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The Postwar Impact of Vietnam


Harvard Sitikoff

Following the end of America’s combat role in Vietnam in 1973, and the subsequent fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) in 1975, the often prophesied and much feared resurgence of McCarthyite Red-baiting, the bitter accusations of "who lost Vietnam?" barely transpired. Rather than massive recriminations, a collective amnesia took hold. The majority of Americans, it appeared, neither wanted to talk or think about their nation's longest and most debilitating war--the only war the United States ever lost. That forgetfulness gave way in the early 1980s to a renewed interest in the war: Hollywood, network television, and the music industry made Vietnam a staple of popular culture; and scholars, journalists, and Vietnam veterans produced a flood of literature on the conflict, especially concerning its lessons and legacies. Much of it, emphasizing the enormity of the damage done to American attitudes, institutions, and foreign policy by the Vietnam ordeal, echoed George R. Kennan's depiction of the Vietnam War as "the most disastrous of all America's undertakings over the whole two hundred years of its history."

Initially, the humiliating defeat imposed by a nation Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had described as "a fourth-rate power" caused a loss of pride and self-confidence in a people that liked to think of the United States as invincible. An agonizing reappraisal of American power and glory dampened the celebration of the Bicentennial birthday in 1976. So did the economic woes then afflicting the United States, which many blamed on the estimated $167 billion spent on the war. President Lyndon B. Johnson's decision to finance a major war and the Great Society simultaneously, without a significant increase in taxation, launched a runaway double-digit inflation and mounting federal debt that ravaged the American economy and eroded living standards from the late 1960s into the 1990s.

The United States also paid a high political cost for the Vietnam War. It weakened public faith in government, and in the honesty and competence of its leaders. Indeed, skepticism, if not cynicism, and a high degree of suspicion of and distrust toward authority of all kind characterized the views of an increasing number of Americans in the wake of the war. The military, especially, was discredited for years. It would gradually rebound to become once again one of the most highly esteemed organizations in the United States. In the main, however, as never before, Americans after the Vietnam War neither respected nor trusted public institutions.

They were wary of official calls to intervene abroad in the cause of democracy and freedom, and the bipartisan consensus that had supported American foreign policy since the 1940s dissolved. Democrats, in particular, questioned the need to contain communism everywhere around the globe and to play the role of the planet's policeman. The Democratic majority in Congress would enact the 1973 War Powers Resolution, ostensibly forbidding the president from sending U.S. troops into combat for more than ninety days without congressional consent. Exercising a greater assertiveness in matters of foreign policy, Congress increasingly emphasized the limits of American power, and the ceiling on the cost Americans would pay in pursuit of specific foreign policy objectives. The fear of getting bogged down in another quagmire made a majority of Americans reluctant to intervene militarily in Third World countries. The neo-isolationist tendency that former President Richard M. Nixon called "the Vietnam syndrome" would be most manifest in the public debates over President Ronald Reagan's interventionist policies in Nicaragua and President George Bush's decision to drive Iraqi forces out of Kuwait. Despite the victorious outcome of the Persian Gulf War for the United States and its allies, and President Bush's declaration in March 1991--"By God, we've kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all!"--the fear of intervention would reappear in the public debate over President Bill Clinton's commitment of U.S. peacekeeping forces in Somalia and Bosnia. Quite clearly, for at least a quarter of a century after the Vietnam War ended, that conflict continued to loom large in the minds of Americans. Accordingly, a new consensus among foreign policy makers, reflecting the lessons learned from the Vietnam War, became manifest: the United States should use military force only as a last resort; only where the national interest is clearly involved; only when there is strong public support; and only in the likelihood of a relatively quick, inexpensive victory.

Another consensus also gradually emerged. At first, rather than giving returning veterans of the war welcoming parades, Americans seemed to shun, if not denigrate, the 2 million-plus Americans who went to Vietnam, the 1.6 million who served in combat, the 300,000 physically wounded, the many more who bore psychological scars, the 2,387 listed as "missing in action," and the more than 58,000 who died. Virtually nothing was done to aid veterans and their loved ones who needed assistance in adjusting. Then a torrent of fiction, films, and television programs depicted Vietnam vets as drug-crazed psychotic killers, as vicious executioners in Vietnam and equally vicious menaces at home. Not until after the 1982 dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., did American culture acknowledge their sacrifice and suffering, and concede that most had been good soldiers in a bad war.

Yet this altered view of the Vietnam veterans as victims as much as victimizers, if not as brave heroes, was not accompanied by new public policies. Although most veterans did succeed in making the transition to ordinary civilian life, many did not. More Vietnam veterans committed suicide after the war than had died in it. Even more--perhaps three-quarters of a million--became part of the lost army of the homeless. And the nearly 700,000 draftees, many of them poor, badly educated, and nonwhite, who had received less than honorable discharges, depriving them of educational and medical benefits, found it especially difficult to get and keep jobs, to maintain family relationships, and to stay out of jail. Although a majority of Americans came to view dysfunctional veterans as needing support and medical attention rather than moral condemnation, the Veterans Administration, reluctant to admit the special difficulties faced by these veterans and their need for additional benefits, first denied the harm done by chemicals like Agent Orange and by the posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) afflicting as many as 700,000, and then stalled on providing treatment.

Although diminishing, the troublesome specter of the Vietnam War continued to divide Americans and haunt the national psyche. It surfaced again in 1988 when Bush's running mate, Dan Quayle, had to defend his reputation against revelations that he had used family political connections to be admitted into the Indiana National Guard in 1969 to avoid the draft and a possible tour of duty in Vietnam. It emerged four years later when Bill Clinton, the Democratic candidate for president, faced accusations that he had evaded the draft and then organized antiwar demonstrations in 1969 while he was a Rhodes scholar in England. In each instance, such charges reminded Americans of the difficult choices young Americans had to make in what many saw as at best a morally ambiguous war.

Mostly, remembrances continue to be stirred by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the most visited site in the nation's capital. Its stark black granite reflecting panels, covered with the names of the more than 58,000 American men and women who died in Vietnam, is a shrine to the dead, a tombstone in a sloping valley of death. Lacking all the symbols of heroism, glory, patriotism, and moral certainty that more conventional war memorials possess, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a somber reminder of the loss of too many young Americans, and of what the war did to the United States and its messianic belief in its own overweening virtue.

From The Oxford Companion to American Military History. Ed. John Whiteclay Chambers II. New York: Oxford UP, 1999. Copyright 1999 by Oxford UP.


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