The "phantom battle" that led to war; can it happen again?
Led by Fulbright, most senators praised the President's prompt, firm but restrained reaction to the North Vietnamese attacks. "As much as I would like to be consulted with on this kind of thing," observed Senator Russell Long (D-La.), "the less time you spend consulting and the quicker you shoot back, the better off you are."
By a tally of 31 to 1, the committee members voted to report the resolution to the full Senate. Wayne Morse was the only dissenter. After the 100-minute meeting, Rusk, McNamara and General Wheeler crossed over to the other side of Capitol Hill, where the House Foreign Affairs Committee voted 29 to 0 in favor of the resolution.
Fulbright, before the Senate, conceded that the resolution granted the President tremendous discretionary authority but was confident of Johnson's good judgment and willingness to consult with Congress on any major change in policy. Like most of his colleagues, he regarded the resolution as "an exhibition of solidarity," not a blank check for war.
One senator after another rose to support the resolution. Some voiced nagging doubts about the U.S. course in Vietnam, but nearly all rallied around the flag. "There is something very magical about an attack on an American ship on the high seas," White House aide Chester Cooper later reflected. "An attack on a military base or an Army convoy doesn't stir up that kind of emotion. An attack on an American ship on the high seas is bound to set off skyrockets and the 'Star-Spangled Banner' and 'Hail to the Chief' and everything else."
Thirty minutes before the voting deadline on Friday, August 7, Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis.) proposed an amendment. Disturbed by varying interpretations placed on the resolution, he suggested adding language that would make clear that Congress was not authorizing a change in the U.S. advisory mission in South Vietnam or a substantial expansion of the U.S. commitment.
Fulbright, who had no objection to the substance of the amendment, rejected it claiming the addition would create confusion and cause delay. At that point, a clerk announced that the House had just approved the resolution by a vote of 416 to 0. With the Senate voting deadline quickly nearing, Senator Ernest Gruening (D-Alaska) stated his opposition to the resolution. A former newspaper editor, Gruening considered U.S. retaliation for the attacks "justifiable and proper," but objected to the sweeping power granted in the resolution, which he characterized as "a predated declaration of war."
Finally, Senator Morse rested his case against the resolution before the bar of history: "I believe that within the next century, future generations will look with dismay and great disappointment upon a Congress which is now about to make such a historic mistake."
With only Morse and Gruening opposed, the resolution passed by a margin of 88 to 2. Ten senators were absent.
Thus did Lyndon Johnson receive full authority to set his course in Vietnam. Two sentences of the resolution tell of the abridgment of the balance of war powers that the Constitution had bestowed on Congress and the Presidency: