Syracuse University Magazine


President Lyndon B. Johnson attends the Newhouse 1 dedication, August 5, 1964, where he delivered the Gulf of Tonkin Speech, a reiteration of his televised talk to the nation the previous night. Two days later, the House and Senate passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, allowing the president to escalate U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

The Speech Heard Round the World

Fifty years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson came to Syracuse University to dedicate Newhouse 1—a day that unexpectedly became a pivotal moment in global history

By Bob Woods

“This is an hour to which we have looked forward for a long time. It is an important occasion not only for the City of Syracuse and the University, but for the nation and the world.” When Syracuse University Chancellor William Tolley spoke those words, shortly after 11 a.m. on August 5, 1964, he had no idea just how prophetic and profound they were about to become.

I was there that auspicious day, when President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) came to town. A 10-year-old Syracuse native, I piled into my mom’s Ford Falcon station wagon with several siblings for the short drive to campus to join in the city’s highlight of the summer. A half century later, fuzzy recollections of the event reside in the adolescent vault of my memory bank, though the day’s fascinating—if almost accidental—place in history allows for a vivid recreation. It’s compiled from more consequential eyewitnesses, as well as a public record, albeit still controversial, surrounding what became infamously known as the Gulf of Tonkin Incident and the advent of America’s deeper entrenchment in the Vietnam War.

This occurred a little more than eight months after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (JFK)—in Dallas on November 22, 1963—and Johnson’s swearing-in aboard Air Force One that same horrible day. Johnson was now campaigning for his own election and dealing with the controversy swirling around the U.S. military’s nascent actions in Vietnam. While Syracusans were thrilled to welcome the popular LBJ, we couldn’t imagine that he was about to talk about an enemy attack on our Navy there and the rapid retaliation that would soon push the nation much further into the war. 

Johnson’s long-anticipated visit headlined the dedication of Newhouse 1, the first of three buildings that today comprise the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, named for its benefactor, Samuel Newhouse, one of America’s original media moguls, whose vast print and broadcasting empire included Syracuse’s two daily newspapers, The Post-Standard and The Herald-Journal/Herald-American. The $3.9 million concrete-and-glass edifice, designed by renowned architect I.M. Pei, featured an expansive plaza on which a dais was erected that hot and sunny Wednesday morning. 

Tolley delivered his speech from there, facing a sizable portion of the estimated 100,000 Syracusans who turned out citywide that day. Invited guests, many dressed in their Sunday best, sat in folding chairs, while the general public crowded onto the grassy knoll leading to the top of Piety Hill and the Hall of Languages. Alongside the cap-and-gowned Tolley was seated an assemblage of academic and political dignitaries, most notably LBJ, whom the Chancellor introduced by saying, “The president had a long and tiring day yesterday, and it was not easy for him to be with us.”

Indeed. Tolley, the University, and all of Syracuse had expected LBJ’s appearance to be his last campaign trip before the upcoming Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, where he would officially become the party’s presidential candidate and in November defeat the Republican nominee, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, in a landslide election.

On the limousine ride from Syracuse’s Hancock International Airport, Johnson, the consummate politician, had reportedly pressed Newhouse for endorsements from his newspapers (some of which he ultimately received, including from both Syracuse papers). Yet weighing much more heavily on his mind—and the crux of the fatigue and unease Tolley referenced—was the game-changing substance of the president’s hastily scheduled, live television address to the nation a little more than 12 hours earlier. 

In the days leading up to LBJ’s arrival at SU, his speechwriters most likely had prepared an innocuous paean to his hosts and the state-of-the-art journalism center, as well as mention of the landmark Civil Rights Bill he’d shepherded to Congressional passage in April. They’d probably thrown in a few jabs at Goldwater, too, contrasting his warmonger image to that of the president who promised a peaceful solution to the growing conflict in Vietnam.

Ironically, Johnson instead delivered what will forever be referred to as the Gulf of Tonkin Speech. After a couple of opening sentences lauding Newhouse and “this great institution,” the president picked up where he left Americans off the night before, again in a live broadcast (carried by NBC and CBS), but this time spoke “to the people of all nations—so that they may understand without mistake our purpose in the action that we have been required to take.

“On August 2 the United States destroyer Maddox was attacked on the high seas in the Gulf of Tonkin by hostile vessels of the Government of North Vietnam. On August 4 that attack was repeated in those same waters against two United States destroyers.

“The attacks were deliberate. The attacks were unprovoked. The attacks have been answered.”

The “answer”—given during the night and continuing even as Johnson spoke—was bombing attacks by the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet on North Vietnamese and Viet Cong naval and ground forces operating in and around the waters off the coast of North Vietnam, a communist-controlled country. He referred to years of ongoing U.S. military involvement in South Vietnam, beginning with President Eisenhower, continuing with President Kennedy, and inherited by Johnson, to contain the communist insurgency from the north. 

By then, there were approximately 16,000 American troops, euphemized as “advisors,” assisting South Vietnamese and other international forces. But following those two attacks, the ante was going up, sternly warned the 6-foot-4-inch Texan, standing draped in a custom-made, size-44 silk doctoral robe in preparation for receiving an honorary doctor of laws degree. “I say this: There is no threat to any peaceful power from the United States of America. But there can be no peace by aggression and no immunity from reply. That is what is meant by the actions that we took yesterday.”

A Critical Time

Two days after returning to Washington, Johnson presented both houses of Congress with a resolution asking for sweeping authorization to wage war in Southeast Asia, primarily Vietnam. On August 7, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution passed the House unanimously, 416–0, and the Senate, 88–2, with 10 senators not voting and the only dissenting votes cast by Wayne Morse of Oregon and Ernest Gruening of Alaska. Just like that, the administration was handed essentially a blank check to “take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression,” the resolution stated.

