The President, The People, And The Power To Make War


During the presidential campaign of 1964, the celebrated shots were fired in the Gulf of Tonkin by North Vietnamese gunboats against an American destroyer. A heated debate has broken out concerning just how honest President Lyndon Johnson was in reporting the total episode to the public and concerning the larger circumstances surrounding it. The relevant facts here are that the President believed that he should, by retaliating, discourage the North Vietnamese from any such further attacks; that as a politician running for office, he wanted to underline that he was as anti-Communist as his opponent, Barry Goldwater; that the South Vietnamese situation was disintegrating and he did not know what he might want to do about it in the coming months; that he was acutely aware of what had happened to his friend Harry Truman; and that he did not overlook the potentialities of the new type of regional pacts and joint resolutions.

President Johnson ordered a harsh retaliatory bombing of North Vietnamese patrol-boat bases. Then he summoned congressional leaders and told them he thought a joint resolution, like the Formosa and Middle East and Cuban resolutions, should be put through Congress swiftly. The document reached the House and Senate the next morning. It approved the bombing; spoke of America’s “obligations” under SEATO to defend South Vietnam; declared that the United States was “prepared, as the President determines, to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force,” to assist any SEATO nation “in defense of its freedom”; and provided that the resolution remain in force until the Chief Executive declared it no longer necessary or the Congress repealed it by majority votes.

The House devoted most of its time to speeches approving the retaliatory bombing of the previous evening, and Representative Henry S. Reuss, from Milwaukee, said all that could be said on that subject. He was reminded, Reuss observed, of the story about the bartender who called the saloon owner on the intercom and asked, “Is Casey good for a drink?”

“Has he had it?”

“He has.”

“He is.”

The Senate spent more time on the general authorization granted by the resolution. Members rose to ask, Didn’t the language mean that the Congress was empowering the President to take any steps he deemed wise, including waging war, in Southeast Asia? Senator J. William Fulbright, the floor leader for the resolution, and a number of other senators replied that President Johnson had stated that it was his policy not to use combat forces in Southeast Asia; the resolution simply backed this policy; it had to be broad and to be approved quickly to show the North Vietnamese how much the American people, without regard to party, were against armed Communist expansion in Southeast Asia. How many congressmen wanted to vote No on such a proposition, especially three months before an election? The debate on the Tonkin Resolution in the House took just forty minutes, and the tally was 416-0. The Senate, after only eight hours of discussion, approved 88-2.

As President Johnson went on escalating the Vietnam war, he brandished freely the foreign policy powers of the White House, including making executive agreements—some secret—that went well beyond the Truman moves and entangled the United States and Asian countries in ways the full purport of which is still not known. More than the Korean War, Vietnam distorted American society at a time when it was still less able to stand further dislocation. And as a large part of public opinion and of Congress turned against the involvement, the cries once again went up, against “Johnson’s war,” that “unconstitutional horror.” But this time there was a difference.

Lyndon Johnson used to carry the difference around with him on a piece of paper crumpled in his pocket. When the subject of his authority for the war came up, he would pull out the slip containing the Tonkin Resolution and read from it. The two Eisenhower joint resolutions and the Kennedy one had concerned crises that went away, oral least seemed to; the problem treated in the Tonkin Resolution turned into a major war, and L.B.J. exploited the document fully, privately and publicly. On one private occasion, he took it out and read emphatically the resolution’s reference to American “obligations” under SEATO. With still more stress, hand clapping on knee, he repeated the phrases that the United States was “prepared, as the President determines , to take all necessary steps.” Lyndon Johnson demanded to know, Did Congress limit its authorization in any way? Embittered by the opposition to the war and the personal attacks on him, he continued in a deliberately provocative allusion to nuclear bombs, which he had no intention of using: Did Congress limit at all even what kind of weapons he could use? The President put the paper away. Besides, he added, if they have changed their minds, why don’t they just vote, as the resolution says, to repeal it?