A dubious threat to U.S. interests. A swift vote in Congress for broad presidential war powers in response. A long, costly and bitterly debated war.
Fifty years ago Sunday, reacting to reports of a Navy encounter with enemy warships in the Gulf of Tonkin off Vietnam — reports long since discredited — President Lyndon Johnson signed a resolution passed overwhelmingly by Congress that historians call the crucial catalyst for deep American involvement in the Vietnam War. Many also see it as a cautionary tale that has gone unheeded.
"I think we are probably a bit better informed now, but I don't think that makes us a lot safer," says Edwin Moises, author of "Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War." Every era brings new foreign policy and political challenges, said the Clemson University history professor, "and I think it is utterly unpredictable what kind of misunderstandings may come along."
"If you ask whether we learned anything, I would say not enough," says former Sen. Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat who opposed the war in Iraq, long after Tonkin and Vietnam.
In the last five decades, Tonkin has not kept Washington from backing wars, but it has shadowed relations between presidents and Congress. Debates about foreign conflicts, whether in Bosnia, Syria or Iraq, have also been referendums on trust. Is the war really necessary? Is the president telling everything he knows? What should be the parameters, if any, for military action?
Graham was chairman of the intelligence committee when the Senate debated, in the fall of 2002, whether to authorize military action in Iraq. Did Saddam Hussein, as alleged by the George W. Bush administration, possess weapons of mass destruction? Graham found the case "soft and unreliable" and voted no. But most of his colleagues disagreed. The Sept. 11 attacks were barely a year old, and the midterm election was just a month away, a difficult time to turn away the president or the Pentagon.
The Senate approved the Iraq resolution by 77-23, the House 296-133. A U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq, opening a conflict that lasted for years. As Graham and others feared, the weapons were not found.
Former Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia, who had been badly wounded in Vietnam, was among those who supported the 2002 legislation. "I can't believe I volunteered for one war, which turned out to be a massive tragedy for the United States, and I went to the Senate and voted for another war, which turned out to be a massive tragedy," he says.
"It was right before my re-election and I felt compelled for my own hide," explains Cleland, who nonetheless was defeated. "It became the worst vote I made in my life."
Trust in the White House was high at the time Johnson signed the Tonkin resolution on Aug. 10, 1964.
Many at the time were haunted by the rise of communism. So-called Cold War liberals, recalling the difficulties President Franklin Roosevelt had a generation earlier gaining support for countering the rise of Nazi Germany, backed aggressiveness against communists overseas. One of the Senate's leading Democrats in 1964, Sen. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, had three years earlier called for giving the president more leverage.
"I wonder whether the time has not arrived, or indeed already passed, when we must give the executive a measure of power in the conduct of foreign affairs that we have hitherto jealously withheld," Fulbright wrote in the Cornell Law Quarterly.
The Tonkin resolution was submitted and passed within 48 hours, its urgency heightened by the alleged attack and two other factors: Johnson was running for president against Barry Goldwater, the Republicans' most conservative candidate in decades, and U.S. involvement was steadily growing in the conflict between North Vietnam and the U.S. ally, South Vietnam.
Johnson's predecessor, John F. Kennedy, had increased the U.S. military presence in Vietnam from a few hundred advisers to more than 16,000. His assassination in 1963 left historians and former aides wondering what Kennedy might have done, if only because JFK expressed skepticism about success and reluctance to give up.
"In the final analysis, it is their war. They are the ones who have to win it or lose it. We can help them, we can give them equipment, we can send our men out there as advisers, but they have to win it, the people of Vietnam, against the communists," Kennedy said in an interview two months before his death.
"But," he added, "I don't agree with those who say we should withdraw. That would be a great mistake."
Like Kennedy, Johnson was conflicted about Vietnam. He believed in the "domino theory" of the Cold War, that one country's turn to communism would lead to the fall of others. He was also aware that the South Vietnamese government was unstable, at best, and that foreign policy experts had warned against sending land troops to Asia.
As Johnson saw it, he would lose no matter what. If he expanded the war, he would never fulfill his dream of building a "Great Society" at home, and the North Vietnamese could well still prevail. Let South Vietnam fight on its own, presumably in vain, and Johnson would be accused of surrendering to the communists.
"I knew from the start that I was bound to be crucified either way I moved," Johnson lamented after he left office.
By August 1964, Johnson was being criticized by Goldwater for failing to take strong action on Vietnam. Although LBJ was seen as the strong favorite, he still feared that Goldwater might effectively label him as "soft" on communism — an often-fatal tag during the Cold War.
"As the summer goes on, he gets more and more paranoid," says Jonathan Darman, author of "Landslide," a book centered on the 1964 election that comes out in September. "He was trying to get Vietnam off the plate until after the election."
Administration aides had privately planned for heightened military involvement and drafted what became the Tonkin resolution by late spring, but Johnson hesitated to seek approval, fearing he would be perceived as too eager for war. Reports from the coast of North Vietnam — some firm, some sketchy — changed his mind.
