Today, 7 August 2014, marks the 50th anniversary of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Passed by Congress in response to a series of events known as the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, this joint resolution would serve as the legal basis for the US war in Vietnam and Southeast Asia. The resolution passed the House unanimously and only two Senators were opposed. Historical understanding of what exactly happened in the Gulf of Tonkin in early August 1964 has evolved over time as new documents are declassified, as National Security Archive director Thomas Blanton told C-SPAN this past Sunday.
The Gulf of Tonkin incident was far from the start of US involvement in Vietnam. Until his ouster and assasination in a coup, Ngo Dinh Diem was the US-backed leader of South Vietnam (Republic of Vietnam), which contended for legitimacy with the communist North Vietnam (Democratic Republic of Vietnam) led by Ho Chi Minh. As discussed in the Passport roundtable on Jessica Chapman's Cauldron of Resistance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and 1950s Southern Vietnam, Diem was a complex figure who deftly outmanuvered rivals to consolidate power while sowing the seeds for his own demise through the methods he used to do so. The instability after Diem's demise did much to persuade the Johnson administration that more substantial US involvement in Vietnam would be required lest the North Vietnamese triumph.