Lyndon Johnson and the Tonkin Gulf Resolution (1964)

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Lyndon Johnson and the Tonkin Gulf Resolution (1964)

In 1964, political chaos continued to grip South Vietnam. The nation's efforts to achieve political stability floundered, as military and civilian leaders battled for power and influence. At the same time, Communist Viet Cong forces continued to make gains in the country's rural areas and expand their operations in Saigon (the capital of South Vietnam) and other urban centers. These advances convinced many U.S. officials that the Communists who ruled North Vietnam were on the verge of seizing control of the South as well.

In August 1964, a mysterious clash between Communist and U.S. Navy forces took place in the waters of the Tonkin Gulf, off the shores of North Vietnam. American President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973; president 1963–1969)—who became president after John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; president 1960–1963) was assassinated in November 1963—took advantage of this controversial event. Seizing on fears of Communist aggression, Johnson and his administration convinced Congress to approve expanded U.S. military action in Vietnam. The administration hoped that the warning of military intervention would help South Vietnam halt the Communist threat.

The assassination of Kennedy

On November 22, 1963, U.S. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated by gunman Lee Harvey Oswald (1939–1963) while riding in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas. The murder stunned people all around the world. As Americans mourned the loss of their president, they also wondered how the nation's domestic and foreign policy might change under Lyndon B. Johnson, who had been Kennedy's vice president. According to U.S. law, Johnson immediately became the new president of the United States when Kennedy was killed.

Upon taking office, President Johnson (commonly known by his initials, "LBJ") ordered an investigation into rumors that Oswald had been part of a conspiracy to kill Kennedy. This investigation, headed by Chief Justice Earl Warren (1891–1974), determined that Oswald had acted by himself. But some people continued to believe that others had been involved in the assassination.

As he settled into his new duties, Johnson promised the American people that he would continue Kennedy's policies, which included providing support for South Vietnam in its fight against communism. He even retained most of Kennedy's staff and administration as part of an effort to keep the U.S. government operating smoothly. The assassination had shocked and horrified people all across America, and Johnson wanted to reassure them that the United States and its democratic institutions remained strong.

Johnson and the "Great Society"

As president, Johnson expressed great interest in correcting some social problems that persisted across most of the United States. For example, he believed that prejudice against minorities was a major problem in America. Johnson promised to pass laws to eliminate segregation and other racist practices that separated minorities from whites in the nation's schools, restaurants, businesses, and other institutions. In addition, Johnson believed that far too many people were living in poverty in the United States. He promised the American public that he would wage war on poverty by increasing educational and business opportunities for poor families.

Johnson proposed to end segregation and reduce poverty through a set of ambitious government programs. He claimed that once these programs were put in place, a "Great Society" would develop in the United States. But soon after taking office, Johnson recognized that the unsettled situation in South Vietnam might endanger his vision for a more prosperous America. He knew that the government might not have enough funds to finance his social programs if the United States devoted large amounts of money to the conflict in Vietnam.

During his first months as president, however, Johnson refused to reduce the U.S. military and economic aid to South Vietnam. Johnson and most other officials in his administration feared that if the United States abandoned its position in Vietnam, the government in Saigon would quickly come under the control of the North Vietnamese Communists. They believed that a Communist victory in South Vietnam might then trigger a wave of Communist aggression all across Asia.

Continued political problems in Saigon

During the winter of 1963–1964, the Johnson administration's concerns about the stability of South Vietnam's government continued to grow. After President Ngo Dinh Diem's (1901–1963) regime (government) was overthrown in November 1963, the United States had hoped that it might be replaced by a more effective government. As the weeks passed, however, it became clear that South Vietnam's new military rulers lacked political experience. These officers—known as the Military Revolutionary Council—quarreled over how best to lead the country. Many of them used their power to increase their personal wealth or plot against their political enemies.

U.S. advisors tried to convince the military rulers and community leaders to work together to address the country's social and military problems, but the bickering continued. This lack of leadership in Saigon further damaged the morale of South Vietnam's long-suffering people. Confused and bitter, many South Vietnamese became passive observers in the ongoing struggle between the nation's military and the Communist Viet Cong guerrillas (small groups of fighters who launch surprise attacks).

