Remember the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution

The Bush administration has increased pressure on Congress for a quick resolution authorizing virtually unrestricted military action against Iraq. Sadly, most members of the House and Senate appear ready to acquiesce, eager to support a popular president before going off to face the voters in November.

Only a brave few in Congress seem to remember the last time a president asked for such a carte blanche — in 1964. The president was Lyndon Johnson. He got what became known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, and it led to full-scale U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

Like President George W. Bush, Johnson was frustrated with a long-standing American adversary — Ho Chi Minh, the leader of North Vietnam. As with Saddam Hussein, Ho Chi Minh had started out as an ally of convenience. In the 1940s, Ho Chi Minh sided with the United States in World War II against the Japanese. However, by the early 1950s, as American leaders backed French colonialists in their war against Ho’s Vietminh, he had become a bitter U.S. enemy. Over the next decade, Ho frustrated American designs in Southeast Asia. By 1964, communist guerrillas, aided by the North Vietnamese army, were on the verge of toppling the pro-United States regime in South Vietnam.

Americans in the early 1960s lived in an atmosphere of fear. At the height of the Cold War, U.S. leaders worried about communism as a worldwide menace every bit as much as their counterparts in 2002 have come to dread radical Islamists. It was the impending downfall of the South Vietnamese government to Ho Chi Minh’s communists that underlay the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.

Like President Bush, Johnson tried to justify offensive military action as the means to prevent future aggression. He seized on a murky series of clashes in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964 between U.S. navy vessels and North Vietnamese torpedo boats as a pretext for American action. The U.S. ships had been supporting South Vietnamese commando raids into North Vietnam. However, a patriotic U.S. press accepted the government contention that the attacks by the North Vietnamese were unprovoked.

Shortly after the events in the Gulf of Tonkin, Lyndon Johnson met with congressional leaders and lobbied them to grant him broad powers to respond to the supposed provocation. Eager to stand with Johnson in a cause as popular then with the American people as the War on Terrorism is now, House and Senate leaders quickly acceded to his request. Within three days of the meeting, Congress voted nearly unanimously for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Only two members of the Senate voted against it. The resolution granted Johnson the authority “to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.”

The resolution led almost immediately to a U.S. bombing campaign against North Vietnam and, in 1965, to the introduction of ground troops into South Vietnam. Americans were hoping for a quick capitulation by the North. When that did not occur, Johnson repeatedly escalated American involvement. By the time he left office in early 1969, about half a million U.S. troops were in Vietnam. By 1973, more than 58,000 of them had died there.

Congress later recognized the mistake of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. In 1973, it passed the War Powers Act. This edict required the president to report to Congress within 48 hours any U.S. combat operation and limited any such deployment to sixty days without congressional approval. Passed over the veto of Richard Nixon and never formally recognized by any of his successors, including George W. Bush, the act has not achieved its stated aim of ensuring “that the collective judgment of both the Congress and the President will apply to the introduction of United States Armed Forces into hostilities.”

What is required in the present situation with Iraq is a return to the process prescribed by the U.S. Constitution. Congress should not allow President Bush to railroad through war-making authority akin to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Instead, Congress, after thoughtful hearings and debate, should vote on a declaration of war, if its members believe such a course to be appropriate. It would behoove Congress to follow faithfully the path envisioned by the Founding Fathers, and not that of their failed predecessors in 1964, in committing the United States to the momentous and perilous path of war.

Donald R. Shaffer teaches 19th-century U.S. history at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, and he is a writer for the History News Service.