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–by Lincoln Webb, USCHS intern

The latter half of twentieth century was an era defined by a monumental geopolitical confrontation between two behemoths: the United States and the Soviet Union. Among many other things, the Cold War was a struggle between ideals, and with the impetus supplied by George F. Kennan’s “long telegram,” it became the primary objective of the United States to contain communism. Containment took many forms from 1946 until the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. Fortunately, most of the time it was economic containment, as epitomized by the Marshall Plan in 1947, which was used to undermine Soviet influence in regions such as Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia. However in other instances such as Korea, Vietnam, and the Soviet War in Afghanistan, the Cold War quickly escalated toward prolonged military confrontation, known widely among historians as “proxy wars.”

The USS Maddox in Australia in 1967.

The most memorable and protracted of these proxy wars was Vietnam, which developed in its earliest stages in late 1955. The war reached a new level of intensity on August 10, 1964—fifty years ago this Sunday—when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Congress had quickly passed this resolution in response to the attack on two U.S. Navy destroyers, USS Maddox and Turner Joy, in international waters by the North Vietnamese on August 2 and 4. With only one representative and two senators voting against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on August 7, the level of Congressional mandate behind accelerating the war effort was immense. Above all else, this act gave President Johnson the authority to “take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.” At the same time, this was by no means a formal declaration of war. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution—to an extent beyond any other Congressional action before it—gave the executive branch more authority to take military action, both conventional and covert. This legacy of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution has had far-reaching implications for United States foreign policy over the past half-century.

Pres. Johnson signs the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. (Lyndon Baines Johnson Library)

The most direct corollaries that have followed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution are the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, and the Iraq wars. During the administration of George W. Bush, the decision to go to war in Afghanistan, more so than other wars, is remarkably within the same vein as the Tonkin Resolution. This is primarily due to the fact both of these followed a so-called “black swan” event that galvanized the American people against those who had attacked them. Additionally, both of these wars have inspired a similar sentiment among the American people, as both instances have made the populace discontented with the protracted nature of a war that seems unnecessary to continue.

Yet there is perhaps an even more unpopular trend that has developed due to the increased presidential authority first provided by the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. Events such as Jimmy Carter’s actions in Iran, Ronald Reagan’s involvement with the Contras, Bill Clinton’s decision to send troops to Haiti, or even Barak Obama’s use of drones in the Middle East all fall in line with the Presidential authority in foreign affairs outlined by the Gulf of Tonkin Revolution. Each has a decidedly secretive quality independent of Congressional oversight, which often leaves the American people uneasy, if not outraged.

Much debate has surrounded what degree of autonomy the president should be given to conduct military operations in the advancement of national interests. In instances such as Pearl Harbor and September 11, it would seem popular mandate seems to afford a large degree of freedom to the president. However, in the absence of such overt attacks on the United States, it is often the case that US military action seems ultimately unsavory. Regardless of whether someone thinks US foreign policy of the past fifty years has been justified or not, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution has played an important part in shaping how the United States has conducted itself on the global stage.