Last night I announced to the American people that the North Vietnamese regime had conducted further deliberate attacks against U.S. naval vessels operating in international waters, and I had therefore directed air action against gunboats and supporting facilities used in these hostile operations. This air action has now been carried out with substantial damage to the boats and facilities. Two U.S. aircraft were lost in the action.
After consultation with the leaders of both parties in the Congress, I further announced a decision to ask the Congress for a resolution expressing the unity and determination of the United States in supporting freedom and in protecting peace in southeast Asia.
These latest actions of the North Vietnamese regime has given a new and grave turn to the already serious situation in southeast Asia. Our commitments in that area are well known to the Congress. They were first made in 1954 by President Eisenhower. They were further defined in the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty approved by the Senate in February 1955.
This treaty with its accompanying protocol obligates the United States and other members to act in accordance with their constitutional processes to meet Communist aggression against any of the parties or protocol states.
Our policy in southeast Asia has been consistent and unchanged since 1954. I summarized it on June 2 in four simple propositions:
The threat to the free nations of southeast Asia has long been clear. The North Vietnamese regime has constantly sought to take over South Vietnam and Laos. This Communist regime has violated the Geneva accords for Vietnam. It has systematically conducted a campaign of subversion, which includes the direction, training, and supply of personnel and arms for the conduct of guerrilla warfare in South Vietnamese territory. In Laos, the North Vietnamese regime has maintained military forces, used Laotian territory for infiltration into South Vietnam, and most recently carried out combat operations - all in direct violation of the Geneva Agreements of 1962.
In recent months, the actions of the North Vietnamese regime have become steadily more threatening...
As President of the United States I have concluded that I should now ask the Congress, on its part, to join in affirming the national determination that all such attacks will be met, and that the United States will continue in its basic policy of assisting the free nations of the area to defend their freedom.
As I have repeatedly made clear, the United States intends no rashness, and seeks no wider war. We must make it clear to all that the United States is united in its determination to bring about the end of Communist subversion and aggression in the area. We seek the full and effective restoration of the international agreements signed in Geneva in 1954, with respect to South Vietnam, and again in Geneva in 1962, with respect to Laos...
Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,
That the Congress approves and supports the determination of the President, as Commander in Chief, to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.
Section 2. The United States regards as vital to its national interest and to world peace the maintenance of international peace and security in southeast Asia. Consonant with the Constitution of the United States and the Charter of the United Nations and in accordance with its obligations under the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty, the United States is, therefore, prepared, as the President determines, 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.
Section 3. This resolution shall expire when the President shall determine that the peace and security of the area is reasonably assured by international conditions created by action of the United Nations or otherwise, except that it may be terminated earlier by concurrent resolution of the Congress.
By Kenneth McKinnon
How did America get so involved in the quagmire of the Vietnam War? The Tonkin Gulf Resolution that passed through Congress in August 1964 with scant opposition gave President Johnson increased authority in the utilization of American troops in Vietnam. But was the resolution to blame, either in the Johnson administration's presentation of the facts or in Congress' failure to look deeper into the facts as presented? Or were there other factors that contributed to the escalation of hostilities. Prior to the Tonkin Gulf incidents most of America followed the events in Vietnam with limited concern. The Tonkin Gulf Resolution passed almost unanimously under the belief that the North Vietnamese attacked ships of the US Navy on the high seas -- not just once, but twice. This changed America's involvement in Vietnam and captured the attention of the American people. For these reasons, the resolution and more importantly the events surrounding them that pulled America into war must be understood as a precursor to any study of the Vietnam War.
America became involved in Southeast Asia long before the incidents in the Tonkin Gulf. America's increasing involvement in Vietnam can best be compared with a snowball dropped down a hill. As time and events went on, it became harder to extricate the United States from Southeast Asia. By August 1964, US involvement was almost inevitable. The U.S. began in the late 1950s providing peripheral support for South Vietnam. Most covert assistance consisted of spies using converted wooden junks that fit in with the many junks that dotted the coast of North Vietnam. However, in the 1960s all that would change. The CIA station chief in Saigon, William Colby, spearheaded attempts to strengthen the ability of the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) to infiltrate the North. The CIA trained the agents who would infiltrate the North, as well as those who would transport them. The support for this came from National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) 52, that called for an increase in forces and operations against the North. This meant not just lone spies, but heavily armed insertion teams, many dropped into the mountains of the North.
These missions began in the early part of 1961 under the Kennedy administration and continued on and off until the escalation of hostilities in 1964. Training for these missions came from other nations besides the United States -- specifically Taiwan. Agents from South Vietnam were sent to Taiwan for training, and in February 1961, Chiang Kai-shek's government sent twenty instructors to South Vietnam. By the time of The Tonkin Gulf incident, the CIA reported over 700 paramilitary personnel from Taiwan serving in South Vietnam.
While the involvement of the US and Taiwan in these missions into the North was covert, the secrecy would not last long. A mission on July 28-29, 1963 ended in the capture of 26 men. The Democratic Government of Vietnam showed them off as "US -- Chiang Kai-shek spy commandos." The mission, which landed on the coast of Quang Ninh province, consisted of operations against North Vietnam and China. This was not the first, nor would it be the last covert insertion by the South Vietnam/US/Taiwan alliance. This helped to set the stage for further conflict politically and militarily between the North and the South.
