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The Tonkin Gulf Resolution was a joint resolution passed by the United States Congress on August 10th, 1964 after a military incident between the United States and North Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin bordering the coast of Vietnam. The military incident was an attack 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 American destroyer. These two attacks by the North Vietnamese resulted in the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. The resolution 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”(H.J. RES 1145)which led to the United States engaging more directly in the Vietnam War.
President Lyndon B. Johnson used the ill-defined and vague grant of authority to significantly escalate the U.S. military presence in Vietnam with the introduction of combat troops. Many consider this to be a pivotal event in the United States congressional history as it was the turning point that allowed Johnson to conduct an undeclared war without direct congressional sanction. The Tonkin Gulf Resolution was passed as a result of the second attack on August 4th, 1964 which was later proved that the attack did not occur. This research paper will analyze the Tonkin Gulf Resolution by examining its origins and explaining its implementation. The paper will place particular emphasis on analyzing the argument that the Tonkin Gulf Resolution was misused by the Johnson Administrations and the constitutional and ethical dimensions of the policy that was based on false pretenses.
Origin of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution:
The origin of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution can be traced back to a highly classified covert program called Operation 34A. This program was designed for the United States to clandestinely support South Vietnamese special-forces operations. The primary objective of these operations was for the South Vietnamese special-forces units to sabotage the North Vietnamese coastal transportation facilities by raiding. “The program required the intelligence community to provide detailed intelligence about the commando targets, the North’s coastal defenses and related surveillance systems.”(Schuster) Operation 34 A was a major cause in the crisis that occurred in the Tonkin Gulf.
On the night of August 2nd, 1964, the United States Navy destroyer, the USS Maddox, was patrolling the waters near the coast of North Vietnam to perform an intelligence-gathering operation under the authority of Operation 34A. The USS Maddox was responsible for an intelligence-gathering operation coined ‘Desoto Patrol’ in which a “highly classified team aboard the USS Maddox was feeding sensitive North Vietnamese communications back to the National Security Agency headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland.”(Pusey pg. 72) While performing the Desoto Patrol, the USS Maddox detected that was being pursued by three North Vietnamese Navy torpedo boats. “As the North Vietnamese patrol boats continued their pursuit of the American destroyer, the USS Maddox was ordered to fire warning shots if they closed inside ten thousand yards.” (Schuster pg. 30) The North Vietnamese patrol boats and the USS Maddox exchanged fire yet none of the ships inflicted significant damage.
When the USS Maddox reported back to Washington that the destroyer was attacked by the North Vietnamese patrol boats, President Johnson met with his senior advisers to consider a response. The President along with his senior advisors agreed that it was possible that a local North Vietnamese commander, rather than a senior official, had ordered the attack on the USS Maddox therefore they decided not to retaliate. Instead of retaliation, President Johnson ordered the continuation of the Desoto patrols and added another Destroyer the Turner Joy to escort the USS Maddox.
Two days later, the USS Maddox was once again patrolling the coast of North Vietnam for the ‘Desoto Patrols’ yet was accompanied by another destroyer, the Turner Joy, because of the earlier attack on the USS Maddox. During the patrol, the USS Maddox received signals that the destroyer was 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 the North Vietnamese once again. When the reports were received in Washington, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara urged the President to respond to the attack. And within hours, President Johnson launched air strikes on Northern Vietnamese bases in retaliation to the attack. The first air strikes that hit North Vietnam were four North Vietnamese patrol-boat bases, as well as an oil-storage depot located in the city of Vinh.
The Implementation of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution:
After President Johnson ordered the launch of air strikes on the North Vietnamese military bases in retaliation for the alleged attack that happened on August fourth 1964, President Johnson approached Congress for the request to increase the United States military presence in Vietnam. On August sixth 1964, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara testified to a joint session of the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees on the events of August fourth in the Tonkin Gulf. McNamara stressed for “the immediate occasion for this resolution is the course the North Vietnamese attacks on our naval vessels…”(McNamara pg. 136) During McNamara’s testimony, the committees were unaware of the covert operations of Operation 34A therefore the joint session turned into a discussion for a resolution to increase the United States presence in Vietnam as they believed the USS Maddox was attacked unprovoked.
After the testimony of Robert McNamara, Congress had a floor debate on whether to pass the resolution. It was decided that the United States will increase its presence in Vietnam therefore, Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution on August 10th, 1964. The joint resolution 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”. Congress understood the resolution would give vast authority to the President yet the Senate and the House of Representatives passed it by a vote of 88-2 in the Senate and unanimously in the House, 416-0. With the authority to express more military power in Vietnam, the United States quickly launched Operation Rolling Thunder, a large-scale bombing campaign of North Vietnamese targets. The objective of Rolling Thunder was to implement bombing raids on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a network of trails through dense jungle that connected North Vietnam and South Vietnam. The Ho Chi Minh trail was used by the Viet Cong used to smuggle supplies and covert troop movement. The President’s goal for Operation Rolling Thunder was to cutoff the movement of manpower and supplies from North Vietnam which would result in a boost of morale in the South Vietnamese government. Not only did the President authorize the increase in air power, President Johnson also increased the ‘boots on the ground’ in the region.
