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‘All Necessary Measures’: Lyndon Johnson and the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution

November 4, 2019

On 4 August 1964, as the USS Maddox was conducting reconnaissance in the Gulf of Tonkin, it was attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats.  Two days later, while sailing through stormy weather, the ship’s crew reported they had been attacked for a second time. While Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was aware that the Maddox’s captain did not believe the vessel had been attacked a second time, he and President Lyndon Johnson, using the attacks as justification, requested Congress pass a resolution that would expand immensely the war-making powers of the Executive Branch.  The request was granted and Congress passed what became known as the ‘Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.’ It essentially gave Johnson and his advisers a blank check to wage war in Vietnam and allowed for the conflict’s rapid escalation. This short essay then, is an analysis of Johnson’s request to Congress, the Resolution itself, as well an address by Johnson to the American Bar Association where the President justified the need for expanded powers.  In it, I argue that the Johnson Administration attempted to paint the Resolution, not as an escalation, but rather a continuation of American Cold War Policy that would lead only to a limited, but justified defensive action that was a response to Communist aggression. 

Interestingly, despite the fact that John F. Kennedy, whose policies and advisors Johnson inherited, emphasized differentiating his foreign policy from that of his predecessor Dwight Eisenhower, Johnson, in both his request to Congress and his address to the American Bar Association, justified the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution as a simple continuation of past policies.[1] In his administration’s request, Johnson reminded Congress that regarding Southeast Asia, “our commitments in that area are well known to Congress.  They were first made in 1954 by President Eisenhower. They were further defined in the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty approved by the Senate in 1955.”[2]  In other words, the Resolution was not an escalation of the conflict in Vietnam, but rather a means for the United States to meet its Cold War commitments.  Giving the Resolution a sense of continuity and as result normalcy, was a shrewd political move by Johnson, especially considering he was asking Congress to not only give up its power to declare a war but also for unspecified funds to prosecute one.  Later in the same document, he returned to the idea of continuity, telling Congress, “The Resolution could well be based upon similar resolutions enacted by Congress in the past – to meet the threat in Formosa in 1955, to meet the threat to the Middle East in 1957, and to meet the threat in Cuba in 1962.”[3] Again, Johnson reminded Congress of past actions, therefore justifying his request for expanded powers by framing it as similar to resolutions granted to previous administrations and giving his expected increase in presidential power a sense of normalcy.   He echoed this sentiment a week later in an address to the American Bar Association in New York, saying, “For 10 years through the Eisenhower administration, the Kennedy administration, and this administration, we have had one consistent aim – observance of the 1954 agreements which guaranteed the independence of South Vietnam.”[4] According to Johnson, The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was simply a tool to complete a long term Cold War objective, the independence of South Vietnam.  Speaking to a crowd of lawyers, some of whom may have had concerns about an unspecified increase in Executive Power, Johnson, as he did for Congress, justified the Resolution as a continuation of American Foreign Policy in Southeast Asia. 

        

The three documents also illustrate the Johnson administration’s attempt to control the narrative surrounding the United States’ involvement in Vietnam and therefore justify his need for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.  In his letter to Congress, Johnson asserts that “the North Vietnamese Regime has constantly sought to take over South Vietnam and Laos. This Communist regime has violated the Geneva Accords for Vietnam. It has systematically conducted a campaign of subversion, which includes the direction, training, and supply of personnel and arms for the conduct of guerilla warfare” in South Vietnam.[5] Despite the fact that the United States had also been conducting a campaign of subversion in North Vietnam with presidential approval since 1954, Johnson argued that his Resolution request was a response to North Vietnamese aggression.  By doing so, he seemingly attempted to maintain the moral high ground for the United States. The Americans, he argued, were becoming more involved in Vietnam only to defend against an aggressive North that was violating international agreements.  To properly fight them, Johnson needed the expanded presidential powers offered by the Resolution. The opening paragraph of the Resolution itself, echoed Johnson’s narrative of events, stating that the attacks on the Maddox were “part of a deliberate and systematic campaign of aggression” by the North Vietnamese.[6]  Similarly, in his speech to the American Bar Association, Johnson stated that South Vietnamese independence “has been the constant target of aggression and terror” by the North Vietnamese and the United States “would engage our strength and our resources to whatever extent needed to help others repel aggression.”[7] In both instances, Johnson again painted the North Vietnamese as aggressors, therefore justifying, not only the Resolution, but the need for American defensive action in Southeast Asia. 