CIA station chief Colby saw the ineffectiveness of these missions as most of them ended in failure. The leadership of North Vietnam had too much control over the citizenry, making the success of any such mission unlikely. Colby decided to stop sending agents into the North. The U.S. military, however, was willing to take over from the CIA. Army Chief of Staff Earl Weaver took a contingent of officers to South Vietnam to evaluate the situation. Among their list of recommendations was to come up with something that would hurt North Vietnam. This was in January 1963, sixteen months prior to The Tonkin Gulf incident.
Four months later, the military, specifically Admiral Harry G. Felt CINCPAC (Commander in Chief -- Pacific Fleet), developed a plan for hit and run operations against North Vietnam -- using the RVN with US assistance. A key aspect of these raids is that the U.S. had to be able to pretend they were not responsible. The result of this was OPLAN 34-63 that included four categories of increasing severity of harassment. They began with minor harassment up to attacks on key facilities, industries, and military installations that would have a damaging effect on the North Vietnamese economy.
This lead to the formation of OPLAN 34A. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, on December 12, 1963, told Ambassador to South Vietnam Henry Cabot Lodge what President Johnson wanted -- covert plans against the North that would communicate that the US would not accept a Communist victory in the South and will do anything to stop it. Were it not for the lives lost as a result of this thinking, this would be laughable, for how is it that covert operations accurately communicate the policy of another nation? They are by nature covert, therefore secret.
OPLAN 34a was to work along with other military operations to convince the North that the United States supported the South and that the aggression in Laos needed to be stopped. Those who developed the plan held no hopes for this end result -- in fact they expected increased retaliation from the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) and predicted an escalation in the level of violence in the South. They recommended the US be prepared to follow with offsetting operations against DRV reaction.
In one of the operations, South Vietnamese agents conducted sabotage and collected intelligence. These agents were dropped off by either plane or boat. In another, foreign mercenary or South Vietnamese crews manned high-speed boats and attacked North Vietnamese coastal installations. Both of these ventures of OPLAN 34a were overseen by the CIA, along with Military Assistance Command -- Vietnam (MACV) and each of these entities maintained close contact with Washington. MACV with General Krulak of the Joint Chiefs, and the CIA with the 303 Committee that met in room 303 of the Old Executive Office Building.
The 303 Committee authorized all CIA covert operations around the world. National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy chaired the Committee that included Under Secretary of State George Ball, Deputy Secretary of Defense Cyrus Vance and the CIA's Deputy Director for Plans Richard Helms. While many felt then that the CIA was a rogue agency, often acting on its own, Robert McNamara believed this to be untrue. The CIA required approval for all covert operations from the President, Secretary of State or Defense, or some representative for them.
The role of OPLAN 34a in American policy in Southeast Asia is somewhat confusing. Many military operations were already in place that were eventually absorbed into OPLAN 34a. The goal of OPLAN 34a was to target those facilities that had a direct relationship with RVN infiltration of the South. But the target hits included few, if any of these targets. These operations were not so much South Vietnamese raids into the North assisted by the US but rather US raids with the assistance of the RVN. Later, when the Senate questioned McNamara about the raids, he described them as primarily RVN operations. But if the RVN was really included, it is interesting that the leadership of the South was not consulted when plans were being written. The US Ambassador to South Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge, did not even brief RVN president Duong Van Minh until January 1964.
The events that brought about the need for The Tonkin Gulf Resolution began on July 30, 1964. A 34a mission with targets that included two North Vietnamese installations believed to support infiltration into the South. While on a DESOTO mission two days later, the Maddox reported it was attacked with torpedoes and automatic weapons fire while it patrolled almost 20 miles off the coast of North Vietnam. There is little doubt that this first attack actually occurred. The crewmembers of the Maddox found a shell fragment from a North Vietnamese torpedo. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara ordered the fragment sent to Washington to verify the attack. Also, in the North Vietnamese official history of the war, they confirmed that the attack did take place.
Lyndon Johnson responded by sending a note of protest to Hanoi and continued the patrols. The United States added the destroyer, the C. Turner Joy to the current patrols. In preparation for another attack, several members of the Johnson administration felt America was justified in formulating a plan for retaliation. The ambassador to South Vietnam was one of these voices. He and others felt that if the United States did not act in the face of such an attack it would send the message that America "flinches from direct confrontation with the North Vietnamese."
The DESOTO patrols utilized specially equipped naval vessels as part of a system of global electronic surveillance. Not only did they target North Vietnam, but other Communist nations as well -- Soviet Union, China and North Korea. These DESOTO patrols were essentially the same as the Soviet trawlers that patrolled the coast of the United States. The closest these patrols came to the coast of North Vietnam was eight miles for the mainland and four miles for islands. The United States at the time utilized the three-mile limit established by France during its control of Indochina. The United States justified using these numbers since North Vietnam provided no assertion regarding its territorial waters. After the incidents in the gulf, Hanoi claimed a 12-mile limit.
The incident that prompted Congress to act occurred a couple days later on 4 August, when the Maddox reported that unidentified vessels were about to attack. After establishing radar contact with 3 vessels, the aircraft carrier The Ticonderoga launched aircraft to the Turner Joy and the Maddox. The next several hours were complete confusion. The gulf was dark because of low clouds and thunderstorms that diminished visibility and added to the confusion. Both the Maddox and the Turner Joy reported sighting torpedoes, torpedo wakes, enemy cockpit lights and automatic weapons fire. After the attacks, the Defense Department formulated a plan for limited attack on North Vietnam that included four patrol boat locations and two oil depots. These attacks, if they could be verified, were certain to escalate the conflict.
