The "phantom battle" that led to war; can it happen again?
Note: This story was published by U.S. News & World Report July 23, 1984. The special report was supplemented and edited by George E. Jones, and overseen by Joe Fromm.
Just 20 years ago, the seeds were sown for today's running conflict between president Reagan and Congress over the use of U.S. military power from Central America to Lebanon and the Persian Gulf.
It began with one of the century's strangest events: A "phantom battle" in the Gulf of Tonkin that enabled President Johnson to exact from Congress the total power to go to war.
Historians have long debated that elusive incident. did the battle really occur?
Did the President know the facts and if so, did he keep them from lawmakers?
Now comes fresh insight from the magazine's reporters, who for years studied once secret documents and questioned key leaders of the Vietnam era.
On Aug. 4, 1964, daylight was fading over the Gulf of Tonkin when an urgent message reached the U.S. destroyers Maddox and Turner Joy on patrol in hostile waters off Communist-ruled North Vietnam.
It was a warning: The National Security Agency's monitors had intercepted enemy messages to two North Vietnamese gunboats and one PT boat, giving them the location of the two American warships and ordering preparations for combat.
Only two days earlier, PT boats had ambushed the Maddox, inflicting trivial damage while losing one of their craft to heavy gunfire from the destroyer and carrier aircraft. What happened on the night of August 4, however, was something far different.
Within 95 minutes, the fire and thunder of naval gunnery shattered the gulf's evening calm. Its waters roiled with the frantic zigzagging of America's destroyers as they sought to escape unseen enemy vessels and torpedoes 26 in all as reported by radar and sonar crews. In pitch-black darkness, naval gunfire and missiles launched by U.S. carrier aircraft pierced the murky skies with fiery trails on their way to designated enemy targets.
Within 2 hours, it was all over. No casualties or damage were reported by the Maddox and Turner Joy. Yet that brief and mysterious encounter has generated bitter arguments among historians, and raised sensitive questions: Did enemy vessels actually attack the two destroyers or did commanders fall prey to overheated imagination in a frightening and confusing situation? If there was an enemy attack, was it unprovoked? Were key facts being withheld from the U.S. public and did President Lyndon Johnson seize on a questionable incident to expand his powers and speed America toward all-out war in Vietnam?
What the President, like his slain predecessor, John F. Kennedy, had been confronting for months was an unyielding question: Was it time for the U.S. either to abandon its ally, South Vietnam or to plunge U.S. troops into full-scale war against North Vietnam?
That dilemma had only worsened in the nine months of growing instability in South Vietnam after the overthrow and murder of its autocratic leader, Ngo Dinh Diem, and Johnson's advisers were drafting a congressional resolution giving him the freedom to go to war if he so decided.
Though doubt quickly surfaced about the realities of the Tonkin Gulf naval incident, Johnson called congressional leaders to the White House to ask for a resolution that would make him surrogate for the warmaking authority reserved for Congress by the Constitution.
In three days, both houses passed the resolution with near unanimity. It was a historic yielding of their prerogative to the White House.
What emerges from new evidence is a chronicle of confusion and bad judgments and duplicity in high places that guided the nation into a cruel and unpopular war that would cost 58,000 U.S. lives and immerse Americans in years of disillusionment as seldom, if ever, before. And there came, too, hard lessons on the wrenching difficulties of sharing warmaking power between the President and Congress in nuclear war difficulties that have been only too apparent in recent controversies over American military involvement in Lebanon, Central America and the Persian Gulf.
The Escalation Gambit
November, 1963: In Saigon and Washington, in the aftermath of presidential assassinations, a fresh chapter opened under new leadership in the long and frustrating involvement of America in South Vietnam.
In Saigon, a military junta that succeeded the slain Ngo Dinh Diem found itself mired in intrigue that would produce another regime in the next three months even as Communist guerrillas overran growing chunks of countryside with help from North Vietnam's Marxist rulers.
In Washington, the benumbing murder of John F. Kennedy brought into the Presidency and global policymaking JFK's Vice President, Lyndon Johnson.
Here was a powerful politician with a Texas-size drive that combined guile and ruthlessness, sentimentality and cold practicality; a man, moreover, who often disagreed with Kennedy's vacillations in handling the Vietnam issue and whose opinions were seldom sought.
Now, characteristically, he set out immediately to find new answers with the help of a few key advisers to the late President. His most important deputy: Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, whose dazzling intelligence had earned admiration of both Kennedy and Johnson, though critics thought his passion for numbers often overlooked the intangibles of politics and war. "He really believed that 'men plus money plus materiel equals victory,"' a veteran observer of U.S. dealings with the Vietnamese recalled later.
Acting swiftly, Johnson told planners to develop a series of covert operations against North Vietnam to discourage its aggressive policies. They came up with OPLAN 34A, which included more than 2,000 separate operations ranging from clandestine intelligence collection to coastal commando raids. Both the military and the Central Intelligence Agency doubted the plan would succeed, but they conceded that it might help.
It didn't, and, as the situation in Vietnam worsened, the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended "bolder action."
While McNamara opposed bombing North Vietnamese military and industrial targets, he did recommend that the U.S. "be in a position on 30 days' notice to initiate the program of 'graduated overt military pressure' against North Vietnam."
On May 25, 1964, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy drafted the proposal of Johnson's closest advisers: A program of "selected and carefully graduated military force against North Vietnam," designed "to hurt but not destroy." Their hope: That the threat of larger destruction would curb Hanoi's support of insurgencies in South Vietnam and Laos.
Would air strikes bring a military response from China or the Soviet Union? Its backers thought not, but nonetheless they warned the President of "the risk of escalation toward major land war or the use of nuclear weapons." They also recommended that Congress approve a resolution authorizing wider military action in Southeast Asia. Bundy wrote: "The preliminary consensus is that such a resolution is essential before we act against North Vietnam, but that it should be sufficiently general in form not to commit you to any particular action ahead of time."
All this would add up to major escalation of a conflict where 16,000 U.S. servicemen were still technically advisers. Johnson, however, ruled out air strikes against North Vietnam in the near future. One reason was that 1964 was a presidential-election year, and Vietnam had become a political football. Against the backdrop of the Kennedy legend, Johnson's popularity was untested, and he was determined to campaign as a man of restraint a reassuring contrast to the trigger-happy image of his likely opponent, Senator Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.).
As the summer progressed, the Joint Chiefs and the Pacific Command headed by Adm. U.S. Grant Sharp refined their concept of air operations against North Vietnam. Settling on 94 enemy military and industrial targets, they began drafting detailed plans for massive air action.
At that point, the strategy of escalation swung suddenly to a new focus the Gulf of Tonkin.
On July 15, Admiral Sharp requested approval of an intelligence-gathering patrol, code-named Desoto, along North Vietnam's coast. "The objective of the mission was to update our overall intelligence picture in case we had to operate against North Vietnam," Sharp later admitted.
The Joint Chiefs and civilian authorities promptly approved Desoto; on July 17, the destroyer Maddox received orders to locate and identify radar transmitters, collect navigational information and conduct electronic surveillance along the North Vietnamese shoreline.
The instruction to approach no closer than 8 nautical miles to the coast, and 4 miles to the offshore islands, had a provocative edge: Although Hanoi had never publicly announced the width of its territorial waters, naval-intelligence officials suspected that Hanoi would claim the 12-mile limit observed by other Communist nations. In effect, the Maddox had the delicate task of stimulating coastal defenses without provoking an attack.
Because of the mission's obvious risks, the destroyer was equipped with a special communications van packed with sensitive electronic equipment to intercept North Vietnamese communications. A team of five Marines and 10 sailors manned the "comvan" around the clock under the leadership of Lt. Gerrell Moore of the Naval Security Group Command. Moore, 28, had orders to warn the Maddox of impending danger and to collect communications intelligence of strategic interest.
Cmdr. Herbert Ogier, 41, an Annapolis graduate, was the skipper of the Maddox, but on this mission he was outranked by Capt. John J. Herrick, 44, commander of the Seventh Fleet's Destroyer Division 192. Herrick later speculated that the Navy "put a four-striper aboard for a little more mature judgment."
As a veteran of a Desoto patrol along the coast of China, Herrick did not expect anything dramatic to occur. At Taiwan Defense Command Headquarters, he learned that five months earlier the U.S.S. Craig had patrolled along the North Vietnamese coast without incident. "We were told . . . it was like a Sunday cruise," Herrick recalled.
"This Is Not a Drill"
Minutes after 9 a.m., Friday, July 31, the Maddox maneuvered toward the tanker Ashtabula to refuel in the southern approach to the Gulf of Tonkin. On the horizon, the crews of both ships spotted four patrol boats "friendlies" speeding southward to their bases at Da Nang, South Vietnam.
During the night, they had bombarded enemy military and radar installations on the offshore islands of Hon Me and Hon Nieu. Under OPLAN 34A, the covert raids wereplanned and organized by an elite American military-aid-and-intelligence group specializing in unconventional warfare a task force engaged in clandestine operations. Nominally South Vietnamese, the raids had been executed by European and Asian mercenaries.
Steaming north after refueling, the 20-year-old Maddox followed a prearranged track along the North Vietnamese coast. The first inkling of trouble came Saturday night, when the comvan intercepted an enemy naval message. Lieutenant Moore, roused from sleep, scanned the translated intercept. "It burned in your memory," he recalled two decades later. "It indicated that the [North] Vietnamese had decided to attack, imminently, that night."
Moore immediately took the intercept to Captain Herrick. Although the message was ambiguous about the precise identity of the "enemy," a second intercept confirmed that the Maddox was the intended target.
Darkened except for navigational lights, the destroyer continued the patrol with a third of her weapons manned. Near Vinh, some 150 miles north of the demilitarized zone between the two Vietnams, a lighthouse that the Maddox had been using as a navigational aid suddenly went out. Soon, hundreds of junks, some with visible radio antennas, massed ahead. Said Herrick later: "The North Vietnamese had some kind of paramilitary control over those junks they'd just appear and disappear as if by magic."
The Desoto patrol commander suspected that one of the junks might try to detonate explosives alongside the ship a hunch supported by a third, somewhat ambiguous North Vietnamese naval message that suggested an attempt to mine or ram the ship before dawn.
"Unacceptable risk." A little before 3 a.m., Sunday, August 2, the destroyer sounded general quarters, picked up speed and cruised into the gulf. "Consider continuance of patrol an unacceptable risk," Herrick cabled the Seventh Fleet.
After first light, the Maddox secured from general quarters. Having skirted the area where the junks had massed, Herrick allowed the crew to get into the usual Sunday holiday routine. It was clear and hot, and many of the men sunbathed on the decks.
Then, about 11:30 a.m., the Maddox sighted five North Vietnamese patrol boats speeding toward Hon Me, where the destroyer's radar tracked them into a cove on the northern side of the island. "At that time," Herrick recalled, "it could have been just normal movement of ships, which wouldn't have bothered us."
What did bother him was an intercepted message ordering the patrol-craft commander to attack the destroyer. Transmitted from a high-level North Vietnamese naval headquarters, the order was crystal clear. "It was not some trigger-happy" decision of a local commander, Moore said later. "He had orders from on high to go out and attack."
