On August 2, shortly after a clandestine raid on the North Vietnamese coast by South Vietnamese gunboats, the U.S. destroyer Maddox (conducting electronic espionage nearby) was fired on by North Vietnamese torpedo boats. Two days later, in the same area, the Maddox and another destroyer reported that they were again under attack. Although these reports now appear to have been mistaken, Johnson proceeded quickly to authorize retaliatory air strikes against North Vietnam. The next day he gathered congressional leaders and, without divulging the circumstances that might have helped provoke the torpedo attack, accused the North Vietnamese of “open aggression on the high seas.” He then submitted to the Senate a resolution that authorized him to take “all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.” The resolution was quickly approved by Congress; only Senators Wayne Morse of Oregon and Ernest Gruening of Alaska voted against it. Later, when more information about the Tonkin incident became available, many concluded that Johnson and his advisers had misled Congress into supporting the expansion of the war.
Six years later, amid mounting criticism of President Richard M. Nixon’s Cambodian incursion, the resolution was terminated (December 31, 1970). But in fact, the war had been sustained by Congress’s continued military appropriations, not by the Tonkin Resolution. Nevertheless, Johnson had frequently cited the resolution as evidence of congressional support, and to critics of the war it had become a symbol of the escalation they opposed.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.