The question then is did the second attack really happen and did the Johnson administration deliberately mislead or deceive Congress into authorizing more power to the President than is allowed under the Constitution? Since The Tonkin Gulf incident and the subsequent resolution is an essential question, but it is not the only question since many other factors contributed to the escalation of hostilities in Vietnam.
Many have accused the Johnson administration of deception regarding the Tonkin Gulf events but McNamara would disagree. Many still feel the administration provoked the attacks and then lied to Congress to get their support. Had the resolution not led to increased US involvement and full-scale combat actions, the issue would not carry as much importance in a study of the war. But it did. And it is not that Congress did not understand the potential problems with the resolution, the problem is they did not understand or consider the potential for escalation in the war itself.
The administration examined in detail the second attack prior to submitting the resolution to Congress. There seemed to be a genuine effort by McNamara and others within the administration to find the truth of what happened. But there was much that happened that night that made discovering the truth near impossible, at least in the short term. First off, much of the contact with the North Vietnamese were through sonar contacts which are often times unreliable. Add into the mix the moonless night and low cloud cover and further investigation was clearly needed. A major issue in discerning what actually happened appears to be either a break down in communication in the chain of command or components within the that chain had become convinced of the accuracy of the attacks and reported it as such. Air Force Lt. General David A. Burchinal, director of the Joint Staff sought details from Admiral Sharp in Honolulu. In a flash message sent by the captain of the Maddox, John J. Herrick DESOTO patrol commander reiterated the problems with the weather and that over eager sonar men may have caused inaccurate reports. He also confirmed that the Maddox did not actually see any enemy boats. However, irrespective of Captain Herrick's report, Admiral Sharp in Honolulu phoned Lt. General Burchinal and reported that there was no doubt that the attacks actually occurred. Later, Captain Herrick sent another message to Washington stating his confidence that the attacks actually occurred. McNamara continued making calls to find out the accuracy of the reports.
McNamara talked with Admiral Sharp by secure phone, where Sharp intimated that there clearly was an attack but the only question lay in the scope of the attack. The problems with radar and sonar, coupled with the young men in those positions raised the possibility that there were not as many torpedoes as originally thought. When pressed by McNamara on the possibility that there was no attack, Sharp did admit there was a slight possibility. McNamara felt there needed to be more conclusive proof and Sharp agreed to get it.
When Deputy Defense Secretary Cyrus Vance and McNamara met with the Joint Chiefs several factors convinced them the attack actually occurred. First, the Turner Joy had been illuminated when fired on by automatic weapons fire. One of the destroyers reported seeing the cockpit lights of the attacking PT boats. US aircraft that flew over the area reported anti-aircraft fire. There was also an intercepted message later decoded that confirmed two of its boats had been sunk. There was also Admiral Sharp's confirmation, though somewhat dubious, that an attack did in fact occur. While there were at the time, questions about the accuracy of the attack, this was the information used by the Johnson administration to justify an attack in retaliation against the North Vietnamese and The Tonkin Gulf Resolution.
The Southeast Asia Resolution, as The Tonkin Gulf Resolution was formally titled in Congress, passed easily on August 7 -- only three days after the second attack. The resolution gave broad power to escalate combat operations in North Vietnam. Many within The White House staff had been waiting for some time to seek military escalation in Vietnam and the incidents in the gulf allowed them to do just that. The key passage read: "Congress approves and supports the determination of the President as Commander in Chief, to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression . . . the United States is . . . prepared, as the President determines, 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 President's staff and key members of Congress hammered out the exact wording of the resolution. It began with a draft by Secretary of State Dean Rusk that he presented to the National Security Council. President Johnson was intent on having support of Congress on the start of escalation, because then he felt they would be there at the end. Johnson believed Truman made a mistake entering Korea without a firm commitment from Congress. Johnson, the consummate politician, would not make the same mistake. Be that as it may, it did not keep members from Congress from turning later against the war later. Johnson said he couldn't blame them, if "that's what their conscience dictates. I just wish their conscience had been operating when they were making all those other decisions."
On this idea of Congressional support, Johnson had deceived himself. First, many members of Congress did not believe they were voting for an escalation of the war. Senator Fulbright, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and chief supporter for the resolution was not concerned with the administration escalating United States involvement. Everything the Johnson administration told him led him to think Johnson himself did not intend to use this for such purposes. As Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Fulbright stated in the debates that a declaration of war was not part of the resolution.
The first to testify before the Joint hearings was Dean Rusk, Secretary of State. In his opening statement, Rusk compared the language of the resolution to that of the Formosa Resolution of 1955, the Middle East Resolution of 1957, and the Cuba Resolution of 1962. The specific language being "To take all necessary steps including the use of armed force." Rusk testified that he could not be certain what actions would be needed, as all three of the resolutions he had mentioned ended up using different actions. But while the actions that would be necessary were uncertain, there could be no doubt that there was a precedent set for the resolution as presented to Congress.
Rusk also assured the Congress that this resolution would not be the last communication between the executive and legislative branch. He promised regular consultation, not just with the committees but with congressional leaders of both parties. Regardless of this assurance, Secretary of State Rusk had a larger issue.
In his written statement, Dean Rusk gave the reasons for the resolution. It is important to remember that the Secretary writes under the assumption the attacks were legitimate. He writes, ". . . it is obvious that these were not an isolated event but are directly related to the aggressive posture of North Vietnam and to the policy that the United States has been pursuing in assisting the free nations of Southeast Asia and particularly South Vietnam and Laos, to defend themselves against Communist aggression, and thus to preserve the peace of the area." Whether or not the North attacked, or retaliated in response to acts joint or individually, by the United States and South Vietnam operations in conjunction with the CIA. But he does cite a consistent campaign of terror and subversion since 1959 along with the effort of the Viet Cong. Rusk was correct in this assessment that the North was very active in support of the insurgency of the South and in their training of the Viet Cong, as will be explained later in the paper.
Rusk clearly subscribed to the domino theory, as justification for US aid to South Vietnam, and in a call for passing the resolution. He calls their attacks;
". . . part and parcel of a continuing Communist drive to conquer South Vietnam, control or conquer Laos, and thus weaken and eventually dominate and conquer other free nations of Southeast Asia. One does not need to spell out a "domino theory" it is enough to recognize the true nature of the Communist doctrine of world revolution and the militant support that Hanoi and Peiping are giving to that doctrine in Southeast Asia."
In Robert S. McNamara's written statement to Congress, he repeatedly refers to the actions by the North as "unprovoked and deliberate attacks." While the idea of deliberate attacks cannot be debated, the idea of unprovoked can since the United States along with the South Vietnamese carried on military operations that infiltrated the North.
McNamara continues his defense of the resolution by calling attention to the aggressive nature of the North towards the South. In his testimony, he points to or cites a specific time frame regarding the alleged attacks in the Tonkin Gulf. He cites specific times and action. When asked to clarify the nature of the attacks, he gives the following information;
"The attack of August 2, you will recall, was by three North Vietnamese patrol boats against the destroyer Maddox operating in the Gulf of Tonkin between Hainan Island at the North Vietnamese coast in international waters between 25 and 30 miles off the coast.
Three PT boats attacked the Maddox, launched torpedoes against it; Maddox returned fire with her 5-inch guns, believed they destroyed one of the boats, the other two were destroyed either by the Maddox or the carrier Ticonderoga's planes, which you can see positioned south of Hainan Islands."
When McNamara first briefed Congress on these incidents, he believed that they were an isolated incident, hoping it was a misunderstanding or miscalculation by the North and did not anticipate the incident would happen again. But when the attacks happened again his testimony regarding the second incident is equally detailed and specific.
"Contrary to my estimate it was repeated on August 4 at which time between three and six North Vietnamese patrol boats attacked the Maddox and the Turner Joy which had been sent to accompany it on its patrol course. At this time the vessels were about 60 miles off the coast of North Vietnam. The attack occurred at night. It appeared to be a deliberate attack in the nature of an ambush. Torpedoes were launched, automatic weapons fire was directed against the vessels. They returned the fire. Aircraft from the Ticonderoga and the by this time the Constellation which had been brought down [deleted] to support the Toconderoga, were sent over the vessels and returned the patrol boat's fire."
McNamara's testimony is an interesting contrast to the events specified in his book, In Retrospect, detailed earlier in the paper. While he lays out the specifics of the events as he saw them to be at the time, what he leaves out of his testimony, oral and written statement, is the uncertainty as a result of the fog of war. The administration seemed to have an idea that if the attacks happened at all, they were not significant. The low cloud cover, the confusion and the inexperience of the sailors and sonar operators all combine to introduce reasonable doubt. Yet, none of these doubts were submitted by McNamara, nor did any of the Committee members ask about the possibility of a misunderstanding of the events.
Without this uncertainty included, based on the facts as they were presented to the Committee members, what else could Congress do, but approve it? The counter-attack by the U.S. military immediately following the second attack added veracity to the request for Congressional approval. McNamara testified the attack was a "clearly a deliberate attack, a preplanned attack," that called for a "military response." The targets of these attacks were the support and petroleum facilities that aided the alleged attackers. They launched 64 sorties and think they damaged or destroyed 25 boats.
McNamara's written statement, which is about 5 pages long, details the attack and lists specific times, actions by the North and reactions by the US military.
"At about 3:21pm, the third hostile PT moved up to the beam of the Maddox and received a direct hit by a five-inch round; at the same time it dropped a torpedo into the water which was not seen to run. Machine gun fire from the PTs was directed at the Maddox . . . zuni rocket runs and 22mm strafing attacks were directed against two of the PTs and they were damaged. The third PT remained dead in the water after the direct hit by the Maddox.
Notice the exact times and location of boats. Secretary of Defense McNamara mentions exact numbers of boats, actions and reactions. The fog of war seemed to lift pretty quickly when it came time to write his statement. His facts on the second attack are just as clear.
"The Maddox at 8:36pm established new radar contract with two unidentified surface vessels and three unidentified aircraft . . .. At 9:30pm, additional unidentified vessels were observed on the Maddox radar, and these vessels began to close rapidly on the patrol at speeds in excess of 40 knots . . . the destroyers reported at 9:52 pm that they were under continuous torpedo attack and were enraged in defenseive counter fire . . . the destroyers relayed messages stating that hey had avoided a number of torpedoes . . . and that they had sunk two of the attacking craft."
While Secretary McNamara's written comments are in sharp contrast to the unclear events of that night, what is interesting is the lack of probing questions regarding the attacks. One of the lines invites a question regarding the veracity of the attacks. "By midnight local time, the destroyers reported that, even though many torpedoes had been fired at them, they had suffered no hits nor casualties and that the defense aircraft from the Ticonderoga were illuminating the area and attacking the enemy aircraft." No doubt that at this time, there were congressmen who had served either in Korea or World War II, who must have wondered how, with all the shooting going on, there were no casualties and no damage to any of the ships. How can that be? Is it possible that members of Congress were thinking more of the fact that US warships had been attacked and not looking at the specifics of the attack -- especially since the attack was the reason in seeking Congressional support for further US military action.
