Vietnam and the U.S., 1954 to 1968

Draft Chapter of The U.S. War Against Asia
by William P. Meyers

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From the North Vietnamese perspective the raids of August 4 were remarkably similar to the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor. The United States had not declared war. North Vietnam was not prepared for the attack. Twenty-four North Vietnamese naval vessels were destroyed. [Karnow 372]. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was then passed on August 7, 1964, with only two U.S. Senators voting against it. [Karnow 375-376]

See also: Text of Johnson’s TV address; Text of Johnson’s Request to Congress []

The text can be read to give the President of the United States unlimited power to take military action of any kind. It does not even mention North Vietnam or South Vietnam specifically, though it does mention Asia and Southeast Asia. Here is the entirety of the text, which was passed as a Joint Resolution of Congress [H.J. Res. 1145]:

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.

Peace talks were proposed by United Nations Secretary-General U Thant and Prime Minister of the U.S.S.R. Nikita Khrushchev. Lyndon Johnson initially accepted the idea, as did the North Vietnamese leadership. But talks were later rejected by U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk. Khrushchev’s loss of power in October also diminished pressure on the North Vietnamese to negotiate. [Karnow 377]

It should be noted that what had actually happed was a series of acts of aggression by the United States, a major military and economic power, against North Vietnam, a relatively weak nation with a primitive economy. The United Nations, if its charter had not been mere political rhetoric, should have stepped in to defend North Vietnam against U.S. aggression. But the U.N. was simply a tool of the Allied Great Powers from World War II, excluding only Russia. Its real function at the time was to give the appearance of global support, and of legality, to whatever the United States, England, and France wanted.

President Johnson did not immediately escalate the war.  In fact he halted, for a time, the covert raids on North Vietnam’s coast [Karnow 377]. But Johnson was determined that North and South Vietnam would remain separate nations, while the government of North Vietnam and many citizens of South Vietnam wanted a united nation independent of foreign control. This made further clashes inevitable.

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