At 2 p.m., three high-speed radar contacts 30 miles from the Maddox pulled away from a junk fleet to intercept the destroyer. Changing course to a southeasterly heading, the Maddox increased speed in a futile effort to escape the enemy craft. As the boats closed to within 20 miles of the destroyer, the voice of the bosun's mate boomed over the Maddox's speakers: "General quarters! General quarters! This is not a drill!"
There was immediate commotion as sunbathers and those resting below deck slipped on dungarees, donned life jackets and grabbed steel helmets. Gunners stuffed pant legs into socks and rolled down sleeves to prevent flash burns during combat. At 2:40 p.m., the Maddox alerted the Seventh Fleet: "I am being approached by high-speed craft with apparent intention of torpedo attack. I intend to open fire in self-defense."
Approaching in column formation, three Soviet-built P-4 motor torpedo boats charged the Maddox at 50 knots, almost twice the top speed of the destroyer. When the 82-foot-long North Vietnamese craft, each armed with two 18-inch torpedoes, closed to 9,800 yards, the Maddox opened fire with three shots from her 5-inch guns. As the Communist warships edged closer, the destroyer opened up with a withering hail of continuous fire. In all, the Maddox fired 250 or more 3-inch and 5-inch shells.
A 5-inch round from the Maddox scored a direct hit on the second PT boat, which immediately launched both torpedoes. Swerving to port in almost a complete circle, the Communist craft limped away to the north. Meanwhile, the Maddox promptly changed course. Officers on the bridge watched parallel torpedo wakes pass harmlessly by, some 200 yards to starboard.
The lead PT boat closed to within a mile before taking a direct hit. One of its torpedoes, either launched or blown over the side, failed to run. Turning under the destroyer's stern, the enemy craft raked the ship with 12.7-mm machine-gun fire. One bullet inflicted the only damage suffered by the Maddox: A half-inch hole in the aft director platform, which electronically sighted the 3-inch guns.
At about 3:30 p.m., four F-8E Crusader aircraft from the U.S. carrier Ticonderoga roared over the Maddox and began attacking the fleeing PT boats. Armed with air-to-surface Zuni rockets and 20-mm guns, the fighters had been practicing coordinated strikes some 300 miles to the southeast. Diverted to the destroyer, the jets had climbed to 32,000 feet to conserve fuel and streaked toward the ship at just under the speed of sound.
Looking down, the pilots saw a half-mile-long cloud of gunpowder smoke hovering over the gulf. "The sea was very disturbed," recalled Lt. Cmdr. Charles E. Southwick, one of the section wingmen. "It was obvious from the tracks there had been a great deal of maneuvering going on."
Herrick ordered the pilots "to attack and destroy" the enemy warships. Although narrowly missing with their visually guided rockets, the Crusaders scored repeatedly on their strafing runs. "The bullets started hitting in front of the boat and then on it," said Southwick of one run. "I was so fascinated with what was happening in front of me that I almost ran right into the boat. I don't think I cleared it by more than 20 or 30 feet."
Fifteen minutes after arriving, the fighters broke off the attack. Low on fuel and ammunition, they left one PT boat dead in the water and the other two fleeing north. Meanwhile, the Maddox, which had remained in the area to help damaged or downed aircraft, steamed to the southeast to rendezvous with the Turner Joy.
The skirmish, the first direct combat between U.S. and North Vietnamese forces, had lasted exactly 37 minutes.
The Stage Is Set
Ten thousand miles to the east, as most of Washington slept in the predawn hours of Sunday, August 2, "flash" cables and situation reports from the Pacific poured into the watch offices of the State Department, the Pentagon and the CIA. A duty officer at the White House prepared a brief summary of the incident for delivery to Lyndon Johnson's bedroom:
"Early this morning the U.S.S. Maddox was attacked by three DRV [Democratic Republic of Vietnam] PT boats while on patrol approximately 30 miles off the North Vietnamese coast in the Gulf of Tonkin. . . ."
In the Oval Office, just before noon, Johnson listened to more-complete accounts of the seemingly inexplicable ambush. In the past, the U.S. had conducted patrols along the North Vietnamese coast without incident. Perhaps, the assembled officials tentatively concluded, Hanoi had made some sort of miscalculation. Under Secretary of State George Ball later recalled that some of Johnson's advisers wanted immediate retaliatory action but the President wanted an "even stronger record" before striking back.
Seeking neither to provoke nor retreat, Johnson ordered resumption of the Desoto patrol, but pushed back the closest authorized approach to North Vietnam from 8 nautical miles to 11 miles. During daylight hours, carrier aircraft would provide the Maddox and Turner Joy with continuous air coverage, but hover to the seaward side of the destroyers to avoid overflying North Vietnam. Like so many finely calibrated U.S. "signals" to Hanoi, the intent of these gestures was probably lost on the fanatical North Vietnamese leadership.
Although angered by the ambush and annoyed by the Navy's failure to destroy all the attacking PT boats, Johnson played down the incident's importance. For much of the meeting, he talked mainly about domestic legislation.
On Monday, August 3, pressure mounted on Johnson to order retaliation for the attack. South Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Khanh urged the U.S. to demonstrate that it was not a "paper tiger." Maxwell D. Taylor, the U.S. ambassador in Saigon, emphatically agreed: "It is not adequate to local minds (nor indeed to ours) to state that attack was repelled and that patrol will continue."
A former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and an advocate of "flexible response," Taylor proposed several retaliatory actions, including attacking North Vietnamese patrol craft in international waters and mining the approaches to their bases.
Despite calls for reprisals, Johnson maintained his posture of restrained resolution. Calling newsmen into his office, he read a brief statement. Without mentioning the Maddox's mission, the President announced that the patrol in the Tonkin Gulf would continue and warned that U.S. forces would destroy any attackers.
