LBJ and the Gulf of Tonkin | 4 August 1964

Just before midnight on 4 August 1964, President Lyndon Johnson interrupted regular television programming to report on two recent attacks against the American naval vessel “Maddox” in the Gulf of Tonkin, about ten miles off the coast of North Vietnam. Standing between two flags in front of a blank, white wall, Johnson explained in a slow, deliberate tone that on the nights of 2 and 4 August, the Maddox (and the C. Joy Turner on 4 August) had been the victims of “renewed hostile actions” by the North Vietnamese. Johnson described the attacks as unprovoked and as taking place in international waters. He explained the immediate retaliation he had ordered on North Vietnamese targets and emphasized the need for a timely demonstration of resolve. “It is my belief,” Johnson concluded, “that firmness in the right is indispensable today for peace; that firmness will always be measured.” The president spent less than six minutes on camera, but the speech’s effects were far reaching. Even as the facts of the incident were called into question before Johnson appeared on television, by 7 August Congress had overwhelmingly passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, extending the President’s power to use “all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the United States and to prevent further aggression.”



Context

The Report on the Gulf of Tonkin came at a pivotal moment in American foreign and military policy with Vietnam. Since 1954, American military personnel had been aiding the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) in its war with the communist People’s Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam). Between 1960 and 1963 – the year of Johnson’s assumption of the presidency after the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22 – the American military presence in South Vietnam ballooned from 900 to more than 16,000 personnel. In 1964, Johnson and his cabinet agonized over whether to further expand the war, ultimately deciding on incrementally committing more combat troops and direct operations against North Vietnam. In 1964, the American military expand to more than 185,000 personnel, largely as a result of the powers granted the president in the Tonkin Gulf Resolution.

The Report also came at a pivotal moment in the political career of Lyndon Johnson. In office less than a year, Johnson was already in the midst of a presidential election in 1964. Facing the hawkish Republican Barry Goldwater, Johnson felt pressure to respond to North Vietnamese aggression and not appear “soft” on communism. On the other hand, any rash or drastic actions threatened to change the calculus of the November 1964 election or slow the momentum of domestic legislation. The Gulf of Tonkin incident, and the subsequent congressional resolution, appeared to be an easy fix. By assuming direct responsibility and authority for military intervention, Johnson hoped to minimize the issue of Vietnam in the upcoming election. A later historical study by the National Security Council would conclude that the 2 August incident was initiated by the Maddox, and the 4 August incident was not an attack by North Vietnamese forces but a salvage operation gone wrong.

Significance

As the media reported on the first incident on 2 August, the White House sought to play down its significance. The New York Times reported the next day that unnamed officials “said it was the United States ‘hope and expectation’ that the incident would prove an isolated one.” Robert J. McCloskey, a State Department spokesperson, called the incident “serious,” but did not mention any plans for a retaliatory strike. On the same day, Johnson called a group of reporters into the Oval Office and read a brief statement, refusing to answer questions. The statement was his instructions to the Navy to double the number of destroyers in the Gulf (to two) and proceed with a “shoot to kill” policy. Given the tenor and tone of the White House’s actions on the night 4 August, Johnson’s speech at 11:30pm was perceived by all parties as a clear escalation – a direct result of the second attack on the Maddox and the C. Joy Turner.

The second incident on 4 August changed the situation. In the lead up to Johnson’s speech, news outlets were alerted hours before Johnson actually appeared before cameras. One reason for the delay was the inability of the White House to reach Senator Barry Goldwater by phone. After three failed attempts, Johnson read his report to Goldwater, who endorsed it. Appearing on television an hour later, Johnson’s performance was described similarly in the nation’s major media outlets. The New York Times observed that “It was clear from the crisis air in the White House, from Mr. Johnson’s solemn manner as he spoke and from earlier statements issued from the State Department that the action the President had ordered here was regarded as a matter of utmost seriousness.” The Chicago Tribune described Johnson as speaking “in solemn, measured tones.”

Johnson felt pressure to respond to North Vietnamese aggression and not appear “soft” on communism.

On 5 August, as newspapers reported on the transcript of Johnson’s report and early reactions by other political leaders, a few themes emerged. First was Johnson’s success in depicting himself as a hardliner. The New York Times headlined that “Johnson Assails New Raid By Reds” and reported that “the Japanese Foreign Ministry was ‘shocked’ by the strong tone of President Johnson’s statement about retaliation.” The Los Angeles Times called the second incident a “Major Red Error” and emphasized the need for the US response to be strong.” In “setting the tone of policy,” the Los Angeles Times continued, Johnson’s speech sought to clarify to communists in North Vietnam and China “the U.S. determination to stand firm against the reds.” At the same time, Johnson’s assurance that the U.S. did not seek to widen the war in Southeast Asia put an apparent limit on American response.

Just as importantly for Johnson, key Republican leaders, who during the election year had called into question Johnson’s anticommunist credentials, publicly supported his report and policy of retaliation. Barry Goldwater, who spent much of 4 August out of communication on a yacht, finally talked to the President and released a statement. “I am sure,” Goldwater said, “that every American will subscribe to the actions outlined in the President’s statement. I believe it is the only thing he can do under the circumstances.” Richard Nixon, who was the Republican Party’s 1960 presidential nominee, also publicly supported Johnson. Henry Cabot Lodge, the former United Nations Ambassador and 1960 Republican Vice Presidential nominee, was “happy the President met force with force.” As “the most serious incident since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962,” according to the Los Angeles Times, the moment inspired a public consolidation around the President.

This bi-partisan support extended to Congressional leaders, who rallied around Johnson and promised to speedily pass a resolution “making clear that our Government is united in its determination to take all necessary measures in support of freedom and defense of peace in Southeast Asia.” Immediately after Johnson’s report, early in the morning on 5 August, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara held a press conference to elaborate on the administration’s position. The next day he testified before a joint session of the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committee. Johnson’s policy of retaliation, combined with his somber and serious tone in front the camera on the night of 4 August, had already set the parameters of debate for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which was passed on 7 August with a vote of 416-0 in the House and 88-2 in the Senate.

Resources

Gardner, Lloyd. Pay Any Price: Lyndon Johnson and the Wars for Vietnam (Chicago: I.R. Dee, 1995).

Logevall, Fredrick. Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).

Moïse, Edwin E. Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996).

VanDeMark, Brian. Into the Quagmire: Lyndon Johnson and the Escalation of the Vietnam War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).

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