An examination of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, its intent and impact, its ultimate repeal and its relationship to the War Powers Resolution.
To help students understand how Congress and the President both exercise power in the field of foreign relations, although not always to achieve the same objectives. To illustrate how and why Congress moved to limit the power of the President, specifically in the use of the U.S. military.
Understand how the President employs public opinion and Congressional support to promote his foreign policy agenda, and to understand that public opinion and Congressional support can turn against such a policy, producing unwanted consequences.
Understand that the President can exercise a great deal power in the field of foreign relations, but that Congress can attempt to limit that power.
UCLA National Historical Thinking Standard 5: Students engage in historical issue-analysis and decision making.
Analyze cause-and-effect relationships, bearing in mind the importance of the individual in history and the influence of ideas, human interests and beliefs.
Consider multiple perspectives (in this case of Congress and the Presidents), noting their sometimes different motives, beliefs and interests.
President Johnson’s Speech to the nation on August 4, 1964 concerning the so-called Gulf of Tonkin Incident. https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/238730
President Johnson’s message to Congress on August 5, 1964 concerning the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/238756
Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc_large_image.php?flash=true&doc=98
War Powers Resolution. https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/STATUTE-87/pdf/STATUTE-87-Pg555.pdf
Teacher will provide a brief history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam—from the early Eisenhower support for the French up until the Gulf of Tonkin Incident—and frame the involvement within the context of the Cold War and the Containment Policy.
The teacher will then point out that during the subsequent year (August, 1964 to August, 1965) the United States transitioned from simply supporting the South Vietnamese to actually fighting a full scale war.
The teacher will then ask, how did this happen, and point out that the Constitution says that Congress has the authority to declare war. Did President Johnson ask for a declaration of war, the teacher will ask, and the “no” answer to that question will lead to the obvious question, where then did President Johnson get the authority to conduct this war? This will lead to a description and discussion of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident.
The teacher will then provide a copy of President Johnson’s speech to the nation on August 4, 1964, in which he discussed this incident and the United States’ response. The teacher will highlight the following excerpt: “I have today met with the leaders of both parties in the Congress of the United States and I have informed them that I shall immediately request the Congress to pass a resolution making it clear that our Government is united in its determination to take all necessary measures in support of freedom and in defense of peace in southeast Asia.”
The teacher will then provide a copy of President Johnson’s message to Congress the following day, noting particularly his specific requests: “I recommend a Resolution expressing the support of the Congress for all necessary action to protect our armed forces and to assist nations covered by the SEATO Treaty . . . It could state in the simplest terms the resolve and support of the Congress for action to deal appropriately with attacks against our armed forces and to defend freedom and preserve peace in southeast Asia in accordance with the obligations of the United States under the southeast Asia Treaty.”
The teacher will then provide a copy of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution—noting that it passed by a 416-0 vote in the House and an 88-2 vote in the Senate—and ask students if the President got what he wanted, and emphasizing the following excerpt: “. . . to take all measures necessary to repel armed attacks against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.”
The teacher will then point out that during the following year, President Johnson ordered U.S. ground forces to join the fighting and initiated an aerial bombing campaign against North Vietnam, in effect beginning what has come to be known in the United States as the Vietnam War. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was his legal basis for taking these actions. The teacher will then ask the students whether or not they believe that such actions reflect Congress’ intent when it passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.
The teacher will then discuss how opposition to the “war” grew in the United States during the following years—including among members of Congress—and point out that in January, 1971, Congress repealed the Gulf Of Tonkin Resolution, without any opposition from then President Nixon.
The teacher will point out that in 1971, the “war” was still going on, but that the Nixon administration used Article 2 in the Constitution to justify the President’s policy in Vietnam; not the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. This will lead to a brief discussion of the President’s role as Commander-in-Chief under Article 2.
The teacher will then ask students if they think that Congress was upset because President Johnson seemed to have taken advantage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution to wage the so-called Vietnam War, which was not its intent.
The teacher will then ask, what could Congress do to try and insure that such a situation would not happen again? This will lead to a discussion of the War Powers Resolution, a copy of which the teacher will provide. The teacher will ask, what is the intent of this, and how does it attempt to limit the President’s use of the military? The teacher will also ask, does this attempt to give Congress a greater role in the President’s use of the military?
Finally, the teacher will point out that this was enacted by Congress in July, 1973, after the United States had ended its involvement in Vietnam. The teacher will ask students how they think President Nixon felt about the War Powers Act, and then point out that President Nixon vetoed the War Powers Act, but that Congress over-rode his veto by a vote of 284-135 in the House and 75-18 in the Senate.
This could lead to a discussion of the concept of checks and balances, or a discussion of how future presidents dealt with the War Powers Act, most notably Clinton and the two Bushs.