On August 4, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson announced that he had been informed by American armed forces personnel that North Vietnam had fired on American ships in the Gulf of Tonkin near Vietnam. He ordered retaliatory bombing of targets in North Vietnam and asked the U. S. Congress for a resolution supporting his actions. On August 7, 1964, with very little debate, Congress responded by adopting the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution of 1964 by a unanimous vote in the House of Representatives and by an 88-2 vote in the Senate. It contained the following key language which expanded the war power of President Johnson, and later President Richard Nixon, and was used to legally justify their actions leading to greater American involvement in Vietnam: “To promote the maintenance of international peace and security in Southeast Asia, Congress approves and supports the determination of the President, as Commander in Chief, to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attacks against the forces of the U. S. and to prevent any further aggression.” In the undeclared war that followed, the Resolution became the subject of much controversy. At the peak of U. S. involvement in Vietnam in 1969, more than 500,000 U. S. military personnel were involved, and opposition to American involvement grew. The Resolution was finally repealed in January, 1971, and American involvement in Vietnam ended in 1973 even though the war continued until 1975. It is estimated that from 1965-1973, the U. S. spent more than $120 billion on the conflict. Over 50,000 Americans and over 2,000,000 Vietnamese died. In 1975, the Communists seized control of Saigon, ending the Vietnam War, and the country was unified as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
The nation’s involvement in Vietnam drew attention away from Johnson’s Great Society programs for social reform and civil rights. The unpopularity of the war with many Americans also took a toll on Johnson personally, so much so that he eventually decided not to seek re-election as President in 1968. As time passed, doubts arose as to whether or not the North Vietnamese had launched an attack on American ships in the Gulf of Tonkin or at least whether the Johnson administration had exaggerated or inflated what had happened.