August 5, 1964, cannot compare to “a date which will live in infamy”—as President Franklin Roosevelt declared of December 7, 1941, the day of Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor—but the confluence of geopolitical, military, and personal forces mark it as epochal, especially among some who were on campus that day. “That particular year, at that particular moment, it was particularly dramatic,” says David Bennett ’56, then a “very junior faculty member” at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and currently professor emeritus of history, whose specialties include presidential politics and military history. “It was the year after [President Kennedy’s] assassination, and I remember enormous security precautions.” Besides black-clad Secret Service agents and swarms of police officers on the streets, there was no mistaking the uniformed riflemen on rooftops surrounding Newhouse 1, including the center tower of the Hall of Languages. 

Bennett cites candidate Johnson’s persona as the liberal activist who’d pledged to usher in the Great Society. “That was the vision,” he says, “but there was this other thing, this crisis in Southeast Asia.”

As it turns out, even before his arrival in Syracuse, Johnson’s inner circle of “best and brightest” advisors inherited from JFK—principally Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and Special Assistant for National Security Affairs McGeorge Bundy—was already plotting to widen the war half a world away, as it would be learned during Senate hearings in 1966. “In May [1964], they decided that part of the process would be that you’d need to get a resolution from Congress,” says Clemson University history professor Edwin E. Moïse, author of the 1996 book Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War

Although Johnson was squarely focused on his domestic agenda, according to Moïse, his foreign policy wonks envisioned the war as pivotal in preventing the domino theory, based on the belief that the fall of South Vietnam to communism would trigger a repercussive toppling of neighboring nations. They prepared explicit, if not imminent, plans for escalating the war, “but if something should come along that would make a good excuse, [they could] go ahead with the resolution,” Moïse says.

Along came the Gulf of Tonkin attacks on the eve of Johnson’s trip to Syracuse, the potential smoking gun. Or was it? “It was hard to know, standing there listening to the speech, what the implications were,” Bennett says. “We didn’t know whether or not those American destroyers had been attacked in international waters, or that what he was saying was simply what any American president would say, that we can’t tolerate that, and we would respond. We didn’t know that would become the raison d’etre for American military power being used on the ground there.”

In fact, Moïse claims, there is now widespread consensus that while the August 2 attack on the Maddox did occur, the August 4 attacks on the Maddox and a second U.S. destroyer, the Turner Joy, did not. “I am extremely sure about both of those,” Moïse asserts, adding that he interviewed a North Vietnamese officer aboard one of the PT boats that attacked the Maddox on August 2. 

The 2001 book Reaching for Glory, exposing secret White House tapes President Johnson made in 1964 and 1965, revealed that the August 4 incident probably never happened. “When we got through with all the firing,” Johnson told McNamara, who had ordered the bombing, “we concluded maybe they hadn’t fired at all.” Though not on those tapes, LBJ was also quoted as saying, “For all I know, our Navy was shooting at whales out there,” referring to the Maddox crew’s reports of torpedo sightings in the water.


The President’s Warning 

Nonetheless, the Gulf of Tonkin Speech was well received in Syracuse. “A standing audience of many thousands replied with applause after nearly every sentence of the president’s warning,” The New York Times noted the following morning. 

Among the local press corps was Peter Moller ’65, then an SU student working part-time for WAER, the campus radio station. “The day before, news director Bob Feldman asked me to cover the dedication because he couldn’t,” Moller says. “I said, ‘Oh, all right.’” 

The accidental reporter lugged a suitcase-size Ampex 601 reel-to-reel tape recorder, a microphone, and a headset to the event, and set up on the media tables spread out along University Place in front of the dais. “I knew I had a hot story afterward, so I ran back to the station near the Quad to get it ready for the 6 p.m. newscast,” says Moller, a Newhouse professor emeritus who taught in the television, radio, film department from 1980 to 2012. “By that time, news people were calling from all over the country to find out if we had anything that other stations might not.” 

One of the Herald-Journal reporters covering the dedication was 29-year-old Dick Case ’56. “I had a telephone and a typewriter, because I was on deadline,” he says, remembering too that he was sitting next to CBS newsman Dan Rather. Case had already written most of his story, figuring he’d fill in details before filing it in time for the afternoon paper’s edition. His plans changed, however, when a city cop, Bob Busch, approached Case and said the president needed a typewriter. “I gave him my Royal office model—and never saw it again,” says Case, who had to phone in his story. 

The whereabouts of that typewriter remain a mystery—SU reference archivist Mary O’Brien says it’s not in the University Archives—but Case went on to a distinguished, 53-year career with the Syracuse Newspapers. 

Whether Johnson himself used Case’s typewriter is unknown as well, but the aftermath of LBJ’s Gulf of Tonkin Speech is etched in American history. Four months after the election, he ordered Operation Rolling Thunder, the relentless bombing of North Vietnam that stretched from March 1965 until November 1968, coupled with a huge buildup of ground troops. At the Vietnam War’s peak, the United States had 543,400 boots on the ground. By the time the war ended in 1973, unsuccessfully, 58,220 Americans had died and 153,303 had been wounded.

Every other year, Bennett still teaches a course on U.S. history, from 1963 to the present. He makes it a point that his students understand the significance of August 5, 1964. “I lay out that this dramatic event occurred on their own campus, just a few feet from the Maxwell Auditorium.” It remains an unforgettable day. «

Bob Woods ’75 is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Madison, Connecticut.


LBJ and Lady Bird Johnson are greeted at Hancock International Airport by Chancellor Tolley (left) and Samuel and Mitzi Newhouse.

Photos courtesy of SU Archives