Another “Blank Check?!”

The 1960s Project bases itself on the idea that the 1960s was much much more than the things most people associate with the era: civil rights, feminism, Vietnam, and the Counterculture. We leave other places and people to rehash these ideas over and over again ad nauseum, albeit often well.

Occasionally though, an item in the news strikes the editor of this column as so relevant to one of these classic themes that he finds it worthwhile to draw a parallel, and write about it in The1960sToday column. Such is the case this month.

The title of this column refers to a “blank check.” This is usually connected to one’s bank account and finances, of course, referring to a check signed and perhaps dated, but without a specified dollar amount filled in. This will be completed by the signer of the check or by someone else, but the whole idea is that the total commitment is a bit unknown and open-ended. It goes without saying this practice is rife with risk.

So it’s interesting that this concept of a “blank check” or carte blanche shows up in politics and foreign policy from time to time. In fact, it’s shown up quite recently – this month, actually – in all sorts of headlines across the nation in regard to the Biden administration’s management of the Ukrainian war with Russia.

What connects Ukraine to the 1960s and this column is the one “blank check” example most Americans remember from the period: The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution of 1964 and Vietnam.

These “open checks” usually have unintended consequences and problems, and ultimately confer upon the recipient who originally wanted it the moniker of being irresponsible and reckless after the fact.

As to President Biden and Ukraine, it’s too early to tell in 2022. Johnson and Tonkin are easier to judge.

Before we get to these, it’s easiest perhaps to see the results of a colossal case of a “blank check” issued over a century ago by one leader that justified and encouraged the actions of another, and started a chain of tragic events we know as World War I.

Exactly 50 years before the Gulf of Tonkin – to the month – the most famous “blank check” in modern history was issued. The year was 1914. The heir to the Austria-Hungarian throne, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, had been assassinated by a Serbian terrorist in Sarajevo, Bosnia in late June. The Dual Monarchy emperor Franz Joseph sent a personal note to the German Kaiser Wilhelm II about dangers that Serbian Pan-Slavists and Belgrade posed to the Empire and the Triple Alliance of Austria, Germany, and Italy. He wished for an end to the warfare in the Balkans since 1912 with a reconciliation of Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, and the Ottoman Empire, though saw little hope of this succeeding so long as Serbia remained a “political factor” linked to a Russian “pre-concerted plan” for Balkan agitation, and encirclement of Central Europe, including Germany.

Wilhelm expressed sympathy to Emperor’s ambassador when they lunched in Potsdam on July 5. He understood the need for “extreme measures” against Serbia, including “immediate intervention for our difficulties in the Balkans.” He conveyed his thoughts to the German chief of the general staff, von Moltke; to undersecretary for foreign affairs, Arthur Zimmerman; and to Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg who telegraphed the Austrian foreign minister that Austria could count on Germany’s “full support” come what may. In a follow-up note, the Chancellor said to Franz Joseph that Germany would not of course interfere in Austria’s internal affairs, but that “the Emperor may rest assured that His Majesty [Wilhelm] will faithfully stand by Austria-Hungary as is required by the obligations of his alliance and of his ancient friendship.”

Here was what historian’s have called Germany’s blank check that gave Austria confidence to act. And act she did. She declared war on Serbia at the end of July 1914, which triggered Russia to defend the orthodox Balkan Serbs and started a chain of events and alliance obligations among the various states of Europe that began the First World War.

Across the Atlantic in 1964, the administration of Lyndon Johnson weighed its options in Southeast Asia. The Revolutionary Command Council that governed South Vietnam after the toppling of South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem in November 1963 was “indecisive and adrift,” reported the American Defense Secretary Robert McNamara from overseas, and the Communist North Vietcong were occupying greater and greater amounts of territory south of the partition line established by the Geneva Accords in 1954 after the French withdrawal. What to do? Intervene? If so, how? Under what circumstances? Under what pretense?

Publicly, Johnson ruled out American commitment, but privately listened to his Cabinet and advisors – including Walt W. Rostow at the State Department who pointed out that whatever form American participation in Vietnam might take, the commitment of United States forces needed a Congressionally-approved declaration of war.

The justifications for action were many: the collective security pact of the SEATO agreements, the failure of the US to support an ally, the loss of American prestige, and the fact that many viewed Vietnam as a kind of “test case” of containment in the worldwide confrontation with Communism –  that the defeat of freedom in South Vietnam would be the first in a series of many Third World countries to fall, like “dominos,” to tyranny. Finally, in the election year of 1964, Johnson wanted to appear decisive against his Republican opponent Barry Goldwater who had made Vietnam and America’s foreign policy important in the presidential campaign.

