Study Guide

Tonkin Gulf Resolution Themes

By U.S. Congress

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  • Warfare

    Going to war is not the same thing as declaring war. Confused? Officially, Tonkin Gulf Resolution is not a declaration of war. It's a permission slip, allowing the President to wage war in Vietnam in order to protect American interests.

    But the central theme is warfare, whether it's declared or not. Thanks to this resolution, President Johnson gains unlimited authority to use whatever resources and military personnel necessary to deal with the situation in Vietnam.

    Questions About Warfare

    1. What is the difference between declaring war and giving the President the authority to wage war?
    2. Should it really be considered war when one side is exponentially stronger and better equipped (U.S.) than the other (Vietnam)?
    3. What are the dangers in granting the President unlimited military authority?
    4. What are the benefits in granting the President unlimited military authority?

    Chew on This

    The Tonkin Gulf Resolution allowed the President to become a military dictator, throwing soldiers, planes, and bombs at a helpless country.

    The Tonkin Gulf Resolution gave the President just enough power to act militarily in order to protect Americans.

  • Fear

    Congress isn't made of dummies. Any politician knows that playing off people's fear is a good way to gain their support.

    In the 1960s, fear of communism was everywhere in the U.S., and the Tonkin Gulf Resolution includes plenty of statements that play on that fear in order to justify waging war in Vietnam. The "domino theory" is not mentioned here, but it was a term in heavy circulation in the '60s, meaning that if one nation fell to communism (in this case, Vietnam), others would fall afterwards, leading eventually to a large portion of the world under communist rule. Not good for the U.S.

    Questions About Fear

    1. Is making people afraid an effective way to gain their support?
    2. Might fear be used purposefully to gain support for an otherwise controversial decision?
    3. Do people make different choices in an atmosphere of fear than they would without that fear?
    4. Were average Americans really that afraid of communism, or was it a result of years of propaganda?

    Chew on This

    Tonkin Gulf Resolution was passed and supported solely because it played on Americans' fear of communism.

    Congress employed a strong fear of communism in getting Tonkin Gulf Resolution passed, which directly led to the American invasion of Vietnam.

  • Revenge

    It's much easier to justify going to war if you were attacked first. If we quickly look at U.S. history, we find this to be true many times: Mexico attacked U.S. forces first in the Mexican-American War, Germany sunk the Lusitania which riled up America to get into World War I, and Japan attacked the U.S. at Pearl Harbor in World War II.

    Being the guy who got hit first makes it much easier to accept the idea that hitting back is the right thing to do…which is exactly what is outlined in the Tonkin Gulf Resolution.

    Questions About Revenge

    1. Did America go to war in Vietnam for revenge, or for something else?
    2. What role did revenge play in America's involvement in Vietnam?
    3. If Vietnam really did attack two American ships, is all-out war the best response?
    4. What evidence exists to suggest that American ships were actually attacked at all?

    Chew on This

    Congress only played the revenge card in order to rile up feelings of animosity and justification, with the greater goal of going to war to stop the spread of communism.

    Being attacked first is always a good justification to go to war, otherwise it makes the attacked nation look weak powerless.

  • Freedom & Tyranny

    The entire Cold War Era was a struggle between freedom and tyranny. But was it clearly that black and white? And how does the Tonkin Gulf Resolution fit in to this battle of ideas?

    Vietnam was what we call a "proxy war," representing more than just nations battling. The U.S. was fighting against communism (which it considered the opposite of freedom), and North Vietnam was fighting to be allowed to be whatever form of government they wanted (communist, in this case, which the U.S. considered tyrannical).

    Questions About Freedom & Tyranny

    1. How accurate is it to say that during the Vietnam War, the United States represented freedom, and North Vietnam represented tyranny?
    2. How does the Vietnam conflict, starting with the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, fit into the greater Cold War narrative of freedom & tyranny?
    3. Was there an obvious, genuine divide between the U.S. and communist nations that we could describe as freedom on one side, and tyranny on the other? Or is it mostly propaganda?
    4. Was America truly fighting for freedom, against tyranny? Or was there something else—a hidden agenda—at play?

    Chew on This

    As a small part of the Cold War, the Vietnam War represented a classic struggle between those that fight for freedom (the U.S.) and those that desire tyranny (communist nations).

    During the Vietnam conflict the U.S. successfully tapped into people's fear of communism in order to create a clear sense of us and them, "us" being freedom and "them" being tyranny.

  • Imperialism

    When big, powerful nations take over small, weak ones, and claim them for their own, it's called imperialism. Imperialism has shaped the world—it's the reason English is spoken in the U.S., Spanish is spoken in Mexico, and Portuguese is spoken in Brazil.

    It's also why the whole mess in Vietnam started.

    France owned Vietnam (can a country really "own" another? In the real world, yes. Philosophically, we're not sure.), and, when Vietnam fought for their independence, the U.S. sided with France. That caused some bad blood, to say the least. So, you can imagine that America's involvement in the Vietnam War (courtesy of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution) could be seen as having possible imperialist motives…

    Questions About Imperialism

    1. Did the U.S. get involved in the Vietnam War in order to reclaim territory for itself, or perhaps for its ally France?
    2. Did the U.S. fight in Vietnam to take revenge against that nation for fighting against French imperialism?
    3. If territory and power was at stake in Vietnam, why didn't France get involved for a second time?
    4. Is America's claim that it has no desire to take territory in Vietnam convincing? If the war had turned out differently, might Vietnam have become a U.S. territory (like Puerto Rico or Guam)?

    Chew on This

    America had imperialist intentions by getting involved in Vietnam, hoping to score some territory and military strongholds.

    The Tonkin Gulf Resolution was a means to intervene in a politically unstable country, and protect the region from the threat of communism, with no hidden motives of imperialism.

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