Johnson's public firmness was balanced by a private effort to keep Congress from whipping up the incident into a crisis. Behind closed doors on Capitol Hill, Secretaries Rusk and McNamara and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Earle G. Wheeler, briefed 25 senators from the Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees. McNamara revealed that prior to the attack on the Maddox the South Vietnamese had fired on two offshore North Vietnamese islands. Conceding U.S. knowledge of and support for the raids, he stressed that the destroyer, engaged in a routine patrol in international waters, had been unaware of them.
After the meeting, Senator Richard Russell (D-Ga.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, told reporters the North Vietnamese may have been "confused" by South Vietnamese naval activity in the Gulf of Tonkin. Secretary Rusk, when questioned by newsmen, said: "It remains to be seen" whether the attack was an isolated incident.
Rusk's remark reflected his innate caution as much as it did the real prospects of further conflict in the Gulf of Tonkin. A growing consensus within the government believed that the enemy had assumed the Desoto patrol was associated with the OPLAN 34A raids. Michael V. Forrestal, a special assistant to the Secretary of State and director of the interagency Vietnam Task Force, warned Rusk of the possibility that "Hanoi deliberately ordered the attack in retaliation for the harassment of the islands." Suggesting closer coordination between the two operations, Forrestal informed Rusk that "other 34A actions are scheduled for August 3-5."
Despite the risks, Johnson and his advisers had no thought of ending either the destroyer patrol or the covert raids. After a Monday-night session with the President, McNamara and Wheeler, Rusk informed Taylor about "significant additions" to the target list for covert operations: "We believe that present OPLAN 34A activities are beginning to rattle Hanoi and Maddox incident is directly related to their effort to resist these activities. We have no intention [of] yielding to pressure."
That determination would soon be put to the test. On August 4 at 8:14 a.m. Washington time, as dusk was descending on the Gulf of Tonkin halfway around the world, a secure telephone rang at the Defense Intelligence Agency in the Pentagon. A brief message from the NSA warned of "imminent" North Vietnamese naval action, possibly against the Maddox and Turner Joy as they patrolled in the Gulf of Tonkin.
Before the phone call had ended, a copy of an NSA field report from South Vietnam came in over a special cable channel for sensitive information. According to intercepted North Vietnamese communications, Communist patrol boats had been given the coordinates of two "enemy" vessels and ordered to "make ready for military operations."
Immediately, photocopies of the report were made and distributed to top Pentagon officials. General Wheeler received a briefing on the intelligence warning at 8:50 a.m. Twenty minutes later, Secretary McNamara informed the President of apparent North Vietnamese intentions to attack the two U.S. destroyers on the faraway Gulf of Tonkin.
First Tonkin Incident (July 31-Aug. 2)
1. Evening of Aug. 1, Maddox cruises near Hon Nieu and Hon Me, North Vietnamese islands shelled during clandestine raids 40 hours earlier.
2. Changes her intended course after interception of North Vietnamese communications that indicated an attack.
3. On Aug. 2, resumes her intelligence-gathering patrol near Thanh Hoa.
4. Reverses course while tracking North Vietnamese PT boats into cove at Hon Me.
5. At 2 p.m., heads southeast to escape rapidly closing PT boats.
6. At 3:08 p.m., opens fire on three attacking PT boats.
7. After sinking at least one craft, retires to the southeast to rendezvous with destroyer Turner Joy.
Second Tonkin Incident (Aug. 4)
1. Destroyers Maddox and Turner Joy cruise toward North Vietnamese coast at 7 a.m.
2. At noon, they wheel south.
3. Instructed to remain north of the 19th parallel to avoid interference with U.S.-sponsored raids against North Vietnamese coastal installations, patrol heads back to night steaming area.
4. At 7:15 p.m., Maddox receives an NSA warning of a possible attack. After detecting images on their surface radars, both ships retire to the southeast.
5. At 9:34 p.m., Turner Joy begins firing on a radar contact.
6. All action ceases at 11:45 p.m.
A Naval Inferno
Washington's worry and bustle lagged behind a scenario of tension that had already begun to escalate many hours earlier in Vietnam.
As dawn broke on Tuesday, August 4, Capt. John Herrick apprehensively contemplated the day's patrol. Intercepted enemy communications indicated that Hanoi considered the Maddox and Turner Joy enemy ships directly involved with OPLAN 34A raids along the coast. While unaware of details of the previous night's shelling of enemy military and radar bases, Herrick had been told to remain north of the 19th parallel "to avoid interference" with the attacks.
Compounding the danger was the patrol's planned track past the island of Hon Me, site of the July 31 raid and an operating base for North Vietnamese PT boats. An ambush near the island, Herrick reasoned, would leave little time for spotting and tracking the attackers. Moreover, the curbs on engagement, prohibiting hot pursuit closer than 11 miles to shore, would sharply limit the operating area for U.S. aircraft. "Under these conditions 15 minutes reaction time for obtaining air cover unacceptable," Herrick advised the Seventh Fleet. "Cover must be overhead and controlled by [the destroyers] at all times."
Steaming in column formation, the Turner Joy 1,000 yards astern of the Maddox, the warships neared the enemy coast 200 miles above the demilitarized zone. Under overcast skies, the destroyers wheeled south and cruised parallel to North Vietnam, coming no closer than 16 miles to shore. Because the ships were some 200 miles away from the carrier Ticonderoga, there was only intermittent air cover. A few radar contacts shadowed the patrol, but without incident.
After completing the assigned track, the Maddox and Turner Joy cruised east toward their night steaming site, a 24-square-mile area in the middle of the gulf. Then, at 7:15 p.m., Herrick received an NSA warning of a possible attack. According to North Vietnamese communications, two Communist Swatow gunboats and one PT boat had been given the destroyers' coordinates and ordered to prepare for combat.
