I will answer the second question first because that will make it easier to answer the first question.
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How did the Gulf of Tonkin resolution change the face of the Vietnam War? As Kenneth Davis points out, before this incident America’s involvement in Vietnam was advisory, that is, the US did not take a direct part in the fight of the South Vietnamese against the North. The president at that time, Lyndon B. Johnson, was under a lot of political pressure to take a stronger stand against the North Vietnamese because most people thought they were part of the Communist bloc that was trying to expand into South East Asia. Johnson’s electoral opponent, Barry Goldwater, had accused him of being “timid before Communism” (Davis 371) and so, even though Johnson suspected the Gulf of Tonkin incident was not really an act of aggression against the United States, he ordered immediate air strikes against the North..
Johnson had to take this action in order to protect American servicemen, and as a result he was given the power by Congress “to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression” (Davis 375). From that point on Johnson escalated the war in Vietnam, proving to all Americans that he was anything but timid before Communism.
Is our stated goal for the occupation of Iraq a cause for concern? Would Kennedy agree with our current policy in Iraq?
President John F. Kennedy was opposed to Communist expansion and even before he became president he took a hard line on containment. He showed that soon after his inauguration by approving the Bay of Pigs invasion, but he also showed the other side of his character when he withdrew air support from the invasion at the last moment. He did not want the US to be associated with the invasion because of his concern with his nation’s image but he did want Castro removed. This is similar to the approach he used in the case of Vietnam. Kennedy was willing to increase the number of advisers, the amount of aid and materials but when the military asked for 8,000 combat troops to be sent to Vietnam to protect the advisers, Kennedy refused (Davis 373). Perhaps his greatest strength was to keep his options open, and Kennedy knew that if he sent soldiers to Vietnam he would be committed to a war-like policy.
It was because of Kennedy’s cautious policy that Johnson needed the Gulf of Tonkin incident to change America’s role in Vietnam but in doing so Johnson passed the point of no return. He had already come close by increasing the number of American advisers to 16,300 (Davis 374) and giving the South Vietnamese government $500,000, but the air strikes ensured that much more would follow, and by March 8, 1965 the first Marines arrive to protect the airbase at Danang (Davis 375). That is how America’s advisory role changed to actually fighting the war on behalf of the South Vietnamese government.
Kennedy might have approved of the invasion of Iraq as a way of spreading freedom and democracy, but he would not approve of the way it was sold to the public and not in the way it was executed. As Kennedy showed during the Cuban Missile Crisis, he listened to all sides before making his own decision. Also, he and his brother, Robert F. Kennedy were very concerned with America’s image. They had seen the USSR invade Hungary and knew that no one approved of a large country bullying a small one. They remembered Pearl Harbor and did not want to go down in history as having committed a similar act. Kennedy might have invaded Iraq and he might even have expected Iraqis to greet American soldiers as liberators – as he had expected Cubans to join the invading army in overthrowing Castro – but he would not have created a pretext to do so, as Johnson did with the Tonkin incident, and as George W. Bush did with his weapons of mass destruction which still haven’t been found. If Kennedy had invaded Iraq he would have listened to his military advisers and sent enough men to take the country over, and then to keep it under control while democratic institutions were established and national elections could be held.
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