On 10 August 1964, Public Law 88-408 was signed by the POTUS, and became effective.
It’s better known today as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. That resolution was described by then-Undersecretary of State Nicholas Katzenbach as “the functional equivalent of a declaration of war.”
The resolution was passed by Congress at the request of the LBJ administration in Joint Assembly of Congress on 7 August 1964. A “pair” of “hostile fire incidents” in the Gulf of Tonkin involving US Navy ships – the destroyers USS Maddox and USS Turner Joy – on the nights of 1- 2 and 3-4 August 1964 were the stated reason for the LBJ administration’s request.
The first incident involving the USS Maddox was legitimate. Best evidence indicates that the second “incident” involving both ships actually was not a hostile fire incident at all, but was due to sonar/radar reflections being misinterpreted as possible hostile vessels and torpedo tracks.
In reality, there was no second “hostile fire incident”. In 1999, Robert McNamara – SECDEF at the time of the incidents – publicly acknowledged that fact.
The evidence also indicates that LBJ likely knew full well that the second incident was questionable, and probably had not actually happened. He chose to ask Congress for the resolution nonetheless.
Why? LBJ was wary of appearing “soft on Communism”. His opponent in the upcoming 1964 Presidential Election – Senator Barry Goldwarter of Arizona – was widely viewed as the more strongly conservative, anticommunist candidate. Getting Congressional backing for stronger action in Vietnam would neutralize Vietnam as a political issue – particularly if LBJ reacted strongly to a “provocation”.
Further, LBJ had been urged over 2 months earlier by his Foreign Affairs Advisor, McGeorge Bundy, to declare the defense of Vietnam “essential” to the US – and that a declaration of authority and intent to use force was desirable. And of course, there’s this statement by LBJ to the Joint Chiefs of Staff in December 1963 (some of whom were also pushing for more US involvement in Vietnam): “Just get me elected, and then you can have your war.”
At the time of his statement to the Joint Chiefs, LBJ may well have been playing one faction against another – classic “backroom politics”, at which LBJ was a master. But by mid-1964, that no longer appears to have been the case.
The resolution gave LBJ carte blanch authority to maneuver the US into Vietnam in strength – without further consultation with Congress. He did exactly that, by stealth, beginning in early 1965.
After he’d been reelected.
The Army Times has an excellent article today on the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. It’s worth a read.
And afterwards, maybe also take a moment to remember those who didn’t come back from that questionable conflict.