Senator Lausche questioned the order of events and Robert McNamara and General Wheeler, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs answered the questions. The Senator obviously had a clear picture in his mind as to what transpired that night based on prior testimony. Most of McNamara's or General Wheeler's answers were merely affirmations of Senator Lausche's questions. He asked if the Madddox did anything to provoke the attack, and General Wheeler stated that the Maddox signaled the Ticonderoga that as it appeared they would be attacked, they turned to the east and proceeded out to sea to avoid contact with the hostile PT boats. General Wheeler confirmed that they fired their warning shots when they were within 9,000 yards. When the PT boats were within 5000 yards, the Maddox countered by changing course, to avoid the torpedoes that were launched.
Later on, contact is made, and Senator Lausche asked what the Maddox did in response, but answers his own question in the same sentence. "It still did nothing, is that correct?" McNamara confirms that is correct. The testimony continues with Senator Lausche answering questions within his questions, and Wheeler or McNamara either confirming or clarifying. Both Secretary McNamara and General Wheeler took every opportunity to remind the committee that it was a premeditated and preplanned attack, and that the Maddox was indeed in international waters. Senator Lausche ends the line of questioning with a statement that seems to show his intent was to support the resolution and the response of the US military. "Then our course would be to either maintain our honor and our security or drop tail and run for the ocean, I suppose?" General Wheeler confirmed.
Senator Morse was the lone dissenting voice on the Committee and on the final vote of the resolution. His opposition to The Tonkin Gulf Resolution had little to do with the incidents in the gulf. The basis of his opposition was because he saw not one bit of evidence that the North launched any military aggression against South Vietnam. Secretary of State Rusk answered his comment, which is significant, because it goes to the motivation of the Johnson administration in escalating US involvement in the region of Southeast Asia.
Dean Rusk detailed Northern aggression from 1954 up to the time of The Tonkin Gulf incidents. "Since 1954, the North Vietnamese have been undertaking to undermine and take over the Government of Vietnam. There was some surcease . . . during the years . . . 1956 to 1958, but in 1959 the North Vietnamese again came back to it, made a decision to step up their activities, and in 1960 publicly proclaimed their purposes." Dean Rusk knew the North to be the primary aggressor. This is true as their actions went back to 1954, years before the United States began to aid South Vietnam. Contrary to agreements the North may have made, they were sending individuals and groups up to 150 and 200 at a time through Laos and into Vietnam. He cites times when we've helped other countries via the Marshall Plan and NATO, and while the US had helped other countries maintain their independence, the US did not then and did not now control them. America did not have an empire. He reiterated the attempt of the US and other countries "to create independent, secure, and prosperous countries who have a chance to live their own lives without interference from their neighbors."
In the testimony before the committee, the language of the Southeast Asia Resolution came up only briefly. The only point of concern being the words, "As he deems necessary" referring to President Johnson. Chairman Fulbright referred to three previous resolutions, the Formosa Resolution, the Cuba Resolution and the Middle East Resolution, and that all of them used the same language. Senator Case brought up the issue of discretion, being only as a springboard to questioning Secretary McNamara and General Wheeler about the capacity of the US to counter with adequate force.
The Tonkin Gulf Resolution is the basis used by many to invalidate United States involvement in Vietnam. There are essentially two claims about the constitutionality of the Vietnam War, and both contradict each other center on The Tonkin Gulf Resolution. One side argues that the Tonkin Gulf Resolution did not authorize the president, whether Johnson or Nixon to carry on a war in Southeast Asia. This school of thought maintains that it was an unconstitutional declaration of war without congressional approval. The other interpretation is that the resolution did authorize escalation of combat in Vietnam, but since the Johnson administration lied regarding the events in the Tonkin Gulf, he tricked most of the members of Congress into voting for it. Neither argument fits the facts either in Johnson's presentation of the resolution to Congress or the Constitutionality of the resolution.
A congressional declaration of war can take two forms -- either a simple declaration of war or a conditional declaration of war. Generally, a conditional declaration of war is an ultimatum that permits, but does not require military force. A conditional declaration of war was used during the nineteenth century in support of American expansionism. Eisenhower revived it as part of the Cold War strategy. When the Nationalist government headed by Chiang Kai-shek fled China to Formosa (Taiwan) the United States supported the government of Taiwan. In January 1956, Communist troops attacked the island and Eisenhower submitted the Formosa Resolution. The intent was to make clear that the US was prepared to go to war to defend Taiwan. The Formosa Resolution was a preventative resolution, and since it passed through Congress, China backed down rather than face the threat of war with America. Certainly, members of Congress, many of whom were present in 1956, expected the same response from North Vietnam.
The Formosa Resolution provided the model for The Tonkin Gulf Resolution. Walt Rostow, Deputy to National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, suggested it as a way to give Johnson authority to conduct a discretionary war in Southeast Asia. In any way that one reads the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, it clearly gives the President complete authority to conduct military operations in Vietnam. No other permission was required from Congress.
Several year later in 1967, a Senate foreign relations Committee report made the following conclusion. "Congress committed the error of making a personal judgement as to how President Johnson would implement the resolution when it had a responsibility to make an institutional judgement, first, as to what any President would do with so great an acknowledgement of power, and second, as to whether, under the Constitution, Congress had the right to grant or concede the authority in question."
