Most of the Americans who died in Vietnam did so while Lyndon Baines Johnson was president. (John M. Galloway / The Detroit News)
President Lyndon B. Johnson has received justifiable praise this year on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. But there was another piece of legislation LBJ pushed through Congress 50 years ago which has an infamous legacy.
On Aug. 7, 1964, Congress passed overwhelmingly the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. The margin in the U.S. Senate was 88-2 (Democrats Wayne Morse of Oregon and Ernest Gruening of Alaska cast the two dissenting votes). The margin in the House of Representatives was an even more staggering 416-0.
The resolution granted LBJ the authority to widen U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Ironically, in his address to the nation, LBJ stressed it was not his intention to widen the war. It was this Orwellian twist, along with there never having been a declaration of war, which has since provoked bracing criticism of LBJ.
Is the criticism justified? The resolution itself was tantamount to a declaration of war. And even though LBJ stressed it was not his intention to deepen U.S. involvement in the conflict, it was also clear by August 1964 that LBJ had no intention of abandoning South Vietnam to communist North Vietnam.
More valid is the criticism that the Tonkin Gulf Resolution was based on a false premise. North Vietnamese torpedo boats fired on the USS Maddox in international waters in the gulf on Aug. 2, 1964. But in selling the resolution to Congress and the American people, LBJ and his administration asserted that the North Vietnamese fired a second time on the Maddox (as well as the USS Turner Joy) on Aug. 4, 1964. Cold War scholars are united in the conclusion that the second attack never took place.
Both the Maddox and the Turner Joy reported having been attacked and exchanged fire. But LBJ himself has been quoted as having said in 1965 that for all he knew, the two destroyers “might have been firing at whales” during the exchange on Aug. 4.
LBJ remains all the more culpable insofar as there was no reason to fabricate North Vietnam’s aggression. The belligerence of North Vietnam and its communist Viet Cong allies (who were terrorizing South Vietnam) was severe enough to render any exaggeration unnecessary. Though the second attack was for stage effect, the first attack on Aug. 2 was documented and real.
Critics of LBJ have maintained that there should have been a formal declaration of war. But there would have been no real difference had LBJ opted for a formal declaration rather than guiding the Tonkin Gulf Resolution through Congress. Either way, the president would have had the authority to prosecute the war in Vietnam to the extent he thought necessary.
The difference is political. A declaration of war would have had connotations for which Congress and the American people (enjoying peace and prosperity) were not ready. Thus, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution and an increased U.S. commitment in Vietnam.
LBJ is one of my favorite presidents. But he had very much a flaw in always wanting it both ways. He was the quintessential guns and butter president. And standing for election in 1964 against hawkish Republican Barry Goldwater, LBJ wanted at once to be both the peace candidate and the president standing firm against communist expansion.
As stated, it is doubtful that a formal declaration of war would have had a different effect than the resolution passed by Congress. Under either scenario was the specter of the Soviet Union and Red China, whose reactions would have been difficult and risky to gauge in the event of an actual U.S. invasion of North Vietnam, be it under the authority of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution or a formal declaration of war.
What should be the lesson of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution and the Vietnam War itself is the necessity that the president level with the American people, lest the latter feel duped and its opposition to the war becoming all the more bitter. LBJ did not level with the American people and in a short time, opposition to the war did become bitter.
LBJ was fond to insist Vietnam was not his war and that it was just one of many initiatives of the slain President John F. Kennedy he intended to carry out. There is much truth to this assertion. But the Tonkin Gulf Resolution was an indisputable turning point in U.S. involvement in Vietnam. And while there will forever be debate as to how far Kennedy would have gone in Vietnam, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution had LBJ’s name on it, making Vietnam LBJ’s war.
John O’Neill is an Allen Park freelance writer. He holds a degree in history from Wayne State University.