1964 August 2

First Gulf of Tonkin Incident — Government Lies to Justify Vietnam Escalation


The first Gulf of Tonkin incident, which occurred on this day, involved an alleged military confrontation between U.S. naval forces and North Vietnamese units in the Gulf of Tonkin to the east of North Vietnam. A second incident reportedly occurred on August 4. Many experts now doubt the official U.S. accounts of these incidents and question whether the second one occurred at all. President Lyndon Johnson used these incidents to get Congress to approve a resolution on August 7, 1964, which authorized the expanded use of military force in the Vietnam conflict. Opponents of the war, then and now, cite Johnson’s misuse of these incidents to argue that he lied to Congress and the public in order to escalate the war in Vietnam. Supporters of the Vietnam War, on the other hand, argue that the Tonkin Gulf Resolution represented Congressional approval of the war even though it was not a full declaration of war.

At the time of the Gulf of Tonkin incidents, Daniel Ellsberg was a Pentagon staff member and was on-duty when the first reports of the incidents arrived. At the time, he was firmly pro-war. He later became a critic of the war, and is famous for leaking the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times. The Times published a sensational set of articles based on the Pentagon Papers on June 13, 1971. The Nixon administration obtained an injunction against the Times on June 15, 1971, but the Supreme Court overturned the injunction, on June 30, 1971, in one of the most important freedom of the press decisions in American history. Ellsberg told his version of the Gulf of Tonkin incident (and the story of the Pentagon Papers) in his memoir, Secrets (see below).

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 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (in part):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.”

Learn more: Ezra Siff, Why the Senate Slept: The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and the Beginning of America’s Vietnam War (1999)

Learn about the Gulf of Tonkin in the documents at the National Security Archive:

Read Ellsberg’s memoir: Daniel Ellsberg, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers (2002)

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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