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The Tonkin Gulf Resolution (officially, the Southeast Asia Resolution, Public Law 88-408) was a joint resolution of the United States Congress passed on August 7, 1964 in response to two alleged minor naval skirmishes off the coast of North Vietnam between U.S. destroyers and Vietnamese torpedo ships from the North, known collectively as the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. The Tonkin Gulf Resolution is of historical significance because it gave U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson authorization, without a formal declaration of war by Congress, for the use of military force in Southeast Asia. Specifically, the resolution authorized the President to do whatever necessary in order to assist "any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty." This included involving armed forces. The unanimous affirmative vote in the House of Representatives was 416-0. (However, Congressman Eugene Siler of Kentuckymarker, who was not present but opposed the measure, was "paired" with another member who favored the resolution — i.e., his opposition was not counted, but the vote in favor was one less than it would have been.) It was opposed in the Senate only by Senators Wayne Morse (D-OR) and Ernest Gruening (D-AK). Senator Gruening objected to "sending our American boys into combat in a war in which we have no business, which is not our war, into which we have been misguidedly drawn, which is steadily being escalated." The Johnson administration subsequently relied upon the resolution to begin its rapid escalation of U.S. military involvement in the Vietnam conflict.

Background and Congressional action

The USS Maddox , a U.S. destroyer, was in the waters of the Gulf of Tonkinmarker on August 2, 1964 when it was attacked by three North Vietnamese patrol/torpedo boats. Two days later, that vessel and the U.S. destroyer Turner Joymarker both reported to be under attack, although Hanoimarker subsequently insisted that it had not launched a second attack. A later investigation by the Senate Foreign relations Committee revealed that the Maddox had been on an electronic intelligence mission. It also learned that the U.S. Naval Communication Center in the Philippine Islands, in reviewing ships' messages, had questioned whether any second attack had actually occurred.

Within hours, President Johnson ordered the launching of retaliatory air strikes (Operation Pierce Arrow) on the bases of the North Vietnamese boats and announced, in a television address to the American public that same evening, that U.S. naval forces had been attacked. Johnson requested approval of a resolution "expressing the unity and determination of the United States in supporting freedom and in protecting peace in southeast Asia". He said that the resolution should express support "for all necessary action to protect our Armed Forces" but repeated previous assurances that "the United States... seeks no wider war". As the nation entered the final three months of political campaigning for the 1964 elections (in which Johnson was standing for election), the president contended that the resolution would help "hostile nations... understand" that the United States was unified in its determination "to continue to protect its national interests."

The administration of President Richard Nixon, which took office in January 1969, initially opposed repeal, warning of "consequences for Southeast Asia [that] go beyond the war in Vietnam." In 1970 the administration began to shift its stance. It asserted that its conduct of operations in Southeast Asia was based not on the resolution but was a constitutional exercise of the President's authority, as Commander in Chief of U.S. military forces, to take necessary steps to protect American troops as they were gradually withdrawn (the U.S. had begun withdrawing its forces from Vietnam in 1969 under a policy known as “Vietnamization”).

Mounting public opinion against the war eventually led to the repeal of the resolution, which was attached to a bill that Nixon signed in January 1971. Seeking to restore limits on presidential authority to engage U.S. forces without a formal declaration of war Congress passed the War Powers Resolution in 1973, over Nixon's veto. The War Powers Resolution, which is still in effect, sets forth certain requirements for the President to consult with Congress in regard to decisions that engage U.S. forces in hostilities or imminent hostilities.

Notes

  1. David T. Beito and Linda Royster Beito, "The Christian Conservative Who Opposed the Vietnam War," History News Network, August 21, 2006, [1]
  2. "Excerpts from Senate Debate on Tonkin Gulf Resolution", [2]
  3. "Gulf of Tonkin Measure Voted In Haste and Confusion in 1964", The New York Times, 1970-06-25
  4. "Excerpts from McNamara's Testimony on Tonkin", The New York Times, 1968-02-25.
  5. "Excerpts from President's Message to Congress", [3]
  6. "Gulf of Tonkin Measure Voted In Haste and Confusion in 1964", The New York Times, 1970-06-25.
  7. UPI "Gulf of Tonkin Resolution is Repealed Without Furor", The New York Times, 1971-01-14.


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