LBJ and the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution


On August 7, 1964, by a combined vote of 512-2, the Congress of the United States overwhelmingly approved joint resolution S.J. 189, more commonly known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. In this document, Congress gives President Lyndon Baines Johnson sweeping authority to “take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.” Later, as the war in Vietnam escalated, some of those who had voted for the measure claimed that the President had exceeded his authority under S.J. 189 by waging an undeclared war, or at least had violated the intention of the joint resolution. It is clear, however, from a careful examination of the documentary record, that Congress understood the open-ended nature of the resolution as they voted on it, and that individual members either supported this transfer of constitutional authority to wage war in Vietnam or abdicated their responsibilities in choosing to disregard the implications of their vote.

 Months before the creation of the resolution, the Johnson administration was already debating the necessity of some kind of statement from Congress “giving general authority for action which the President may judge necessary to defend the peace and security of the area.” At the same time, as he was campaigning for election to the White House in his own right, Johnson repeatedly insisted that he favored “no wider war,” with so much vigor, in fact, that National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy urged LBJ to exercise restraint on that topic so as not to tie his hands in the future.

On June 10, 1964, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, in a cabinet meeting on southeast Asia, noted that before a resolution was put before Congress, circumstances should be such “as to require action, and thereby force Congressional action. There will be a rallying around the President the moment it is clear to reasonable people that U.S. action is necessary.” Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara replied that a resolution before September then, “was unlikely unless the enemy acts suddenly in the area which is also unlikely.” For its resolution to become reality, the Johnson administration needed the North Vietnamese to give them a crisis; in August, the package arrived.

On August 2, 1964, the American destroyer Maddox, gathering intelligence close to the coast of North Vietnam, came under attack by lightly armed patrol boats. Two days later the Maddox and the Turner Joy reported a second attack, although there was great doubt even within the administration as to whether this second incident actually occurred, and recent evidence suggests that it did not. President Johnson ordered retaliatory air strikes against the patrol boat’s bases, and then saw his approval ratings skyrocket as the public applauded his decisiveness. Within days, Congress had added its approval with the passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, granting Johnson far-reaching powers in prosecuting the war in Vietnam.

With a presidential election just three months away, the resolution brought with it major political benefits as Johnson was able to “wrap himself in the flag, [and] to deflect right-wing Republican challenges to his patriotism.” National prestige was also at stake, and elected officials were happy to take advantage of an opportunity to demonstrate resolve. There is no indication that Johnson was anticipating an expanded ground war in 1964, and Congress shared that belief, which made passage of the resolution quick and almost entirely without dissent. There were, however, a few voices in the wilderness, most prominently the two senators who would eventually stand alone in voting against the resolution, Wayne Morse (D-OR) and Ernest Gruening (D-AK).

Morse tried in vain to have hearings on the resolution, but Senator William J. Fulbright (D-AL), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, refused, claiming that “a state of emergency existed.” During the limited debate, Morse said, “I believe this resolution to be a historic mistake. 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.” Gruening added, “This resolution is a further authorization for escalation unlimited.”

Two supporters of the resolution also had misgivings. Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-WI) remarked that S.J. 189 would allow the President to radically alter the ten-year old mission of the United States in Vietnam. Maryland Senator Daniel Brewster, worried that the vague language of S.J. 189 would permit the “landing of large land armies on the continent of Asia,” to which Senator Fulbright replied, “the language of the resolution would not prevent it.” The great power to wage war contained within the resolution had, at that moment, been laid bare before the Senate. From this point forward, no member of Congress could escape culpability for what was to come; in fact, some of them had already anticipated it.

To those in the Johnson administration, there was no confusion whatsoever about the significance of S.J. 189. Nick Katzenbach, Under Secretary of State, considered the resolution “the functional equivalent of a declaration of war.” Later, when members of Congress who had voted for the resolution began to criticize its use as a blanket authorization for war, Johnson felt betrayed. “…Congress gave us this authority. In August 1964, to do whatever may be necessary. That’s pretty far-reaching. That’s –the sky’s the limit.”