To say the United States involvement in Vietnam was inevitable when one considers all the factors tends to eliminate accountability. While The Tonkin Gulf Resolution was the point at which US military action escalated, an ambiguous policy or lack thereof, certainly contributed mightily to an already bad situation. In his opening statement about US policy, Dean Rusk said the US supported the idea, as set forth in the Geneva Accords, of the independence of South Vietnam, and that all that was required of the North was to "leave their neighbors alone." He called for the Communist side to honor their commitment to the 1962 Accords. There is a contradiction in this statement, since part of the Geneva Accords of 1954 called for elections -- elections that the US blocked. Had they not been blocked, the clear winner would most likely have been Ho Chi Minh, Communist leader of the North.
American policy in Vietnam was a confusing and ambiguous thing. Leading up to the incidents in the Tonkin Gulf, there is significant evidence that the Johnson administration, and by extension the Kennedy Administration before it, did not have a viable and workable policy to deal with American involvement in that region of the world. Recently released transcripts between President Johnson, Robert S. McNamara and National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy shows the President asking for a simple explanation of what was going on in the war. Simple statements by Johnson proclaiming that the United States was saving Vietnamese freedom shows the fact that Johnson was confused by what we know as a complex issue.
The real architect of America's policy in Vietnam was Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. McNamara outlined this policy in a speech given in March of 1964 at the Forrestal Memorial Awards Dinner in Washington D.C. His first point was that that the American response in Vietnam was an extension of the US stand against Communism. McNamara did not see US involvement as an extension of the US-as-world-policeman role that followed World War II. It was more an outcropping of the anti-Communism of the Cold War.
The US had three objectives in this stance against Communism. Regardless of the corruption of the South Vietnamese government, the US would support it as a member of the community of free world nations. This was said knowing full well that South Vietnam, headed by Dien and many others later, was far from a democratic or free society. There is a history for this, for as far back as Eisenhower and the United States announced aid to South Vietnam with the intent of helping to establish a democratic government.
The second point represents a difference between Johnson and McNamara -- that being the domino theory. President Johnson did not consider the domino theory to be a credible threat. He was more concerned with the effect a loss in Vietnam would have on his domestic policies. Johnson was the president of the Great Society. From his tenure as the chief of this country, we have Medicare and Medicaid, Head Start, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Had it not been for the debacle of the Vietnam War, Johnson may have gone down as one of the greatest domestic presidents ever. But the chants of "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many children have you killed today," still ring to us from the halls of history. While McNamara cited the domino theory as a principle reason for US involvement, we know now it was an inflated fear. Thirty years later, in a press conference from Hanoi, McNamara conceded that the domino theory was overstated. He realized that a unified Communist Vietnam would most likely not have been used as a base for Chinese or Russian hegemony of Communism across Asia.
The most salient point of American policy goes back to a 1961 speech by Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev. In this speech, Khrushchev endorsed the idea of wars of liberation. Having suffered through two world wars in less than fifty years, he saw the danger in another, especially in the atomic age. But when referring to Vietnam, he referred to it as a sacred war. McNamara found the support for Khrushchev's speech in the writings of Lenin and Mao. China supported these wars of liberation even more than the Soviet Union. Being trapped in that point of history and unable to predict the future, the US had little choice but to support South Vietnam. While McNamara equated the situation in South Vietnam with the defeat of insurgents in Malaya and the Philippines, there is a significant difference between what happened in those two countries and South Vietnam. The Viet Cong and much of the population in the South saw the leadership in the South as corrupt. There were many leaders of Vietnam during the war, but none of them were able to garner a mandate of heaven in the guise of popular support of the people. But in Malaya and the Philippines, most of the local citizenry supported the governments of each country.
The United States was not alone in adding to the components that would eventually escalate the hostilities. Certainly, the United States engaged in military operations in support of South Vietnam against the North, but the North was the source of support in the way of funding, training and arms for southern insurgency. While there were conflicting reports in the 1960s, today we know the source was the DRV. And yet the book, The United States in Vietnam, published in 1967 in concert with the anti-war movement, made the assertion that revival of the civil war was done so under the initiative of the South. The authors, George M. Kahin and John W. Lewis, argued against the conclusion of a State Department white paper of 1965 that the resurgence of the civil war was directed by the North. The argument that US involvement in Vietnam was based on the North's violation of the General Convention in 1954 is spelled out in the white paper.
Today, there is overwhelming evidence showing Hanoi as the primary instigator of insurgency in the South. This information comes from captured documents, testimony of many defectors aware of the policy direction of the Communist Party in the North, and of course, the much boasting of the North Vietnamese following the fall of Saigon and the defeat of the South in 1975. The Lao Dong, or the Vietnamese Worker's Party made the decision to begin armed conflict in the South. Also, the National Liberation Front (NLF) was begun from Hanoi as a Communist front -- it was not independent nor southern in its origin. It did not seek liberation, but Northern domination of the South.
The acts against the South by the Communists of the North were in clear violation of the dictates of the Geneva Convention of 1954. The North did not start these measures against the South until 1959 for two reasons. First, the North had problems with their own counterrevolutionaries. Ho Chi Minh said, "Only when the foundation is firm, does the house stand firm." The second reason is that the Central Committee in the North did not see the conditions in the South as being ready for revolution.
Another State Department white paper that came out in December 1961 chronicled the infiltration of espionage agents and military support for the Vietcong. The paper entitled, "A Threat to Peace: North Viet-Nam's Effort to Conquer South Viet-Nam," made it clear of Hanoi's support for the Southern insurgency.
