At a meeting of the National Security Council, McGeorge Bundy, national security advisor to President Lyndon B. Johnson, informs those in attendance that President Johnson has decided to postpone submitting a resolution to Congress asking for authority to wage war. The situation in South Vietnam had rapidly deteriorated, and in March 1964, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara reported that 40 percent of the countryside was under Viet Cong control or influence. Johnson was afraid that he would be run out of office if South Vietnam fell to the communists, but he was not prepared to employ American military power on a large scale. Several of his advisers, led by McGeorge Bundy’s brother, William, had developed a scenario of graduated overt pressures against North Vietnam, according to which the president–after securing a Congressional resolution–would authorize airstrikes against selected North Vietnamese targets. Johnson rejected the idea of submitting the resolution to Congress because it would “raise a whole series of disagreeable questions” which might jeopardize the passage of his administration’s civil rights legislation. Just two months later, they revisited idea of a resolution in the wake of the Tonkin Gulf incident.
In August, after North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked U.S. destroyers in what became known as the Tonkin Gulf incident, Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara and Secretary of State Dean Rusk appeared before a joint Congressional committee on foreign affairs. They presented the Johnson administration’s arguments for a resolution authorizing the president “to take all necessary measures” to defend Southeast Asia. Subsequently, Congress passed Public Law 88-408, which became known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which gave President Johnson the power to take whatever actions he deemed necessary, including “the use of armed force.” The resolution passed 82 to 2 in the Senate, where Wayne K. Morse (D-Oregon) and Ernest Gruening (D-Alaska) were the only dissenting votes; the bill passed unanimously in the House of Representatives. President Johnson signed it into law on August 10 and it became the legal basis for every presidential action taken by the Johnson administration during its conduct of the war.