Although this NSA report convinced Herrick that attack was "imminent" and had triggered immediate retaliatory preparations in Washington, North Vietnamese intent remains in dispute to this day. George Allen, a senior analyst in the Saigon CIA station, interpreted the intercepted message as an order to investigate not attack the destroyers. His view: "There was no unequivocal indication that the North Vietnamese had been ordered to initiate combat action."
Thirty minutes after the NSA alert, the Maddox detected a surface radar contact some 35 miles away. Because of its high speed, the "skunk" was presumed to be a North Vietnamese patrol craft. Moments later, two more radar blips appeared to the northeast. Herrick suspected an ambush: "We had night-steamed in the same area the night before, so they probably suspected that that's where we'd go this time. . . . They seemed to be setting up a sort of three-cornered trap out there for us."
Using maximum boiler power, the destroyers fled to the southeast to reduce the distance to the Ticonderoga. By now, low clouds and thunderstorm activity on the moonless night hampered visibility. Ens. Noel Allen, a new graduate of the Naval Academy and on duty in the Maddox's combat-information center, thought the night the darkest he had ever seen, "as if you were living your life in a coffin."
At 8 p.m., both destroyers sounded general quarters. Spotting at least three more surface contacts, the patrol asked the Ticonderoga for air support; immediately, it launched two F-8E Crusaders and two A-4 Skyhawks. Arriving 50 minutes later, the jets were directed by the Maddox to investigate three suspected patrol boats moving in close formation. The pilots found nothing.
It was 9:40 p.m. when the shooting began. The Turner Joy, having locked onto a radar contact 7,000 yards to starboard, opened fire with her 5-inch guns. Charging the destroyer at 50 knots, the contact made a sharp fishhook turn. At that moment, the Maddox sonarman reported a torpedo bearing. It was flashed by intership radio to the Turner Joy. Both ships turned hard to starboard. Lt. (j.g.) John Barry, a 24-year-old gunnery specialist, and three other crewmen on the Turner Joy said they spotted a torpedo wake 500 feet to port. "It was moving from aft forward on a parallel course to this ship," Barry later reported.
Immediately after the evasive action, the Maddox sonarman reported another torpedo. In plain, uncoded text, Herrick began issuing a frantic stream of "flash" cables:
"Am under continuous torpedo attack."
"Torpedoes missed. Another fired at us. Four torpedoes in water. And five torpedoes in water."
"Have . . . successfully avoided at least six torpedoes."
Column of smoke. At 10:25 p.m., the Turner Joy's fire-control radar locked onto a contact, 2,500 yards off the starboard bow and closing at 48 knots. After 5-inch rounds buried the target, the Turner Joy's skipper, Cmdr. Robert C. Barnhart, Jr., observed "a column of black smoke rising from the surface of the water." By the time Barnhart maneuvered the ship to investigate the smoke, the radar contact had disappeared presumably sunk.
The pilots circling overhead were bewildered by the frenzied voices heard on their radios. "[The destroyers] were calling out where they thought the torpedo boats were," recalled Cmdr. Wesley McDonald, an A-4 squadron commander. "But I could never find the damn torpedo boats."
The Turner Joy asked the planes to strafe the general area of an "intermittent contact." The pilots watched as the destroyer's gunners tried to mark the spot with 5-inch rounds. Although he saw neither patrol boats nor their wakes, McDonald gamely slammed his pod of visually guided rockets into the blackness below. The water swallowed them up without a trace.
Lt. Cmdr. Donald Hegrat, flying his second combat photo-reconnaissance mission in two days, saw the destroyers and their wakes very clearly, but no patrol boats. The photographs later confirmed his visual impressions.
Just before midnight, the Turner Joy recorded the last radar contact of the action. For 2 hours, the destroyers had weaved, dodged and zigzagged at 30 knots. They had fired 400 rounds from their 3-inch and 5-inch guns into the black night, dropped depth charges set shallow to destroy trailing enemy craft and, at one point, tried to ram their invisible attackers. "It got pretty tiresome after a while," Herrick later admitted. "It was just getting a little ridiculous to believe."
Herrick and skipper Ogier were especially skeptical of the 26 reported torpedoes an incredible number since North Vietnam's estimated 12 PT boats could carry only two each. Equally suspicious, the Maddox had reported all of the torpedoes; the sonarman on the Turner Joy had heard none.
After the engagement, Herrick and Ogier did an experiment putting the Maddox into high-speed full turns, after which their sonarman immediately reported hearing torpedoes. "It was the echo of our outgoing sonar beam hitting the rudders, which were then full over, and reflected back into the receiver," said Herrick. "Most of the Maddox's, if not all of the Maddox's, reports were probably false."
At 12:30 a.m, August 5, Herrick radioed a flash message to CINCPAC: "Review of action makes many reported contacts and torpedoes fired appear doubtful. . . . Suggest complete evaluation before any further action taken." Twenty minutes later, he wired: "Entire action leaves many doubts except for apparent attempted ambush at the beginning. Suggest thorough reconnaissance in daylight by aircraft."
Reconnaissance, however, was far from the minds of the President and his advisers. What they were planning were retaliatory air strikes against North Vietnam; Herrick soon found himself bombarded with pleas for verification of the attack. "Certain that original ambush was bona fide," the patrol commander decided at nearly 2 a.m. "Details of action following present a confusing picture."
Taking On the Enemy
Even before messages began to flow in from the Gulf of Tonkin, Lyndon Johnson was outraged by the impending action. Two days earlier, he had exercised restraint in the U.S. response to the attack on the Maddox. Now, he shared the view of military advisers that tougher action was necessary. House Majority Leader Carl Albert (D-Okla.), who was in the Oval Office that morning, overheard Johnson's orders to the Pentagon: "I not only want retaliation, I want to go all the way into the shore establishments that support these PT boats and bomb them out of existence."
