Tonkin Gulf Resolution Essay Research Paper President

Tonkin Gulf Resolution Essay, Research Paper

President Lyndon B. Johnson’s immediate advocacy of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, acting as head of state, influenced Congress to unintentionally give him a blank check in conducting the Vietnam War. Johnson’s accusation of unjustified attacks on American ships by the North Vietnamese in the Gulf of Tonkin led to the resolution’s nearly unanimous passage in Congress three days later. Although with the passage of time the certainty of these attacks has come into question, President Johnson through his presidential powers was able to get the Tonkin Gulf Resolution passed, which gave him near free reign in conducting the Vietnam War.

The events leading up to the Tonkin Gulf Resolution must be understood with knowledge of the Johnson administration’s motivations during that time period. As early as May 1964, Vietnam experts in Washington were creating a resolution that would give Johnson the ability to use unlimited force in North Vietnam. However, Johnson thought that the timing was not right to call attention to this escalating war in Southeast Asia. Considering the benefits of a resolution, his Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara believed that attaining the capability to perform air strikes would raise South Vietnamese morale. Even though Johnson and his staff were forced to fight a defensive war, they knew very well that a resolution passes by Congress would very well change that. (1)

A generally accepted modern-day account of the Gulf of Tonkin incidents that occurred in early August of 1964 should precede evaluation of how the Johnson administration handled the situation. The USS Maddox began a reconnaissance patrol along the coast of North Vietnam on July 31, 1964, with the objective of gathering information about the coastal defense forces. North Vietnamese defense forces were expected to be quite active because covert operations were being carried out by boats out of Danang, South Vietnam under Operations Plan 34A (OPLAN 34A). These OPLA 34A raiders attacked the North Vietnamese islands of Hon Me and Hon Ngu during the first hours of July 31. The Maddox was aware of these covert operations, but did not plan its’ route based on them.

During the afternoon of August 2, three North Vietnamese torpedo boats from the island of Hon Me attacked the Maddox when it was not far by, and this was the first attack. The Maddox left the Gulf of Tonkin afterwards, but returned on August 3, with the USS Turner Joy, as they were heading away from the North Vietnamese coastline they believed they were being attacked, and opened fire. Most of the presumed attacking vessels appeared on the radar screen of the Turner Joy, but not on the radar of the Maddox. Some men aboard the destroyers believed that what had appeared on the radar were ghost images, while others believe that they were actual torpedo boats attacking them. This incident is referred to as the second attack, and the following afternoon retaliatory air strikes approved by President Johnson were carried out. (2)

The Johnson administration’s presentation of what occurred in the Gulf of Tonkin on August 2 and 4 must be taken in context with their eagerness for a resolution. Their account of the events stated that on August 2, the Maddox while navigating on a routine mission through international waters off the central coast of North Vietnam was attacked by three North Vietnamese patrol boats without provocation. Their presentation of the Maddox’s voyage as a routine mission is directly contradicted by later information that proved it was, in fact, on a reconnaissance mission. Their account further stated that the Maddox returned fire, but the United States chose to only issue a warning because they treated it as an isolated incident.

Johnson and his administration insisted that after a second unprovoked attack two days later in the Gulf of Tonkin, the President had no further options but to order air strikes against North Vietnam. They painted the second attack to be a certainty, convincing the Congress, press, and public, while substantial firsthand accounts left themselves short of certain. His administration also declared that North Vietnam’s aggressive intent was evident through these two unprovoked attacks and, therefore, a congressional resolution that authorized the president to take all necessary measures in protecting American interests in Southeast Asia was required. (3) Obvious discrepancies exist between the Johnson administration’s account and the modern-day accepted version of the Gulf of Tonkin incidents, which should be viewed with knowledge of the administration’s desire for a resolution.

As Johnson’s staff advocated the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution’s passage through Congress based on the certainty of the incidents, legitimate doubts about their occurrence cast questions to the executive’s actions. In reference to the second incident, Commodore John J. Herrick, in charge of the Maddox’s reconnaissance mission in the gulf told the Pentagon, “Review of action makes many recorded contacts and torpedoes fired appear doubtful. Freak weather effects and overeager sonar men may have accounted for many reports. No actual visual sightings by Maddox. Suggest complete evaluation before any further action.”(4) In spite of having this firsthand opinion, Johnson and his staff went ahead with air strikes and their misrepresentation of the Gulf of Tonkin incidents, which influenced the Congress as they passed the resolution nearly unanimously.

