President Johnson and the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution



One common mistake about the war in Vietnam, especially on the left, is the idea that President Johnson conned the Congress into passing the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which authorized American participation in the war. (If you are young enough so that Vietnam is a bit hazy for you, here's some background.  In 1964, South Vietnam was under attack from the Viet Cong guerillas, who were supported and controlled by the North Vietnamese government.  We were supporting the South Vietnamese government with aid and advisors, though not with actual combatants.   After an attack on our ships in the Gulf of Tonkin, Johnson asked for a resolution authorizing him to use force against North Vietnam, which Congress quickly passed.)  For years, many have charged that President Johnson lied about the attack on our ships to rush the Congress into a war.  Or, in a milder form, some charge that Johnson provoked the attack.

The historical facts do not support either charge.  Here is what happened, taken directly from Guenter Lewy's authoritative history of the war, America in Vietnam.  South Vietnam was then conducting raids on the North Vietnamese coast.  At the same time, in a separate operation, American destroyers were cruising near the coast to monitor the North Vietnamese and to gather intelligence, under the code name DE SOTO.

On 2 August 1964 the American destroyer Maddox was on a DE SOTO patrol 29 miles from the North Vietnamese coast, heading away from it, when it was attacked by three North Vietnamese torpedo boats.   The attack took place on the high seas, but the adminsitration decided to write off the incident as a mistake or unauthorized action of an overeager commander.

After this attack, the Maddox and another destroyer, the Turner Joy, were ordered to stay farther away from the North Vietnamese coast, which they did.
During the night of 4 August (9:20 AM Washington time), the ships reported that they had received intelligence to the effect that North Vietnamese naval forces had been ordered to attack them.  About two hours later, the Maddox radioed that the destroyers, then about 60 miles from the shore, were under attack.  Due to freak weather conditions and the nervousness of a sonar technician, initial reports from the patrol commander about the details of the engagement were less than clear, but, as Secretary of Defense McNamara testified in 1968 at a congressional hearing, the fact of the attack was never seriously in doubt.
President Johnson then authorized air strikes in reply, and prepared a resolution to present to Congress.   The resolution, after hearings in committees, passed the House unanimously and the Senate 88 to 2.   The hearing in the House was perfunctory, but the Senate Foreign Relations Committee discussed the resolution for 8 hours.  During the hearing, it was made quite clear that the resolution authorized the landing of large American land forces in Vietnam.  Later,as the war dragged on, critics began to claim that the second attack, on 4 August, had never occurred.  (Almost no one disputes the first attack.)
It is true that the president seized upon the incident in order to approve and carry out measures that had been recommended to him earlier, but this does not establish that the attack was deliberately provoked, let alone that it rests on a fabrication.  While the sonar and radar readings and the visual sightings of torpedos can be questioned as unreliable and inconclusive, there is other unambiguous evidence which leaves no doubt of the fact of an attack.  As McNamara told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in a closed session in February 1968, the Maddox was able to intercept uncoded North Vietnamese orders to attack the American ships as well as transmissions from the North Vietnamese boats to their headquarters reporting on the progress of the sea battle.
At the time of those hearings, most in the committee, including Senator Fullbright and the elder Senator Gore, accepted McNamara's explanation.  Several years later Fullbright, along with many others, begin to charge that he had been deceived.

The facts do not support the lesser charge, that Johnson was trying to provoke an attack, either.   After the first attack, the American ships were moved away from the coast, not toward it.  And the American carrier force was so far away that it took several hours for it to launch an attack.

One thing is still unresolved, the motives of the North Vietnamese in making the attacks.  My guess, and it is only a guess, is that they already saw us as in the war, despite what we were saying.   Others think that, at least in the first attack, they saw our destroyers as supporting the South Vietnamese raids.

Last revised: 3:11 PM, 1 April 2003