Top U.S. officials concerned about the Vietnam War gather for two days of meetings in Honolulu. Attendees included Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Gen. William Westmoreland, Gen. Maxwell Taylor, and CIA Director John McCone, among others. Much of the discussion focused on the projected air war against North Vietnam, including a list of 94 potential targets. There was also a discussion of the plan for a joint Congressional resolution.
The meeting was convened to develop options for President Lyndon B. Johnson in dealing with the rapidly deteriorating situation in Vietnam. In March 1964, Secretary of Defense McNamara had 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 did not want to employ American military power on a large scale because of the impact that such actions might have on his Great Society domestic programs. Upon returning from the meeting in Honolulu, several of Johnson’s advisers, led by William Bundy, developed a scenario of graduated overt pressures against North Vietnam, according to which the president, after securing a Congressional resolution, would authorize air strikes 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 passage of the administration’s civil rights legislation. However, the idea of such a resolution would surface again in less than two months.
In August 1964, after North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked U.S. destroyers, in what became known as the Tonkin Gulf incident, McNamara and 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, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, giving 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. It became the legal basis for every presidential action taken by the Johnson administration during its conduct of the war.