Bill Clinton was born August 19, 1946. He’s 71 years old today.
- Cluster of presidents’ birthdays in August, Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub, July 22, 2016; Benjamin Harrison was born August 20, and Lyndon Baines Johnson was born August 27
Bill Clinton was born August 19, 1946. He’s 71 years old today.
August 7 is the 53rd anniversary of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the resolution which authorized President Lyndon B. Johnson to move troops into South Vietnam to defend U.S. interests.
The resolution passed Congress after what appeared to be attacks on two U.S. Navy ships in the Gulf of Tonkin. At the time, and now, evidence is weak that such attacks took place.
Most historians today think the evidence for the attacks is inconclusive; many argue it is unlikely North Vietnamese gunboats would have opened fire on a vastly superior U.S. Navy warship. Debate is complicated because the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution effectively substituted for a declaration of war, in a war the U.S. arguably lost, which divided Americans as rarely before, and which cost more than 58,000 soldiers and civilians their lives.
How will we view the Tonkin Gulf resolution in 50 years, with the history of two much longer wars in the Middle East factored in? What do you think?
Quick summary from the National Archives:
On August 4, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson announced that two days earlier, U.S. ships in the Gulf of Tonkin had been attacked by the North Vietnamese. Johnson dispatched U.S. planes against the attackers and asked Congress to pass a resolution to support his actions. The joint resolution “to promote the maintenance of international peace and security in southeast Asia” passed on August 7, with only two Senators (Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruening) dissenting, and became the subject of great political controversy in the course of the undeclared war that followed.
The Tonkin Gulf Resolution stated that “Congress approves and supports the determination of the President, as Commander in Chief, to take all necessary measures to repeal any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent any further aggression.” As a result, President Johnson, and later President Nixon, relied on the resolution as the legal basis for their military policies in Vietnam.
As public resistance to the war heightened, the resolution was repealed by Congress in January 1971.
Santayana’s ghost looks on in wonder.
Considering its powerful effect on American history, the document is very, very brief. Here’s the text [links added]:
Eighty-eighth Congress of the United States of America
AT THE SECOND SESSION
Begun and held at the City of Washington on Tuesday, the seventh day of January, one thousand nine hundred and sixty-four
To promote the maintenance of international peace and security in southeast Asia.
Whereas naval units of the Communist regime in Vietnam, in violation of the principles of the Charter of the United Nations and of international law, have deliberately and repeatedly attacked United Stated naval vessels lawfully present in international waters, and have thereby created a serious threat to international peace; and
Whereas these attackers are part of deliberate and systematic campaign of aggression that the Communist regime in North Vietnam has been waging against its neighbors and the nations joined with them in the collective defense of their freedom; and
Whereas the United States is assisting the peoples of southeast Asia to protest their freedom and has no territorial, military or political ambitions in that area, but desires only that these people should be left in peace to work out their destinies in their own way: Now, therefore be it
Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the Congress approves and supports the determination of the President, as Commander in Chief, to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.
Section 2. The United States regards as vital to its national interest and to world peace the maintenance of international peace and security in southeast Asia. Consonant with the Constitution of the United States and the Charter of the United Nations and in accordance with its obligations under the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty, the United States is, therefore, prepared, as the President determines, to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force, to assist any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty requesting assistance in defense of its freedom.
Section 3. This resolution shall expire when the President shall determine that the peace and security of the area is reasonably assured by international conditions created by action of the United Nations or otherwise, except that it may be terminated earlier by concurrent resolution of the Congress.
And on that authority, “Congress approves and supports the determination of the President, as Commander in Chief, to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression,” the U.S. spent the next 11 years in all-out warfare in Vietnam, with up to 500,000 military troops in the conflict, and losing the lives of more than 58,000 men and women. Can we ever know what really happened, or what motivated President Johnson to ask for the resolution, or what motivated Congress to pass it?
U.S. engagement in Vietnam continued well after the repeal of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in 1971. In 1973 a peace treaty was signed between the U.S., North Vietnam and South Vietnam. The provisions of the treaty did not hold; a final North Vietnamese military push in April 1975 crumpled the South Vietnamese government and army. The few remaining U.S. forces made an emergency withdrawal as Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops entered Saigon. Vietnam was reunited by force, under a communist government.