For months, the U.S. had been conducting clandestine missions, engaging in what historians now consider provocations. On Aug. 2, gunfire was briefly exchanged between the North Vietnamese and the Americans, leading to the sinking of a North Vietnamese boat. According to Stanley Karnow's respected history, "Vietnam," Johnson considered pushing for the resolution, but decided to hold off because no Americans had been harmed.
Two days later, the commander of the destroyer Maddox, Capt. John J. Herrick, believed he had picked up radio messages communicating a planned North Vietnamese attack. The Maddox and a second vessel, the Turner Joy, began firing at what they thought were enemy patrol boats launching torpedoes against the Americans.
"But hardly had the shooting stopped than Herrick and his men began to have second thoughts," Karnow wrote. "Not a single sailor on either vessel had seen or heard enemy gunfire."
Still, reports of a second conflict, however vague, were enough to convince Johnson that it was time to act. A Pentagon spokesman denounced a "second deliberate attack" and the U.S. launched its first bombing mission against the North Vietnamese. Johnson, meanwhile, addressed the nation on television.
"Repeated acts of violence against the armed forces of the United States must be met not only with alert defense, but with positive reply. That reply is being given as I speak to you tonight," Johnson stated.
On Aug. 5, Johnson sent the resolution to Congress, where Democrats held solid majorities. The House of Representatives approved it unanimously two days later. The Senate passed it the same day 88-2; only Democrats Wayne Morse of Oregon and Sen. Ernest Gruening of Alaska voted no.
Morse warned that approval would be a "historic mistake," one that future generations would view "with dismay and great disappointment."
The Tonkin resolution ran only seven paragraphs, its language allowing the president "to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression" and to assist any ally in the region "requesting assistance in defense of its freedom." The resolution had no end date.
In his homespun way, Johnson likened the legislation to "grandma's nightshirt — it covered everything."
It became his basis for the years of expansion that followed.
Former Rep. Jim Leach, an Iowa Republican, was a congressional intern that fall and remembered a general feeling of deference to the president, a sense of, "Well, we don't know enough about it so we have to give our confidence to the executive branch."
Johnson was not the first president to wage war on questionable legal terms. American leaders have a long history of either exploiting events that turned out to be untrue or of simply acting on their own, even though the Constitution grants Congress the power to declare war.
The Spanish-American War, fought during the William McKinley administration, was touched off by the sensationally reported 1898 sinking in Cuba's Havana Harbor of the USS Maine — a sinking that may well not have been caused by Spain. In 1950, Harry Truman did not seek formal approval for U.S. engagement in Korea, but instead called his decision a "police action."
George Will, the author and columnist, doubts that many current legislators think of the Tonkin resolution, but he does see resistance to military action that would have been far less likely in the pre-Vietnam era. He notes President Obama's decision last year to hold off on air strikes in Syria as many in Congress expressed reluctance to intervene. "Congress clearly flinched at what had been a core presidential power," Will says.
The Tonkin resolution had profound consequences, but Darman notes that it achieved Johnson's short-term goals. Conservative criticism leveled off, with even Goldwater praising the president, and Vietnam faded from the headlines for a time. Campaigning on a theme of peace and prosperity, Johnson won more than 60 percent of the vote in November.
But doubts about what happened at the Gulf of Tonkin and misgivings about the resolution grew as the U.S. failed to deliver on promised victory in Vietnam. Johnson himself had privately dismissed the alleged second attack, joking that "those dumb stupid sailors were just shooting at flying fish."
Tonkin began a fateful cycle of disillusion, rising throughout the 1960s as the war expanded, and culminating almost exactly a decade later with the resignation of President Richard Nixon over the Watergate scandal.
"In some ways, you could trace the corrosive mistrust of government to that (Tonkin)," says the historian Sean Wilentz. "It's the beginning of the credibility gap, the beginning of people feeling the government was saying one thing doing another."
"Tonkin became the poster child of this idea that presidents mislead the country into unproductive and unwinnable conflicts," says the historian and Johnson biographer Robert Dallek.
Congress rescinded the resolution in 1970, although by that time Nixon was president and cited his powers as commander in chief for continuing the war. Three years later, over Nixon's veto, Congress passed the War Powers Act, which called for far greater consultation with the legislative branch.
The government itself would issue one of the harshest assessments of the Tonkin events. In 2005, 30 years after the U.S. left Vietnam and in the midst of the Iraqi conflict, the National Security Agency declassified a review concluding that the second Tonkin attack did not take place. Written by agency historian Robert J. Hanyok and titled "Skunks, Bogies, Silent Hounds, and the Flying Fish," the 56-page summary bluntly criticized intelligence officers.
"What was issued in the Gulf of Tonkin summaries beginning late on August 4 was deliberately skewed to support the notion that there had been an attack," Hanyok wrote. "That the NSA personnel believed that the attack happened and rationalized the contradictory evidence away is probably all that is necessary to know in order to understand what was done. They walked alone in their counsels."