The Vietnam War began, fatefully, with an almost unanimous vote of Congress, based on sketchy, and ultimately incorrect, information. Fifty years ago this week, a Navy destroyer, the USS Maddox, was patrolling the Gulf of Tonkin when three North Vietnamese torpedo boats approached. The ships exchanged fire, with no hits. Two days later, the Maddox and another destroyer reported again being under attack, and fired at the shore.
President Lyndon Johnson, in the midst of his civil rights initiative, worried about political pressure from military hawks. A week earlier, Barry Goldwater had accepted the 1964 Republican presidential nomination with a fiery anti-communist speech. Aggressive action against communist North Vietnam would neutralize Goldwater’s campaign. But it was based on hazy information.
While the administration insisted there had been two attacks, there were doubts within the military. The National Security Agency later determined there was no second attack. Plus, the administration declined to reveal that the Maddox was on an intelligence mission, aiding South Vietnam against the North. An uninquisitive Congress, however, granted overwhelming approval.
The war caused more than 58,000 US deaths and many times that many Vietnamese deaths, without preventing a North Vietnamese victory. Now, as new hotspots emerge around the world, the United States faces more and more questions about when and how to intervene. So, what lessons does the infamous Tonkin Gulf Resolution hold for today’s policymakers?