The President also decided the time was ripe for a congressional resolution. National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy suggested that perhaps they should not move so quickly on such an important decision. But Johnson's mind was made up, according to Bundy: "It became very clear that he was in no mood for discussion."
At 11:06 a.m., McNamara phoned the President to confirm the sea battle they had anticipated. "Flash" messages from the Tonkin Gulf indicated that the two destroyers were under continuous torpedo attack. As reports of a fantastic nighttime naval engagement streamed into the capital, Johnson and his closest advisers refined their military and political plans over lunch at the White House.
It was a little after 2 p.m. when doubts as to whether there had been an attack first surfaced in Washington. After the Tonkin Gulf action had ceased, Captain Herrick, as commodore of the destroyer patrol, suggested that "freak weather effects" and "overeager sonarmen" might have accounted for the improbable number of reported radar contacts and torpedoes. He also admitted there had been "no actual visual sightings" by the Maddox and recommended a "complete evaluation before any further action."
Herrick's doubts about the attack did little to slow the retaliatory juggernaut. McNamara announced to the Joint Chiefs the President's agreement with their recommendation to bomb five patrol-boat bases and an oil complex in North Vietnam. In addition, Johnson wanted the air strikes timed for 7 p.m., Washington time, when he would make a televised announcement of his decision to institute retaliatory measures against North Vietnam.
Meantime, Defense Secretary McNamara impatiently awaited situation reports from the Gulf of Tonkin. Because of the warships' lack of automatic encrypting transmitters, each outgoing classified message had to be manually encoded, so McNamara breached military principles of chain of command by trying to establish direct voice contact with the patrol. Though technically possible, the request offended Vice Adm. Roy L. Johnson, commander of the Seventh Fleet, who flatly replied that it could not be arranged. "I did stretch the truth a bit," he later admitted.
While the Joint Chiefs prepared the "strike execute" order, McNamara sought confirmation of the attack.
At 4:08 p.m., he queried Admiral Sharp in Honolulu about the latest reports from the destroyers. According to a Pentagon chronology, feisty, 58-year-old "Oley" Sharp reported that the latest message from the destroyers "indicates a little doubt on just exactly what went on." Was there a possibility that no attack occurred? McNamara asked. "Yes," Sharp replied, "I would say that there is a slight possibility." Noting there was still time to determine the attack's authenticity, McNamara ordered Sharp to "get the pilots briefed, get the planes armed, get everything ready to go."
After editing the JCS strike execute order, which called for "one-time maximum effort" against five North Vietnamese targets, McNamara convened a meeting at the Pentagon to evaluate evidence of the Tonkin Gulf action. Despite Herrick's doubts, there had been visual sightings of enemy cockpit lights and automatic-weapons fire. Admiral Sharp's conviction that an attack had occurred carried particular weight. But the evidence deemed most conclusive both then and later were enemy naval communications intercepted during the battle. Paraphrased, they read: "Have engaged enemy and shot down two planes. Starting out on hunt and waiting to receive assignment. Morale is high as men have seen damaged ships."
Unable to positively identify sender or receiver, the NSA believed the messages were sent from North Vietnamese Naval Headquarters in Haiphong to an operating unit in the field. Although the substance of the messages did not jibe with U.S. reports from the Pacific, it seemed obvious to McNamara and other officials that the North Vietnamese Navy had, at the very least, engaged the American destroyers.
Challenged later about the validity of the August 4 attack, McNamara called these intercepts "unimpeachable" evidence. Yet many intelligence officials are unconvinced.
The communications intelligence of August 2 had been intercepted by several NSA field stations but only a single listening post in Phu Bai, South Vietnam, intercepted the August 4 messages.
Even more disconcerting was the timing of the intercepts. Many years after the Gulf of Tonkin incidents, Ray S. Cline, a former CIA deputy director of intelligence and director of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, took a hard, unhurried look at the evidence. He came to this conclusion: "I began to see that the [intercepts] which were being received at the time of the second attack almost certainly could not have referred to the second attack because of the time differences involved. Things were being referred to which, although they might have been taking place at that time, could not have been reported back so quickly."
The most plausible explanation of the August 4 intercepts is that they were a boastful summary of the August 2 attack, which somehow had been delayed in transmission. In early 1972, Louis Tordella, deputy director of the NSA, told staff members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that there was no doubt in his mind that references in the August 4 intercepts to "enemy planes" and "damaged ships" pertained to the August 2 skirmish.
Still, in Washington's crisis atmosphere on August 4, policymakers preferred quick action to close analysis. Before leaving the Pentagon for a meeting at the White House, McNamara passed the word on the reprisal strikes: "[The] show is now on the road."
At 6:15 p.m., President Johnson presided over a typically perfunctory meeting of the National Security Council, which generally confirmed and validated decisions already made. Presidential Press Secretary George Reedy sensed the meeting was "a last-minute touching of base, to be certain that everything was in place."
McNamara outlined the attack and planned retaliatory strikes while admitting to problems in learning "the exact situation." According to minutes of the meeting, Johnson asked CIA Director John McCone if the North Vietnamese "want a war by attacking our ships in the middle of the Gulf of Tonkin?"
"No," replied the gray-haired, bespectacled McCone, "the North Vietnamese are reacting defensively to our attacks on their offshore islands. They are responding out of pride and on the basis of defense considerations. The attack is a signal to us that the North Vietnamese have the will and determination to continue the war. They are raising the ante."