As important as these considerations, and whatever the genuine hardships of the South Vietnamese people at the hands of insurgent North Vietcong, Johnson and advisors such as National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy knew that a direct attack on American forces in theater would give Congress cause to vote approval for the United States to enter a land war in Asia more than anything else. This incident occurred in the middle of 1964 when, according to the Johnson administration, North Vietnamese patrol boats attacked – unprovoked – American destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin on August 1 and 4. The first attack on the intelligence-gathering U.S.S. Maddox appeared to have actually happened in response to the destroyers’ support of South Vietnamese commando raids on the North Vietnamese coast. Hanoi denied the second attack, however, and there is some reason to believe this, including the impressions of Johnson himself and his State Department advisor, Rostow.

Nevertheless, within hours of the second (disputed) attack, the United States launched airstrikes against the North, destroying naval assets and oil storage facilities; and Johnson addressed Congress in a special message on August 5. Whatever the veracity of claims, the administration used the incident to pass through Congress what is known as the “Gulf of Tonkin Resolution” – our second “blank check.” The resolution stated that “the Congress approves and supports the determination of the President . . . to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.” It also declared that the nation was ready “to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force,” to protect the security of the region.  The House voted unanimously for the Resolution; the positive Senate vote was only 88-2.

In passing, there was a precedent for Congress giving an American president carte blanche. During Johnson’s own career as a Senator, he voted in January 1955 for the Formosa Resolution that gave President Eisenhower the power to use military force “as he deems necessary” to protect Taiwan from an invasion from the mainland communist Chinese. With Tonkin, we see a repeat of the Taiwan Strait Crisis. With Tonkin, Attorney General Katzenbach saw “the functional declaration of war” that Rostow had said was necessary for the legal exercise of presidential power. The authority granted to Eisenhower on Formosa appears to have ended the crisis without resort to force of arms. Within a few years of the Gulf of Tonkin blank check, though, Johnson had committed almost 500,000 troops to what became his obsession that nearly destroyed his presidency.

Though not because of this column, the phrase “blank check” is starting to appear frequently in headlines usually related to Biden administration policies. Any search will reveal recent examples of the phrase. A “blank check” from taxpayers for student loans. A “blank check” to fund open borders immigration programs. A “blank check” of government cash for biotech companies after COVID-19. Or relatedly, Biden tears up Trump’s [and America’s historical] “blank check” to Saudi Arabia.

What caught the attention of this writer, however, was the use of this phrase in its classic foreign policy form – of an open-ended financing of some kind of military enterprise (like the examples of Vietnam and WWI above) – in this case, the Russo-Ukrainian War. Since the Russian annexation of the Crimea in 2014, there has been modest American support for Ukraine to defend its sovereignty. However, since Russia’s recognition of the separatist states of Ukraine’s [eastern] Donbas region on February 21 of this year and its invasion three days later, measured US support has turned into what appears to be an almost unlimited stream of military and humanitarian assistance packages to Ukraine.

  • March 16 = $800 million in security assistance
  • April 28 = Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act
  • May 21 = $40 billion in humanitarian and military aid
  • May 31 = $700 million of military aid

What one notices first in this list are the large dollar numbers accumulating. But what is most striking is the italicized number two. This legislation passed Congress easily and streamlines the authority that the President already has under the Arms Export Control Act of 1976. It gives Biden increased and specific authority to transfer in the form of loans and leases – as the name implies – “defense articles” to protect the Ukrainian population in the face of Russian aggression. But what are “defense items?”

(3) “defense article” means, with respect to a sale or transfer by the United States under the authority of this Act or any other foreign assistance or sales program of the United States –

a) any weapon, weapon system, munition, aircraft, vessel, boat, or. other implement of war,
b) any property, installation, commodity, material, equipment, supply, or goods used for the purpose of making military sales,
c) any machinery, facility, tool, material, supply, or other item necessary for the manufacture, production, processing, repair, servicing , storage, construction, transportation, operation, or use of any article listed in this paragraph . . .

It appears that items three and four emerge from the April 28 legislation, and opened the spicket. And these “articles” are already going to fellow NATO countries such as Poland, from which they find their way to Ukraine.

The long-term effects of this channel of aid are, of course, hard to tell. However, the thrust reminds one of our earlier examples in Central Europe and Southeast Asia. Depending on how the war goes, though, we may be in 1914 or 1964 – that is, at the start of an escalating series of events.

Without Germany’s support of Austria through the Kaiser, the conflict in the Balkans might well have remained contained. Instead it developed into a terrible general war. Without American support of South Vietnam through President Johnson, the nature of war would very likely have been terrible, though short.

President Biden’s open-ended funding of Ukraine seems in line with two other “blank checks” of the past – the one of 1914 that led to the most destructive war in history to that time; and to the notorious one in the 1960s that connects specifically to this column and Project, and to the most unpopular war in 20th century. Such financial license often have unpredictable ramifications. They certainly did in 1914 and 1964. Let’s watch to see what happens this time. Because of the catastrophic outcomes of our earlier “blank check” examples, we hope our parallels are wrong. But in any case, the 1960s remain full of cautionary tales, worthy of mention, worthy of thinking about.

Until next time,


May 24, 2022

Leave a Reply