In the first weeks of 1964, some members of the Military Revolutionary Council suggested that South Vietnam negotiate an end to the war with the Communists. The Viet Cong forces operating in the South openly supported this idea. They proposed that South Vietnam hold free elections that would allow people to elect a new government of their choosing. But the United States fiercely opposed this proposal, because they worried that such an election would install a Communist government. U.S. officials also expressed great anger that South Vietnam would even consider negotiating with North Vietnam's Communist leaders. American intelligence experts and advisors viewed the proposed negotiations as further evidence that the new government was unfit to lead South Vietnam.

On January 29, 1964, General Nguyen Khanh seized control of South Vietnam's government. He pushed the council out of power in a bloodless coup (takeover). The United States reacted cautiously to this latest change in political leadership. After all, American officials did not know whether Khanh had the ability to hold power or fight the Viet Cong effectively. But when Khanh indicated that he would rely heavily on U.S. political and military assistance, the Johnson administration sent a new wave of American advisors into the country.

Warnings of collapse

During the spring of 1964, Johnson received a number of reports about the situation in South Vietnam. When Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (1916–) returned from a trip to the troubled country, he told the president that the Viet Cong had established control over large sections of South Vietnam, including areas surrounding the capital city of Saigon. "Large groups of the population are now showing signs of apathy and indifference," McNamara stated. He added that the South Vietnamese army was struggling to stay at full strength because of high desertion rates (soldiers leaving the armed forces illegally before their terms of service had ended) and widespread "draft dodging" (avoiding the military draft). At the same time, he noted that "the Viet Cong are recruiting energetically and effectively." McNamara and most other advisors warned Johnson that unless the situation changed in a hurry, the Viet Cong might take control of South Vietnam within a matter of months.

As Johnson and his advisors debated over how to proceed in South Vietnam, everyone agreed that none of the options was very appealing. The Americans did not want to pull out of the country, because they were certain that the Communists would take it over within weeks of their departure. After all, South Vietnam's government was in terrible shape, and its military seemed dazed and discouraged by the deadly guerrilla campaigns of the Viet Cong. But Johnson and other top U.S. military and political leaders were also reluctant to devote more troops, equipment, and funds to such a messy situation.

Not surprisingly, many members of the Johnson administration adopted a very negative view of South Vietnam as a whole around this time. As Robert Shulzinger writes in A Time for War, "the frustrations of U.S. officials boiled over into a contempt for the South Vietnamese, the very people they ostensibly [outwardly] wanted to help with their program of assistance and military activities in the war."

By mid-1964, the Johnson administration concluded that it would probably have to take a more active role in Vietnam. "One by one, President Johnson's advisors lobbied him to send American ground forces and warplanes to Vietnam," writes Elizabeth Becker in America's Vietnam War. "They believed that if the United States did not fight the war and win it, the South Vietnamese would fight it and lose, dragging down the United States and most of the free world."

Vietnam and the 1964 presidential election

At the same time, the Johnson administration had begun planning for a wide range of operations related to the war in Vietnam. These activities included instituting a military draft to boost the size of the U.S. military, launching bombing campaigns against North Vietnam, and sending American ground troops to protect South Vietnam from the Viet Cong. The officials hoped to avoid using these "contingency plans," (plans that are devised to prepare for possible emergencies or events in the future) but they wanted to be ready if necessary.

President Johnson, however, did not publicize these contingency plans. He faced a tough presidential election campaign against Senator Barry Goldwater (1909–1998) of Arizona, the Republican Party nominee. Johnson did not want to bring Vietnam to the attention of the American public, which still viewed the struggle there as a minor conflict. After all, Vietnam was on the other side of the world, and U.S. military personnel stationed there were serving as advisors rather than combat troops. Fortunately for Johnson, Goldwater quietly agreed not to argue about America's military presence in Vietnam. Goldwater was fiercely anti-Communist, and he believed that U.S. involvement in Vietnam was necessary.

Freed from defending American policies in Vietnam, Johnson campaigned on his "Great Society" plans. He guided a variety of education, anti-poverty, and anti-discrimination legislation into law during this time, including the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 (a wide-reaching law that banned discrimination in voting, jobs, and public institutions). Meanwhile, he privately expressed hope that he could avoid making big decisions on Vietnam until after the election. He did not want to lose South Vietnam to the Communists before the election. At the same time, however, he did not "want to get the country into war" before the vote either. The president knew that either development would probably cost him a lot of votes.

The Gulf of Tonkin incident

On July 28, 1964, the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Maddox was ordered to sail to the Gulf of Tonkin, a part of the South China Sea. The ship's mission was to provide support for South Vietnamese commando raids along the North Vietnamese coast. These raids were designed to gather intelligence on radar sites and other defenses in North Vietnam.

The Maddox's first few days in the Gulf of Tonkin passed quietly. On August 2, however, three North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked the Maddox while it was on patrol. The destroyer returned fire, sinking two boats. The last boat then sailed off, chased by American fighter planes from a nearby U.S. Navy aircraft carrier. On August 3, the Maddox was joined by another destroyer called the USS Turner Joy. One night later, the two ships, relying on radar information, reported that North Vietnamese ships had launched a second attack. The American destroyers returned fire based on their radar readings. They also requested assistance from the aircraft carrier Ticonderoga, which promptly sent fighter planes to the area.

Reports of this second attack by North Vietnamese forces triggered a strong response from President Johnson. Stung by criticism that he should have reacted more strongly to North Vietnam's August 2 torpedo boat attack, Johnson took advantage of the reports of a second attack to order an immediate aerial assault on the North Vietnamese coastline. A short time later, fighter bombers from U.S. aircraft carriers stationed in the South China Sea struck North Vietnamese patrol boat bases and an oil storage facility along the coast. The attack was America's first major air strike on North Vietnam.

The Tonkin Gulf Resolution

Johnson also used reports of the second attack to ask Congress for special authority to take additional military action against North Vietnam if it became necessary in the future. Working together, the president and members of Congress composed a resolution that would give Johnson the power to "take all necessary measures to repel an armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression."

Johnson and his allies told the American people that Congress's vote on this resolution—known as the Tonkin Gulf Resolution—was very important. They presented the vote as a test of U.S. unity in the face of an "unprovoked attack" (an attack for no reason) on American forces. Johnson and other lawmakers hoped that the Tonkin Gulf Resolution would scare the North Vietnamese into accepting the division of the country into North and South once and for all.

"[The Johnson administration] made it appear that this was very important to support the President and that if he had the backing of this great country, that we could make North Vietnam understand that the United States couldn't be pushed around in this fashion and that they would in effect sue for peace, and it would end the thing there," confirmed Senator William Fulbright in The Bad War: An Oral History of the Vietnam War. "That was the main reason for the urgency, to create the psychological impact."

The Tonkin Gulf Resolution passed easily. It passed in the U.S. House of Representatives by a unanimous 416 to 0 vote. It also passed overwhelmingly in the Senate by an 88 to 2 vote. Only two senators—Democrats Ernest Gruening of Alaska and Wayne Morse of Oregon—voted against the resolution. Gruening called U.S. involvement in Vietnam a "putrid mess" and argued that "all Vietnam is not worth the life of a single American boy." Morse was outspoken in his criticism as well. But they remained alone in their opposition, and Johnson signed the resolution on August 10.

Attack probably never happened

In the meantime, a U.S. Navy investigation into the events of August 4 revealed that reports of a North Vietnamese attack on the Maddox and the Turner Joy were almost certainly wrong. Investigators discovered that stormy weather, false radar readings made by inexperienced personnel, and misunderstood North Vietnamese radio messages all combined to convince the ships that they were under attack, when actually they were in no danger. But Johnson chose to keep this information quiet. He wanted the increased military authority that would come with passage of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution.

As it turned out, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution failed to convince the Communists in Vietnam to halt their efforts to take over the South. The Viet Cong and their North Vietnamese allies realized that the United States was a mighty military power. Despite the threat of increased American military involvement, however, they continued trying to unite Vietnam under a single Communist government. Viet Cong operations proceeded without pause, supported by North Vietnam.

Passage of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution did end up being a very important event in the Vietnam War, however. In the years following its passage, the Johnson administration used the authority granted by the resolution to increase American military involvement in South Vietnam. These new activities ranged from launching massive bombing campaigns against North Vietnam to sending U.S. combat troops into the conflict. In effect, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution granted Johnson the legal right to wage war without actually declaring war. Years later, however, Johnson admitted that the initial reason for the resolution—the alleged North Vietnamese attack of August 4—probably never even took place. "For all I know, our navy was shooting at whales out there," he said.

Johnson beats Goldwater

As the 1964 presidential election approached, Johnson did not reveal his plans for Vietnam. He told voters that he was determined to use the American military to help South Vietnam defend itself from Communist aggression. But he also reassured them that the war would have to be won by South Vietnamese troops rather than U.S. soldiers. "We are not about to send American boys away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves," Johnson declared in October 1964.

