What really happened in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964 remains murky 50 years later, despite a number of books and inquiries into a naval skirmish off the coast of North Vietnam. But it became Lyndon Johnson’s justification for widening the war, and Congress quickly gave him the authority he wanted.
An amendment to the Gulf of Tokin resolution, drafted by Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson but never introduced, might have changed history.
President Johnson went on television to say he had ordered retaliation after “renewed hostile actions” against U.S. ships. The American response would be “limited and fitting,” he declared. “We still seek no wider war.”
The resolution he sent to Congress was simple. “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.” A second section said the peace and security of Southeast Asia were vital to the U.S. national interest.
Sen. Gaylord Nelson wanted to know what that meant. Was Congress being asked to write the President a blank check on Southeast Asia? He asked J. William Fulbright, Foreign Relations Committee chairman and floor manager for the resolution, on the Senate floor. “Am I to understand that it is the sense of Congress that we are saying to the executive branch: ‘If it becomes necessary to prevent further aggression, we agree now, in advance, that you may land as many divisions as deemed necessary, and engage in a direct military assault on North Vietnam, if it becomes the judgment of the Executive, the Commander in Chief, that this is the only way to prevent further aggression?’”
That would be “a grave decision on the part of our country,” Fulbright said. “I personally feel it would be very unwise under any circumstances to put a large land army on the Asian continent. It has been a sort of article of faith since I have been in the Senate that we should not be bogged down.” But, he admitted, “I do not know what the limits are” on what action the President could take. “I do not know how to answer the Senator’s question and give him an absolute assurance that large numbers of troops would not be put ashore. I would deplore it. And I hope the conditions do not justify it now.”
Nelson said he intended to vote for the resolution. “I do not think, however, that Congress should leave the impression that it consents to a radical change in our mission or objective in South Vietnam,” Nelson said. The mission, he said, was to help establish “a viable, independent regime, which can manage its own affairs, so that ultimately we can withdraw from South Vietnam.” Fulbright agreed, and said the resolution was “quite consistent with our existing mission and what has been our understanding of what we have been doing in South Vietnam for the last ten years.”
Nelson was still uneasy enough that when he walked to the Senate with George McGovern the next morning, for the final debate on the resolution, he had an amendment in his hand. It said:
“The Congress also approves and supports the efforts of the President to bring the problem of peace in Southeast Asia to the Security Council of the United Nations, and the President’s declaration that the United States, seeking no extension of the present military conflict, will respond to provocation in a way that is ‘limited and fitting.’ Our continuing policy is to limit our role to the provision of aid, training assistance, and military advice, and it is the sense of Congress that, except when provoked to a greater response, we should continue to avoid a direct military involvement in the Southeast Asian conflict.”
McGovern and Nelson walked up to Fulbright in the front row of the Senate, and Nelson told Fulbright he wanted to introduce the amendment. “Don’t do it,” Fulbright said. “We want this mainly to show bipartisan support and to undercut Barry Goldwater. We’d like to see it pass unanimously. The campaign is coming up and Goldwater is going to hit him for not using our full power.” Johnson had privately told Fulbright he wanted no amendments, “not even the Ten Commandments.” The administration wanted strong bipartisan action now, Fulbright said. The President did now want to expand the war, Fulbright said, and he would say so again on the Senate floor.
Nelson rose to say he was disturbed that every Senator who spoke seemed to have his own interpretation of what the resolution meant. To clarify the matter, he offered his amendment and asked Fulbright to accept it. “I do not object to it as a statement of policy,” Fulbright said. “I believe it is an accurate reflection of what I believe is the President’s policy, judging from his own statements.” But accepting the amendment would confuse matters, require a conference committee and delay action, he said. Nelson, a freshman Senator who considered himself “no foreign policy expert,” had “a great deal of respect” for Fulbright, who was certainly “not a war monger,” he said. So he deferred to Fulbright and did not press the amendment or ask for a roll call. Nelson and McGovern voted with the majority when it passed 88-2. Only Wayne Morse of Oregon and Ernest Greuning of Alaska voted no. The House vote was unanimous.
For the record, Nelson took the floor the next day to say he had voted for the resolution based on Fulbright’s assurance that it meant “no change in our basic mission in Vietnam. That mission is one of providing material support and advice. It is not to substitute our armed forces for those of the South Vietnamese government, nor to join them in a land war, nor to fight their war for them.”
President Johnson echoed Nelson’s remarks, pledging in October that he was “not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.”
On March 8, 1965, the first combat troops, 3,500 Marines, landed at Da Nang to defend the air base, beginning a steady increase in U.S. ground troops.
Johnson believed he had all the authorization he needed for escalation, in the form of the Tonkin Gulf resolution. “He carried that thing around in his pocket,” Nelson said. “I was at a meeting with him at the White House when he pulled it out and said, ‘You guys authorized this.’” LBJ called it the “504 to 2” resolution.
Sen. Mike Mansfield, later recalling Nelson’s questions on the resolution, said: “History may have taken a different turn if the Senate had done what was right rather than what was expedient, and had followed the advice of (Nelson).”
Bill Christofferson is the author of Gaylord Nelson’s biography, “The Man From Clear Lake,” published by University of Wisconsin Press.