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Fifty years ago, the U.S. Congress gave President Lyndon Johnson what amounted to a blank check to wage war in Southeast Asia. He signed what became known as the Tonkin resolution on August 10, 1964, an act that turned limited American involvement in Vietnam into the first war the U.S. would lose.

As America grapples with crises in the Middle East, the resolution’s 50th anniversary went largely unnoticed but historians say it is worth remembering for lessons yet to be learned. They include what Zachary Shore, a history professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, describes as one of the greatest challenges in any conflict: “seeing the world through an enemy’s eyes.”

That eluded American leaders at the time of the incident that led to the resolution passed to justify U.S. escalation in Vietnam – North Vietnamese patrol boats firing on the U.S.S. Maddox, a destroyer on an intelligence-gathering mission in the Gulf of Tonkin. The enemy’s thinking remained a puzzle for the Johnson administration as it poured troops into Vietnam – more than 500,000 at the peak of the conflict – and launched massive bombing campaigns to break the Vietnamese will.

Half a century later, can President Barack Obama and his team see the world through the eyes of the extremist of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria?  ISIS  is the group that shocked the world with the videotaped beheadings of two American journalists and a British aid worker. Were these brutal acts designed to provoke deeper U.S. involvement in Iraq, where the last American soldiers left in December 2011, and civil war-torn Syria? Or were the gruesome videotapes meant largely as a tool to recruit like-minded Islamic extremists? The motive is a matter of conjecture.

The version of the Tonkin incident given to the American public and congress at the time has long been discredited. It featured a Pentagon spokesman reporting “a second deliberate attack” and a presidential speech saying that “repeated acts of violence against the armed forces of the United States must be met…with a positive reply.” As Johnson spoke, American bombers struck North Vietnamese targets. It turned out later that there was no second attack, even less “repeated attacks.”

A day after Johnson’s speech, the House of  Representatives took just 40 minutes to pass a unanimous resolution authorizing the president to “take all necessary measures to protect our armed forces” and assist U.S. allies in Southeast Asia. The Senate followed up with an 88-2 vote. Johnson later quipped that the legislation resembled “grandmother's nightshirt. It covers everything." The all-covering nightshirt comes to mind in the present debate over how to confront ISIS in Syria. President Obama says he has authority to launch air strikes under the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force that gave George W. Bush “all necessary and appropriate force” to pursue those who were involved or aided in carrying out the September 11 Attacks on New York and Washington.

Operations ordered under the Tonkin resolution eventually included bombing Laos and Cambodia, a massive campaign ordered in secret by Johnson’s successor, Richard Nixon. Dropping more than two million tons of bombs on Vietnam’s neighbors was meant to destroy bases and cut supply routes (such as the Hoh Chi Minh trail)  for the North Vietnamese army and the Viet Cong to force them into submission.

Christian Appy, an author of books on the Vietnam war, says that congress abdicated its  responsibility at the time of Tonkin. With the resolution, the United States entered into an armed conflict for the first time without a formal declaration of war. That has become routine — the list includes Grenada, Panama, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan.   

None of  these wars caused losses as high as Vietnam: there are  58,282 names engraved on the black granite walls of the memorial on the Washington Mall. (In comparison, the combined U.S. death toll in Afghanistan and Iraq to date is 5,281). No other conflict  divided the country as deeply as Vietnam or prompted as big a protest movement. By 1969, opposition to the war had spread so widely that more than 300,000 converged on Washington to call for an end to the drain of blood and treasure.

The last U.S. combat troops left Vietnam in spring 1973 under the terms of the Paris Peace Accord, an agreement whose terms were broken almost as soon as the ink was dry. The war in Vietnam continued, without Americans, until communist forces captured Saigon and South Vietnam surrendered on April 30, 1975.

“America wasn’t the same country after Vietnam,” the author and Yale law professor Stephen Carter wrote in an essay on the 50th anniversary of Tonkin. “Something in the American character was broken in that war. A generation that had defeated the armies of fascism abroad and the forces of Jim Crow at home was suddenly full of self-doubt. The doubt is with us still.”

Bernd Debusmann

Bernd Debusmann has worked as a correspondent, bureau chief and editor in Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and the U.S.

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