These white papers showed that the North was the direct supporter and instigator of the rebellion in the South. While the conclusions drawn by these papers were argued during the time, today there is ample evidence of Northern involvement. They supplied war material, confirmed counts of personnel sent south was over 28,000 -- seen as a conservative number. By providing carefully trained cadres, weapons and communications specialists, the North built the Viet Cong into a very disciplined military force. The United States stepped up support for the South in 1961 because had it not done so, the South could have been overrun by the Viet Cong.
The American government's dissatisfaction with the events in Vietnam began with the Eisenhower administration. Eisenhower was very unhappy with the outcome of the Geneva Conference. The National Security Council put out a statement defining US policy in the Far East. A significant portion of the statement defined US policy in light of US prestige, or more succinctly, American pride. Part b of the statement details "the loss of prestige suffered by the US as a backer of the French and Bao Dai Government will raise further doubts in Asia concerning US leadership and the ability of the US to check the further expansion of Communism in Asia." The statement also called in to play the domino theory. It detailed the gains that the Communists made through military and political avenues. But it also listed the concern of losing Japan as an important aspect in the part of the country through loss of prestige.
One of the issues that brought into question the validity of The Tonkin Gulf Resolution and the Johnson administration's motives was the publication of the Pentagon Papers years after the resolution passed through Congress. The Pentagon Papers was a study of the history of American involvement in Southeast Asia by the US military. In his book Vietnam: The Necessary War, Michael Lind examines this idea that Johnson tricked the American public, his advisors, and by extension, the Congress. This idea, propagated for the most part by the anti-war movement was coupled with Johnson's re-election bid, and was later confirmed to many by publication in the New York Times of the Pentagon Papers. Daniel Elsberg secretly copied the report while working at the RAND corporation. He gave the report to Neil Sheehan, a New York Times journalist and an outspoken critic of the war. Irrespective of Nixon's attempt to block publication of the documents, the New York Times won the case and proceeded to publish them. The publication of these documents further increased the credibility gap regarding the government and the truth, from the current administration, but also back to the Johnson administration and The Tonkin Gulf Resolution.
But there was a major discrepancy regarding Johnson's intentions as reported in the New York Times. The Times assigned four reporters, Neil Sheehan, Hedrick Smith, E.W. Kenworthy, and Fox Butterfield, to write stories based on the stolen report. One of the stories that indicates that the Johnson administration indeed desired to bomb North Vietnam prior to his re-election and the Gulf of Tonkin incident, under the heading "Vietnam Archive: A Consensus to Bomb Developed Before '64 elections, Study Says." In this article they report that Johnson reached a consensus at a strategy meeting on September 7, 1964, that they would need to launch air attacks against the North. But what the Pentagon Papers actually specified is that air strikes would be approved only after all alternatives were re-examined and other possibilities exhausted.
There is also a misconception of Lyndon Johnson and his initial support for the war. Contrary to popular perception, LBJ did not escalate the US commitment in Vietnam lightly. There was a significant amount of pressure on the President as the events in Southeast Asia unfolded. Johnson developed doubts about the Tonkin Gulf incidents not long after they occurred. But even with these doubts, he was under pressure as he ran for re-election. Johnson ran as a moderate in contrast to Senator Barry Goldwater, a conservative who took a hard stance on Communism. Had Johnson not taken a hard line on the supposed attacks, and had he attempted to keep the story of the attacks secret, when that story got out, as all such stories eventually do, it would appear to the American public that he was attempting to cover up a Communist attack on US military vessels -- and in American politics, perception is reality. This reality for Johnson would have translated into votes lost. But pressure came not just from voter perception but from his staff. Later, there was a similar incident in the Tonkin Gulf and Johnson questioned the validity of the attacks. Dean Rusk, Secretary of State, criticized Johnson to his face for not supporting the officers in the field.
Johnson's handling of the crisis in the gulf gave him a significant boost in the polls. Before the Tonkin Gulf incident, only 42 percent of the American public approved of his handling of the American policy in Vietnam. After, the numbers in a Harris Poll swelled to 85 percent. This represented a significant shift in the perception of Johnson's handling of the war. The question asked about increased military presence in North Vietnam with a reminder that it might risk conflict with China.
The question of US involvement in the Vietnam War cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. A clear-cut answer indicates a lack of understanding of the intricacies of the day. Perhaps the best answer is, that given the events of the day, fears on both side, and lack of understanding all around, the United States could not not get involved.
There were still significant fears of Communism in America. Not too many years earlier, Americans were building bomb shelters in their back yards. The Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, only 8 years earlier than the passage of The Tonkin Gulf Resolution. The lack of information about the Soviet Union coupled with misperceptions from the Red Scare days and of McCarthyism, increased the animosity felt toward the spread of Communism. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis were still fresh on everyone's minds as well as the threat of nuclear holocaust. And while there were those who discounted the idea of the domino theory, many saw the possible reality of nuclear confrontation -- and it scared them.
The North Vietnamese are not without blame in the escalation of the war. They were the source of support for the insurgency in the South, which was in clear violation of the Geneva Accords. The United States had an obligation to support the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). America could not allow the South to fall to Communism. Here also, the US was trapped in the events of recent history. Following World War II, the American military occupied Japan, an Asian nation, and what MacArthur dictated, they pretty much did. Their constitution, modeled after the U.S. Constitution, is still called the MacArthur Constitution. A few years later, we helped divide Korea, again an Asian nation, with a Communist North and Democratic South. Would not the same hold true in Vietnam? One can hardly place too much blame on the leaders then who felt sure the United States could do the same thing in Vietnam.