Attacks on the USS Maddox and USS Turner Joy — if they occurred — took place early on August 4. President Johnson might be excused for having done nothing on the issue at the time. That was the same day that the bodies of three civil rights workers were discovered by the FBI, murdered by a pro-segregation mob with clear ties to the local Ku Klux Klan. Either event, the Gulf of Tonkin, or the Mississippi civil rights murders, could be a major event in any presidency, testing to the utmost the leadership and peace-making abilities of a president. Johnson dealt with both events at the same time.
Three American civil rights’ workers, James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael “Mickey” Schwerner, were lynched on the night of June 21–22, 1964 by members of the Mississippi White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the Neshoba County‘s Sheriff Office and the Philadelphia Police Department located in Philadelphia, Mississippi. The three had been working on the “Freedom Summer” campaign, attempting to register African Americans to vote.
On a commission from the Dallas Symphony, composer Stephen Stucky composed a piece during the Lyndon Johnson Centennial in 2008; Kathryn and I heard the world premiere of August 4, 1964, on September 18, 2008. Stucky’s piece (with libretto by Gene Scheer) is the only place I know where anyone has seriously considered the nexus between these two, opposite-side-of-the-world tragedies, and how they set the stage for the rest of the 1960s decade. The piece has been recorded by the Dallas Symphony. I highly recommend it.
Here’s a video from the Dallas Symphony on the piece:
What have we learned from this bit of history? What should we have learned from it?
Our 13th president, Millard Fillmore, was born January 7, 1800. He’s 217 years old today, though he’s been dead most of that time.
After commemorating Fillmore’s birthday each year for the past several years, I’m running out of ideas to write about him that seem novel, at least to me. [No doubt you’ve noted this is roughly the same post as last year.] Several years I’ve called the University of Buffalo to try to get copies of the remarks officials make at Fillmore’s gravesite, but those remarks rarely come through — so we don’t get enlightenment from them.
Reality? Few people remember anything about Fillmore even after we feature it here. For Fillmore’s 217th, let’s review what little we really know about him, with some encore posts.
Raconteur Mo Rocca profiled Fillmore for CBS’s Sunday Morning, a while back. That may be as good a place as any to review the highlights of Fillmore’s life, and meaning and place in U.S. history.
Most historians give Fillmore bad marks as a president, despite his having opened Japan for trade, and despite his having procured a steady supply of bird poop for U.S. industry.
I get this eerie feeling Fillmore would fit right in today in the GOP presidential scraps, and would be a serious challenge to fellow New Yorker Donald Trump. Do you agree?
You may view Mo Rocca’s “profile” of President Millard Fillmore for CBS Sunday Morning, on YouTube:
CBS broadcast this piece on February 16, 2014.
For an accidental president, a man who no one expected to take the office; for a guy whose term was marked by his party’s rejection of his policies so much that they did not even entertain the idea he might be the nominee in the next election; for the last Whig president, an obvious dinosaur of a dying political view; for a guy so obscure that a hoax more than a half-century later remains his greatest acknowledged point of reference, Millard Fillmore left the U.S. in good shape.
Should that be his real legacy?
On the anniversary of his final State of the Union message, let us ponder what Millard Fillmore bragged about.
These are the last two paragraphs of his final State of the Union message, delivered on paper on December 6, 1852. Perhaps establishing a tradition, he made the message a listing of current zeitgeist, starting out mourning the recent passing of Daniel Webster, and the abatement of epidemics of mosquito-borne plagues in several cities. He recited activities of the government, including the abolishing of corporal punishment in the Navy and improvements in the Naval Academy; he mentioned U.S. exploration around the world, in the Pacific, in the Amazon River, in Africa, and especially his project to send a fleet to Japan to open trade there. He noted great opportunities for trade, domestically across an expanded, Atlantic-to-Pacific United States, and in foreign markets reachable through both oceans.
The last two paragraphs would be considered greatly exaggerated had any president in the 20th century delivered them; but from Millard Fillmore, they were not. He gave credit for these achievements to others, not himself.
