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Gulf of Tonkin Resolution: a Somber History Lesson

The 45th anniversary of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution should serve as a sobering reminder of the costly war that America was dragged into based on lies and shadowy misinformation.
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When Administrations Lie, Thousands Die.

That is today's history lesson on the 45th anniversary of passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution by Congress on August 7, 1964. Since the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and Vietnam War might as well be the Punic Wars to some people, here is a quick refresher.

America was already twenty years into its Vietnam commitment when Lyndon Johnson and Kennedy's "best and brightest" holdovers sought an incident to pull American firepower into the war with at least a glimmer of legitimacy. It came in August 1964 with two brief encounters in the Gulf of Tonkin, the waters off the coast of North Vietnam. On August 2, 1964 two American destroyers engaged three North Vietnamese torpedo boats, resulting in one of the torpedo boat's sinking. American claims that the North Vietnamese fired first were later disputed. On August 4, 1964, the American destroyers reported a second engagement with North Vietnamese boats. There was never any confirmation that either ship had actually been attacked. (Weeks after this Defense Secretary Robert McNamara expressed to Johnson doubts that the attack had occurred.) But these faulty reports would be exploited as a convenient excuse for the massive escalation of America's involvement in Vietnam.

In the civil war that was raging between North and South since the French withdrawal from Indochina and the partition of Vietnam in 1954, the United States had committed money, material, advice, and, by the end of 1963, some 15,000 military advisers in support of the anti-Communist Saigon government. The American CIA was also in the thick of things, having helped foster the coup that toppled prime minister Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963 and then acting surprised when Diem was executed by the army officers who overthrew him.

Among the other "advice" the United States provided to its South Vietnamese allies was to teach them commando tactics. In 1964, CIA trained guerrillas from the South began to attack the North for months in covert acts of sabotage. Code named Plan 34-A, these commando raids failed to undermine North Vietnam's military strength, so the mode of attack was shifted to hit-and-run operations by small torpedo boats. To support these assaults, the U.S. Navy posted warships in the Gulf of Tonkin, loaded with electronic eavesdropping equipment enabling them to monitor North Vietnamese military operations and provide intelligence to the South Vietnamese commandos.

According to Stanley Karnow's Vietnam: A History,

"Even Johnson privately expressed doubts only a few days after the second attack supposedly took place, confiding to an aide, 'Hell, those dumb stupid sailors were just shooting at flying fish.'"

Without waiting for a review of the situation, he ordered an air strike against North Vietnam in "retaliation" for the "attacks" on the U.S. ships. One bitter result of these air raids was the capture of downed pilot Everett Alvarez, Jr., the first American POW of the Vietnam War. He would remain in Hanoi prisons for eight years.

President Johnson followed up the air strike by calling for passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. This proposal gave the President the authority to "take all necessary measures" to repel attacks against U.S. forces and to "prevent further aggression." The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution passed the House unanimously after only forty minutes of debate. In the Senate, there were only two voices in opposition.

Congress, which alone possesses the constitutional authority to declare war, had handed that power over to a man who was not a bit reluctant to use it. One of the senators who voted against the Tonkin Resolution, Oregon's Wayne Morse, later said, "I believe that history will record that we have made a great mistake in subverting and circumventing the Constitution." After the vote, Walt Rostow, an adviser to Lyndon Johnson, remarked, "We don't know what happened, but it had the desired result."

The 45th anniversary of the passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, along with the recent passing of LBJ's Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, should serve as sobering reminders of this episode and the long, costly war that America was dragged into --largely based on lies and shadowy misinformation that was then elevated to an attack on Americans. Certainly few members of Congress were thinking about Tonkin and Vietnam when the web of lies and misinformation was spun around getting America into Iraq.

You can read more about the Tonkin incident and the Vietnam War in Don't Know Much About History from which this post is adapted.

Here is my recent post with some suggested readings about the Vietnam era.

There are also links related to the Gulf of Tonkin incident and recently declassified National Security Administration documents:

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