- - Thursday, August 7, 2014


Fifty years ago Sunday, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that authorized him, in the wake of reported North Vietnamese assaults on an American destroyer, to “take all necessary measures to repel an armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.”

Although the resolution received unanimous support in the House of Representatives and only two dissenting votes in the Senate, as well as widespread public support, it became, as the Vietnam War escalated and dragged on, one of the most controversial pieces of foreign-policy legislation in American history. Critics argued that it permitted LBJ to eventually wage war without a formal declaration from Congress. Not surprisingly, the resolution was repealed in 1970, although Congress continued to provide military appropriations for the war.

The controversy would be heightened over the years by differing accounts as to how many and how successful were the incursions the North Vietnamese directed toward the American destroyer that, unbeknownst to the American public, was secretly gathering intelligence in the gulf. Adding to the dispute was the popularity boost that the resolution provided Johnson during the midst of a presidential campaign that saw opponent Barry Goldwater charge the president with being soft on communism. Then there was LBJ’s later boast to an aide that the resolution was just as good as a declaration of war because “like grandma’s nightshirt — it covered everything.”

Critics of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution became synonymous with critics of the Vietnam War. The war, they argued, ended not in victory, but 58,000 American deaths and an emotionally charged, disturbing final scene — the helicopter exit of the American ambassador and his staff from Saigon.

Still, the critical issue after 50 years is that the Gulf of Tonkin resolution did involve the approbation of both houses of Congress and became a feasible model for subsequent American interventions. Semantic differences from an outright declaration of war were not material. Recall also that even near the Vietnam War’s end, Congress was involved: It refused President Gerald Ford’s request for more military aid to save the South Vietnamese from collapse. The same could not be said of U.S. entry in 1950 into the Korean War, effected by President Harry S. Truman’s single-handed deployment of troops and reliance on United Nations resolutions in what was dubbed a “police action.” To be sure, historians suggest that supportive sentiments for Truman’s action were ample in Congress, but the cold reality is that the legislative bodies did not go on the record.

The historic truth of the matter is that in the five instances of American war declarations, the modus operandi of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution held sway. Congress never acted until the president in power initiated a war message. The precedent was set by none other than one of the architects of the Constitution, President James Madison, who on June 1, 1812, sent his message to Congress leading to the War of 1812. That same pathway was pursued by Presidents James K. Polk in terms of the Mexican War of 1846, William McKinley in the Spanish-American War of 1898, Woodrow Wilson in World War I and Franklin D. Roosevelt in World War II.

Although the War Powers Act of 1973, passed over President Richard Nixon’s veto, was designed to limit White House military actions without congressional consultation and approval (with the weasel words, “in every possible instance”), the legacy of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution still has provided reasonable parameters for presidents to deal with foreign crises. In obviously limited endeavors — President Ronald Reagan’s decision to invade Grenada in 1983 and President Bill Clinton’s initiating bombings in Kosovo in 1999 — congressional approval wasn’t sought. In predictably uncertain engagements — George H.W. Bush’s in the Gulf War and George W. Bush’s in Afghanistan and Iraq — the opposite approach was pursued.

The reality of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution is that, even had it been specifically worded as a war declaration, it still would have been passed by Congress, given the public mood against what LBJ described as “aggression by terror against the peaceful villagers of South Vietnam joined by open aggression on the high seas against the United States of America.” Americans anticipated an easy victory against the North Vietnamese. Only in the prolonged length, management and final result of the military action did the resolution also wither.

Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.

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