On August 4, 1964, in response to one confirmed and one alleged incident between North Vietnamese and U.S. Naval vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin, President Lyndon Johnson asked Congress for “a resolution expressing the unity and determination of the United States in supporting freedom and in protecting peace in southeast Asia.” To be sure, “the United States intends no rashness, and seeks no wider war.” (Regarding the second incident, Johnson privately remarked in 1965 that “for all I know, our Navy was shooting at whales out there.”)
Congress yielded promptly and fully. On August 7, it passed as a joint resolution text that had been prepared by the administration (save the whereases) six months before the Tonkin Gulf incident(s). The draft Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, as introduced by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman William Fulbright, is stored in the Archives’ Legislative Treasures Vault. It really is a visual delight:
Johnson treated the explicit Congressional permission “to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression” as a functional declaration of war. Further aggression against whom? Section 2 announced America’s resolve to “take all necessary steps,” in whatever way the president might determine, even if that might “includ[e] the use of armed force, to assist any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty requesting assistance in defense of its freedom.”
What has been an endlessly controversial document among historians faced virtually no serious opposition at the time—Congress folded like a cheap suit. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution passed 416-0 in the House and 88-2 in the Senate:
In 1970, by contrast, the Senate voted 81-10 to repeal the Resolution. This outcome was immaterial to Nixon—hundreds of thousands of American troops had been committed overseas, and as Commander in Chief of U.S. armed forces, he would see to their protection, doggone it, as they were (very) gradually brought home.