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1964 Twenty Years Ago

December 2023
1min read


President Lyndon Johnson appeared on television at 11:37 on the evening of August 4: “My fellow Americans: As President and Commander in Chief, it is my duty to report that renewed hostile actions against United States ships on the high seas in the Gulf of Tonkin have today required me to order the military forces of the United States to take action in reply. … That reply is being given as I speak to you tonight. Air action is now in execution against gunboats and certain supporting facilities in North Vietnam which have been used in these hostile operations.”

Shortly after noon on August 2, three communist torpedo boats had been spotted trailing the U.S. destroyer Maddox in the Gulf. The Maddox fired three warning shots to no effect—the torpedo boats came on. At 3:08 P.M. the Maddox opened fire; two of the trailing craft closed to five thousand yards and launched a torpedo each. They missed. The third maneuvered for position but came under the Maddox ’s biggest guns and received a direct hit. It burst into flame. The U.S. aircraft carrier Ticonderoga sent F-8 Crusader jets after the other two and scored two hits with rockets, but the craft limped on to the north. This was the first direct clash between U.S. and Communist armed vehicles since the Korean War.

At the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson called the U. S. reprisals against North Vietnam a “limited and measured response fitted precisely to the attack that produced it, and the deployment of additional U. S. forces to Southeast Asia is designed to make unmistakably clear that the U.S. cannot be diverted by military attack from its obligations to help its friends establish and protect their independence.”

On August 7 the Congress passed a resolution approving the President’s action, the House doing so unanimously and the Senate by a vote of 88 to 2. Dissenting were Alaska’s Ernest Gruening and Oregon’s Wayne Morse.

Johnson’s action in the Gulf of Tonkin crystallized a constitutional dilemma that found its imperfect resolution in the War Powers Act nine years later. The President is the Commander in Chief and so would appear to have the power to send troops to battle; but it is given to the Congress to declare war. The War Powers Act provides that the President can commit troops on his own initiative only when an attack upon the United States or its armed forces creates a national emergency. If this occurs, the President must report to Congress immediately, and if war is not declared within sixty days, the troops must be withdrawn.

AUGUST 4: FBI agents dug a hole in an earthen dam on Olen Burrage’s Old Jolly Farm, six miles southwest of Philadelphia, Mississippi. Twenty feet down they discovered the bodies of the civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chancy. The first two were white, Chaney black. They had been missing since June 21. Schwerner and Goodman had been shot through the heart; Chaney had been brutally beaten and shot three times.

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