Events Leading to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution
And in truth, the President, their most powerful ally, did have other things on
his mind. Far from Atlantic City or Washington or Mississippi, in the divided
Southeast Asian country of Vietnam, the United States was involved in a civil
war. In 1964, few Americans could have located Vietnam on a map. But the roots
of the conflict reached back to decisions made during and after World War II.
Presidents from Truman on saw Vietnam as a strategic battleground in the Cold
War. The U.S. had been sending money and military supplies to Vietnam since
the 1940s, to aid a French colonial government fighting against Communist
nationalists, led by Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam's most visible and popular leader.
Ho wanted independence for Vietnam.
When Ho's Communist troops decimated French forces at the battle of Dien Bien
Phu, the French withdrew from Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh would not, however, be
allowed to preside over the independent (and Communist) Vietnam he believed
he'd won on the battlefield. Instead, the United States insisted that the
country be partitioned, with Ho's forces moving north, and a non-Communist
government to be established in the south. The result was a civil war, as Ho
fought ruthlessly to reunify the country he believed had been split in two and
stolen by imperialists.
President Eisenhower had argued that the United States had to make a stand in
Vietnam, or risk the fall of Asian countries to Communism like "a row of
dominos." Ike committed hundreds of millions of dollars each year in aid to the
government of South Vietnam. And President Kennedy increased the aid and began
to commit American "advisors" to assist the South Vietnamese army. By
mid-1964, more than 20,000 of those supposedly noncombatant soldiers were in
But the American-backed government in South Vietnam, headed by Ngo Dinh Diem,
was weak, corrupt, and it never attracted the support of the majority of its
people. South Vietnamese officials stole millions of dollars in American aid
and military supplies, and they carried out campaigns of terror, instead of
land reforms, in the countryside. When a Buddhist monk burned himself to death
to protest the Diem government's actions, the President's powerful
sister-in-law, Madame Nhu, joked that she'd be glad to "provide the mustard for
the monks' next barbecue."
In the 1960s, most Americans did believe in the necessity of fighting
Communism. The American mass media pounded home the message of a Communist
threat on a daily basis. Johnson's policy advisors all agreed that he couldn't
abandon South Vietnam to a Communist takeover. Indeed, they said, he should
ratchet up the war against Ho Chi Minh and his supporters in the south,
guerrilla fighters known as the Viet Cong, if Johnson hoped to win the war.
Well Lyndon Johnson wasn't going to be the first American president to lose a
war. But he wanted to proceed gradually, rather than to declare war against
North Vietnam and commit enormous resources and huge numbers of American
soldiers to fighting the war. And so Johnson's Vietnam War began with a lie.
In August of 1964, using a trumped-up attack against an American ship in the
Gulf of Tonkin as an excuse, Johnson got Congress to pass a resolution giving
him a free hand to do whatever he chose in Vietnam.
The War in Vietnam
By the time the United States finally admitted defeat in 1973, Johnson and
his successor, Richard Nixon, had sent more than two million American troops,
dropped 7 million tons of bombs (when only 2 million tons of bombs had fallen
in all of World War II), and they'd sent transport planes to drop a million
pounds of toxic chemicals, destroying half of Vietnam's forests. Hundreds of
Vietnamese hamlets and villages were destroyed, and millions of Vietnamese
civilians and soldiers had died. Over 58,000 Americans were killed, and an
untold number of American troops returned to the United States permanently
scarred physically, emotionally, and psychologically.
Only two senators voted against the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. But in time,
millions of Americans came to see that measure as the fatal step into a war
that made Americans wonder about the wisdom of trying to fight Communism
everywhere. And that had been a fundamental tenet of the Cold War.
Vietnam devastated the hope and the idealism symbolized by the sit-ins, by
King's moving speeches, and by the Civil Rights Act. Government resources now
went not into rebuilding cities, or fighting poverty, or ending discrimination,
but instead, into the war. In the battle between guns and butter, guns won.
Nobody really knew what it would mean to win the war. The President said he
meant to keep the promise of "self-determination" for Vietnam. But was that
the same as keeping non-Communist officials in power? Did winning require
wiping out the Viet Cong, or overthrowing Ho Chi Minh and reunifying Vietnam?
Without clear objectives, how could the U.S. even know how to win? The men
around Johnson buried their doubts. They tried to take all intelligence reports
at their most optimistic, and if the news from the front wasn't good, well,
they just made up some good news, like the notorious "body counts", the
aggregate figures of dead bodies found after battles, who might have been enemy
troops or might have been friendly civilians, but who were always counted as
enemy dead, either way.
And those body counts reflected the most fundamental American problem. In a
strange country, in a time of civil war, defending an unstable regime in the
name of democracy, Americans never knew who was friend and who was enemy. Viet
Cong and the North Vietnamese Army, however, were fighting on their home turf,
with clear purposes: reunify the country and win independence. Undeniably, many
were also fighting to establish a Communist government, and certainly their
methods could be as terrible as those of their enemies.
But every bomb that dropped strengthened Ho's resolve to keep fighting until
American will failed. President Johnson and his generals kept telling the
American public that the war was going well; it was almost won; there was "a
light at the end of the tunnel." But who was going to fight this foe?
The soldiers were young, and disproportionately they were nonwhite and poor.
Black activists furiously denounced a war in which, they said, the nation's
most oppressed people were asked to make the greatest sacrifices. King: "The
promises of the Great Society have been shot down on the battlefield of
Vietnam, making the poor, white and Negro, bear the heaviest burdens, both at
the front and at home."
As draft calls rose and rose, the more affluent draft-age men found ways to get
out of serving. Poor boys were nearly twice as likely as their better-off peers
to serve in the military, to go to Vietnam, and see combat. You could even
break it down by neighborhoods. One study of Chicago found that young men from
low-income neighborhoods were three times as likely to die in Vietnam as boys
from high-income areas.