The "phantom battle" that led to war; can it happen again?
In late January, 1965, McGeorge Bundy and Robert McNamara jointly informed the President that time had run out on 15 years of limited U.S. involvement in Vietnam; they called it "first aid to squabbling politicos and passive reaction to events we do not try to control." Both suggested either direct U.S. military operations or negotiations without any further escalation. "Bob and I tend to favor the first course," wrote Bundy, "but we believe that both sides should be carefully studied."
The President's top advisers got their answer the next month when Johnson authorized a limited bombing campaign against North Vietnam. Code-named Rolling Thunder, it was the first real test of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Apparently uncertain of the extent of his congressional mandate, Johnson asked former President Dwight D. Eisenhower whether the resolution was "strong enough and ample" to permit sustained bombing of North Vietnam. Evading a direct answer, Eisenhower observed that it resembled his Formosa Resolution, which allowed a large area of presidential "discretion and flexibility."
In July, Johnson cashed his Tonkin Gulf blank check by ordering the deployment of 100,000 U.S. ground troops to Vietnam. By not using reserves, he avoided a congressional confrontation over his commitment to a land war in Asia.
Still, Senator Fulbright felt he had been sandbagged. As floor manager of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, he had assured colleagues that the President intended to consult with Congress on any major change in policy. "I should have been much more skeptical," he admits ruefully. "I allowed my personal attachment for Johnson, I think, to override my better judgment."
By Lyndon Johnson's reckoning, however, his administration had made the resolution's aim perfectly clear to Congress. Several congressmen agreed with him. Said Representative Dante Fascell (D-Fla.): "As a member who voted for that resolution, I understood it. I was not duped or misled. There was no ambiguity. That resolution was a full grant of complete power to the President to conduct any action he wanted to in Southeast Asia."
As the war escalated in 1966 and 1967, the Johnson administration's version of the August 4 incident in the Gulf of Tonkin became increasingly suspect to lawmakers.
Press stories and leaks from U.S. officials suggested that McNamara's 1964 testimony was at best incomplete and at worst part of an elaborate if improbable conspiracy. The Foreign Relations Committee began investigating the Gulf of Tonkin action. Appearing before Fulbright's committee in February, 1968, McNamara tenaciously defended his earlier testimony. Now, however, many senators joined Morse in disputing the Defense Secretary's account. "I feel that I have been misled," Senator Albert Gore (D-Tenn.) declared, "and that the American people have been misled."
When the resolution was finally repealed in 1971, American troops in Vietnam, once numbering nearly 500,000, had dwindled to 150,000, and a divided nation waited for the seemingly interminable conflict to just go away. Four years later, during Saigon's final agony, the last vestige of U.S. involvement in Vietnam ended in a helter-skelter scramble of soldiers and civilians for passage home.