1964 August 7

Congress Passes Gulf of Tonkin Resolution: False Claims Justify Vietnam Escalation


The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, passed on this day, authorized President Lyndon Johnson to take military action in response to attacks on U.S. Navy ships in the Gulf of Tonkin, east of North Vietnam (August 2, 1964). Congress never passed a declaration of war for the Vietnam War, and the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was the only Congressional authorization for military action. Considerable controversy surrounds the events of August 2nd, an alleged second incident on August 4th, and the Johnson administration’s presentation of the facts. Many critics argue that the administration presented Congress with deliberately falsified accounts of those events.

In the case of Berk v. Laird,  which challenged the legality of the war because of a lack of a declaration of war, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, on June 19, 1970, dismissed a challenge to the legality of the Vietnam War, citing the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution as evidence that Congress had “in part expressly” given support for the Vietnam War.

The Vietnam War created a number of civil liberties crises. They include (1) the lack of a Congressional Declaration of War as required by the Constitution (June 3, 1970); (2) threats to freedom of the press in the Pentagon Papers case (June 30, 1971); (3) spying on the anti-war movement by the CIA (August 15, 1967); (4) threats to freedom of expression, for example high school student protests (February 24, 1969); censorship of television programs (February 25, 1968); and directly and indirectly some of the events that led to the Watergate Scandal (May 9, 1969; January 27, 1972).

The Resolution (excerpts): “Whereas naval units of the Communist regime in Vietnam, in violation of the principles of the Charter of the United Nations and of international law, have deliberately and repeatedly attacked United Stated naval vessels lawfully present in international waters, and have thereby created a serious threat to international peace; and . . .Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the Congress approves and supports the determination of the President, as Commander in Chief, to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.”

Read the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution: http://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=true&doc=98&page=transcript

Read Daniel Ellsberg’s first-hand account: Daniel Ellsberg, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers (2004)

Listen to President Johnson’s White House phone conversations during the Gulf of Tonkin crisis: http://presidentialrecordings.rotunda.upress.virginia.edu/search?q=series%3AVietnam&start=1

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