6-03: Public Law 88-408, The Tonkin Gulf Resolution

One might think that power grabbing in a democracy–or republic, if you prefer–would be a very difficult task, what with all those balance of power branches and oversight committees and such. I think that we, the people of these great United States, have been walking around as if on Novocain for many years. Every so often a toothache flairs up, we address it, then go back to those palliative pain killers.

For early June, 1964, This Day in History reports:

Top U.S. officials concerned about the Vietnam War gather for two days of meetings in Honolulu. So that’s why we granted Hawaii statehood … great place for off-campus meetings. And it is comforting to know that America was “concerned” about the Vietnam “Civil” War as far back, at least, as 1964.

Much of the discussion focused on the projected air war against North Vietnam, including a list of 94 potential targets. We still haven’t learned the lesson that wars, if they must be fought–which I challenge–can be won in the air. That is the Rubic’s cube of military strategy. Politicians and military brass try to convince the public that bombing country X, Y, or Z will stabilize whatever the heck is going on there and U.S. troops will not be necessary to engage in ground combat and, therefore, there will be minimal, if any, loss of American life. But no one has yet discovered how to do it. (The Rubic’s cube puzzle has, of course, been solved. Bloodless war has not.)

There was also a discussion of the plan for a joint Congressional resolution. Sure, get the pols on board. Give them “privileged” information, make them feel important, then go ahead and bomb away.

The meeting was convened to develop options for President Lyndon B. Johnson in dealing with the rapidly deteriorating situation in Vietnam. In Honolulu! I wonder if one of the options discussed was keeping U.S. noses out of Vietnam’s internal affairs.

In March 1964, Secretary of Defense McNamara had reported that 40 percent of the countryside was under Viet Cong control or influence. McNamara came to his position as Secretary of Defense directly from an executive position with Ford Motor Company. This is a true story: I once worked with a guy who was a paymaster in Vietnam early on. By his own admission he was a rear echelon guy; but this made him privy to non-strategic discussions. He told me that every time McNamara visited or that even when a report was prepared for him the numbers of North Vietnamese troops and Viet Cong dead were to be exaggerated. McNamara, the story goes, loved numbers, big numbers, so that he could pass along bigger lies to POTUS and, by trickle down, the American people. Interesting number, 40%. Large enough to cause serious concern, small enough to be preventable from rising. Let’s see: was he the best or the brightest?

Johnson was afraid that he would be run out of office if South Vietnam fell to the communists … I guess he must have received that message from the senior thinkers and plotters in Hawaii. He forgot that during his Great Society, Novocain was doing its job. People would not have placed personal blame on Johnson for a war in Southeast Asia as long as things were humming along in North America.

In August 1964, after North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked U.S. destroyers, in what became known as the Tonkin Gulf incident, McNamara and Rusk appeared before a joint Congressional committee on foreign affairs. They presented the Johnson administration’s arguments for a resolution authorizing the president “to take all necessary measures” to defend Southeast Asia. Subsequently, Congress passed Public Law 88-408, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, giving President Johnson the power to take whatever actions he deemed necessary, including “the use of armed force.” The rest is the history of modern American history as it relates to committing American troops to combat. The Gulf of Tonkin “Incident” was a lie. Modern U.S. military policy can be traced to a lie, a deception of the American people. And yet we still allow it.

The resolution passed 82 to 2 in the Senate … the bill passed unanimously in the House of Representatives. President Johnson signed it into law on August 10.

It is inconceivable to me how impotent our representatives are. In 1973 Congress passed what is known as the War Powers Act which nominally limits the President’s ability to wage war. On the worthless paper it is written the act says that POTUS must notify Congress within 48 hours of having committed troops to combat. Congress, in turn, must then either declare war or demand withdrawal of troops. Since passage of the act, Congress has done neither. For it is Congress that allocates funds for our “defense” and Congress has proved itself incapable–in any instance–to not “support the troops” with as many funds as the generals ask for. This is a canard they all hide behind.

PL 88-408 lives on. If you thought you  had any say in how our nation should be defended, you were wrong. If you thought you had any control over how Defense Department funds are spent, you are wrong. If you thought your elected Senators and Representatives melt to putty in the hands of Generals and Admirals asking for unlimited funding for wars and war materiel, ahem, for the troops, you were right.

If you doubt this conclusion, please tell me why we still occupy Iraq and Afghanistan.

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