The Tonkin Gulf Resolution was ajoint resolution passed by the United States Congress on August 10th,1964 after a military incident between the United States and North Vietnam inthe Gulf of Tonkin bordering the coast of Vietnam. The military incident was anattack 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 Americandestroyer. These two attacks by the North Vietnamese resulted in the TonkinGulf Resolution. The resolution authorized the president “to take allnecessary steps, including the use of armed force, to assist any member orprotocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty requestingassistance in defense of its freedom”1(H.J.
RES 1145)which led to the United States engaging more directly in the VietnamWar. President Lyndon B. Johnson used theill-defined and vague grant of authority to significantly escalate the U.S.military presence in Vietnam with the introduction of combat troops. Manyconsider this to be a pivotal event in the United States congressional historyas it was the turning point that allowed Johnson to conduct an undeclared warwithout direct congressional sanction. The Tonkin Gulf Resolution was passed asa result of the second attack on August 4th, 1964 which was laterproved that the attack did not occur. This research paper will analyze theTonkin Gulf Resolution by examining its origins and explaining itsimplementation.
The paper will placeparticular emphasis on analyzing the argument that the Tonkin Gulf Resolution wasmisused by the Johnson Administrations and the constitutional and ethicaldimensions of the policy that was based on false pretenses.Origin ofthe Tonkin Gulf Resolution:The origin of the Tonkin GulfResolution can be traced back to a highly classified covert program calledOperation 34A. This program was designed for the United States to clandestinelysupport South Vietnamese special-forces operations. The primary objective ofthese operations was for the South Vietnamese special-forces units to sabotagethe North Vietnamese coastal transportation facilities by raiding. “The programrequired the intelligence community to provide detailed intelligence about thecommando targets, the North’s coastal defenses and related surveillancesystems.
“2(Schuster)Operation 34 A was a major cause in the crisis that occurred in the TonkinGulf.On the night of August 2nd,1964, the United States Navy destroyer, the USS Maddox, was patrolling thewaters near the coast of North Vietnam to perform an intelligence-gatheringoperation under the authority of Operation 34A. The USS Maddox was responsiblefor an intelligence-gathering operation coined ‘Desoto Patrol’ in which a “highlyclassified team aboard the USS Maddox was feeding sensitive North Vietnamesecommunications back to the National Security Agency headquarters at Fort Meade,Maryland.”3(Puseypg. 72) While performing the Desoto Patrol, the USS Maddox detected that wasbeing pursued by three North Vietnamese Navy torpedo boats. “As the NorthVietnamese patrol boats continued their pursuit of the American destroyer, theUSS Maddox was ordered to fire warning shots if they closed inside ten thousandyards.” (Schuster pg.
30) The NorthVietnamese patrol boats and the USS Maddox exchanged fire yet none of the shipsinflicted significant damage.When the USS Maddox reported back toWashington that the destroyer was attacked by the North Vietnamese patrolboats, President Johnson met with his senior advisers to consider a response. ThePresident along with his senior advisors agreed that it was possible that alocal North Vietnamese commander, rather than a senior official, had orderedthe attack on the USS Maddox therefore they decided not to retaliate. Insteadof retaliation, President Johnson ordered the continuation of the Desotopatrols and added another Destroyer the Turner Joy to escort the USS Maddox.
Two days later, the USS Maddox wasonce again patrolling the coast of North Vietnam for the ‘Desoto Patrols’ yet wasaccompanied by another destroyer, the Turner Joy, because of the earlier attack on the USSMaddox. During the patrol, the USS Maddox received signals that the destroyerwas 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 theNorth Vietnamese once again. When thereports were received in Washington, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara urgedthe President to respond to the attack.
And within hours, President Johnsonlaunched air strikes on Northern Vietnamese bases in retaliation to the attack.The first air strikes that hit North Vietnam were four North Vietnamesepatrol-boat bases, as well as an oil-storage depot located in the city of Vinh. TheImplementation of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution: AfterPresident Johnson ordered the launch of air strikes on the North Vietnamese militarybases in retaliation for the alleged attack that happened on August fourth1964, President Johnson approached Congress for the request to increase theUnited States military presence in Vietnam.
On August sixth 1964, Secretary ofDefense Robert McNamara testified to a joint session of the Senate ForeignRelations and Armed Services committees on the events of August fourth in the Tonkin Gulf. McNamarastressed for “the immediate occasion for this resolution is the course theNorth Vietnamese attacks on our naval vessels…”4(McNamarapg. 136) During McNamara’s testimony, the committees were unaware of the covertoperations of Operation 34A therefore the joint session turned into adiscussion for a resolution to increase the United States presence in Vietnamas they believed the USS Maddox was attacked unprovoked. After the testimonyof Robert McNamara, Congress had a floor debate on whether to pass theresolution. It was decided that the United States will increase its presence inVietnam therefore, Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution on August 10th,1964. The joint resolution authorized the president “to take all necessarysteps, including the use of armed force, to assist any member or protocol stateof the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty requesting assistance indefense of its freedom”5.
Congress understood the resolution would give vast authority to the Presidentyet the Senate and the House of Representatives passed it by a vote of 88-2 inthe Senate and unanimously in the House, 416-0. With the authority to expressmore military power in Vietnam, the United States quickly launched OperationRolling Thunder, a large-scale bombing campaign of North Vietnamese targets.The objective of Rolling Thunder was to implement bombing raids on the Ho ChiMinh Trail, a network of trails through dense jungle that connected NorthVietnam and South Vietnam. The Ho Chi Minh trail was used by the Viet Cong usedto smuggle supplies and covert troop movement. The President’s goal forOperation Rolling Thunder was to cutoff the movement of manpower and suppliesfrom North Vietnam which would result in a boost of morale in the SouthVietnamese government. Not only did the President authorize the increase in airpower, President Johnson also increased the ‘boots on the ground’ in theregion. 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, totrain the South Vietnamese to combat the North Vietnamese and the guerrillaforces in the countryside known as the Viet Cong.
The purpose of the trainingwas to strengthen the new South Vietnamese government. However, even with the trainingof the South Vietnamese troops the United States supported programs of’nation-building’, South Vietnam continued to suffer from a weak government andcontinual losses to the North Vietnamese military.When the Tonkin Gulf Resolutionpassed, the number of American troops in South Vietnam increased significantly.By the year 1965, there were over one hundred and fifty thousand Americantroops in Vietnam.
Many of those troops were injured or killed and by the timeJohnson left office in 1969; “over thirty-thousand American troops had died aswell as hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese”(Pfiffner pg.13). 6The Tonkin Gulf resolution created a large-scale military conflict in Vietnamwhich became increasingly unpopular among Americans.
The EthicalDimensions of the Resolution:There have been many ethical objectionsraised about the passing of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. After the second attackon the USS Maddox and the subsequent response of retaliation air strikesordered by President Johnson, the USS Maddox’s crew reported they reviewed theradar contacts and other information and determined that the second report of attackby the North Vietnamese may have been doubtful. “Subsequent SIGINT reporting and faulty analysis that day furtherreinforced earlier false impressions.
The after-action reports from the participantsin the Gulf arrived in Washington several hours after the report of the secondincident.” (Schuster) Though the information of false impressions was reportedback to Washington, the Johnson Administration still went to Congress toaddress the attacks.During McNamara’s testimony, thecommittees were unaware of the covert operations of Operation 34A and that thesecond attack most likely did not occur. President Johnson and Secretary ofDefense McNamara were aware that the second attack on the USS Maddox in theTonkin Gulf was most likely a faulty analysis. Yet when both men addressedCongress, they acted as the second attack undoubtedly had happened. Theargument can be made that the President and the Secretary of Defense lied tothe American people and members of Congress on the events that happened onAugust 4th in order to escalate the war in Vietnam.
President Johnson’s decision toescalate the war in Vietnam almost certainly had more to do with domesticpolitics within the United States rather than the support of “any member orprotocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty requestingassistance in defense of its freedom”.(H.J. RES 1145) President Johnson hadcome into office following the assassination of John F. Kennedy meaning Johnsonserved as President for the rest of what would have been Kennedy’s first termwhich was a little less than a year before reelection.
In order to cement hisown full presidential term, Johnson associated himself with Kennedy’spopularity and won the Democratic candidacy. However in the 1964 election,Johnson was then locked into a bitter presidential race with the Republican Senatorof Arizona, Barry Goldwater. One of the major criticisms byGoldwater 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.”(Cherwitzpg.34)7The driving force behind the Tonkin Gulf resolution was the effort to provethat President Johnson was not soft on communism. He used the incident in theTonkin Gulf to ensure his victory in the Presidential race, knowing that Congresswould not oppose military action against the North Vietnamese especially duringan election year. Johnson’s political deceit led the American people into a warthat was unwinnable.
Not only did the Johnson administration lie about thejustification in escalating military action in Vietnam; the administration exceededthe intended purpose of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution.The ethical issues of the Tonkin Gulfresolution involve the deception of the American people, but as well, themisuse of power granted by the resolution. As stated previously, Congress understood the resolution would give vastauthority to the President when Congress over-whelming approved the resolution.
Congress was led to believe that the United States was under attack by NorthVietnam and the powers given to the President were seen to be used for anemergency. There is no doubt that Congress did not intend to authorize thePresident the ability to expand United States forces in Vietnam without fullconsultation. Initiating a large-scale military conflict that could have easilyevolved into a conflict with China or the Soviet Union was an outrage toCongress and the majority of the American people.Though the Tonkin Gulf Resolution wasdissolved in 1969, right before the end of Johnson’s term, the legacy of theresolution is still felt today.
The Tonkin Gulf resolution set the standard forthe Executive branch to over step its boundaries by misusing its power onwar-making given by Congress. A modern example of the legacy of the Tonkin Gulfresolution is the Authorization of the use of Military Force (AuMF) passed byCongress after the terrorist attack in 2001. Much like the Tonkin Gulfresolution, the AuMF against terrorism was meant to be a temporary grant of authority that allowed thepresident to engage in military action against the perpetrators of the attack. “However the Executive branch used theirauthority for a decade long, open-ended, transfer of war authority for useagainst any group a president may deem dangerous. “8(Shoon pg.
195)The cause of this ethical dilemma comes from the ambiguouslanguage of the Constitution. Though the United States Congress has the powerto declare war, the president is the commander in chief and the presidents cango to war without the popular consent of Congress. Conclusion: The TonkinGulf resolution was a joint resolution passed in the United States Congressafter a military incident between the United States and North Vietnam. Thepurpose of the resolution was to take all necessary steps to assist SouthVietnam in the war with North Vietnam and their Viet Cong allies. With theauthority to express more military power in Vietnam, the United States quicklylaunched Operation Rolling Thunder, a large-scale bombing campaign of NorthVietnamese targets. The number of American troops in South Vietnam increasedsignificantly. At the height of the Vietnam War, there were over half a millionAmerican troops in Vietnam. The ethicalissues of the Tonkin Gulf come from the fact that the military incident wasdetermined doubtful.
President Johnson decision to escalate the war was,knowingly, under false pretenses, and almost certainly had more to do withdomestic politics within the United States. Johnson misused of power granted bythe resolution which resulted in a large loss of American lives. Though theTonkin Gulf resolution dissolved, its legacy is still carried out with theExecutive branch’s ability to conduct war without the consent of Congress. 1Joint Resolution to promote the maintenance of international peace and securityin southeast Asia.
Pub.L. 88-408, 78stat. 384 (1964.)2 Schuster,Carl. “CASE CLOSED: THE GULF OF TONKIN INCIDENT.” Vietnam Magazine, vol.
21,no. 1, June 2008, p. 28.3 Pusey,Allen. “Gulf of Tonkin Resolution Begins the Vietnam War.
” ABA Journal, vol.102, no. 8, Aug. 2016, p. 72.
4 McNamara,Robert S., and Brian VanDeMark. “The Tonkin Gulf Resolution.
” In retrospect:the tragedy and lessons of Vietnam. New York: Random House, 1996. Pg.1365 JointResolution to promote the maintenance of international peace and security insoutheast Asia. Pub.
L. 88-408, 78 stat.384 (1964.)6 Pfiffner,James P. “Serious Presidential Lies.” The Character Fctor, Texas A&MUniversity Press, 2003.
pg. 137 Cherwitz,Richard A. “Masking Inconsistency: The Tonkin Gulf Crisis.
” CommunicationQuarterly, vol. 28, no. 2, 1980, p. 34.
8 Murray,Shoon Kathleen. “The Contemporary Presidency: Stretching the 2001 AUMF: AHistory of Two Presidencies.” Presidential Studies Quarterly, vol. 45, no.
1,Oct. 2015, p. 195