Study Guide

Tonkin Gulf Resolution Analysis

By U.S. Congress

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  • Symbols, Motifs, and Rhetorical Devices

  • Rhetoric


    State the reasons, give the judgment.

    In Tonkin Gulf Resolution, Congress ain't appealing to anyone's emotions, or aiming for empathy. They are stating facts, pointing out the enemy, and then going to war. The resolution is cut and dry, wasting no time to convince readers beyond a few no-nonsense descriptions of Northern Vietnamese aggression.

    American ships have been attacked. North Vietnam is spreading communism. Southeast Asia nations are in danger. Over and out.

    And that's it—Congress doesn't try to convince Americans of the choice to go to war (except it's not a declaration of war, remember), but simply tells them it is so. The whole document is pretty matter-of-fact about the whole deal.

    And to be fair, Congress doesn't have to. This document is legislation—it's a law passed almost unanimously. It says:

    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. (5)

    That's it. End of story. Reason and judgment.

  • Structure

    Legal Document

    Forget the flowery words and powerful visuals: this ain't a speech to make an audience tear up.

    The Tonkin Gulf Resolution is a formal legislative document, that clearly states the government's decision regarding military involvement in Vietnam. It is not a statement meant to convince, nor is it an essay rambling about some political issue. This resolution is quick and direct, stating the reasons for war, and then giving the president permission to go to war.

    Take a look at the top of the document: it says "Joint Resolution." That means Congress has voted, and passed, this legislation. Then, notice the writing style: it doesn't have much of a "flow." Again, it's not meant to be an inspiring speech. The first five paragraphs are actually one giant run-on sentence, if you can believe it. (These folks clearly didn't stay awake in Language Arts.)

    But this is actually how lots of legislation is written—highly formalized, almost outdating-sounding, legislative writing. Yeesh.

    How it Breaks Down

    First: Communist Bad Guys

    So, the first section is one giant sentence spread across five paragraphs. You heard right, one sentence; five paragraphs.

    In that humongous sentence, Congress blames North Vietnam for attacking U.S. ships, points a finger at North Vietnam for spreading communism, and says that the whole Southeast Asia region is in danger.

    Second: The Blank Check

    Scaling back a bit, Congress writes a much shorter sentence here, giving the President a "blank check." The meaning? Unlimited authority and resources to wage war in Vietnam, as he sees fit. (Whoa.)

    Third: Expiration

    So when does this presidential permission slip expire? This final section tells us how the Resolution can come to an end. And that's that.

  • Tone

    Formal, Official, Matter-of-fact, Accusatory

    If there's one document that can make your heart soar, your spirits dance, your eyes fill with impassioned tears…it's not this one. (Try "I Have A Dream," y'all.)

    Being a government legal document, there's only so far this resolution can go in terms of tone. It's formal because it has to be—it's not a speech or an opinion piece. It uses words like "whereas" (2, 3, 4) and "resolved by" (5) that indicate the formal, official nature. It's matter-of-fact because it doesn't waste any time expanding on details, it simply states what's happening. Ships were attacked, communists are bad, time to attack.

    And lastly it's accusatory because it's pointing multiple fingers at North Vietnam, both for attacking U.S. ships and for spreading communism.

  • Writing Style

    Simple Yet Bureaucratic

    At one page in length, consisting of four actual sentences, this resolution is as simple as it gets. It does feel wordy as you read it—thanks to the embarrassingly long run-on sentences—but as a whole it's straightforward.

    That being said, we're talking very formalized writing here—after all, it's a government doc. There are no colorful words, vivid scenes for the imagination, or memory-evoking statements. Just the facts, ma'am.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Rarely known for their catchy, creative titles, Congress simply calls things what they are. New law about school buses and railroad crossings? Let's call it "School Bus Railroad Crossing Bill."

    A resolution based on events in the Gulf of Tonkin? Let's call it "Tonkin Gulf Resolution."

