Promoting the Maintenance of International Peace and Security in Southeast Asia

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Promoting the Maintenance of International Peace and Security in Southeast Asia

Gulf of Tonkin Resolution


By: Lyndon B. Johnson and

U.S. Congress

Date: August 6, 1964

Source: U.S. House of Representatives. 88th Congress, Second Session. "Report No. 1708. Promoting the Maintenance of International Peace and Security in Southeast Asia" August 6, 1964.

About the Author: Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973) was the thirty-sixth president of the United States. Although the speeches of modern American presidents are conventionally attributed to the presidents themselves, the actual words are often composed by professional speechwriters who remain anonymous.


On August 3, 1964, the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973) claimed that North Vietnam had made an unprovoked attack on a U.S. naval vessel operating in international waters in the Gulf of Tonkin, a large inlet forming the coast of North Vietnam and the southernmost portion of mainland China. Johnson's Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara (1916–) said that "While on routine patrol of international waters the U.S. destroyer Maddox underwent an unprovoked attack." Two days later, it was claimed, North Vietnamese patrol boats attacked a pair of U.S. ships in the Tonkin Gulf. Johnson asked Congress to pass a resolution that would give him the authority to use military force against Vietnam; this message is the primary source given here. The legislation, H.J. Res. 1145, also known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, was passed by unanimous vote in the House of Representatives and with only two dissenting votes in the Senate. Although Johnson had said in his message that the U.S. "seeks no wider war," the following year, 1965, saw a full-scale commitment of the U.S. military to fight the North Vietnamese. By 1969 over 540,000 U.S. troops were in Vietnam, based on the authority granted in the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.

Yet the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was, as many historians of the period now agree, founded on inaccurate claims.

First, it was not true that the Maddox was on routine patrol. According to the U.S. Naval Institute, the Maddox was actually gathering signals intelligence to be used for U.S.-directed commando attacks on North Vietnam. Under the guidance of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, a covert program of intelligence-gathering and sabotage missions against North Vietnam had begun in 1961. South Vietnamese commandos in fast patrol boats bought from Norway (to conceal U.S. involvement) bombarded the North Vietnamese coast using mortars, rockets, and recoilless rifles. The operation was approved personally by U.S. General William C. Westmoreland in Saigon, capital of South Vietnam. On July 31, 1964, patrol boats in the covert fleet attacked North Vietnamese installations on the islands of Hon Me and Hon Nieu. North Vietnam quickly lodged a formal complaint, but McNamara replied, inaccurately, that "Our Navy played absolutely no part in, was not associated with, was not aware of, any South Vietnamese actions, if there were any." When the signals-intelligence ship Maddox approached the North Vietnamese coast on August 2, 1964, the North Vietnamese assumed that it would take part in further attacks, and dispatched five torpedo boats to confront it. The Maddox fired across the bow of the lead North Vietnamese vessel; the North Vietnamese fired back; the Maddox drove off the vessels with its superior firepower, killing at least one sailor. The only damage suffered by the Maddox was a hit from a single machine-gun bullet.

Moreover, there was no second attack at all. Although U.S. vessels maneuvered vigorously and fired many rounds on the night of August 4, it is now known that they were shooting at empty ocean. In December, 2005, with the release of formerly classified documents of the National Security Agency (NSA), it was learned that the NSA's own operatives had, in the words of the agency's internal historian, "mishandled" signals intelligence and given a "deliberately skewed" version of intercepted communications to the White House. "The overwhelming body of reports, if used," the NSA's historian wrote in a secret 2001 article, "would have told the story that no attack had happened. So a conscious effort ensued to demonstrate that an attack occurred." Although critics of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution had long argued that there had been no second attack, this was the first detailed confirmation of that claim. Despite the skewed intelligence, President Johnson himself quickly suspected that there had been no second attack. Tapes made by Johnson, declassified in 2001, showed him concluding only two weeks after the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that "they [the North Vietnamese in the supposed second incident] hadn't fired at all." In 1965 he said, "For all I know, our Navy was shooting at whales out there." Yet Johnson had told Congress that there was "unequivocal proof" of a second Vietnamese attack. Until 2005, neither the Congress nor the U.S. public was ever informed that the crucial second attack, cited by Johnson in his message to Congress, had not occurred.


88th Congress, 2nd Session

House of Representatives

Report No. 1708

Promoting the Maintenance of International Peace and Security in Southeast Asia

August 6, 1964.—Committed to the Committee of the Whole House on the State of the Union and ordered to be printed

Mr. Morgan, from the Committee on Foreign Affairs, submitted the following


[To accompany H.J. Res. 1145]

The Committee on Foreign Affairs, to whom was referred the joint resolution (H.J. Res. 1145), to promote the maintenance of international peace and security in southeast Asia, having considered the same, report favorably thereon without amendment and recommend that the joint resolution do pass.

Committee Action

On August 5, 1964, the President of the United States transmitted to the Congress a message (H. Doc. 333, 88th Cong,. 2d sess.) requesting the Congress to take appropriate action to carry out certain recommendations relative to preserving the peace in southeast Asia. The text of the message follows:

To the Congress of the United States:

Last night I announced to the American people that the North Vietnamese regime had conducted further deliberate attacks against U.S. naval vessels operating in international waters, and that I had therefore directed air action against gunboats and supporting facilities used in these hostile operations. This air action has now been carried out with substantial damage to the boats and facilities. Two U.S. aircraft were lost in the action.

