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Gulf of Tonkin Resolution

The Gulf of Tonkin, NW arm of the South China Sea, c.300 mi (480 km) long and 150 mi (240 km) wide, between Vietnam and China. The shallow gulf (less than 200 ft/60 m deep) receives the Red River. Haiphong, Vietnam, and Peihai (Pakhoi), China, are the chief ports. An alleged attack (Aug., 1964) by North Vietnamese gunboats against U.S. naval forces stationed in the gulf led to increased U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

 On July 31, 1964, the USS Maddox, a navy destroyer, began a reconnaissance mission on the coast of North Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin. The goal was to find out about North Vietnamese Costal Defense Forces and because of the amount of activity due to South Vietnamese attacks on the North Vietnamese coastal areas, much could be gathered.

 On August 2, while the USS Maddox was not far from Hon Me, a North Vietnamese island being attacked, three North Vietnamese torpedo boats chased the Maddox off. The attack was unsuccessful, although torpedoes were launched. The USS Maddox was hit by one heavy machine gun shell from the torpedo boats. This is referred to as the "First Attack".

Vietnam War - Gulf of Tonkin, USS Maddox

Late in the afternoon on August 4, the USS Maddox returned to the middle of the Gulf of Tonkin, accompanied by the USS Turner Joy. That night, the USS Turner Joy picked up high-speed vessels on its radar. However, the USS Maddox did not. The two destroyers attacked these supposed ships. Some think the ships were there, others do not. This is referred to as the "Second Attack".

 The next day, two aircraft carriers, the USS Ticonderoga and the USS Constellation, retaliated. An air strike was launched. The primary target was a petroleum storage facility, which was destroyed.

 August 7, 1964, Congress passed the "Gulf of Tonkin Resolution", which gave President Johnson the power to resolve the conflict with any means necessary. The Johnson administration had wanted to have this type of power and some believe that the events were manufactured in order to receive this power. It does appear, however, that the events did in fact take place.

Congressional resolution passed in 1964 that authorized military action in Southeast Asia. On Aug. 4, 1964, North Vietnamese torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin were alleged to have attacked without provocation U.S. destroyers that were reporting intelligence information to South Vietnam. President Lyndon B. Johnson and his advisers decided upon immediate air attacks on North Vietnam in retaliation; he also asked Congress for a mandate for future military action. On Aug. 7, Congress passed a resolution drafted by the administration authorizing all necessary measures to repel attacks against U.S. forces and all steps necessary for the defense of U.S. allies in Southeast Asia. Although there was disagreement in Congress over the precise meaning of the Tonkin Gulf resolution, Presidents Johnson and Richard M. Nixon used it to justify later military action in Southeast Asia. The measure was repealed by Congress in 1970. In 1995 retired Vietnamese Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, in a meeting with former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, categorically denied that the North Vietnamese had attacked the U.S. destroyers on Aug. 4, 1964.

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United States Capitol

Joint Resolution of Congress
H.J. RES 1145 August 7, 1964

Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,

That the Congress approves and supports the determination of the President, as Commander in Chief, to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.

Section 2. The United States regards as vital to its national interest and to world peace the maintenance of international peace and security in southeast Asia. Consonant with the Constitution of the United States and the Charter of the United Nations and in accordance with its obligations under the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty, the United States is, therefore, prepared, as the President determines, to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force, to assist any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty requesting assistance in defense of its freedom.

Section 3. This resolution shall expire when the President shall determine that the peace and security of the area is reasonably assured by international conditions created by action of the United Nations or otherwise, except that it may be terminated earlier by concurrent resolution of the Congress.

Read more about the Tonkin Gulf Incident