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  • Slow Down the Political Response to a Perceived Crisis
  • William A. Niskanen (bio)

Repeating his plea for a fiscal stimulus plan on February 5, 2009, President Obama said that "The time for talk is over. The time for action is now, because we know that if we do not act, a bad situation will become dramatically worse. Crisis could turn into catastrophe for families and businesses across the country."1 This was the fifth time in my adult life that the president had asked for or asserted unprecedented authority on an expedited basis with little or no congressional review. Each of the prior occasions turned out to be a disaster.

The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution

The first of these episodes was in early August 1964, shortly before members of Congress were scheduled for their summer recess. On August 2 the U.S. destroyer Maddox, on an electronic intelligence mission in international waters near the coast of North Vietnam, was approached by three North Vietnamese patrol boats. The Maddox, believing it had evaded a torpedo attack, opened fire with its 127–millimeter guns and forced the patrol boats to retire. This was followed by an attack on the patrol boats by fighter-bombers launched from the U.S. aircraft carrier Ticonderoga. The Maddox experienced only minor damage from a single 14.5–millimeter machine gun bullet.

On August 4, another patrol off the North Vietnamese coast was launched by the destroyers Maddox and the C. Turner Joy during a period of rough weather and heavy seas. The destroyer crews received radar, sonar, and radio signals that they believed to indicate another attack by North Vietnamese patrol boats, and they responded by firing on radar targets for some two hours. At 0127 Washington time, however, the Maddox commander sent the following cable:

Review of action makes many reported contacts and torpedoes fired appear doubtful. Freak weather effects on radar and overeager sonar men may have accounted for so many reports. No actual visual sightings by Maddox. Suggest complete evaluation before any further action taken.2

Unfortunately, no such complete evaluation was made for several years. Within hours, President Johnson ordered an air strike against the patrol boat bases and fueling facilities and, later that evening, went on national television to report that U.S. naval forces had been attacked. A few days later, however, Johnson commented privately that "For all I know, our Navy was shooting at whales out there."3

On August 5, President Johnson asked Congress to approve a resolution "expressing the unity and determination of the United States in supporting freedom and in protecting peace in southeast Asia," with express support "for all necessary action to protect our Armed Forces," although he repeated prior assurances that "the United States … seeks no wider war." On August 10, after less than nine hours of congressional debate, Congress approved a joint resolution that authorized the president "to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force, to assist any member of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty requesting assistance in defense of its freedom," a resolution that passed the House with no dissenting vote and passed the Senate with only two dissenting votes. At the time, Senator Morse warned that "I believe this resolution to be an historic mistake." As it was. But neither Senator Morse nor Senator Gruening were rewarded for their brave dissenting votes; both were defeated in their next election. At that time, I was the director of special studies in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, but I resigned this position later that year. In the November 1964 election, President Johnson won 61 percent of the popular vote, and the Democrats increased their majority in both the House and the Senate. Only in 1967 was the Senate Foreign Relations Committee first informed that the Navy communications center in the Philippines had questioned whether there was any attack on the U.S. destroyers on August 4, 1964.

After huge fatalities to Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians, and 58,000 U.S. combat fatalities, the war did not end until the North Vietnamese captured Saigon in April 1975. In contrast with the administration's "domino theory" rationale for the...


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