After consultation with the leaders of both parties in the Congress, I further announced a decision to ask the Congress for a resolution expressing the unity and determination of the United States in supporting freedom and in protecting peace in southeast Asia.

These latest actions of the North Vietnamese regime have given a new and grave turn to the already serious situation in southeast Asia. Our commitments in that area are well known to the Congress. They were first made in 1954 by President Eisenhower. They were further defined in the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty approved by the Senate in February 1955.

This treaty with its accompanying protocol obligates the United States and other members to act in accordance with their constitutional processes to meet Communist aggression against any of the parties or protocol states.

Our policy in southeast Asia has been consistent and unchanged since 1954. I summarized it on June 2 in four simple propositions:

  1. America keeps her word. Here as elsewhere, we must and shall honor our commitments.
  2. The issue is the future of southeast Asia as a whole. A threat to any nation in that region is a threat to all, and a threat to us.
  3. Our purpose is peace. We have no military, political, or territorial ambitions in the area.
  4. This is not just a jungle war, but a struggle for freedom on every front of human activity. Our military and economic assistance to South Vietnam and Laos in particular has the purpose of helping these countries to repel aggression and strengthen their independence.

The threat to the free nations of southeast Asia has long been clear. The North Vietnamese regime has constantly sought to take over South Vietnam and Laos. This communist regime has violated the Geneva accords for Vietnam. It has systematically conducted a campaign of subversion, which includes the direction, training, and supply of personnel and arms for the conduct of guerrilla warfare in South Vietnamese territory. In Laos, the North Vietnamese regime has maintained military forces, used Laotian territory for infiltration into South Vietnam, and most recently carried out combat operations—all in direct violation of the Geneva agreements of 1962.…

As President of the United States I have concluded that I should now ask the congress, on its part, to join in affirming the national determination that all such attacks will be met, and that the United States will continue in its basic policy of assisting the free nations of the area to defend their freedom.

I have repeatedly made clear, the United States intends no rashness, and seeks no wider war. We must make it clear to all that the United States is united in its determination to bring about the end of Communist subversion and aggression in the area. We seek the full and effective restoration of the international agreements signed in Geneva in 1954, with respect to South Vietnam, and again in Geneva in 1962, with respect to Laos.

I recommend a resolution expressing the support of the Congress for all necessary action to protect our Armed Forces and to assist nations covered by the SEATO Treaty. At the same time, I assure the Congress that we shall continue readily to explore any avenues of political solution that will effectively guarantee the removal of Communist subversion and the preservation of the independence of the nations of the area.…

I urge the congress to enact such a resolution promptly and thus to give convincing evidence to the aggressive communist nations, and to the world as a whole, that our policy in southeast Asia will be carried forward—and that the peace and security of the area will be preserved.

The events of this week would in any event have made the passage of a congressional resolution essential. But there is an additional reason for doing so at a time when we are entering on 3 months of political campaigning. Hostile nations must understand that in such a period the United States will continue to protect its national interests, and that in these matters there is no division among us.

Lyndon B. Johnson.

The White House, August 5, 1964


The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution is generally viewed as a key step in the escalation of the Vietnam War, which ended in 1975 with final U.S. withdrawal and the eventual victory for North Vietnam and the Communist rebels of South Vietnam.

In recent years, the Gulf of Tonkin incident has been repeatedly compared to the lead-up to the Iraq war. As with Vietnam, an imminent military threat against the United States was cited by the U.S. government in the months before the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Special emphasis was placed on stockpiles of chemical, biological, and possibly nuclear weapons allegedly possessed by Iraq. On the basis of such claims, Congress approved the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq with relatively little dissent. However, when U.S. military inspection teams arrived in Iraq, they repeated the earlier failure of U.N. inspection teams to find any stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. In December 2005, President George W. Bush admitted that "It is true that much of the intelligence turned out to be wrong."

According to the New York Times (Oct. 31, 2005) the National Security Agency (NSA) delayed release of its secret conclusion that there had been no second Gulf of Tonkin attack because "higher-level agency [NSA] policymakers … were fearful that it might prompt uncomfortable comparisons with the flawed intelligence used to justify the war in Iraq." An agency spokesperson denied that "any political consideration was involved," but such comparisons were nevertheless drawn; in 2005, the National Security Archive at George Washington University stated that "the parallels between the faulty intelligence on Tonkin Gulf and the manipulated intelligence used to justify the Iraq War make it all the more worthwhile to re-examine the events of August 1964 in light of new evidence."



Alterman, Eric. When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and its Consequences. New York: Viking, 2004.

Moi̇se, Edwin E. Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.


Lewis, Neil A. "A Nation Challenged: The Resolution: Measure Backing Bush's Use of Force Is as Broad as a Declaration of War, Experts Say." The New York Times. September 17, 2001.

Shane, Scott. "Vietnam Study, Casting Doubts, Remains Secret." The New York Times. October 31, 2005.

Shane, Scott. "Vietnam War Intelligence "Deliberately Skewed," Secret Study Says." The New York Times. December 2, 2005.

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U.S. Naval Institute. "The Secret Side of the Tonkin Gulf Incident (by Dale Andradé and Kenneth Conboy).' August, 1999. < articles99/nhandrade.htm> (accessed May 18, 2006).