Gulf of Tonkin

Date: 
Sunday, August 2, 1964
Country: 
Vietnam

On August 2, 1964, three North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked a US destroyer, the USS Maddox. The boats reportedly fired torpedoes at the US ship in international waters in the Gulf of Tonkin, about thirty miles off the Vietnam coast. On August 4, the US Navy reported another unprovoked attack on the USS Maddox and the USS Turner Joy._Within hours, President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered a retaliatory strike. As the bases for North Vietnamese torpedo boats were bombed, Johnson went on TV and told America: "Repeated acts of violence against the armed forces of the United States must be met not only with alert defense, but with a positive reply. That reply is being given as I speak tonight." The next day, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara assured Capital Hill that the Maddox had only been "carrying out a routine mission of the type we carry out all over the world at all times."

McNamara said the two boats were in no way involved with recent South Vietnamese boat raids against North Vietnamese targets._At Johnson's request, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. The resolution pre-approved any military actions Johnson would take. It gave Johnson a free ticket to wage war in Vietnam as large as the President wanted. And, true to his large Texas roots, Johnson got a big war: by 1969, over half a million US troops were fighting in Indochina. Despite McNamara's testimony to the contrary, the USS Maddox had been providing intelligence support to South Vietnamese boats carrying out raids against North Vietnam. McNamara had also testified that there was "unequivocable proof" of an "unprovoked" second attack against the USS Maddox. In fact, the second attack never occurred at all._At the time of the second incident, the two US destroyers misinterpreted radar and radio signals as attacks by the North Vietnamese navy. It's now known that no North Vietnamese boats were in the area. So, for two hours, the two US destroyers blasted away at nonexistent radar targets and vigorously manoeuvred to avoid phantom North Vietnamese ships. Even though the second "attack" only involved two US ships defending themselves against a nonexistent enemy, the President and Secretary of Defense used it to coerce Congress and the American people to start a war they neither wanted nor needed._After the Vietnam War turned into a quagmire, Congress decided to put limits on the President's authority to unilaterally wage war. Thus, on November 7, 1973, Congress overturned President Nixon's veto and passed the War Powers Resolution. The resolution requires the President to consult with Congress before making any decisions that engage the US military in hostilities. It is still in effect to this day.