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, to train the South Vietnamese to combat the North Vietnamese and the guerrilla forces in the countryside known as the Viet Cong. The purpose of the training was to strengthen the new South Vietnamese government. However, even with the training of the South Vietnamese troops the United States supported programs of ‘nation-building’, South Vietnam continued to suffer from a weak government and continual losses to the North Vietnamese military.
When the Tonkin Gulf Resolution passed, the number of American troops in South Vietnam increased significantly. By the year 1965, there were over one hundred and fifty thousand American troops in Vietnam. Many of those troops were injured or killed and by the time Johnson left office in 1969; “over thirty-thousand American troops had died as well as hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese”(Pfiffner pg.13).  The Tonkin Gulf resolution created a large-scale military conflict in Vietnam which became increasingly unpopular among Americans.
The Ethical Dimensions of the Resolution:
There have been many ethical objections raised about the passing of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. After the second attack on the USS Maddox and the subsequent response of retaliation air strikes ordered by President Johnson, the USS Maddox’s crew reported they reviewed the radar contacts and other information and determined that the second report of attack by the North Vietnamese may have been doubtful. “Subsequent SIGINT reporting and faulty analysis that day further reinforced earlier false impressions. The after-action reports from the participants in the Gulf arrived in Washington several hours after the report of the second incident.” (Schuster) Though the information of false impressions was reported back to Washington, the Johnson Administration still went to Congress to address the attacks.
During McNamara’s testimony, the committees were unaware of the covert operations of Operation 34A and that the second attack most likely did not occur. President Johnson and Secretary of Defense McNamara were aware that the second attack on the USS Maddox in the Tonkin Gulf was most likely a faulty analysis. Yet when both men addressed Congress, they acted as the second attack undoubtedly had happened. The argument can be made that the President and the Secretary of Defense lied to the American people and members of Congress on the events that happened on August 4th in order to escalate the war in Vietnam.
President Johnson’s decision to escalate the war in Vietnam almost certainly had more to do with domestic politics within the United States rather than the support of “any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty requesting assistance in defense of its freedom”.(H.J. RES 1145) President Johnson had come into office following the assassination of John F. Kennedy meaning Johnson served as President for the rest of what would have been Kennedy’s first term which was a little less than a year before reelection. In order to cement his own full presidential term, Johnson associated himself with Kennedy’s popularity and won the Democratic candidacy. However in the 1964 election, Johnson was then locked into a bitter presidential race with the Republican Senator of Arizona, Barry Goldwater.
One of the major criticisms by Goldwater 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.”(Cherwitz pg.34) The driving force behind the Tonkin Gulf resolution was the effort to prove that President Johnson was not soft on communism. He used the incident in the Tonkin Gulf to ensure his victory in the Presidential race, knowing that Congress would not oppose military action against the North Vietnamese especially during an election year. Johnson’s political deceit led the American people into a war that was unwinnable. Not only did the Johnson administration lie about the justification in escalating military action in Vietnam; the administration exceeded the intended purpose of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution.
The ethical issues of the Tonkin Gulf resolution involve the deception of the American people, but as well, the misuse of power granted by the resolution. As stated previously, Congress understood the resolution would give vast authority to the President when Congress over-whelming approved the resolution. Congress was led to believe that the United States was under attack by North Vietnam and the powers given to the President were seen to be used for an emergency. There is no doubt that Congress did not intend to authorize the President the ability to expand United States forces in Vietnam without full consultation. Initiating a large-scale military conflict that could have easily evolved into a conflict with China or the Soviet Union was an outrage to Congress and the majority of the American people.
Though the Tonkin Gulf Resolution was dissolved in 1969, right before the end of Johnson’s term, the legacy of the resolution is still felt today. The Tonkin Gulf resolution set the standard for the Executive branch to over step its boundaries by misusing its power on war-making given by Congress. A modern example of the legacy of the Tonkin Gulf resolution is the Authorization of the use of Military Force (AuMF) passed by Congress after the terrorist attack in 2001. Much like the Tonkin Gulf resolution, the AuMF against terrorism was meant to be a temporary grant of authority that allowed the president to engage in military action against the perpetrators of the attack. “However the Executive branch used their authority for a decade long, open-ended, transfer of war authority for use against any group a president may deem dangerous. “ (Shoon pg. 195)The cause of this ethical dilemma comes from the ambiguous language of the Constitution. Though the United States Congress has the power to declare war, the president is the commander in chief and the presidents can go to war without the popular consent of Congress.
Gulf resolution was a joint resolution passed in the United States Congress after a military incident between the United States and North Vietnam. The purpose of the resolution was to take all necessary steps to assist South Vietnam in the war with North Vietnam and their Viet Cong allies. With the authority to express more military power in Vietnam, the United States quickly launched Operation Rolling Thunder, a large-scale bombing campaign of North Vietnamese targets. The number of American troops in South Vietnam increased significantly. At the height of the Vietnam War, there were over half a million American troops in Vietnam.
The ethical issues of the Tonkin Gulf come from the fact that the military incident was determined doubtful. President Johnson decision to escalate the war was, knowingly, under false pretenses, and almost certainly had more to do with domestic politics within the United States. Johnson misused of power granted by the resolution which resulted in a large loss of American lives. Though the Tonkin Gulf resolution dissolved, its legacy is still carried out with the Executive branch’s ability to conduct war without the consent of Congress.
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no. 1, June 2008, p. 28.
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southeast Asia. Pub.L. 88-408, 78 stat.
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Oct. 2015, p. 195
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