 

While Johnson was sure to point out his Resolution was a response to North Vietnamese aggression, he also promised that any military action that resulted from his increased powers, would be limited in scope.  “As I have repeatedly made clear,” he wrote in his request to Congress, “The United States intends no rashness and seeks no wider war.”[8] He expanded upon this point in his speech to the American Bar Association, saying, “Our firmness at moments of crisis has always been matched by restraint – our determination by care…and I pledge to you it will be so as long as I am your president.”[9]  In both cases, Johnson attempted to allay fears that the Resolution might lead to a wider ground war in Vietnam.  Instead, he promised that there was going to be no wider war and North Vietnam aggression would be met with restraint.  This sentiment seemingly fit well with his other promises that any action as a result of the Resolution was to be limited.  It was an interesting, and likely effective justification for the Resolution, especially when one considers the audiences in both cases.  When speaking to Congress, Johnson likely wanted to assure those giving up their power to declare war that their sudden lack of oversight would not lead to the funding of a significant war.  Likewise, during his public address to the American Bar Association, he likely wanted to assure the American people and potential voters that his seemingly blank check from Congress would not lead the country into a serious conflict.   This sentiment also appears in the actual Resolution which stated that the United States had no military ambitions in South Vietnam but “only desires that these people should be left in peace to work out their own destinies.”[10] In other words, the American involvement in Vietnam was to be limited to the defense of South Vietnamese independence and would not expand because the United States had no reason to.  It had no military ambitions in the region.

 Finally, while Johnson attempted to justify the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution by framing it as a continuation of Cold War Policy and promising a limited defensive war, he also justified the Resolution in terms of international relations.  In his request to Congress, the President used the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO) to validate American assistance to South Vietnam while reminding Congress that “The issue is the future of Southeast Asia as a whole. A threat to any nation is a region is a threat to all, and a threat to us.”[11] Based on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), SEATO specified that an attack on one member state was an attack on all member states.  Therefore, Johnson used this part of the treaty as a justification for his increased executive powers. The Resolution was to be a tool for the United States to meet its international obligations as part of a military alliance in Southeast Asia.  Also, the language Johnson used was reminiscent of the Domino Theory. This was an idea in American Cold War foreign policy that if one nation in a region fell to communism, others were sure to follow. By stating that North Vietnamese aggression was a threat to not only South Vietnam but other countries in Southeast Asia, Johnson seemingly attempted to conjure images of the Domino Theory in the minds of Congress and use it as a way to convince them to pass the Resolution.  In fact, in Section Two of the Resolution, Congress cites the SEATO agreement, stating it was “prepared, as the President determines, to take all steps necessary, 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.”[12] Simply put, Congress was convinced Johnson’s Casus Belli was legitimate.  The SEATO agreement allowed for American intervention in South East Asia and in this case in particular, Vietnam.  As a result, Congress was prepared to fund assistance to Vietnam at the President’s discretion.

 

 

The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was the catalyst that allowed for the escalation of the American War in Vietnam.  By the end of 1965, just a year after the Resolution’s approval, there were almost 200,000 American troops stationed in Vietnam.  This number would reach a high of half a million at the end of 1968. While it, therefore, had far reaching consequences, the Resolution itself was sold both to Congress and the American people using a series of half-truths and even, notably in Robert McNamara’s case outright lies.  It was a multifaceted justification that began with Johnson framing the Resolution as a continuation of older Cold War foreign policy while emphasizing the necessity for the United States to meet its overseas obligations. Perhaps most strikingly, Johnson also allayed fears of a wider war by painting the North Vietnamese as the sole aggressors, despite American covert operations, as well as promising that involvement by the United States would be limited and defensive in nature.  The main problem however, was that it exposed the primary flaw in the administration’s Cold War policy, mainly that intervention was necessary in every situation. So much so, that Johnson was willing to stretch the truth and McNamara was willing to hide it. Ironically, this view went against the advice of the man who designed the policy of Containment, Diplomat George Kennan, who wished to limit American intervention only to countries that could aid the Communist Bloc’s industrial capacity if they fell.

 

References

[1] John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of American National Security Policy during the Cold War, (New York, Oxford University Press, 2005), 197.

[2]  Office of the White House Press Secretary to the Congress of the United States, August 5, 1964, Page 1.

[3]  Office of the White House Press Secretary to the Congress of the United States, August 5, 1964, Page 2.

[4] Lyndon Johnson Speech to American Bar Association, New York City, August 12, 1964.

[5] Office of the White House Press Secretary to the Congress of the United States, August 5, 1964, Pages 1-2.

[6] Tonkin Gulf Resolution, Public Law 88-408, 88th Congress, August 7, 1964.

[7] Lyndon Johnson Speech to American Bar Association, New York City, August 12, 1964.

[8] Office of the White House Press Secretary to the Congress of the United States, August 5, 1964, Page 2.

[9]Lyndon Johnson Speech to American Bar Association, New York City, August 12, 1964. 

[10] Tonkin Gulf Resolution, Public Law 88-408, 88th Congress, August 7, 1964.

[11] Office of the White House Press Secretary to the Congress of the United States, August 5, 1964, Page 1.

[12] Tonkin Gulf Resolution, Public Law 88-408, 88th Congress, August 7, 1964.

 

 

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