Miller Center

The Tonkin Gulf

Molly Gunsalus, Landstown M.S. (Virginia Beach, VA)
Tom Gunsalus, Salem H.S. (Virginia Beach, VA)
Gerald Lombardi, Brandon M.S. (Virginia Beach, VA)
Greg Smith, Brandon M.S. (Virginia Beach, VA)

Edited by John Sturtz, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia

General Topic

American involvement in Vietnam after 1964

Specific Topic

The Gulf of Tonkin


Upon completion of this lesson the student will be able to:
  • Describe the circumstances involving United States and North Vietnamese forces in the Gulf of Tonkin in early August 1964;
  • eplain how the Gulf of Tonkin incident led to the escalation of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia, using a variet of primary sources;
  • evaluate the effectiveness of U.S. efforts to continue its policy of containment on communism with regards to Southeast Asia, based on the information available;
  • identify the key individuals and events associated with the Gulf of Tonkin incident;
  • explain the criticism of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and why it led to Congress’ passage of the War Powers Act of 1973.

Virginia Standards of Learning

  • USII.7 The student will demonstrate knowledge of the economic, social, and political transformation of the United States and the world between the end of World War II and the present by:
    c) identifying the role of America’s military and veterans in defending freedom during the Cold War, including the wars in Korea and Vietnam, the Cuban missile crisis, the collapse of communism in Europe, and the rise of new challenges.

Historical Context

In August 1964, Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution—or Southeast Asia Resolution, as it is officially known—the congressional decree that gave Johnson a broad mandate to wage war in Vietnam. Its passage was a pivotal moment in the war and arguably the tipping point for the disaster that followed. The Resolution, passed by Congress on August 7, 1964, and signed into law on August 10, capped a series of events which remain controversial. On the night of August 4, 1964, two American destroyers, the U.S.S. Maddox and C. Turner Joy, reported that they were being attacked by North Vietnamese military units in the Gulf of Tonkin, the body of water off the coast of central and North Vietnam. These alleged incidents followed reports of a similar engagement two days earlier, on August 2, between North Vietnamese PT boats and the Maddox. Characterizing these attacks as “unprovoked,” President Johnson ordered retaliatory strikes against North Vietnam and asked Congress to sanction any further action he might take to deter Communist aggression in Southeast Asia. Believing the administration’s account of these events, legislators acted swiftly, giving Johnson a virtual “blank check” to use U.S. military force in Vietnam.



Teacher/Student Activity

  1. Introduce the lesson by showing students photos of the USS Maddox, its navigational path, and President Lyndon Johnson (photos). Ask students how these photos might be linked together. Discussion.
  2. Divide the class into small groups. Tell students that they will be portraying members of the U.S. Congress and you, the teacher, will play the role of President Lyndon Johnson.
  3. Each group of students will receive individual packets of information pertaining to the Gulf of Tonkin. Each packet will include specific items: primary source documents, photos, maps, and instructions on how to complete the writing activity.
  4. The teacher, acting as President Johnson, reads the August 4, 1964 address to the nation.
  5. Next, read to the class (Congress) President Johnson’s Gulf of Tonkin speech and introduce the resolution. Explain.
  6. Each student within the group is responsible for completing part 1 of the classroom activity. They must write a position paper at least 2 – 3 paragraphs in length either supporting or opposing the President’s resolution.
  7. Allow students to state their position papers to the rest of the class. Ask the class for a roll call of votes to either support or oppose the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.
  8. Play for students the classified tapes from the key players giving them more information to the actual story that they did not have when asked to support or oppose the resolution. Provide the class with recently declassified documents which brings the President’s credibility into question.
  9. Ask students to now write a reflection paper explaining how they would have voted if they had access to all relevant information.
  10. Remind students that the President was given a blank check to conduct military affairs as he saw fit with regards to Vietnam. Lead the class in a final discussion on presidential power and its limitations regarding the use of military force.
  11. Place on the overhead a copy of the War Powers Act of 1973 which outlines congressional action to limit presidential power to commit U.S. military force.

Concluding Activity

As a concluding activity, use Errol Morris’ 2003 film The Fog of War to bring home the point that President Johnson and his administration used the Gulf of Tonkin incident as a spring board to launch reprisals and eventually escalate the war in Vietnam. The teacher will show the clip where McNamara is discussing the uncertainty about what really happened in the Gulf of Tonkin. The scene ends by showing a row of dominoes falling down on a map of Vietnam. If time allows, discuss with students the full implication of McNamara’s reassessment of the historical event. (A review of the film can be found at


  • Informal – teacher will walk around the room and observe each group’s interaction.
  • Formal - Students will turn in their position/reflection papers for a grade. The teacher will assess the student’s abilities in his/her understanding of the lesson’s objectives and how well they defended their positions given the historical situation.