In the meantime, Republican candidate Barry Goldwater made strong anti-Communist statements during the presidential campaign. In fact, he once remarked that the United States should have dropped an atomic bomb on North Vietnam ten years earlier. Such comments allowed Johnson to position himself as the so-called "peace" candidate. As the election grew near, the American public saw him as someone who would be less likely than Goldwater to involve the United States in war, whether in Vietnam or elsewhere.

Boosted by public approval for his "Great Society" programs and voter distrust of Goldwater's conservative political views, Johnson marched to an easy victory in the 1964 presidential election. He won 61.2 percent of the popular vote and helped the Democratic Party gain big majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Johnson prepares to increase American presence in Vietnam

After his election victory, Johnson turned his attention once again to South Vietnam. By this time, American officials viewed General Khanh as a corrupt dictator who had no idea how to beat the Viet Cong. In addition, widespread demonstrations against Khanh's government showed that he had no popular support. Torn by economic, military, and social problems, South Vietnam seemed paralyzed by what U.S. Ambassador Maxwell Taylor called "war weariness and hopelessness." Not surprisingly, these reports convinced the Johnson administration that the Saigon government was on the verge of political collapse.

In December 1964, a group of South Vietnamese military officers known as the "Young Turks" seized control of the government in yet another coup. But American officials did not believe that this new leadership was any better than the old government. During this period, a few people advised Johnson to withdraw American military support for South Vietnam and accept the fact that the nation was doomed to fall to the Communists. Senator Mike Mansfield, for instance, warned Johnson in December that "we remain on a course in Vietnam which takes us further and further out onto the sagging limb."

Some officials also told the president that the expense of increasing U.S. involvement in Vietnam might prevent him from pursuing his domestic programs. This possibility pained Johnson greatly. "If I left the woman I really loved—the Great Society—in order to get involved with that . . . war on the other side of the world, then I would lose everything at home," Johnson later stated. "All my programs. All my hopes to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless. All my dreams to provide education and medical care to the browns and the blacks and the lame and the poor. But if I left that war and let the Communists take over South Vietnam, . . . there would follow in this country an endless national debate—a mean and destructive debate—that would shatter my Presidency, kill my administration, and damage our democracy."

After weighing his options, Johnson reluctantly prepared to increase U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. He decided that America's political interests and international reputation would not allow him to pull out of the war-torn country.

But even as the Johnson administration prepared to expand the U.S. military role in Vietnam, Communist victories mounted. By late 1964, many provinces in the South were under the practical control of the Viet Cong. Even the heavily populated cities, with their large South Vietnamese military presence, were not immune from Viet Cong activity. On Christmas Eve 1964, a Viet Cong bomb destroyed a U.S. officer barracks in downtown Saigon, killing two soldiers and wounding dozens of other soldiers and civilians. Such incidents made it clear that America's looming battle against the Viet Cong and their North Vietnamese leadership was going to be a grim and bloody one.


Becker, Elizabeth. America's Vietnam War: A Narrative History. New York: Clarion, 1992.

Gardner, Lloyd C. Pay Any Price: Lyndon Johnson and the Wars for Vietnam. Chicago: Ivan Dee, 1995.

Goulden, Joseph C. Truth Is the First Casualty: The Gulf of Tonkin Affair—Illusion and Reality. Chicago: Rand-McNally, 1969.

Halberstam, David. The Best and the Brightest. New York: Random House, 1972.

Herring, George. LBJ and Vietnam: A Different Kind of War. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.

Johnson, Lyndon B. The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency, 1963–1969. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1971.

McNamara, Robert S., with Brian VanDeMark. In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. New York: Times Books, 1995.

Schulzinger, Robert D. A Time for War: The United States and Vietnam, 1941–1975. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

VanDeMark, Brian. Into the Quagmire: Lyndon Johnson and the Escalation of the Vietnam War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Willenson, Kim. The Bad War: An Oral History of the Vietnam War. New York: New American Library, 1987.

Words to Know

Communism A political system in which the government controls all resources and means of producing wealth. By eliminating private property, this system is designed to create an equal society with no social classes. However, Communist governments in practice often limit personal freedom and rights.

Coup d'etat A sudden, decisive attempt to overthrow an existing government.

Great Society A set of social programs proposed by U.S. President Lyndon Johnson designed to end segregation and reduce poverty in the United States.

Military Revolutionary Council A group of South Vietnamese military officers that overthrew Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem and took control of South Vietnam's government in 1963.

