10 August 1964: The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution Enacted

On 7 August 1964, the United States Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. In response to the Gulf of Tonkin incident, it is also known as the Southeast Asia Resolution.

The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution

The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorised President Lyndon Johnson to use a US conventional military force in Southeast Asia. It bypassed a formal declaration of war by Congress. Specifically, the resolution authorised the president to do whatever necessary in order to assist “any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defence Treaty.” This included involving armed forces.

Gulf of Tonkin Resolution
Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara presents the events of the Gulf of Tonkin incident. (Image courtesy of Stanford University).

Election Worries and Bypassing Congress

However, the Johnson administration’s zeal for aggressive action created an atmosphere of recklessness and over-enthusiasm. President Johnson’s election worries made it easy to draw conclusions based on scanty evidence. The Johnson administration overlooked normally prudent and precautionary measures. A declassified audio tape revealed the misinterpretation of events and eagerness to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.

Released audio tape between President Johnson and US Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara. (Tape courtesy of the Miller Centre of Public Affairs, University of Virginia).

In the tape, Johnson and McNamara discuss the confusion of Republican members of Congress over the events that took place during the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. In response, Robert McNamara suggests, “I thought perhaps we should have John McCone brief them and try and keep defence out of this and avoid any partisan probing here.”

Congress could not act correctly without the full picture. As a result, the White House engaged in the longest most costly conflicts up until that point in US history. The Second Indochina War had begun in earnest.

The Johnson administration subsequently relied on the resolution to begin its rapid escalation of US military involvement in South Vietnam. Open warfare ensued with the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) and communist Vietnamese forces.

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