Fifty years ago, in August 1964, North Vietnamese torpedo boats reportedly attacked the American destroyer Maddox and, possibly, the Turner Joy in the Gulf of Tonkin.
See, there were (reportedly) two separate incidents. The first occurred on Aug. 2, 1964, and it seems pretty certain that one did happen. The Maddox was attacked, and a sea battle followed in which the Maddox fired nearly 300 rounds at the torpedo boats.
Two days later, the Turner Joy was reportedly fired on after it had moved into position to provide support for the Maddox. The evidence of that incident was shakier. It was initially reported as a sea battle, implying that both sides had been firing weapons, but it later emerged that the firing of Turner Joy's weapons may have been triggered (so to speak) by "Tonkin ghosts" — false radar images.
(An internal National Security Agency report, which was declassified in 2005, found that "[i]t is not simply that there is a different story as to what happened; it is that no attack happened that night.")
Real or false, President Lyndon Johnson used the attacks as justification for escalating American involvement in Vietnam — and winning political support from some conservatives.
But the Americans apparently hadn't expected their presence to draw enemy fire.
The outcome was the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, a joint resolution approved by both chambers of Congress a week later. It gave Johnson the authority — without Congress' formal declaration of war — to use "conventional" military force.
The House approved the resolution 416–0. In the Senate, only two senators — Wayne Morse of Oregon and Ernest Gruening of Alaska — voted against it.
"I believe this resolution to be a historic mistake," Morse told his colleagues. "I believe that, within the next century, future generations will look with dismay and great disappointment upon a Congress which is now about to make such a historic mistake."
It didn't even take that long.
By 1967, opposition to the war was growing and the rationale for American involvement was under close scrutiny by the public. A movement to repeal the resolution began to gather steam. The repeal was achieved as an attachment to the Foreign Military Sales Act of 1971, which was signed into law by Richard Nixon.
To further limit a president's war powers, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution of 1973 over Nixon's veto.
But there weren't many critical comments in August 1964.
It was perceived as the logical progression of the anti–appeasement policy that had been in style since World War II.
"President Johnson has earned the gratitude of the free world," wrote the Washington Post.
Fifty years later, The Hill calls it a "tragedy." To me, that seems more accurate than "historic mistake," although I guess both are correct.
And Johnson's response to the perceived aggression of the North Vietnamese apparently shored up his support on the right. In July, Gallup reported that 58% of respondents had been critical of his handling of the military effort in Vietnam, but in August, nearly three–fourths of respondents approved. That was an impressive shift. And, in November, Johnson won a full four–year term as president by the widest margin in history.
Whether legitimately or not, it is clear that Johnson reaped considerable immediate political benefits from what historian Theodore White called a "deft response" to a threat.
"For all I know," Johnson told a group of visitors in 1965, "our Navy was shooting at whales out there."