Study Guide

Tonkin Gulf Resolution

By U.S. Congress

Tonkin Gulf Resolution Introduction

Good moooooorning, Vietnam!

Wait, why are we saying good morning to Vietnam? What is it about this thin little country, hugging the edge of Southeast Asia, that gets us all riled up (and, while we're at it, makes us think of the smell of napalm in the morning and Bubba Gump Shrimp)? Oh, maybe it's if the fact that the Vietnam War is the one war America has lost.

Like, ever.

Oh, and one other thing: we never even declared war. So why did we have soldiers like Lieutenant Dan shouting orders around Vietnam in the first place?

Answer: the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. The Resolution was a document signed by Congress, that gave the President nearly unlimited power to wage war in Vietnam.

Here's how it went down: in early August 1964, America had a large warship called the USS Maddox deployed off the coast of Vietnam. North Vietnam was attempting to take over South Vietnam and unite the country under communism. The Maddox claimed that North Vietnamese ships had fired at her, which the American government interpreted as an act of war. Two days later there was a report of another attack against U.S. ships at sea. In less than a week Congress had signed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, and America had its official permission slip to go fight.

Notice that we used the words permission slip instead of declaration of war. The Resolution allowed America to fight in Vietnam, but not declare war. It's as if the government somehow knew things weren't going to go well (spoiler alert: they didn't) ….

There were some other shady things about the Resolution too. It was passed extremely quickly (nine hours is pretty crazy-fast for Congress) by a massively overwhelming vote (only two Congressmen voted against it). It gave the President nearly unlimited resources to fight against a relatively obscure Asian nation. The facts about the Maddox incident were kept classified and top secret. What was going on here? What did America have to hide, if anything?

  

The truth is that the two attacks in the Gulf of Tonkin didn't exactly happen the way the government reported them. The government and even the military in the area didn't really know what happened. Evidence was revealed years later that suggested no shots were fired, or even that no Vietnamese ships were present in the first place. It seems as though the U.S. government was so keen on fighting in Vietnam that they twisted the facts to create a story worth going to war over. (Source)

What was the result of this confusion, deception, and fear? The Tonkin Gulf Resolution, leading to the only war America has lost—costing more than 58,000 American lives, btw—and the war many Americans would like to forget. (Source)

So the next time you hear "Vietnam War," you shouldn't just think about cultural snapshots like Marlon Brando muttering in the jungle. The words "Tonkin Gulf Resolution" should also appear in your mind. We know it's not as catchy as "What's your major malfunction?" or as iconic as the sight of Christopher Walken in a red headband…but it goes straight to the heart of the messy, messy business known as the Vietnam War.

What is Tonkin Gulf Resolution About and Why Should I Care?

We're going to prove our pet "for every situation there is a fitting Big Lebowski quote" theory real quick:

"This is not 'Nam. This is bowling. There are rules." –Walter Sobchak

(Boom.)

Unfortunately, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution doesn't have anything to do with strikes, spares, or hideous bowling shoes. (If it had, we probably wouldn't be discussing it right now.) But it does underline the "no rules" aspect of what Walter Sobchak refers to as 'Nam. In fact, it combines deception, government cover-ups, and the most disastrous war in America's history.

Do we have your attention yet?

America's involvement in Vietnam started a long time before the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. But this document is the single reason the U.S. was allowed to officially send troops and military supplies to Vietnam to begin with. And in case this doesn't feel enough like a Tom Clancy thriller yet, ever since the Resolution was formally signed, there have been debates about whether or not the attacks that prompted it even happened.

But let's take a look at the big picture. How was the Vietnam War a disaster for the U.S.?

  • The U.S. straight up lost South Vietnam and the whole country became communist, which is exactly what America was fighting against. (Source)
  • The war represents a misuse of American power, with 58,000 Americans dead, many more Vietnamese dead, and countless tons of bombs dropped for…what? (Source)
  • There was extreme criticism from the public at home, with violent protests across the nation, some resulting in the deaths of civilians. (Source)
  • In the end, permanent damage was done to the U.S.'s reputation in the eyes of the world.

Cringe-worthy losses, no clear gains, massive criticism and protests, and a damaged world reputation. Not exactly what the U.S. was going for.

In fact, to quote Lebowski again, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution saw the U.S. "enter a world of pain."

And Vietnam's legacy has remained relevant from the '70s right up to today. Whenever America debates engaging in conflicts around the world, people think of Vietnam. Whenever there are national arguments about whether to send military supplies to nations already at war, people think of Vietnam. That fateful war in a tiny Asian country has made us all more aware of what can go wrong—and as we just saw, a lot can go wrong.

Because, to quote Hegel—ha, gotcha, we're actually quoting The Big Lebowksi—"sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes, the bear, well, it eats you."

Tonkin Gulf Resolution Resources

Websites

Milestones in U.S. History
Remember that confusion-filled Gulf of Tonkin Incident, with ships that may or may not have been fired upon? Here's the official government page on the whole situation.

The Actual Document
Here's the full Tonkin Gulf Resolution for your primary source viewing pleasure.

Movie or TV Productions

Good Morning Vietnam
One of the most popular movies about Vietnam, featuring the outstanding Robin Williams as a comedy radio DJ.

Forrest Gump
Vietnam is certainly a focus in this classic film, but really, it's a great take on American history and culture throughout the entire Cold War Era.

Articles and Interviews

Interview with McNamara
A chilling post-Vietnam interview with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, about the truth behind the Gulf of Tonkin Incident.

LBJ's Tortured Legacy
A PBS article about the end of President Johnson's life, including his agonized thoughts about Vietnam involvement—and his regret over the whole fiasco.

Video

Hip Hughes History
This energetic and entertaining history teacher reviews the events of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident and the resulting legislation from Congress.

President Johnson on the Gulf of Tonkin Incident
Here is Johnson as he addresses the nation concerning the events of early August, 1964. You can almost sense the dread within him—he knows what's coming.

Audio

NPR's Gulf of Tonkin Review
Here are some audio links to an analysis by Walter Cronkite, a respected news anchor during the '60s, and a National Public Radio article on the war in Vietnam.

Walter Cronkite on 60 Minutes
A clip from 60 Minutes featuring the views and opinions of respected news anchor Walter Cronkite immediately following the Gulf of Tonkin Incident.

Images

Domino Theory
This image shows America's Cold War fear of communism spreading in Southeast Asia—if Vietnam were to fall, the rest of Asia could fall with it.

McNamara and the Gulf of Tonkin
Here's McNamara briefing the cabinet on the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. We can picture him saying "Now this is where our ships may or may not have been fired on, we don't really know."