Convinced by Johnson’s swift and stern actions, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution having no idea it would be used by presidents to legitimize American involvement in the Vietnam War for years to come. On August 7, 1964, a unanimous House of Representatives and a Senate with only two dissenters passed a resolution that gave President Johnson the authority to use “all necessary force, including the use of the armed forces” in Vietnam. (5) The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, William Fullbright was a major proponent of the resolution, and he conceded that the resolution could be used as an authorization for the country to go to war, but he was not concerned because all he had heard indicated that Johnson did not intend to use it in such a manner.(6) One of the dissenters, Democrat Wayne Morse of Oregon, accurately predicted that Johnson would use the resolution as a “functional declaration of war.”(7) Ironically, Morse’s ignored prediction rang true and many members of Congress regretted voting for a resolution that effectively brought the United States to war.

The Gulf of Tonkin affair brought to attention the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches in the area of foreign affairs. The Congress felt their constitutional power to declare war was weakened by presidents’ ability to send troops wherever he so chooses without its’ consent, as was done even before the Gulf of Tonkin affair. Furthermore, they argue that one individual is not equipped to make such far-ranging decisions such as sending a war. As historian Joseph C. Goulden puts it, “The Senate claims that there is no monopoly on foreign policy expertise, and derides those who claim to possess it.”(8) Seen as a body of elites, the Senate feels it should weigh in on such pressing issues as going to war.

The Constitution prioritizes the passage of a declaration of war by requiring a two-third’s majority of both houses, therefore President Johnson’s usage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution to authorize prolonged United States military involvement in Vietnam is condemned by senators and congressmen alike. Congress argues that the passage of a resolution that was sold to them as an approval for temporary involvement to prevent further escalation was by no means a declaration of war.(9) Seeing the ability of one man to supercede the approval of Congress by not obtaining a declaration of war made members of Congress wary of what future possibilities might entail. Learning their lesson from Johnson, Congress eventually reclaimed some of its’ foreign policy powers when the War Powers Act was passed in 1973.

The president, acting as head of state, is the nation’s crisis manager and President Johnson was force to manage the crisis of the Gulf of Tonkin incidents. As Goulden correctly points out, “The Congress and the public, entirely reliant upon the Executive for information in a crisis, must put their total trust in him.”(10) Such was the case when Johnson told Congress and the American people about these tow unprovoked attacks by the North Vietnamese on American ships. He advocated the need for a resolution that gave him authority to use all possible action, including the use of the armed forces. Trusting the President in this time of crisis, both public opinion and votes from Congress approved the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. With the ability to look back, Johnson’s performance as crisis manager seen in light of the misinformation, and possible deception, was not as great as people in August of 1964 though it was.

The unity of the office of the President enabled Johnson to act swiftly and effectively in obtaining his desired Tonkin Gulf Resolution, but also held him accountable to the outcome of the affair. Facing immense pressure, Johnson with the help of his advisors was able to directly make decisions about how to handle the two incidents in the gulf. The solidarity of the office enabled Johnson to deploy air strikes on North Vietnam, personally address members of Congress, and make a televised appearance to the American people within 24 hours. However, he is the one person to be held accountable for his decisions. After prolonged and escalated American involvement in Vietnam, President Johnson was held accountable for using the Tonkin Gulf Resolution as a practical declaration of war. The dissatisfaction of the American people with Johnson’s decisions can be seen in his desire not to seek reelection.

Acting as head of state and through the unity of his office, President Lyndon B. Johnson influenced Congress to unknowingly give him a blank check in conducting the Vietnam War through his immediate advocacy of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. Johnson’s accusation of unjustified attacks on American ships by the North Vietnamese in the Gulf of Tonkin led to the resolution’s nearly unanimous passage in Congress three days later. Although with the passage of time the certainty of these attacks has come into question, President Johnson through his presidential powers was able to get the Tonkin Gulf Resolution passed, which gave him near free reign in conducting the Vietnam War.


(1) Robert D. Schulzinger, A Time for War: The United States and Vietnam, 1941-1975 (Oxford University Press 1997), 145-146.

(2) David L. Anderson, Shadow on the White House: Presidents and the Vietnam War, 1945-1975 (University Press of Kansas 1993), 113-122.

(3) Fredrik Logevall, Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam (University of California Press 1999), 196-197.

(4) Eugene G. Windchy, Tonkin Gulf (Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1971), 211.

(5) Logevall, 205.

(6) Edwin E. Mo?se, Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War (The University of North Carolina Press 1996), 227.

(7) Logevall, 204.

(8) Joseph C. Goulden, Truth is the First Casualty: The Gulf of Tonkin Affair—Illusion and Reality (Rand McNally & Company 1969), 17.

(9) Schulzinger, 150-151.

(10) Goulden, 18.


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