Shades of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution

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Nearly 30 years ago, the U.S. Senate nearly unanimously took a fateful action whose full import was little understood at the time. Within a few years of its adoption on Aug. 7, 1964, however, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution was one of the most widely regretted initiatives ever adopted by the legislative branch.

The regret was mostly due to the fact that when, in successive years, many Americans lost their lives as the direct result of that open-ended authorization of the use of force in Southeast Asia, most senators felt ashamed that so little thought had been given to it at the time, that so little effort was made to debate the wisdom of conferring so much authority on the executive branch – or to examine the possible implications of doing so.

Scarcely less galling to those who voted for the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, however, was the fact that it afforded Presidents Johnson and Nixon a credible basis for claiming that the responsibility for an increasingly unpopular entanglement was one shared by the executive and legislative branches.

Incredibly, a new generation of legislators may have just repeated this unhappy experience. Late in the evening of July 1, the Senate voted overwhelmingly against an amendment offered by Sen. Malcolm Wallop, Wyoming Republican, that would have required the Pentagon to provide a study of the potential costs and risks of deploying U.S. forces on the disputed Golan Heights as part of a "peace agreement" between Israel and Syria. Importantly, the Wallop amendment would also have afforded the Congress an opportunity to evaluate the Defense Department’s analysis for 30 days before any commitment to such a deployment might be made.

Sen. Wallop simply wanted to know the sorts of things many in Congress wished they had asked at the time of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution: What would be the nature of the U.S. commitment — how many troops, with what armaments, with what rules of engagement? Based upon past experience and projected circumstances, what would be the dangers entailed in such a deployment? For how long would it be undertaken and under what circumstances would it be terminated?

There are, to be sure, some differences between the two initiatives. For one, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution was formally approved by the Senate with only two dissenting votes; the Wallop amendment was defeated, 67-3. (Fully 30 senators missed this momentous vote because they had already gone on vacation for the Fourth of July!) For another, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution involved the authorization of the use of U.S. forces in combat operations; the Wallop amendment would have affected forces intended to be used in "peacekeeping operations."

Still, the similarities are instructive:


  • As with the debate on the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, formal Senate consideration of the Wallop amendment was, to say the least, superficial. None of the four Democratic senators who spoke against Sen. Wallop’s initiative — Sam Nunn of Georgia, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, Dianne Feinstein of California and Carl Levin of Michigan — could offer substantive reasons for opposing so reasonable an idea as looking before leaping into a Golan Heights deployment. Instead, they were reduced to arguing about symbolism and atmospherics, asserting with straight faces that it would be "premature" to study this deployment now; that it would somehow harm the "peace process" — or at least send "the wrong signal" to Israel and Syria — were we to do so.

  • As was the case at the time of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, the executive branch seems to be deliberately misleading the Congress about its true intentions. For his part, Lyndon Johnson did not let on that he was bent on a rapid escalation of the Vietnam conflict. Today, President Clinton is no more candid about his determination to exploit congressional inattention to secure a foreign policy "success" at virtually any price. Despite implausible denials from State Department sources and their proxies on Capitol Hill, planning for a U.S. deployment on the Golan Heights is far advanced; a formal commitment to this effect could be made as early as this week when Secretary of State Warren Christopher is supposed to resume his shuttle diplomacy between Jerusalem and Damascus.

  • And, as was true at the time of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, it is seductive to believe that the public’s present, acquiescent mood toward the contemplated use of U.S. military power will persist. But just as the American people turned against the Vietnam War — and against the men and women who patriotically answered the call to fight that war — it is absolutely predictable that losses of U.S. personnel on the Golan Heights will provoke a bitter reaction, if not the scale of Vietnam then, say, on a par with Somalia.

It must be hoped that Sen. Wallop and other farsighted legislators will persist in the quest for answers to hard questions about a Golan deployment before the United States is committed to undertake it. Only by do doing can the nation be spared the sort of trauma that ensued after the Tonkin Gulf Resolution — a trauma that, if anything, may be of vastly greater strategic significance if it winds up not just killing American soldiers but promoting a false peace in the Middle East and contributing to new, possibly mortal perils for our most important ally there, Israel.

Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is the director of the Center for Security Policy, the host of public television’s "The World This Week" and a columnist for The Washington Times.

Frank Gaffney, Jr.
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