While it is virtually certain the second attack in the Tonkin Gulf did not occur, it hardly seems relevant in light of the goings on at the time. The US involvement was almost assured by then, and had it not been that attack, something else would have happened to escalate the war. The North was supplying the South through the Ho Chi Minh Trail with arms and troops. The US was aiding the South with training and military operation to resist in invasion. And yet it is still a tragic episode in history as 58,000 American men and women died, and over one million Vietnamese, not counting those left maimed and crippled. It is a lesson one hopes we and other nations will learn from. But in studying history, it is unlikely that anyone will. And that simple fact continues the tragedy of the Vietnam War.
1Edwin E. Moise, Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War, (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1996) p. 2-3
2Moise, Tonkin Gulf, p. 3-4.
3Moise, Tonkin Gulf, p. 4.
4Moise, Tonkin Gulf, p. 4.
5Moise, Tonkin Gulf, p. 5.
6Moise, Tonkin Gulf, p.5.
7Moise, Tonkin Gulf, p. 9.
8Robert S. McNamara and Brian VanDeMark, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, (New York, Vintage Books, 1996) p. 129.
9McNamara, In Retrospect, p. 129-130.
10Moise, Tonkin Gulf, p. 7.
11McNamara, In Retrospect, p. 131
12McNamara, In Retrospect, p. 131
13McNamara, In Retrospect, p. 130.
14McNamara, In Retrospect, p. 133.
15McNamara, In Retrospect, p. 139.
16McNamara, In Retrospect, p. 141.
17McNamara, In Retrospect, p. 133-134.
18McNamara, In Retrospect, p. 134
19McNamara, In Retrospect, p. 134
20Moise, Tonkin Gulf, p. 226.
21Moise, Tonkin Gulf, p. 226.
22Moise, Tonkin Gulf, p.226.
23"Joint Hearing Before the Committee on Foreign Relations and the Committee on Armed Services United States Senate" (Washington, U.S. Government Printing Office, August 6, 1964) p. 3.
24"Joint Hearing..." p. 3.
25"Joint Hearing..." p. 3.
26"Joint Hearing..." p. 5.
27"Joint Hearing..." p. 5.
28"Joint Hearing..." p. 6.
29"Joint Hearing..." p. 7.
30"Joint Hearing..." p. 7.
31"Joint Hearing..." p. 7.
32"Joint Hearing..." p. 8.
33"Joint Hearing..." p. 8-9.
34"Joint Hearing..." p. 8-9.
35"Joint Hearing..." p. 21.
36"Joint Hearing..." p. 21.
37"Joint Hearing..." p. 21-22.
38"Joint Hearing..." p. 13.
39"Joint Hearing..." p. 13.
40"Joint Hearing..." p. 13-14.
41"Joint Hearing..." p. 19-20.
42Michael Lind. Vietnam The Necessary War. (New York: The Free Press, 1999), p. 186.
43Lind, Vietnam, p. 187.
44Lind, Vietnam, p. 188.
45(Senate Report 90-797 (1967) pp.21-22)
46"Joint Hearing..." p. 5.
47Ezra Y. Siff, Why The Senate Slept; The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and the Beginning of America's Vietnam War,(Connecticut, Praeger Publishers, 1999) p. 45.
48Siff Why The Senate Slept, p.46.
49Siff, Why The Senate Slept, p. 46.
50Siff, Why The Senate Slept, p. 47.
51Siff, Why The Senate Slept, p. 47.
52Guentner Lewy, "Evidence of Aggression from the North and the State Department White Papers," in The Vietnam Debate: A Fresh Look at the Arguments, ed. John Norton Moore (Maryland, University Press of America, 1990), p. 89.
53Lewy, Evidence of Aggression, p. 89-90.
54Lewy, Evidence of Aggression, p. 90.
55Lewy, Evidence of Aggression, p. 90.
56Lewy, Evidence of Aggression, p. 90.
57Lewy, Evidence of Aggression, p. 94-95.
58Geoffrey Warner, "The United States and Vietnam 1945 -- 1965: Part II 1954-65," International Affairs 48, no.4 (October 1972), p. 593.
59Lind, Vietnam The Necessary War, p. 192.
60 Lind, Vietnam The Necessary War, p. 192-193.
61Moise, Tonkin Gulf, p. 211.
62 Moise, Tonkin Gulf, p. 211.
63Moise, Tonkin Gulf, p.225-226.
Garson, Robert. "Lyndon B. Johnson and the China Enigma." Journal of Contemporary History 32, no 1 (January, 1997): 63-80.
Lewy, Guentner. "Evidence of Aggression from the North and the State Department." In The Vietnam Debate: A Fresh Look at the Arguments, edited by John Norton Moore. Maryland: University Press of America, Inc., 1990.
Lind, Michael. Vietnam, the Necessary War: A Reinterpretation of America's Most Disastrous Military Conflict. New York: The Free Press, 1999.
McNamara, Robert S. and Brian VanDeMark. In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. New York: Vintage Books, 1996.
Moise, Edwin E. Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War. North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.
Siff, Ezra Y. Why the Senate Slept; The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and the Beginning of America's Vietnam War. Connecticut: Praeger Publishers, 1999.
Southeast Asia Resolution, Joint Hearing Before the Committee on Foreign Relations and the Committee on Armed Services United States Senate. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1996.
Warner, Geoffrey. "The United States and Vietnam 1945-1965 Part II: 1954-65." International Affairs 48, no. 4 (October 1972): 593-615.