At a joint news conference, Senate Republican leader Everett Dirksen (Illinois) and House Republican leader Charles Halleck (Indiana) say that the Vietnam War will be a campaign issue because “Johnson’s indecision has made it one.” President Lyndon B. Johnson had assumed office after the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. Kennedy had supported Ngo Dinh Diem, the president of South Vietnam, who was assassinated during a coup just before Kennedy was killed. The deaths of both Diem and Kennedy provided an opportunity for the new administration to undertake a reassessment of U.S. policy toward Vietnam, but this was not done. Johnson, who desperately wanted to push a set of social reforms called the Great Society, was instead forced to focus on the deteriorating situation in South Vietnam. Caught in a dilemma, he later wrote: “If I…let the communists take over South Vietnam, then I would be seen as a coward and my nation would be seen as an appeaser and we w!
ould both find it impossible to accomplish anything for anybody anywhere in the entire globe.” Faced with having to do something about Vietnam, Johnson vacillated as he and his advisers attempted to devise a viable course of action.
The situation changed in August 1964 when North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked U.S. destroyers off the coast of North Vietnam. What became known as the Tonkin Gulf incident led to the passage of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which passed 416 to 0 in the House, and 88 to 2 in the Senate. This resolution, which gave the president approval to “take all necessary measures to repel an armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression,” provided the legal basis for President Johnson to initiate a major commitment of U.S. troops to South Vietnam, which ultimately totaled more than 540,000 by 1968.