Springfield State Journal Register

October 4, 2002

Tonkin Gulf vote remembered 


WASHINGTON - Former House Minority Leader Bob Michel recalls that Congress empowered Lyndon Johnson to widen the Vietnam War based on "pretty flimsy information."

It was August 1964. An attack on American warships was alleged. An election was looming. The debate lasted a mere two days. Only two senators - and no House members - objected.

"There never was the kind of debate that there should have been," said Michel, a Peoria Republican who was in his eighth year in the House at that time. "That was not our finest hour."

The memory of that episode permeates the emerging congressional debate over waging war against Iraq, with many Democrats and some Republicans saying that lawmakers must avoid repeating the experience of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.

Although the Senate remains divided on the issue, most congressional observers are predicting easy passage of a resolution granting Bush authority to wage war on Iraq.

The political pressures to support the president are just as strong as they were in 1964, with the White House pushing members of Congress for quick action to show a unified front, congressional experts say.

"It looks like history repeating itself," said Timothy Maga, a history professor at Bradley University in Peoria and a former Democratic staffer on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "You're always painting the opposition as a borderline traitor and putting their careers in jeopardy so they have to vote "yes" on your resolution."

And, just as in 1964, elections are just around the corner. In this post-Sept. 11 world, a spirit of patriotism runs high just as it did following the death of President John F. Kennedy.

"People want to support the president post-9/11," said Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "At least for some members, you don't want to be in a position where, for example, you deny the president authority and then there's a terrorist attack or there's an attack from Iraq. You don't want to look weak on national security."

When Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, two Democrats - the late Sens. Ernest Gruening of Alaska and Wayne Morse of Oregon - were the only dissenters. They pressed for more information from the Johnson administration on why such broad war-making authority was needed.

"They were shouted down by their younger colleagues for not being
patriotic enough," said Maga, who saw similarities between that and the last week's charges that the political parties were politicizing the war issue.

"It was pretty flimsy information that we based our decision on,"
acknowledged Michel.

Gruening and Morse lost their re-election bids. But many of their colleagues came to regret their hasty support of the war resolution as the body count escalated and they learned the Johnson administration had misled them about alleged North Vietnamese attacks on two U.S. destroyers, the Maddox and the C. Turner Joy, in the Gulf of Tonkin that prompted the resolution.

Testifying before a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Sept. 25, President Ronald Reagan's national security adviser, Robert McFarlane, described the Tonkin incident as a "fraud that was perpetrated on this body and our people" that "profoundly affected American attitudes toward launching war since that day."

The disastrous and deadly results in Vietnam led Congress to pass the 1973 War Powers Act, stating that while a president may commit forces on his own, he must go to Congress within 60 to 90 days to continue.

The 1964 resolution authorized the president "to take all necessary
measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression. ..."

In the language agreed upon by the Bush administration and the House Wednesday, President Bush seeks authorization to "use all means that he determines to be necessary and appropriate. ..."

It grants Bush war-making authority if Iraq fails to comply with United Nations' disarmament mandates. It encourages the president to seek Iraq's compliance through the U.N. Security Council but doesn't require U.N. approval for U.S. action. It clarifies that any military action would be limited to Iraq, dropping the original language that addressed the entire region.

Before any military action, or within 48 hours, the president would have to report to Congress that U.N. efforts had failed.

The current debate appears to be moving forward with far less opposition than in 1991, when Bush's father sought congressional authorization to go after Iraq for invading Kuwait. 

The House passed a resolution sponsored by Michel and New York Democrat Stephen Solarz, 250 to 183. The Senate approved it, 52-47. A large majority of Democrats opposed it.

During that debate, Michel, the Republican sponsor of the 1991 resolution and a World War II combat veteran, made an impassioned plea on the House floor.

"Those of our generation know from bloody experience that unchecked aggression against a small nation is a prelude to international disaster. ... Patience at any price is not a policy. It is a cop-out," Michel told his colleagues on the House floor in 1991.

It was the first time that Congress had passed a war resolution since the Tonkin Gulf.

"In some respects, 1991 should have been more compelling. Iraq had engaged in naked aggression against Kuwait. But Congress was uneasy and reluctant, partly because they feared - not having been in a war for a long time - tens of thousands of casualties," Ornstein said. "Now, there's a little less fear."

He attributes that to the different sentiment after last fall's terrorist attacks.

"That's created a larger universe of members in both the House and the Senate willing to use force to achieve these ends and to give the president some authority... so we're not seeing the same level of opposition."

"I think there is a little bit more of a sense that there are evil people out there," he said.