Pentagon Papers – Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and U.S. War Aims

Hi. I promise, this should be my last article on the Pentagon Papers. I wanted to make note of something which I found to be very interesting.

The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was a joint resolution that the United States Congress passed on August 7, 1964, in response to the Gulf of Tonkin incident. It is of historical significance because it gave U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson authorization, without a formal declaration of war by Congress, for the use of conventional military force in Southeast Asia.

The Johnson administration subsequently relied upon the resolution to begin its rapid escalation of U.S. military involvement in South Vietnam and open warfare between North Vietnam and the United States.

It’s fair to say that the War in Vietnam “officially” starts in August 1964. OK?

Here’s the interesting part, by November, just 3 month after resolution, internal documents show that the U.S. aims are as follows:

(a) To protect U.S. reputation as a counter-subversion guarantor.
(b) To avoid domino effect especially in Southeast Asia
(c) To keep South Vietnamese territory from Red Hands.
(d) To emerge from the crisis without unacceptable taint from methods.

[Second draft of a paper, “Action for South Vietnam,” by Assistant Secretary of Defense McNaughton, Nov. 6, 1964]

Friendly reminder: McNaughton was McNamara’s closest advisor, so this is coming from the highest levels of the Johnson administration.

But it gets better. McNaughton decides to put percentages to these aims. On In March of 1965, just 7 months after the Tonkin Resolution, the Assistant Secretary drafts the following U.S. aims:

70% – To avoid a humiliating U.S. defeat (to our reputation as a guarantor)
20% – To keep SVN (and the adjacent) territory from Chinese hands.
10% – To permit the people of SVN to enjoy a better, freer way of life.
ALSO – To emerge from crisis without unacceptable taint from methods used.
NOT – To “to help a friend”,

[First draft of “Annex-Plan for Action for South Vietnam, appended to memorandum from John T. McNaughton, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, for Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, March 24, 1965]

So it basically breaks down as follows: In August of 1964, the President asks Congress to escalate the war in Vietnam which basically amounts to an unofficial declaration of war. Immeditaly after the resolution, we learn that the vast majority of the reason for the war effort is to preserve U.S. reputation.

Let’s add some context so that you understand why I take such issue with this. The war ended in 1975! This means that millions of lives were ruined and hundreds of thousands lay dead just to save face?!

The U.S. fought a war for another 10 years knowing the costs and it still choose its reputation over human lives.


Thanks for reading,


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