Tonkin Gulf resolution

Tonkin Gulf resolution

Tonkin Gulf resolution, in U.S. history, Congressional resolution passed in 1964 that authorized military action in Southeast Asia. On Aug. 4, 1964, North Vietnamese torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin were alleged to have attacked without provocation U.S. destroyers that were reporting intelligence information to South Vietnam. President Lyndon B. Johnson and his advisers decided upon immediate air attacks on North Vietnam in retaliation; he also asked Congress for a mandate for future military action. On Aug. 7, Congress passed a resolution drafted by the administration authorizing all necessary measures to repel attacks against U.S. forces and all steps necessary for the defense of U.S. allies in Southeast Asia. Although there was disagreement in Congress over the precise meaning of the Tonkin Gulf resolution, Presidents Johnson and Richard M. Nixon used it to justify later military action in Southeast Asia. The measure was repealed by Congress in 1970. Retired Vietnamese general Vo Nguyen Giap, in a 1995 meeting with former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, categorically denied that the North Vietnamese had attacked the U.S. destroyers on Aug. 4, 1964, and in 2001 it was revealed that President Johnson, in a taped conversation with McNamara several weeks after passage of the resolution, had expressed doubt that the attack ever occurred.
The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (officially, the Southeast Asia Resolution, Public Law 88-408) was addressed by Lyndon B. Johnson as a joint resolution of the U.S. Congress passed on August 10, 1964 in direct response to a minor naval engagement known as the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. It is of historical significance because it gave U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson authorization, without a formal declaration of war by Congress, for the use of military force in Southeast Asia. The Johnson administration subsequently cited the resolution as legal authority for its rapid escalation of U.S. military involvement in the Vietnam conflict.

Background and Congressional action

The Gulf of Tonkin incidents reportedly began with an attack by three P-4 torpedo boats of the navy of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) on the Maddox, a U.S. destroyer, on an electronic intelligence gathering mission in the waters of the Gulf of Tonkin on August 2, 1964. Two days later, that vessel and the U.S. destroyer Turner Joy both reported themselves under renewed attack, although Hanoi subsequently insisted that it had not attacked — and no attack is now believed to have occurred on that night.

Within hours, Johnson ordered the launching of retaliatory air strikes (Operation Pierce Arrow) on the bases of the North Vietnamese boats and announced, in a television address to the American public that same evening, that U.S. naval forces had been attacked. In a message sent to Congress the following day, the President affirmed that "the North Vietnamese regime had conducted further deliberate attacks against U.S. naval vessels operating in international waters."

Johnson requested approval of a resolution "expressing the unity and determination of the United States in supporting freedom and in protecting peace in southeast Asia". He said that the resolution should express support "for all necessary action to protect our Armed Forces" — but repeated previous assurances that "the United States... seeks no wider war". As the nation entered the final three months of political campaigning for the 1964 elections (in which Johnson was standing for election), the president contended that the resolution would help "hostile nations... understand" that the United States was unified in its determination "to continue to protect its national interests.

On August 6, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara testified before a joint session of the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees. He stated that the Maddox had been "carrying out a routine mission of the type we carry out all over the world at all times" and denied that it had been in any way involved in South Vietnamese patrol boat raids on the offshore islands of Hon Me and Hon Nieu on the nights of July 30 and July 31. The administration did not, however, disclose that the island raids, although separate from the mission of the Maddox, had been part of a program of clandestine attacks on North Vietnamese installations called Operation Plan 34A. These operations were carried out by U.S.-trained South Vietnamese commandos under the control of a special operations unit of the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam called the Studies and Operations Group.

After fewer than nine hours of committee consideration and floor debate, Congress voted, on August 10, 1964, on a joint resolution which 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. The unanimous affirmative vote in the House of Representatives was 416-0. (However, Republican Congressman Eugene Siler of Kentucky, who was not present but opposed the measure, was "paired" with another member who favored the resolution — i.e., his opposition was not counted, but the vote in favor was one less than it would have been.) The Senate conferred its approval by a vote of 88-2. Some members expressed misgivings about the measure, but in the end, Democratic Senators Wayne Morse of Oregon and Ernest Gruening of Alaska cast the only nay votes. At the time, Senator Morse warned that "I believe this resolution to be a historic mistake."

Repeal of the resolution

By 1967 the rationale for what had become a costly U.S. involvement was receiving close scrutiny. With opposition to the war mounting, a movement to repeal the resolution — which war critics decried as having given the Johnson administration a "blank check" — began to gather steam.

An investigation by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee revealed that the Maddox had been on an electronic intelligence collection mission off the North Vietnamese coast. It also learned that the U.S. Naval Communication Center in the Philippine Islands, in reviewing ships' messages, had questioned whether any second attack had actually occurred.

The administration of President Richard Nixon, which took office in January 1969, initially opposed repeal, warning of "consequences for Southeast Asia [that] go beyond the war in Vietnam". In 1970 the administration began to shift its stance. It asserted that its conduct of operations in Southeast Asia was based not on the resolution but was a constitutional exercise of the President's authority, as commander in chief of U.S. military forces, to take necessary steps to protect American troops as they were gradually withdrawn (the U.S. had begun withdrawing its forces from Vietnam in 1969 under a policy known as “Vietnamization”).

Rescinding the resolution ceased to be controversial, and a provision to repeal it was attached to a bill that Nixon signed in January 1971. Seeking to assert limits on presidential authority to engage U.S. forces without a formal declaration of war, Congress passed in 1973, over Nixon's veto, the War Powers Resolution, which is still in effect. It describes certain requirements for the President to consult with Congress in regard to decisions that engage U.S. forces in hostilities or imminent hostilities.


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