In closing this my last annual communication, permit me, fellow-citizens, to congratulate you on the prosperous condition of our beloved country. Abroad its relations with all foreign powers are friendly, its rights are respected, and its high place in the family of nations cheerfully recognized. At home we enjoy an amount of happiness, public and private, which has probably never fallen to the lot of any other people. Besides affording to our own citizens a degree of prosperity of which on so large a scale I know of no other instance, our country is annually affording a refuge and a home to multitudes, altogether without example, from the Old World.
We owe these blessings, under Heaven, to the happy Constitution and Government which were bequeathed to us by our fathers, and which it is our sacred duty to transmit in all their integrity to our children. We must all consider it a great distinction and privilege to have been chosen by the people to bear a part in the administration of such a Government. Called by an unexpected dispensation to its highest trust at a season of embarrassment and alarm, I entered upon its arduous duties with extreme diffidence. I claim only to have discharged them to the best of an humble ability, with a single eye to the public good, and it is with devout gratitude in retiring from office that I leave the country in a state of peace and prosperity.
What president would not have been happy to have been able to claim as much? Historians often offer back-handed criticism to Fillmore for the Compromise of 1850; in retrospect it did not prevent the Civil War. In the circumstances of 1850, in the circumstances of Fillmore’s presidential career, should we expect more? Compared to Buchanan’s presidency and the events accelerating toward war, did Fillmore do so badly?
Compare with modern analogs: Donald Trump appears to be working exactly contrary to those things Fillmore said were beneficial to the U.S., then: Friendly relations with foreign powers, the U.S. recognized as a refuge for persecuted people, and domestic prosperity. Any president since Franklin Roosevelt would have loved to have left such a legacy.
Have we underestimated Millard Fillmore? Discuss.
Martin van Buren was our nation’s 8th president, serving one term, 1837-1841.
This photo is roughly 15 years after van Buren left office, taken in the Washington, D.C., studio of Matthew Brady, whose photography gained fame from his work photographing battle sites during the American Civil War.
Martin van Buren was born December 5, 1872, in Kinderhook, New York. He is the only president to have the first name Martin.
Why December 2?
(You couldn’t make this stuff up if you were Monty Python.)
Peruvian guano has become so desirable an article to the agricultural interest of the United States that it is the duty of the Government to employ all the means properly in its power for the purpose of causing that article to be imported into the country at a reasonable price. Nothing will be omitted on my part toward accomplishing this desirable end. I am persuaded that in removing any restraints on this traffic the Peruvian Government will promote its own best interests, while it will afford a proof of a friendly disposition toward this country, which will be duly appreciated.
Did any other U.S. President spend so much time thinking about guano? Did any president ever mention it in a State of the Union Address? The curious case of Millard Fillmore, Seer, just grows.
Guano, or bird poop (and its relative, bat poop), contains phosphorus, which is an essential element for life. Consequently, it turns out to be a key ingredient in effective agricultural fertilizers. In international competition for supremacy in farming and farm exports, guano became a key resource to fight over, in the 19th century.
It’s almost safe to say the fights were economic; but guano did play a key role in wars in South America (see Andrew Leonard’s article, noted below).
Fillmore figured out that the substance had great importance, coupled that with the rather esoteric knowledge that sea birds tended to deposit guano in great abundance on certain islands, often unoccupied, and ordered the U.S. Navy to claim islands found to contain guano deposits that were not claimed by other nations.
By the American Civil War, the importance of phosphorus to the production of gun powder became an issue for the armies of the North and South. Millard Fillmore had set the stage for the North to win an important advantage in gun powder production, just one of many that led to the defeat of the South.
It’s one more thing we should thank Millard Fillmore for doing. Our study of history should inform us that it is, indeed, important for politicians to understand the importance of guano.
Fillmore knew his guano.
Take a moment on December 2 to toast Millard Fillmore’s prescience, on Guano Day!
How is the transition coming?
Sure, in comments, tell us the instruction manual is the Constitution.
Trump hasn’t read that, either, I wager. In any case, he’s unprepared to put together an administration. Our republic really is in danger. It’s going to take all of us to hold it together, to have any chance of success in the next four years.
In the interim, I don’t recognize the style, and I don’t recognize the signature; can you help discover who is the cartoonist?
Cartoon by Matt Davies, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist for Newsday.