Study Guide

Tonkin Gulf Resolution Historical Context

By U.S. Congress

Historical Context

Part 1: Vietnam Liberated

You might not think that a world superpower with reality TV stars as politicians (that's America) and a tiny country where many people still fish in wooden canoes (that's Vietnam) would have much in common, but actually there are a bunch of similarities.

For starters:

  • Vietnam was colonized and controlled by a European power (France), just like America was (Britain).
  • Vietnam got fed up with colonial rule, and fought a war of independence against their "mother nation" (just like America did).
  • Vietnam won, and became an independent country (ditto).

Given this nice shared history, you might expect the U.S. to side with Vietnam when they had their revolution against France, right? Wrong. America sided with France, mostly due to the fact that France was an ally, and Vietnam is situated right smack next to communist China.

Turns out that didn't work so well, for France or for the U.S. Vietnam won their independence, but the country was split into two halves. A revolutionary dude named Ho Chi Minh took charge of the north half, and made it communist. A far less extreme (and less bearded) leader rose up in the south half, named Ngo Diem, and boom—the stage was set for civil war.

Part 2: Vietnam Occupied

The U.S. didn't like that Vietnam was creeping towards communism. China had already become "red" (communist), as had North Korea. America was worried about a "domino effect" where Asian nations would keep falling to communism.

The solution? Send help.

Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy sent "advisors" to South Vietnam to help their local army defend against the North. (We put quotes around "advisors" because there were over 10,000 of them, which means either there was a ton of advice being given or they were actually soldiers.) President Johnson continued sending people to Vietnam, until the Gulf of Tonkin incident led directly to the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, making it official that the U.S. was there to stay.

Part 3: Vietnam in Flames

Thanks to the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, the U.S. was now formally involved in the Vietnam War. The United States fought in Vietnam for eight years during the late '60s and early '70s, against the Northern army named the Viet Cong.

The fighting was difficult, because Vietnam is full of thick jungle, and the enemy would hide in civilian villages, making bombing runs far too risky. (That doesn't mean the U.S. didn't drop bombs—in fact, more bombs were dropped on Vietnam than in World War II against Germany and Japan combined. (Source)

Napalm was a particularly nasty weapon used in Vietnam, resulting in large portions of the country and the people in flames. Horrible acts were committed on both sides, including the torture of American prisoners of war, and U.S. soldiers massacring entire villages of women and children. (Source)

This may not shock you, but the war wasn't exactly popular back home in the ol' U.S. of A.

People protested in the streets, broke into government buildings to burn draft letters, and cursed at and spin on soldiers returning from fighting. Of course, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution allowed America to get involved in the worst war ever, and it was controversial from the beginning with so many "facts" unverified and unproven.

In the end, America could not defeat North Vietnam. President Nixon brought the fighting to an end in 1973 (at least the fighting that included American troops), and removed U.S. military forces from the country. After America left, the North successfully invaded the South, and unified Vietnam under communism.

Vietnam is the only war that America has lost. Thanks, Tonkin Gulf Resolution.

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