Primary Source: Gulf of Tonkin Resolution

Instructor: David Wilson

David has taught college history and holds an MA in history.

The Gulf of Tonkin Incident drew the United States into the Vietnam War in 1964. President Lyndon Baines Johnson greatly increased American participation by creating a resolution that easily passed through Congress.

Gulf of Tonkin Incident

In a similar manner to how the Pearl Harbor attacks began World War II, or the September 11th attacks began the war in Afghanistan, the Gulf of Tonkin Incident in 1964 directly led to the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. A communist North Vietnamese torpedo boat allegedly attacked a United States battleship in the Gulf of Tonkin, off the coast of Vietnam (the exact details of the incident remain unclear to this day). While there were no U.S. casualties, the attack effectively amounted to a cause for war.

President Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ), who had been in office for just a year following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, believed that the Gulf of Tonkin Incident necessitated a military response. He signed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which had been passed by Congress, giving him the ability to use the military might of the United States to repel and prevent future communist attacks. This was not, however, a declaration of war: in fact, there was no declaration of war throughout the entire Vietnam War, just as there was no declaration of war in the Korean War, as the American government did not recognize most communist authorities throughout the broader anti-communist Cold War.

The United States had committed parts of its military to attack the communist forces of the Viet Cong in Vietnam prior to this incident, but drastically increased its presence and its operations afterwards. LBJ authorized the use of not just bombing and shelling against the communist Vietnamese, but also combat troops (''boots on the ground''), beginning with just a few thousand but, by 1968, increasing to as many as half a million soldiers. This led to escalations on the communist side as well: the Vietnamese recruited many more soldiers, while China and the Soviet Union supplied them with arms and money. Despite LBJ's many successes in domestic policy, such as the creation of Medicare health coverage, historians severely criticize him for committing the United States to a war in Southeastern Asia. A decade later, the United States would unceremoniously pull out of Vietnam after nearly 60,000 American combat deaths (and well over one million Vietnamese casualties).

In 1964, however, American political and military authorities believed their overwhelming firepower would be more than enough to subdue the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army. Let's take a look at the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that started it all now.

Text of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution

Eighty-eighth Congress of the United States of America


Begun and held at the City of Washington on Tuesday, the seventh day of January, one thousand nine hundred and sixty-four

Joint Resolution

To promote the maintenance of international peace and security in southeast Asia.

Whereas naval units of the Communist regime in Vietnam, in violation of the principles of the Charter of the United Nations and of international law, have deliberately and repeatedly attacked United Stated naval vessels lawfully present in international waters, and have thereby created a serious threat to international peace; and

Whereas these attackers are part of deliberate and systematic campaign of aggression that the Communist regime in North Vietnam has been waging against its neighbors and the nations joined with them in the collective defense of their freedom; and

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