50 Years Ago in News History: The Gulf of Tonkin

On Aug. 2, 1964, the crew of the USS battleship Maddox reported an attack by North Vietnamese torpedo boats in waters known as the Gulf of Tonkin. The attacks allegedly occurred while the United States performed intelligence patrols.

Two days later on Aug. 4, the USS Turner Joy reported another attack by the North Vietnamese navy. Later that evening, President Lyndon B. Johnson described the attacks in a “midnight address” to the American people in which he requested a military response.

“In the larger sense, this new act of aggression, aimed directly at our own forces, again brings home to all of us in the United States the importance of the struggle for peace and security in Southeast Asia,” Johnson said. “The determination of all Americans to carry out our full commitment to the people and to the government of South Vietnam will be redoubled by this outrage.”

Congress agreed.

On Aug. 7, 1964, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, expanding the president’s authority over the military and effectively marking the beginning of the Vietnam War — one of the defining events in modern U.S. history.

The resolution allowed the president to “take all necessary measures to repeal any armed attack.” Only two senators opposed the bill. Operation Rolling Thunder, the first extensive bombing campaign against North Vietnam, began the following year.

As the war dragged on, however, anti-war protests intensified. Critics questioned not only U.S. involvement in Vietnam but also the legal basis for it. They argued the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution gave the president an unconstitutional loophole around Congress’s reserved right to declare war. Critics even questioned the legitimacy of the initial attacks. Years later, the Pentagon Papers verified those doubts.

In 1971, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was repealed. By 1975, U.S. troops had evacuated Vietnam.

“Covering Vietnam,” a new exhibit that commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, will explore the news coverage of the controversial war and will open at the Newseum in 2015.

Written by Andrea Ledesma, research associate

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