North Vietnam The Geneva Accords of 1954, which ended the First Indochina War (1946–54), divided the nation of Vietnam into two sections. The northern section, which was led by a Communist government under Ho Chi Minh, was officially known as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, but was usually called North Vietnam.

South Vietnam Created under the Geneva Accords of 1954, the southern section of Vietnam was known as the Republic of South Vietnam. It was led by a U.S.supported government.

Tonkin Gulf Resolution Passed by Congress after U.S. Navy ships supposedly came under attack in the Gulf of Tonkin, this resolution gave U.S. President Lyndon Johnson the authority to wage war against North Vietnam.

Viet Cong Vietnamese Communist guerrilla fighters who worked with the North Vietnamese Army to conquer South Vietnam.

People to Know

Barry Goldwater (1909–1998) U.S. senator from Arizona and Republican presidential candidate in 1964. He supported increasing U.S. military involvement in Vietnam during his campaign; he was defeated by Lyndon Johnson.

Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973) After serving as vice president under John Kennedy, he became the 36th president of the United States after Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. Johnson sent U.S. combat troops to Vietnam. Opposition to his policies convinced him not to seek re-election in 1968.

John F. Kennedy (1917–1963) Served as the 35th president of the United States from 1960 until he was assassinated in 1963.

Robert McNamara (1916–) Served as U.S. secretary of defense during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, 1961–1968. After helping to shape U.S. policy toward Vietnam, he privately began to doubt that America could win the war.

An "Undeclared War"

The Vietnam War is often referred to as an "undeclared war." The U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war. It also grants the president of the United States special powers during times of war as commander in chief of the American military. But the president does not have the power to decide, by himself, whether or not the nation goes to war.

In August 1964, U.S. warships operating off the coast of Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin reportedly came under attack from North Vietnamese torpedo boats. Even though it was unclear what actually happened, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson (1908–1973; president 1963–1969) chose to view this incident as an act of war by North Vietnam against the United States. He asked Congress to pass a resolution that would authorize him to take "all necessary measures" against further attacks.

After Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, Johnson used it as permission to send troops to Vietnam. From this point on, he and President Richard Nixon (1913–1994; president 1969–1974) used their war powers as if Congress had issued a formal declaration of war. But the United States never did declare war against North Vietnam. For this reason, critics of U.S. policy toward Vietnam have often referred to the conflict as an "undeclared war."

The Tonkin Gulf Resolution

In early August 1964, a U.S. Navy destroyer called the Maddox and a handful of North Vietnamese torpedo boats engaged in a brief fight in the Gulf of Tonkin, off the shores of North Vietnam. Two days later, the U.S. Navy incorrectly reported that its ships had been attacked by Communist forces for a second time. The U.S. Senate and House of Representatives reacted to this news by overwhelmingly approving the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. Over the next several years, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson (1908– 1973; president 1963–1969) and his administration used this resolution to dramatically increase U.S. military involvement in Vietnam.

What follows is the full text of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution:

To promote the maintenance [continuation] of international peace and security in southeast Asia.

Whereas naval units of the Communist regime in Vietnam, in violation of the principles of the Charter of the Union Nations and of international law, have deliberately and repeatedly attacked United States naval vessels lawfully present in international waters, and have thereby created a serious threat to international peace; and

Whereas these attacks are part of a deliberate and systematic [organized] campaign of aggression that the Communist regime [government] in North Vietnam has been waging against its neighbors and the nations joined with them in the collective defense of their freedom; and

Whereas the United States is assisting the peoples of southeast Asia to protect their freedom and has no territorial, military, or political ambitions in that area, but desires only that these people should be left in peace to work out their own destinies in their own way: Now, therefore, be it Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the Congress approves and supports the determination of the President, as Commander in Chief, to take all necessary measures to repel [resist] any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.

Sec. 2. The United States regards as vital to its national interest and to world peace the maintenance of international peace and security in southeast Asia. Consonant [in agreement] with the Constitution of the United States and the Charter of the United Nations and in accordance [agreement] with its obligations under the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty, the United States is, therefore, prepared, as the President determines, to take all necessary steps, 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.

Sec. 3. This resolution shall expire when the President shall determine that the peace and security of the area is reasonably assured by international conditions created by action of the United Nations or otherwise, except that it may be terminated earlier by concurrent [simultaneous] resolution of the Congress.

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Lyndon Johnson and the Tonkin Gulf Resolution (1964)

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