The Gulf of Tonkin Incident — Jessica D. Tacka


On August 2, 1964, the USS Maddox was patrolling waters in the Gulf of Tonkin when three North Vietnamese vessels approached. Two days later, the Maddox reported that it again had been engaged by the North Vietnamese. These events set into motion direct U.S. military involvement in the Vietnamese civil war. On the morning of August 5, President Lyndon B. Johnson sent the Southeast Asia or Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, authorizing force as a response to the possible state of emergency, to Congress. Although reports from the Maddox appeared to catalyze the resolution, cabinet officials had been planning an incursion into Vietnam since the Kennedy administration. The language of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution itself had been written months before the events in the gulf. After less than two days of debate, the resolution passed the Senate 88 to 2. It then passed 416 to 0 in the House. Vague language in Section 2 of the resolution enabled President Johnson to subsequently use the military authorization as a “blank check” to launch escalating attacks and ultimately full scale war against North Vietnam.

Within the Johnson administration, ample planning for military operations against North Vietnam had occurred before August 1964. Commitment to a military option had become entrenched at high levels in the executive branch and confrontation with Hanoi became a near foregone conclusion. When the Gulf of Tonkin crisis presented an opportunity for congressional military authorization, the administration acted with little impetus for examining the situation in the gulf or the long-term consequences of the resolution. Years of strategizing for seemingly inevitable military operations by key Johnson advisors, coupled with an ad hoc response to a questionable trigger in the gulf, ensured that there was little real-time evaluation of the course of action begun with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.

The policy planning which preceded the resolution, and the enactment of the war authorization, both suffered from an absence of rigorous checks and balances. The loosely structured, informal decision making system President Johnson inherited from Kennedy, gave inordinate power to several advisors, fostering faulty planning and leading to the ill-considered decision to go to war via the resolution. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy worked together in the years and months prior to August 1964, planning offensive action and mobilizing support for the military option. With its swift approval of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, Congress insufficiently scrutinized the war authorization and largely abdicated its role in the decision to go to war.

The informal nature of the decision making process in the Johnson administration empowered several officials to wield unbalanced influence at high levels. The president’s trust and confidence in a handful of advisors, and his distrust of institutional intelligence and reporting, hampered thorough debate regarding the resolution specifically, and the American intervention in Vietnam in general. Meanwhile, congressional inaction allowed the executive to steamroll the military authorization through the legislative branch.

The costs of the Vietnam War, in blood, treasure, and prestige, are staggering and well-documented. It is impossible to know if the war could have been avoided had the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution not been enacted. Indeed, it seems unlikely. However, it is possible that military operations would have been conducted more efficiently if there had been healthier debate and greater balance in the planning and decision making processes. Certainly, the Gulf of Tonkin incident and the resolution engendered lasting distrust between the White House and the Congress.

Established processes and institutions exist to foster balanced and thorough decision making. When the Johnson administration stepped outside such mechanisms and instead relied on a small group of advisors to guide its response to the events in the Gulf of Tonkin (and ultimately greater Vietnam policy), the benefits of procedural deliberation, and an opportunity to scrutinize the path to war, were too easily lost.