August, 1964: Gulf of Tonkin Resolution Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

In early August of 1964, when U.S. forces in Vietnam still numbered only 25,000 troops, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced to the American public that two U.S. destroyers had been targets of unprovoked attacks by North Vietnamese torpedo ships. At the president’s urging, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on August 7, giving the president power to send U.S. troops into combat without asking Congress for a formal declaration of war. This resolution, in effect, contributed significantly to the subsequent escalation of the Vietnam War.

In early August of 1964, when U.S. forces in Vietnam still numbered only 25,000 troops, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced to the American public that two U.S. destroyers had been targets of unprovoked attacks by North Vietnamese torpedo ships. At the president’s urging, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on August 7, giving the president power to send U.S. troops into combat without asking Congress for a formal declaration of war. This resolution, in effect, contributed significantly to the subsequent escalation of the Vietnam War.

The American public was generally supportive of swift and decisive action. However, an inquiry conducted by Senator J. William Fulbright later raised serious doubts about the validity of Johnson’s claims. Details of Johnson’s account of what had transpired on August 2 and 4 conflicted with those of his own senior officials. When asked about the attacks, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara often gave conflicting testimony, as did other military officials. Based on all testimony given at this inquiry, Fulbright concluded that the entire incident had been a “misrepresentation” of the facts and that conclusions based on military accounts and by the American press were suspect.

Initially, the American news media saw the incident and Johnson’s reaction to the alleged attacks as a sign of American strength and decisiveness. In numerous press conferences reporters avoided asking hard and probing questions. The European press was more skeptical. For example, a Danish paper stated: “To create a pretext for an attack on Poland, Hitler ordered the Germans to put on Polish uniforms and attack a German guard. What the Americans did in Vietnam is not the same. But the story sounds doubtful.”

Although historians have continued to debate what actually occurred in that August off of Vietnam’s coast, most agree that the Johnson administration misled the public into thinking that American sovereignty had been attacked. The press, although it had not engaged in overt censorship, tacitly suppressed a more factual and detailed accounting of the incident by not following up on the numerous and varied inconsistencies in the accounts of the incident. The Gulf of Tonkin incident and its subsequent impact on international relations set a dangerous precedent; but perhaps the most damaging aspect of this affair was the blow it delivered to the public trust.

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