Others thought so, too. In February of 1965, LBJ asked former president Dwight Eisenhower whether he felt as if the resolution was strong enough. Eisenhower replied that the resolution reminded him of the Formosa Resolution that was passed by Congress while he was in office, to which President Johnson remarked that the Formosa Resolution had been the model for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. The Formosa Resolution of 1955 gave Eisenhower the ability to defend Formosa (present day Taiwan) from communist aggression.

Senator Nelson, writing to the New York Times in October of 1964, made it clear that he believed the intent of Congress in the resolution to be limited to “one of providing material support and advice. It is not to substitute our armed forces for those of the South Vietnamese Government, nor to join with them in a land war, nor to fight the war for them.” And yet, Nelson had voted for the resolution, despite any misgivings he may have had regarding the open-ended language contained therein. It is difficult to grant Senator Nelson the nobility of his convictions without at the same time citing the political cover his yea vote allowed him on the issue at the time.

Not so compromised was Senator Gruening, who in later Senate debate said, “I feared precisely what is happening now in Southeast Asia. I feared the war would escalate, as it is now doing…I still share the view that the action was unconstitutional and that we are waging a war without a specific declaration of war.” Senator Fulbright, who in early 1964 had spoken favorably of using escalation to bring the Vietnamese communists to negotiate, by 1965 had begun to doubt the wisdom of LBJ’s policies in Vietnam, leaving the President feeling betrayed by the man who had led the resolution so successfully through the Senate. By then, however, Senator Fulbright’s belated remorse notwithstanding, the die had been cast. The United States, which initiated wholesale bombing raids into North Vietnam in March of 1965, had taken another turn in the downward spiral that was to characterize its experience in Vietnam. The time for second thoughts had passed.

Still, President Johnson was willing to give Congress one last chance to record its displeasure with the direction that the war in Vietnam was taking. In May of 1965, the administration orchestrated the passage of H.J. resolution 447, a $700 million supplemental appropriation bill to fund the war. Once again, there were no hearings and the bill was out of committee before most members even knew it existed. The funding was not, in and of itself, truly necessary to prosecute the war. It was more so another opportunity for LBJ’s Congressional opponents to stand up and take him on publicly, and few did. This time, Nelson joined Morse and Gruening as the only senators to go on record as having rejected the war. Whatever misgivings the others may have had, they had just given the President another mandate with which to prosecute his undeclared war in Vietnam.

Two years later, senators tried to argue that they had not intended to give Johnson any such mandate at the time. “I did not vote for the resolution with any understanding that it was tantamount to a declaration of war…” Senator Albert Gore (D-TN) told the New York Times. In the same article, Senator Fulbright noted a distinction between “repelling an attack and the waging of war as a matter of broad policy.” This statement is curious in light of his admission to Senator Brewster during the debate on S.J. 189 that nothing in the language of the resolution restricted the President from doing this very thing. Johnson, for his part, dared Congress to rescind the resolution. “We think we’re well within the rights of what Congress said in its [R]esolution, and the remedy is [in the Resolution] if we have acted unwisely or improperly.” As he no doubt anticipated, Congress did nothing.

It is clear from the record that while Congress may not have expected President Lyndon Johnson to use the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution to greatly expand the war in Vietnam, they knowingly left that door open to him in the language they approved. It is also clear that they were aware of this possibility, however remote it may have seemed in August of 1964. It was disingenuous for senators and lawyers such as William Fulbright and Albert Gore, Sr. to later claim that they were unaware of the implications of their actions in voting for S.J. 189. Whatever they hoped to achieve by rushing the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution through to passage, as they did again with the war funding appropriation bill the following year, in the end, they could not credibly claim to have been taken advantage of concerning Johnson’s prosecution of the war. In supporting Johnson on Vietnam in 1964-1965, when nearly all of the American electorate backed U.S. involvement there, Congress reaped the political benefits of wartime patriotism, only belatedly seeking to shirk responsibility for their votes when the war became unpopular. There is little wonder that President Johnson felt betrayed; unfortunately for him, responsibility for the war in Vietnam could not so easily be shed.


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