Abba Eban, center left, was Israel’s main contact with President Lyndon B. Johnson in the tense diplomacy that preceded the 1967 Middle East war.

Abba Eban, center left, was Israel’s main contact with President Lyndon B. Johnson in the tense diplomacy that preceded the 1967 Middle East war.

America’s Case of ‘Tonkin Gulfitis’

Mar 07, 2017

By Mark Atwood Lawrence | | March 7, 2017

Originally published in The New York Times


On May 22, 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson received alarming news from the Middle East. The government of Egypt had closed the Straits of Tiran, the narrow waterway linking the Red Sea to Israel, to Israeli shipping. The move dramatically escalated Arab-Israeli tensions and pushed the region to the brink of war.

Johnson’s instinct was to act boldly to defuse the crisis. He proposed assembling an American-led naval force to escort Israeli ships through the straits and push Egypt to back down. But L.B.J. soon discovered problems.

For one, Congress, wary of new military commitments when nearly half a million Americans were fighting in Vietnam, seemed certain to oppose the idea. Congress had a bad case of “Tonkin Gulfitis,” warned Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara. Many legislators, in other words, believed the Senate had made a grievous mistake four years earlier by giving the president a blank check to wage war in Vietnam after American warships came under attack in the Gulf of Tonkin. The fighting in Southeast Asia had bogged down into a grueling stalemate, and the last thing the United States seemed to need was another difficult military challenge far from American shores.

And there was another problem with Johnson’s idea: Bold action seemed likely to provoke Egypt’s Arab allies to retaliate by cutting off the flow of oil to the United States and its allies. An embargo would unquestionably imperil Western economies, but Johnson and his aides had a more specific reason to worry: Military operations in Vietnam depended on the flow of oil — as much as 200,000 barrels a day — from the Middle East.

In the end, L.B.J.’s plan came to nothing, killed in part by fallout from the American embroilment half a world away. A major war erupted between Israel and its Arab neighbors two weeks later.

The episode neatly illustrates a dimension of the American experience in Vietnam that has drawn scant attention over the years but was alarmingly clear to policy makers by 1967: The huge drain of American power and resources in Vietnam meant that Washington had less political, diplomatic and military clout to shape events elsewhere in the world — no small problem at a time of rapidly mounting instability in the Middle East, Latin America and southern Africa, regions that Americans considered crucial to the pursuit of the Cold War.

It requires little imagination to see that the Vietnam War had enormous effects in Southeast Asia, on the American home front, and even on the relationship between the United States and its European allies, most of which distanced themselves from America’s war. Far less obvious was the damage to America’s role in areas increasingly known as the Third World.

The most obvious effect, as in the run-up to the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, was to diminish America’s ability to exert military power. In part, the problem was the sheer scarcity of forces at a time when the United States was increasingly stretched between the escalation in Vietnam and standing commitments to defend Western Europe and South Korea. “Rich and powerful though we are,” Stuart Symington, an influential Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, asserted in May 1967, the United States had “little chance” of maintaining adequate forces for existing commitments, much less to take on “further trouble in some other parts of the world.”

Just as important was growing recognition in the White House and Congress that mounting controversy over the war in Vietnam made it inconceivable to contemplate bold new initiatives abroad, whether military or merely diplomatic. And then there was the problem of simply finding staff and expertise to devote to other parts of the world at a time when Vietnam consumed the administration’s attention.

Most obviously, the war inhibited American leaders from taking the lead in addressing major problems that arose after 1965, including the dramatic acceleration of Arab-Israeli tensions. Absent the Vietnam War, might the Johnson administration have been able to head off the fighting, or helped to design a settlement that might have pointed the region in a more peaceful direction over the long term? Might the United States have dealt more effectively with southern Africa, where the Johnson administration was mostly passive in the face of soaring racial tensions that provided a seedbed for radicalism? In South Asia, might the Johnson administration have had more clout to ease tensions between India and Pakistan, which broke into open war in 1965 and simmered thereafter? It’s impossible, of course, to answer such questions, but they tantalize nonetheless.

What’s more certain is that the Vietnam War undercut American influence throughout the developing world by leading governments and publics alike to lose confidence in the United States as an ambitious proponent of development and democracy. As American bombs rained down on North Vietnam, leaders in India, Egypt, Algeria and many other post-colonial nations denounced Washington for waging a brutal war against a people striving for independence, and moved closer to the Communist bloc. By the 1970s, much of the Afro-Asian world had shifted away from the relatively warm relationships of the early 1960s and grown vocally hostile to the United States. America’s loss was the Soviet Union’s gain.

Washington sought to bolster its position in an increasingly hostile world by forming or, more often, tightening its partnerships with Iran, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Brazil, South Africa and other regional powers that could be counted on to serve its interests in return for American political support and military supplies. This approach made good sense to leaders increasingly attuned to the limits of American power, and in 1969 the Nixon administration codified its reliance on reliable regimes as the “Nixon Doctrine.” The problem was that America’s partners were usually right-wing, authoritarian regimes that used American aid to maintain their power and coerce their own populations.

By the mid-1970s, these trends had converged in a perfect storm of problems for Washington. Anti-Americanism reached new heights in many places, and new social movements within the United States and around the world challenged America’s reliance on unsavory partners such as the shah of Iran and Gen. Augusto Pinochet in Chile. Fidel Castro’s Cuba, the Palestine Liberation Organization and other radical movements were energized by the Communist victory in Vietnam and mounted insurgencies against Western interests. America would struggle with these developments for many years to come, and the country never recovered the influence it had wielded in much of the Third World during the early 1960s.