U.S. Information Agency Director Carl Rowan, bothered by incomplete evidence, asked: "Do we know for a fact that a North Vietnamese provocation took place? Can we nail down exactly what happened? We must be prepared to be accused of fabricating the incident." With minutes ticking away for launching the retaliatory bombing, McNamara replied: "We will know definitely in the morning."
After the 25-minute NSC meeting, Johnson met in the Cabinet Room with congressional leaders, from whose ranks he had emerged with an awesome reputation for artful persuasion and manipulative skill. Pleading for secrecy, Johnson remarked with Texas-size hyperbole: "Some of our boys are floating around in the water."
At the President's request, McNamara summarized the incident and the planned reprisals. Rusk added: "We are trying to get across two points. One, leave your neighbors alone. Second, if you don't, we will have to get busy."
As support for the air strikes began to grow, Johnson declared: "We can tuck our tails and run, but if we do, these countries will feel that all they have to do to scare us is to shoot the American flag."
He then read aloud the televised statement he intended to make to the nation right after the meeting timed to coincide with the bombing of North Vietnam bases. His references to the attack as a "limited response" triggered mild criticism from Republican leaders. Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.) suggested putting "the word limited in [the] deep freeze. It connotes we would be like sitting ducks."
"Not going to take it." Johnson explained: "We want them [the North Vietnamese] to know we are not going to take it lying down, but we are not going to destroy their cities."
Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.), who, in talks earlier with both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, had been critical of deepening U.S. involvement in Vietnam, now voiced again his general opposition to the proposed course. A former Marine and professor of Far Eastern history, Mansfield presciently warned of risking a costly war in "a minor, third-rate state."
After a brief, awkward silence, Johnson asked Mansfield the same question he would repeatedly ask other doubters and dissenters in Washington: Can you give me a formula for pulling out that would not be internationally and domestically catastrophic? Mansfield's ideas for taking the matter to the United Nations and reconvening the 1954 Geneva Conference on Indo-China seemed a wholly inadequate response to an attack on U.S. ships on the high seas.
The President also found congressional leaders receptive to his proposed resolution, which had been refined after shuttling back and forth all day between State Department lawyers and White House aides. Although the wording of the resolution bore little resemblance to the drafts of the previous spring, it retained the crucial authorization to "take all necessary steps, including the use of armed forces," to prevent further North Vietnamese aggression. "I think it would be very damaging to ask for it and not get it," Johnson told lawmakers.
Making a masterful pitch to lawmakers, Johnson played down the importance of a document that would become his legal authority for waging war in Vietnam: "I don't think any resolution is necessary, but I think it is a lot better to have it in the light of what we did in Korea."
Although assured of almost unanimous support, Johnson went around the table, forcing each congressman to make a stand one way or another. It was his favorite ploy to place doubtful legislators on the spot. There were reservations voiced, but no dissent. Senator George Aiken (R-Vt.) summed up the consensus: "By the time you send it up, there won't be anything for us to do but support you."
Because of delays, it was not until several hours later that reprisal bombings of North Vietnam bases finally began on the other side of the globe hours after the President's televised speech. Naval aircraft from the U.S. carriers Ticonderoga and Constellation flew 64 sorties against four North Vietnamese patrol-boat bases and a supporting oil complex. Of the 30 boats sighted, eight were destroyed and 20 others damaged in retaliation for the supposed August 4 attack. The oil depot at Vinh representing 10 percent of North Vietnam's total petroleum-storage capacity was 90 percent destroyed. During the reprisal strikes, two U.S. aircraft were shot down and a third damaged. One pilot, 26-year-old Lt. (j.g.) Everett Alvarez, was captured afloat in the Gulf of Tonkin the first of 826 Americans, of whom more than 100 died in captivity, known to have become a prisoner of war at the hands of the North Vietnamese. He was released after 8½ years.
A Presidential Triumph
At 9:05 a.m., Thursday, Aug. 6, 1964, the Senate Committees on Foreign Relations and Armed Services met in executive session to consider President Johnson's proposed legislation. Officially titled Joint Resolution to Promote the Maintenance of International Peace and Security in Southeast Asia, but soon dubbed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the 300-word document briefly outlined U.S. policy and authorized "the use of armed force" to resist North Vietnamese aggression.
Senator J. William Fulbright (D-Ark.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and the resolution's floor manager, presided over the hearings. A Rhodes scholar and lawyer, the 59-year-old "egghead from the Ozarks" was Lyndon Johnson's close political ally and personal friend. Persuaded by the President that speedy passage would enhance the resolution's psychological impact, Fulbright asked his colleagues to limit their "questions to somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 minutes."
Secretary of State Dean Rusk spoke first for the administration. He observed that the language of the legislation closely resembled the authority granted in previous resolutions regarding Formosa, the Middle East and Cuba. Departing briefly from his prepared statement, Rusk underscored the "primary purpose" of the resolution: "[To] make it quite clear to the entire world that we are prepared to take the steps that may be required to insure the security of those to whom we are committed, and to bring such aggression to a halt."
Rusk's remarks were a short, unexceptional statement of U.S. policy, which raised few questions then or later. Defense Secretary McNamara's testimony, however, would become one of the wider chasms in the Johnson administration's "credibility gap." At the height of the Vietnam War, congressional critics of the conflict charged they had been misled by McNamara's account of the attacks.
McNamara's testimony portrayed the complex, ambiguous incidents in the Tonkin Gulf as a simple case of unprovoked aggression against U.S. ships on the high seas. His prepared statement made no mention of the destroyers' mission, the OPLAN 34A raids along the North Vietnamese coast or Captain Herrick's doubts about the second attack. Moreover, while most knowledgeable Johnson administration officials had concluded the attacks were retaliation for the OPLAN 34A raids, McNamara was at a loss to explain enemy motives for the attacks. "I personally consider the action of the North Vietnamese a form of suicide," he said.
