Lessons from Tonkin

by Robert E. Hunter

What have we learned in the last half-century about America’s role in the world, and especially about going to war? A neat question, and one that is framed from my own experience, if readers will indulge me.

Exactly 50 years ago today, I was working in the Lyndon Johnson White House, on the domestic side — mostly on education and other aspects of the Great Society, as deputy to Douglass Cater, one of the giants of the trade. I was 24, though with two years of foreign policy under my belt, as a Fulbright Scholar at the London School of Economics. I cite my tyro status only as partial exculpation for not foretelling the tragedy that was about to ensue for the United States as it became more deeply embroiled in a conflict, to borrow from Neville Chamberlain, “in a far-away country between peoples of whom we know nothing.”

A half-century ago, I read in my White House office the press release just put out by the White House that spoke of an attack by North Vietnam on two US destroyers, the Maddox and the Turner Joy, in a place called the Tonkin Gulf. From that point on, to use a common but in retrospect bitter phrase, “we were off to the races.” The Tonkin Gulf Resolution — technically the Southeast Asia Resolution — followed, and the US became mired in a conflict the purposes of which are still being debated.

But as a White House staff person with top-secret security clearance, I had an advantage over the average American. Rummaging through the files after I joined the staff in July 1964, I came across a draft that had been sitting there for some time which, with emendations, became — you guessed it — the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. Ready to be used, just waiting for an “incident” to set it in motion.

It is now generally understood that the “attack” on the two US destroyers was likely a radar blip and the “fog-of-not-quite-war,” and that, in any event, the US had been engaged in provocative naval actions against North Vietnam.

But so what? I do not ask that question to be cynical, but to introduce another important fact: the US entry into what became the Vietnam War (with sidebars in Laos and Cambodia) was at first immensely popular in the country. It was even more popular in Congress, with a unanimous vote for the Resolution in the House and with only two negative votes in the Senate: Ernest Gruening of Alaska and Wayne Morse of Oregon (both Democrats), and both were defeated in their next re-election campaigns. The floor manager for the resolution in the Senate was the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. J. William Fulbright. Later he argued loud and long that he had been lied to, and that was most likely true. Yet again, so what? He, like the rest of Congress, was primed for such an incident and a full-throated response, which implemented a pledge from President Kennedy’s Inaugural Address: “we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

It was only after, when the magnitude of the war became apparent — in particular the impact of the draft on the American middle class and the disproportionate Vietnam service by African-Americans on Great Society programs — that the pendulum of public opinion began to swing.

Another fact worth considering: the actual decisions on the US escalation in Vietnam (given that the first “advisors” were sent under Eisenhower and the first “escalation” took place under Kennedy) were taken by a small group of people in the administration; almost all of them had been appointed by President John F. Kennedy. They included Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy (and, in time, his State Department brother, William Bundy), and the brothers Rostow — Walt Whitman and Eugene Debs. Lyndon Baines Johnson’s leading speechwriter for the Vietnam escalation was Richard Goodman who, like many of the other Kennedy holdovers in the Johnson administration, later turned against the war (a good thing, I believe) and also personally against Johnson (a bad thing, given their early role in pushing Johnson to escalate — though, of course, a president is ultimately responsible).

One irony is that a decade earlier, when the French were besieged at Dien Bien Phu and asking for US military help, President Eisenhower consulted with Congress. The Democratic leader in the Senate gave Eisenhower the answer he wanted (“Don’t even think about it”). That was Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Fast-forward to 2003. A small group of people in the George W. Bush administration, led by Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his deputies, and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice — aided-and-abetted by Secretary of State Colin Powell — drove the inexperienced President Bush into what was clearly the worst foreign policy mistakes by the United States since Vietnam: the invasion of Iraq.

But also think of the background. While the margins were narrower in Congress and in the nation than at the time of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, invading Iraq still had majority support, and an overwhelming majority of the US media formed a cheerleading section for the invasion. The “incident” then did not have the immediacy of the Tonkin Gulf attack, but it was a delayed and secondary reaction to 9/11 — and, as with the purported attack on US vessels 40 years before, it was viewed as an affront to America.

So what does all this mean for us, now? Have we learned anything from these two events, which have done much to shape America’s role in the world during the last half-century, and which, in the case of invading Iraq, continues to pose a serious challenge to US foreign policy? Would that I could say that we have been chastened by both developments. At least it is possible to say that the current president, Barack Obama, has not let himself be bamboozled or buffaloed by those in the Congress, the media, and in some parts of the country — but not even a plurality — who want him to get the US again embroiled in wars that do not directly impact US security. He has been getting the US out of Iraq and Afghanistan, though neither looks very good right now — but how much does the current course of events in these countries directly impact US security? The debate on this question has not even begun.

Obama has also so far resisted going to war with Iran (despite heavy pressure to do so from Israel and its Congressional and media supporters). He did not go to war to get Syria to get rid of its chemical weapons (and has received virtually no credit for achieving that result without firing a shot). He has also kept the US out of war in various other places including Gaza, Yemen and Pakistan (though the US is engaged with drones in the latter two places), kept the US from putting “boots on the ground” in Libya, and resisted meeting (Russian) fire with (NATO) fire in Crimea and elsewhere in Ukraine. The “jury may still be out” in regard to each of these developments, but so far Obama has not taken steps that would be irrevocable, that would enlist the unthinking passions of the US Congress and American people, and that would represent his losing control of his own administration, as was (arguably) true with Johnson and (certainly) true with George W. Bush.

This is at least a start on the major debates we need to have about the proper role of the US in the world, especially regarding issues of war and peace, the impact of our actions on America’s standing as “the indispensable nation,” and the renewal of our capacity for genuine strategic thinking that died soon after the end of the Cold War and that is still absent even in the Obama administration.

Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.



  1. Thank you for an excellent review of U.S.’s recent conflicts and the cost that they have inflicted on U.S. and the world. I believe that the most interesting part of your analysis is when you ask if the Americans have learned anything from those events, and your implied negative answer to that question. Sadly, militarism is a like a virus that when it takes hold of body politics it is very difficult to eradicate, especially when it has so many beneficiaries in the Military-Industrial Complex.

    You also rightly point out that, “Obama has also so far resisted going to war with Iran (despite heavy pressure to do so from Israel and its Congressional and media supporters).” The operative words in that sentence are “so far”, but Israel and its Congressional and media supporters have not given up, and any further delay in the comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran will provide them with more opportunities to push America to another and probably more disastrous war.

    The lesson that I draw from the wars of the past half-century is that really time for war is over, and we should try to find other ways to settle our differences. The destructive power of modern weapons, as we have just seen in the recent carnage in Gaza, is such that they can destroy human life as we know it. Those who start wars, especially unprovoked, unjust and disproportionate wars, should be put on trial as criminals that they are in order to act as a lesson to others. We fight against terrorists with all our might, but there is really something to the saying that “terrorism is war by the weak and war is terrorism by the strong.”

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