"Vietnam Syndrome" is a term used in the United States, in public political rhetoric and political analysis, to describe the perceived impact of the domestic controversy over the Vietnam War on US foreign policy after the end of that war in 1975. Since the early 1980s, the combination of a public opinion apparently biased against war, a less interventionist US foreign policy, and a relative absence of American wars and military "Vietnam paralysis" are all the perceived results of this public malaise.
Failure in Vietnam
In the domestic debate over the reasons the United States was unable to defeat North Vietnamese forces and win over the population there during the War in Vietnam, conservative thinkers and many in the US military argued that the US had had sufficient resources but that Americans themselves had undermined the war effort. In a famous article in Commentary, “Making the World Safe for Communism,” journalist Norman Podhoretz complained,
“Do we lack power? … Certainly not if power is measured in brute terms of economic, technological, and military capacity. By those standards, we are still the most powerful country in the world… The issue boils down in the end, then, to the question of will.”
Thereafter the idea of "Vietnam syndrome" proliferated in the press and policy circles as a way of talking about why the US, one of the world's superpowers, had been humiliated by self-imposed defeat in Vietnam. As many conservatives like Podhoretz saw it, a fickle and spineless public, an unpatriotic anti-war movement and undisciplined soldiers had shamed the nation by their unwillingness or inability to do what was necessary to destroy North Vietnam. The world was a dangerous place, they warned, and any retreat or compromise was an invitation to Communists and other wicked people out to destroy American supremacy and, by extension, the American way of life.
In time the phrase "Vietnam syndrome" also came into use as a shorthand for the idea that Americans were worried they would never win a war again, and that the nation was in utter decline.
Reagan's Speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars
In the later 1970s and the 1980s, candidate and then President Ronald Reagan talked about Vietnam Syndrome, but argued that it could be overcome if Americans adopted a more confident and optimistic posture in the world-with him as leader. In the speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) in which he used the term "Vietnam syndrome," Reagan alleged that the time was right for such a change of attitude and action since the Soviet Union was outspending the US in the global arms race such that America's global power was decreasing. He accused the Carter Administration of being "totally oblivious" to the Soviet threat.
Asserting a need for a more aggressive, activist foreign policy, Reagan also suggested that Americans could have defeated the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese Army, alleging that the American public had turned against the war due to the influence of North Vietnamese propaganda, and implying that the soldiers had been let down by Johnson and Nixon administration officials who had been "afraid to let them win" the war in Vietnam.
Reagan equated the "Vietnam syndrome" not only with a reluctance on the part of the American public to support US military interventions but also with feelings of guilt about the devastation brought about due to the Vietnam War and with feelings of doubt over the morality of America's intentions and actions during the war. Reagan, however, argued that America had fought for "a noble cause", blaming the war in Vietnam exclusively on North Vietnam's aggression:
For too long, we have lived with the “Vietnam Syndrome.” Much of that syndrome has been created by the North Vietnamese aggressors who now threaten the peaceful people of Thailand. Over and over they told us for nearly 10 years that we were the aggressors bent on imperialistic conquests. They had a plan. It was to win in the field of propaganda here in America what they could not win on the field of battle in Vietnam. As the years dragged on, we were told that peace would come if we would simply stop interfering and go home.
It is time we recognized that ours was, in truth, a noble cause. A small country newly free from colonial rule sought our help in establishing self-rule and the means of self-defense against a totalitarian neighbor bent on conquest. We dishonor the memory of 50,000 young Americans who died in that cause when we give way to feelings of guilt as if we were doing something shameful, and we have been shabby in our treatment of those who returned. They fought as well and as bravely as any Americans have ever fought in any war. They deserve our gratitude, our respect, and our continuing concern.There is a lesson for all of us in Vietnam. If we are forced to fight, we must have the means and the determination to prevail or we will not have what it takes to secure the peace. And while we are at it, let us tell those who fought in that war that we will never again ask young men to fight and possibly die in a war our government is afraid to let them win.
The End of the Syndrome
After the United States led a coalition of nations to swift victory over Iraq in the Gulf War, journalists, intellectuals and many government figures in the US agreed that the nation had finally overcome Vietnam Syndrome since a new generation of young men had proven themselves in battle with great patriotic support on the part of most American citizens.
Norman Podhoretz, “Making the World Safe for Communism,” Commentary 61, no. 4 (April 1976).