“Despite his misgivings, Johnson was not about to forgo the chance to gain bi-partisan support of Capitol Hill for whatever policies he chose to pursue in Southeast Asia. His aides had broadened the draft of the proposed congressional resolution so that it now authorized him to ‘take all necessary measures’ to repel attacks against U.S. forces and to ‘prevent further aggression’ as well as determine when ‘peace and security’ in the area had been attained. In short, as Johnson later quipped, the resolution was ‘like grandma’s nightshirt — it covered everything.'” – Stanley Karnow
On today’s date, August 7 in 1964 – 50 years ago – the United States Senate passed Public Law 88-408. It was signed into law by President Johnson three days later on Aug. 10. This bill, which passed with very much the overwhelming bi-partisan support that Mr. Karnow speaks of above in his history of the Vietnam War (82 -2 in the Senate, 416 – 0 in the House) came to known as “the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.” It became the classic case of giving the President a kind of “blank check” to do whatever he wants to do with American forces, and has ever since has made Congress very wary of what it authorizes the President to do militarily.
The Gulf of Tonkin Incident(s?)
This title refers to an incident or a pair of them which occurred on August 2 and 4th in the Gulf of Tonkin, which is a body of water off the coast of North Vietnam and Southern (Mainland) China.
The reason for the question mark above is the fact that the second incident most likely never happened at all but was actually based on faulty radar readings. The U.S. Navy was conducting intelligence gathering (code-named DESOTO) missions in the Gulf of Tonkin. While the U.S. was involved at this time in the Vietnam conflict, our involvement was limited, and had not involved any large scale combat with North Vietnam. The incident occurred when the U.S. Navy Destroyer U.S.S. Maddox, commanded by Captain John J. Herrick engaged in gunfire with three torpedo boats of
the North Vietnamese Navy. On Aug. 2, 1964 the Maddox intercepted radio commands to the torpedo boats to attack the Maddox. When the three gunboats approached at high speed (left) Herrick opened fire on them at just after 3:00 p.m. Each of the boats launched a torpedo. Two missed and the third was a dud. Aircraft from the nearby U.S. Carrier U.S.S. Ticonderoga arrived and strafed the enemy boats. The gunfire from the Maddox damaged two of the torpedo boats and sunk a third. The skirmish lasted twenty minutes. Four NVN sailors were killed and four were wounded. There were no U.S. casualties.
The second attack was probably not an attack at all. The Maddox and another destroyer, the C. Turner Joy were sent to “show the flag” on Aug. 4 after the provocative action on Aug. 2. During the summer the Gulf of Tonkin’s climate is volatile, and subject to atmospheric conditions which can make radar and radio data difficult to read. At about
8:00 p.m., the Maddox (above) intercepted messages which seemed to indicate that the NVN torpedo boats were preparing to attack again. The Maddox and the Turner Joy opened fire, as did air support called in from the Ticonderoga, and kept it up for four hours. But Capt. Herrick reported in the end: “Review of action makes many reported contacts and torpedoes fired appear doubtful. Freak weather effects on radar and overeager sonarmen may have accounted for many reports. No actual visual sightings by Maddox. Suggest complete evaluation before any further action taken”
The Political Fallout – LBJ Gets a Blank Check
These two incidents taken by themselves were of no great consequence. But there was an election going on in the United States. President Lyndon B. Johnson, filling out the term of John F. Kennedy was running
for election in his own right against the Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater. Goldwater was a strongly conservative man, and there were charges that LBJ would be soft on communism. And LBJ was fully determined to blunt any such talk about his stand. So when the first incident occurred, he was very measured in his response. He elected to return the naval force to the area and “attack anything that attack them.” So with the “second incident”, any doubts about it having occurred were papered over. It gave LBJ the ammo that he needed to go to a Congress which was very willing to back him with a Resolution which essentially gave him carte blanche to handle the military in any way he saw fit in dealing with the Vietnamese conflict. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution paved the way for an enormous escalation of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, with heavy bombing raids against North Vietnam itself beginning almost immediately. As Stanley Karnow concluded:
“So the Senate approved the resolution with only (Senators) Morse and Gruening dissenting while the House passed it unanimously. Morse predicted that its supporters ‘will live to regret it’…. The outcome of the vote pleased nobody more than (LBJ adviser) Walter Rostow, who had originally conceived the idea. Looking back on the Tonkin Gulf incident and its aftermath, he remarked, ‘We didn’t know what happened, but it had the desired result.'”
“Vietnam, A History” by Stanley Karnow, Viking Press, New York, 1983.