Lessons of Tonkin Gulf

August 4, 2014–Many things give pause on this day in the calendar. One is the burning summer in Mississippi in 1964, when the bodies of slain civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were found in Philadelphia, Mississippi. It reminds us that today, even with an African-American president, there is work still to be done on that front. Another is the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, a major milestone on America’s road to war in Vietnam. I am reminded of Mississippi Burning when I think of Tonkin Gulf–a while back I did a book-CD project on president who recorded themselves on audiotape (see The White House Tapes). It wasn’t just Richard Nixon. Seven U.S. presidents did that, including Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ), the president at the time of Tonkin Gulf. Anyway, for each of the characters, I selected tapes from both at home and abroad. For LBJ, who recorded phone calls at will, August 4, 1964 seemed a perfect choice, since there you have the president facing foreign and domestic crises all at once.

You could hear LBJ’s urgency as he cajoled and almost called out the governor of Mississippi. On Vietnam, speaking to defense secretary Robert S. McNamara, you could hear how both of them already had it in mind to attack North Vietnam and were trading notes on desirable targets and so forth. We know today that the so-called “August 4th incident” in the Gulf was phony, a product of overheated imaginations and mistaken intelligence reporting, and that a previous encounter, with North Vietnamese torpedo boats on August 2nd, had been related to CIA-backed raids along the Vietnamese coast. LBJ and McNamara talk about that in these phone calls. To Congress at the time McNamara denied it. Based on false representations President Johnson obtained the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which the U.S. then used as its legal justification for conducting an entire war in Vietnam.

A Vietnam veteran friend of mine reminded me the other day that the Tonkin Gulf resolution was/is an “Authorization for the Use of Military Force” (AUMF), today’s jargon for congressional resolutions that recognize the president’s resort to troops. Congress passed one of these after 9/11 for chasing Al Qaeda, and another for Iraq, under false representations similar to those of Vietnam. The 9/11 AUMF, President Obama tells us, is outdated and can usefully be changed. American forces today are fighting where the resolution did not envision, and pulling out of the place where it did. Congress has not been able to take any action on the increasingly thin justification furnished by this AUMF.

Today is the 50th anniversary of the push for the Tonkin AUMF. Its lesson is that an “authorization” for force is a lot easier to get into than to get out of. We should have taken that into account at 9/11, making the authority expire as of a date certain, explicitly bounding it geographically, and by other means. In the case of the Tonkin Gulf resolution, despite its increasing disproportionality with what the United States was doing in Vietnam, and the growing doubts on the veracity of the August 4 attack, it took years to repeal the AUMF. For part of that time the Johnson administration lied about alleged events it knew to be doubtful (sound like George Bush and Iraq?).

This is also the centenary of World War I, the measure of whose lessons many statesmen and scholars are currently mulling. That makes today the 100th anniversary of the day the United States declared its neutrality in the War to End All Wars. The lesson of 1914 is that an AUMF is not the only answer to alleged crisis. We would do well to be much more careful about just what measures of force we approve, and how we approve them.

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