Most senators uncritically accepted McNamara's testimony, with one vocal exception: Senator Wayne Morse (D-Oreg.). A scathing critic of U.S. policy in Vietnam, Morse was a mustachioed, 59-year-old former law professor who held the Senate record for the longest continuous oration. Spurred by a tip from an anonymous Pentagon source, Morse relentlessly tried to link the OPLAN 34A raids with the attacks on the U.S. destroyers. "I think what happened is that Khanh got us to backstop him in open aggression against the territorial integrity of North Vietnam," he speculated.
Stung by Morse's charges, McNamara combatively denied them: "First, our Navy played no part in, was not associated with, was not aware of, any South Vietnamese actions, if there were any. I want to make that very clear to you. The Maddox was operating in international waters, was carrying out a routine patrol of the type we carry out all over the world at all times. It was not informed of, was not aware of, had no evidence of, and so far as I know today has no knowledge of any possible South Vietnamese actions in connection with the two islands that Senator Morse referred to."
Morse's colleagues were not inclined to pursue his line of questioning. Instead, they innocuously asked McNamara about the strength of the North Vietnamese Navy, contingencies for a challenge by Communist China and the 64 retaliatory sorties that pounded four North Vietnamese patrol-boat bases and a supporting oil-storage depot. "They did not ask the right questions," reflected Pat Holt, a Foreign Relations Committee staffer. "They asked very few questions at all. That could partially be explained on the grounds that they didn't know what questions to ask at that point. But that's a pretty lame excuse. If you're not sure which questions to ask, you better start asking a lot, and then you will hit on the right one."
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:
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. . . . 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.
The resolution did leave to Congress the right to repeal the resolution a right it exercised, without fanfare or sorrow, in 1971 as an amendment to an unrelated bill.
On the night of September 18, a virtual replay of the August 4 incident occurred when Communist patrol craft apparently ambushed two U.S. destroyers the Edwards and the Morton in the Tonkin Gulf. The American warships again fired hundreds of rounds at radar contacts, and top officials in Washington again began to plan retaliatory air strikes. But this time President Johnson was extremely skeptical. Was this a tacit admission of a misjudgment on the August 4 action? According to Under Secretary of State George Ball, Johnson had voiced his doubts within days after August 4. "Hell," he told Ball, "those dumb, stupid sailors were just shooting at flying fish."
The Rolling Thunder
Surrounded by key lawmakers in the East Room of the White House, President Johnson signed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on Monday, August 10. With his prompt military and political reply to the Communists, Johnson had not only increased his power to act but also effectively neutralized Vietnam as a campaign issue.
He still maintained a claim to restraint and moderation. Johnson told advisers he didn't "wish to escalate just because the public liked what happened last week. We would have to pick our own ground. . . . [Instead] of letting the other side have the ball, we should be prepared to take it."
At the same time, he invited prompt suggestions from his advisers for military initiatives with "maximum results and minimum danger." After a month, the advisers advanced several short-term plans, including renewed Desoto patrols and OPLAN 34A covert operations clearly dissociated from one another plus limited South Vietnamese cross-border raids against enemy infiltration routes in the Laotian panhandle.
For the long haul, many advisers favored bombing North Vietnam, setting Jan. 1, 1965, as the target date. Despite this official consensus, Johnson was still not ready for the U.S. to abandon its advisory role and become a co-belligerent in the conflict. In addition to Saigon's chronic political instability and election-year politics at home, Johnson simply did not believe bombing would work. "Every time I get a military recommendation, it seems to me that it calls for large-scale bombing," he observed to Ambassador Taylor in December, 1964. "I have never felt that this war will be won from the air."
Johnson hoped the answer might lie in more-effective use of U.S. Rangers, Special Forces and Marines in South Vietnam. But counterinsurgency by small, elite units no longer sufficed. By the end of 1964, Viet Cong forces numbered some 34,000 conventional troops plus 72,000 irregulars. And, unknown to Washington, the first organized North Vietnamese units had begun infiltrating into the South.
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.
The Bitter Legacy
In the 20 years since the passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the struggle between Congress and successive Presidents over the use of military forces abroad has continued unremittingly. Embittered by President Johnson's exploitation of the resolution, Congress in 1973 reacted by passing the War Powers Act, curtailing the Chief Executive's authority to use military power. Thereafter, he would have to consult with Congress before committing U.S. forces to foreign combat and to report to lawmakers when American troops were so used. This has prompted a charge from President Reagan: "In the last 10 years, the Congress has imposed about 150 restrictions on the President's power in international diplomacy. . . . I just don't think that a committee of 535 individuals, no matter how well intentioned, can offer what is needed."
In the shifting tide of war powers between the White House and lawmakers, however, no effective formula has been found for bringing together rivals with shared constitutional authority in military matters the President as commander of the armed forces and Congress as the agency for declarations of war and raising the armed forces.
As a result, Americans are now mired in a durable and agonizing dilemma. Can a democracy cope with the challenge of today's swift-moving events and technology that raise risks: Nuclear devastation, left-wing movements that resort to brutal terrorism and Soviet power that profits from disorders in impoverished nations?
Under those pressures, the collision between a wary Congress and a confidently aggressive President has been worsening over the past three years.
White House resolve, too, has stiffened. Overt intervention by U.S. forces in the 1980s is increasing: Naval shelling and bombardment in Lebanon, occasional combat participation of U.S. "advisers" in El Salvador and most challenging of all a mine-laying operation in Nicaragua's key harbor.
Clearly, the long trail of top-level rivalry over war powers that sprang from a controversial naval action of 20 years ago is heading for a major showdown with no more assurance than before of bringing stability and security to America in an increasingly volatile world.