The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (Joint Resolution of Congress, H.J. Res 1145, Public Law 88-408) was legislation passed by Congress and signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. It authorized the president to respond to military attacks against U.S. military forces and against U.S. allies in Southeast Asia. By extending an ostensibly self-defense-oriented resolution to the defense of American allies, it authorized the president to engage the United States in a massive, long-term effort at preventing the fall of the government of South Vietnam to the North Vietnamese regime aided by the Soviet Union and China. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, in effect, formalized U.S. involvement in a war that would prove politically-divisive, cost over 58,000 American lives and, ultimately, end in failure.
The events that precipitated passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution involved one and possibly two attacks by North Vietnamese patrol boats on the American destroyer USS Maddox, which was patrolling the waters of the coast of Vietnam. The first attack occurred on August 2, 1964. That the North Vietnamese naval craft fired on the U.S. ship is not in dispute. What has been disputed, however, are the allegations made by the crew of the Maddox that it was attacked a second time two days later. There exists among military people a phrase: “the fog of war.” This phrase is a reference to the difficulty of attaining accurate information during the chaos of combat and, equally importantly, the difficulty of separating fact from incorrect information that inevitably develops in the heat of combat. In other words, it can be extremely difficult to judge the veracity of information from the scene of a battle when tensions are obviously high and the effects of combat, such as smoke and fire, and the natural conditions of the setting, such as fog or the darkness of night, obscure vision and, occasionally, reality.
Up until the events of August 1964, the United States had been engaged in a protracted, but fairly limited effort at buttressing the government of South Vietnam, which had been struggling with a large-scale guerrilla insurgency—the Viet Cong—supported by North Vietnam and its allies. The incident(s) in the Gulf of Tonkin, however, provided President Johnson and congressional supporters of expanding American efforts in Southeast Asia the opening they needed to justify the large-scale deployment of American troops to defend the South against the North. The result was the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, passed on August 7, 1964, the text of which follows:
Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,
That the 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.
Section 2. The United States regards as vital to its national interest and to world peace the maintenance of international peace and security in southeast Asia. Consonant with the Constitution of the United States and the Charter of the United Nations and in accordance with its obligations under the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty, the United States is, therefore, prepared, as the President determines, to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force, to assist any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty requesting assistance in defense of its freedom.
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.
President Johnson used the political cover this resolution provided to open up a much broader war in Vietnam. Now, rather than training South Vietnamese forces and occasionally engaging in exchanges with Viet Cong guerrillas while conducting small-scale bombing and commando raids, U.S. military forces began large-scale actions against North Vietnam, most notably, Operation Rolling Thunder, a bombing campaign authorized the president on February 13, 1965 and that began on March 2nd. While most of these airstrikes were targeted against the routes used by North Vietnam to support the Viet Cong guerrillas operating in the south, Rolling Thunder was just a prelude to massive bombing campaigns that would follow.
The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, then, is important for representing the official start of large-scale American deployments to Vietnam.