    While you might blame them for being rather dull, you have to admit it's at least clear. It could be worse: "A Resolution On The Determination Of Systematic Aggression Facing The United States Due In Whole Or In Part By The Communist Regime Of North Vietnam" could have been a thing. Shudder.

    A quick note about the word "resolution." Congress uses this word formally to mean something agreed upon (by Congress, that is). So, the title is saying "due to the events in the Gulf of Tonkin, here's what we've decided." That wouldn't make a very cool title though.

  • What's Up With the Opening Lines?

    And by "opening lines," we literally mean lines, not sentences. Because the first sentence is five paragraphs long.

    This resolution is a decision, by Congress, about what to do with Vietnam. Therefore, it needs to state a goal. The first line states that goal by saying:

    To promote the maintenance of international peace and security in southeast Asia […] (1)

    Clear enough, and quite patriotic. The purpose of whatever we are about to read (spoiler: giving the President unlimited power to wage war) is for peace and safety.

  • What's Up With the Closing Lines?

    Never ones to go out with a bang, Congress ends this resolution simply by telling us when and how the order will cease to exist:

    Section 3. This resolution shall expire when the President shall determine that the peace and security of the area is reasonably assured by international conditions created by action of the United Nations or otherwise, except that it may be terminated earlier by concurrent resolution of the Congress.

    Since the President has been granted unlimited power and resources to fight in Vietnam, we need to know when that power will be shut off (just to make sure no one gets any crazy ideas about military dictatorships…).

    There are two ways this resolution ends: one, the President says that peace and security has been created in Southeast Asia; or two, Congress cuts off the power by a vote.

    And that's all, folks.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (4) Base Camp

    Hoo boy, is there some classic Congress language in this one.

    We're talking starting sentences with words like "whereas," using diplomatic patriotic language, and including long run-on sentences. Technically speaking, paragraphs 2, 3, 4, and 5 are all part of the same sentence, but like…they don't make it easy on us.

    To add to the fun, the sentences don't flow very well, thanks to big titles like the "Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty" (come on, Congress, couldn't we whip up a quick acronym for that?).

    All of that being said, it's short. You'll get through it in 2-3 minutes, so stop your whining.

    And we guess we'll stop ours.

  • Shout-Outs

    In-Text References

    Historical and Political References

    Communism (2, 3)
    United Nations (2, 6, 7)
    Congress (5, 7)
    President (5, 6, 7)
    Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty (6)

    Geographical References

    Vietnam (2, 3)
    Southeast Asia (1, 4, 6)

    References to This Text

    Literary and Philosophical References

    John White (New Haven Register, 1967)
    Daniel Ellsberg (Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, 2002)
    James Stockdale (Love and War, 1984)
    Vo Nguyen Giap (Meeting with McNamara, 1995)
    John White (The Gulf of Tonkin Events—Fifty Years Later, 2014)

    Historical and Political References

    Congress (1971 Repeal)
    New York Times Company v. United States ("Pentagon Papers" Supreme Court Case)
    War Powers Resolution (1973)

  • Trivia

    Turns out the "fog of war" is more than just that annoying darkness hiding your enemy's units in video games…it's a movie about the shocking and revealing truth behind the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. (Source)

    You know you've made it in life when you can rename yourself "Bringer of Light," which is exactly what "Ho Chi Minh" translates to. (Source)

    If you think college is hard, try fighting in a napalm-ridden jungle halfway around the world. The average soldier in Vietnam was 21 years old, meaning there were plenty of teens doing a whole lot of fighting. (Source)

    If the U.S. goes to war, you would hope that American citizens, you know, actually want to go to war. Yet by 1971, almost 60% of Americans thought the Vietnam War was a bad idea and that the U.S. should peace out. (Source)

    So if American ships were, in fact, not attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin, what was everyone shooting at? According to President Johnson himself, the sailors might have been "shooting at flying fish." (Source)

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