, and America would pay a heavy price for it in the years to come. Of course, no one suspected this at the time.
Johnson was pleased that the resolution gave him the flexibility to continue positioning himself as the peaceful option in the presidential election. He promised a measured response to the Tonkin attack, and took great pains to keep America’s involvement in Southeast Asia to a minimum.
Johnson beat Goldwater in one of the biggest election landslides in American history. He began his term with a mandate to pursue his Great Society program, and a blank check to fight the communists in Vietnam basically any way he chose. He continued to rely on his political instincts to guide his decisions about the war, all the while trying to keep it contained. It didn’t work. Before the Gulf of Tonkin, there was little talk or concern about Vietnam. For the rest of Johnson’s presidency and beyond, people could think of nothing else.