Study Guide

Tonkin Gulf Resolution Compare and Contrast

By U.S. Congress

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  • Senator Gaylord Nelson

    Even though Tonkin Gulf Resolution was passed quickly and with an almost 100% vote in Congress (which is super rare), there was still some hearty debate over what the resolution would actually mean. Most of the debate had to do with the President's ability to wage war without needing to constantly ask Congress for permission (that whole "blank check" thing).

    Senator Gaylord Nelson ended up voting for the resolution (along with like, 99% of Congress), but he brought up an interesting point in the debate. He said:

    […] am I to understand that […] we are saying to the executive branch […] you may land as many divisions as deemed necessary, and engage in a direct military assault on North Vietnam […]? (Source)

    This quote shows us that Nelson (and probably many others) were pretty nervous about handing over so much power to the President. Congress was signing off on giving the President unrestricted access to America's military, and as history shows us, that much strength in the hands of one person can be quite dangerous.

    Strongest military in the world, following only a single person's orders? Yeah, we'd be nervous too.

    However, it is worth noting that according to the Constitution, the President does have this power as Commander in Chief. Once Congress has signed off on a military engagement, the President has full control of the military. So, Nelson's skepticism was probably more due to the specific situation in Vietnam, and less about what the Constitution actually says.

    To put it simply, Nelson probably thought a full-scale invasion of Vietnam was not the best use of America's military might.

  • Senator William Fulbright

    Here's a guy who was clearly conflicted about Tonkin Gulf Resolution. In a single statement during Congress' debate over the document, he gives the thumbs up but also is clearly unsure.

    "I do not know what the limits are […] I think it would indicate that [the President] would take reasonable means first to prevent any further aggression, or repel further aggression against our own forces." (Source)

    First, note that this quote shows how Fulbright accepts the fact that the power is in the President's hands in this military engagement. Repelling further aggression is good, right?

    Yeah, but note his hesitancy. He's talking only of preventing aggression, probably referencing the alleged attacks on U.S. ships. Did he know the result would be a full blown war with hundreds of thousands of ground forces? Fulbright goes on to say:

    I do not know how to answer the Senator's question and give him absolute assurance that large numbers of troops would not be put ashore. I would deplore it…

    Wait a minute, he would deplore it? As in, he would be strongly against it? Guess what Shmoopers, "large numbers of troops ashore" is exactly what ends up happening.

    We wonder if Fulbright would have reconsidered his vote if he had known.

  • Senator Ernest Gruening

    Some members of Congress hemmed and hawed in their support of or disagreement with the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. But Ernest Gruening was 100% committed to voting against the resolution from the start.

    He said:

    "I find myself in disagreement with the President's Southeast Asian policy […]"

    and that the attacks in the Gulf of Tonkin were:

    "inevitable […] consequences of U.S. unilateral military aggressive policy." (Source)

    It's almost as though Gruening knew this was coming, knew that Congress would authorize the President to take action, and knew that he would be outvoted. It's interesting to note that Gruening had the foresight to know that this military engagement would involve much more than just Vietnam. He said:

    "We are now about to authorize the President, if he sees fit, to move our armed forces not only into South Vietnam, but also into North Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand…" (Source)

    As history shows us, America did in fact commit to a bombing campaign in Laos and Cambodia in later years. Score one for prophet Ernest.

    On a bit of a philosophical note, it is worth noting similarities and differences to other wars in American history. Gruening did not want American soldiers in Vietnam, and went as far as to say we were "sending our American boys into combat in a war in which we have no business, which is not our war" (source).

    Most historians and Ponderers of the Past (that's an official title here at Shmoop, by the way) would agree that some wars are worthy, noble causes (for example, World War II). But a war like Vietnam has drawn heavy criticism for being wars where, as Gruening said, "we have no business" (source).

    Such thought begs the question, when is it correct and dutiful to go to war?

  • Senator Wayne Morse

    Besides Senator Gruening, Senator Morse was the only other vote against the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. While Gruening disagreed because he didn't want to send Americans soldiers to die; Morse was focused more on whether or not the resolution followed the Constitution.

    Bottom line: he thought Tonkin Gulf Resolution was unconstitutional.

    The Constitution of the United States says pretty clearly that only Congress can declare war. Morse's issue was that the Tonkin Gulf Resolution was essentially giving the President the power to wage war, without a formal declaration.

    He said during the Senate debate:

    "I believe that history will record that we have made a great mistake in subverting and circumventing the Constitution of the United States." (Source)

    His meaning? By not formally declaring war we are opening up the possibility of letting the President send military forces around the globe at his whim.

    Morse channels his inner prophet and goes on to say:

    "I believe that within the next century, future generations will look with dismay and great disappointment upon a Congress which is now about to make such a historic mistake." (Source)

    Was he right?

    Well, yes and no. Most people today look back at Vietnam and say that it was a disaster for the United States. However, there wasn't necessarily a huge backlash against Congress for the Tonkin Gulf Resolution specifically. It was more of a general anger that America was involved in the war at all, and if anyone took the blame, it was the President.

    After all, Congress is five hundred or so faces—the President is just one.

  • Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara

    McNamara was President Johnson's right hand man during the Vietnam War. He's the one who told President Johnson about the attacks against American ships near Vietnam, and he's the one who whipped up Congress to vote for the Tonkin Gulf Resolution immediately afterwards.

    So yeah, you could say that he was heavily in favor of the move to attack Vietnam. After all, U.S. forces had been attacked right?

    Well, that's where it gets complicated. (And juicy.)

    McNamara went through a personal reflection of sorts after the Vietnam War, and quite a lot of truth was revealed in the decades after. In 1995, for example, North Vietnam's defense minister Vo Nguyen Giap told McNamara that the second attack in the Gulf of Tonkin never happened.

    (There had been some discussion in Congress in the '60s of the possibility that the attack hadn't happened, but as you know from the near-unanimous vote on Tonkin Gulf Resolution, all minds were clearly set on war.)

    After the whole mess in Vietnam finally ended in the early '70s (60,000 Americans and countless Vietnamese dead, three countries bombed to oblivion), McNamara stated that it was all a mistake. He said:

    "The fundamental issue of Tonkin Gulf involved not deception but, rather, misuse of power bestowed by the resolution." (Source).

    So, it seems as though the same man who brought the original proposal to Congress reflected later that it was a bad idea. Hey, live and learn right? Or does that phrase maybe not apply when it involves thousands of lives…

    To serve as a final compare and contrast, we might also wonder what would have happened if John F. Kennedy had still been president, instead of Lyndon B. Johnson. JFK was assassinated in 1963, but McNamara was his Secretary of Defense just as he was Johnson's.

    In the 2003 documentary "Fog of War" McNamara says that:

    "Kennedy hadn't said before he died whether, faced with the loss of Vietnam, he would withdraw; but I believe today that had he faced that choice, he would have withdrawn." (Source)

    It's always tempting to "what if" the past, but remember that McNamara was the one who orchestrated the Tonkin Gulf Resolution and here, years later, he's almost saying he wished it had never happened.

    We guess war takes its toll on those who make the decisions almost as much as those who pull the triggers.

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