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The Tonkin Gulf Resolution

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As U.S. warships cruised off the coast of North Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin gathering intelligence and shelling minor positions, several North Vietnamese patrol boats purportedly attacked them. When the American ships called for air support from offshore aircraft carriers, U.S. warplanes drove off the attackers and bombed a petroleum storage depot.

The incident provided President Lyndon Johnson with a reason to ask Congress for power to "protect American interests" in Southeast Asia, where the struggle between Communist insurgents supported by the North Vietnamese, and the corrupt but marginally democratic regimes in the South, had thus far only involved U.S. military advisors and occasional Special Forces.

In his address to Congress, LBJ reiterated the domino theory by pointing out that "the issue is the future of southeast Asia as a whole. A threat to any nation in that region is a threat to all, and a threat to us." Communism had made enough inroads in smaller countries during the post-colonial late fifties and early sixties to lend serious weight to his statement.

Unfortunately, there was a less honest side to the issue, including his statement that "the United States intends no rashness, and seeks no wider war." It's fair to assume that LBJ saw what was coming, and was even being pressured to widen the War as he made this request. (In fact, recent publications covering his White House audio tapes appear to reveal that, while he was promising not "to send American boys to fight a land war in Asia" during the 1964 election, he had, in fact, already developed his escalation plan, a plan which held no expectations of actually winning the war.)

The joint Resolution was passed by both houses of Congress on August 7, 1964. By the following year, the contingent of advisors and Green Berets had grown to almost 100,000 combat troops. By 1969, a peak of 538,000 troops were serving in the theater.

Despite his less laudible motives, Johnson's fear of appearing weak to Communism was real and justifiable, given the legacy of Stalin and Mao. The political machinations used to escalate the war, the failure of leadership in uniting the American people behind it, and the lack of resolve in pursuing it to a clearer, and earlier conclusion, less destructive in military and human terms, weigh heavily in its legacy.

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The Tonkin Gulf Resolution

Joint Resolution of Congress
H.J. RES 1145
August 7, 1964

(Department of State Bulletin, August 24, 1964)

Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,

Section 1. 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.

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