Vietnam Syndrome

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Vietnam Syndrome, in U.S. politics, is a term used to refer to public aversion to American overseas military involvements,[1] following the domestic controversy over the Vietnam War, which ended in 1975. Since the early 1980s, the combination of a public opinion apparently biased against war,[2] a relative reluctance to deploy ground troops and conscription, and "Vietnam paralysis" are all the perceived results of the syndrome.

There is a general consensus by global historians and even most military analysts that from a purely strategic point of view, the U.S. military was losing the war on the battlefield despite its superior firepower and superior technology, due largely to political decisions that hampered the efforts of military command. Military historians and those who participated in the war note that indeed, the full spread of United States military technology, numbers, and expertise was present during the war, all the way to its very end, but the requirement of individual bombing raids being approved by the Commander in Chief personally, hindered the ability of commanders in country to execute an effective war strategy. While the Viet Cong and the regular North Vietnamese Army employed an agility in ways the United States forces and South Vietnamese forces did not, the lopsided losses experienced by the North indicated the effectiveness of the American execution of the war when political factors were not influencing actions on the battlefield. The victory of the communist forces in Vietnam can be at least partially attributed to non-military factors such as anti-war sentiments in the United States and political interference involving micromanagement of responsibilities typically delegated to military command (millions of Vietnamese were killed, versus many thousands, but not millions, of United States or South Vietnamese troops). The north Vietnamese were well versed in guerrilla warfare, sabotage, atypical and asymmetric battlefield moves, infiltration, etc., but their unsustainable casualty count would not have survived a protracted engagement in the absence of major American political interference and Communist funded anti-war propaganda in the United States which eroded popular support for the conflict.

Lyndon Johnson faced many of the same problems in Vietnam that Harry Truman faced in Korea. Johnson's principal problems were to fight the war successfully without widening the conflict to include intervention by the major Communist powers. This problem would color nearly every decision Johnson made about the war, would force him (from his point of view) to take personal command of the air war in North Vietnam, and would frustrate the military leadership, just as they had been frustrated during the Korean War.

The broad political objective was simple and clear-cut. However, the military's role in achieving that objective was much more obscure. According to Johnson's assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern affairs, William Bundy, the primary focus of the American military effort was to "get Hanoi and North Vietnam (DRV) support and direction removed from South Vietnam." It is particularly important to note that the American military objective did not contemplate "winning" in the sense that the United States and its Allies had won World War II. The available policy documents rarely made reference to defeating the enemy. Indeed, General Westmoreland notes that in 1965, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara defined the American military objective by asking Westmoreland "how many additional American and Allied troops would be required to convince the enemy he would be unable to win." In essence, the American military objective was not to defeat or destroy the enemy. Rather, the military objective was to persuade the enemy that he could not win—a far cry from defeating the enemy in any traditional sense.[3] [4] [5] [6]

There are those who explicitly equate the Vietnam Syndrome with a similar narrative prior to and the formation of Nazi Germany, in which the idea was spread that Germany had not actually lost World War I but had instead been "stabbed in the back" by forces from within that secretly wanted Germany to lose that war and to be weakened. That narrative, while central to Nazi Germany's bid for legitimacy - though refuted by unbiased scholars, persists with respect to the Vietnam conflict due largely to the severe imbalance of casualties that the North Vietnamese suffered (a roughly eight to one ratio).

Failure in Vietnam[edit]

In the domestic debate over why the US was unable to defeat North Vietnamese forces during the war, conservative thinkers, many in the US military, argued that the US had sufficient resources but the war effort had been undermined at home. In an article in Commentary, "Making the World Safe for Communism," journalist Norman Podhoretz stated:

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 term "Vietnam syndrome" proliferated in the press and policy circles as a way of talking about why the United States, one of the world's superpowers, had not succeeded in repelling the North's invasion of South Vietnam. Many conservatives such as Ronald Reagan agreed with Podhoretz. In time, the term "Vietnam syndrome" expanded 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.[7]

Bosnia 1993[edit]

"Lift and strike" was a proposed policy by the Bill Clinton administration in 1993, which Clinton had supported during his successful presidential campaign in 1992. It sought to improve the chances of a political settlement in the bloody atrocity-filled Bosnian War in the former Yugoslavia by lifting the arms embargo, arming the Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), and striking at the Bosnian Serbs if they resisted the rearmament project. A combination of the Vietnam Syndrome and very strong opposition from American allies in Europe killed the proposal and it was never enacted.[8]

Military actions to bury the syndrome[edit]

The administration of U.S. President Ronald Reagan hoped that the perceived success of the United States invasion of Grenada would help dispel the Vietnam Syndrome so that the American public could be successfully galvanized to support new US military actions,[9][10][11] with President Reagan after the invasion declaring: "Our days of weakness are over. Our military forces are back on their feet and standing tall."[12]

The quick victory in the First Gulf War was widely believed to be the end of the Vietnam Syndrome. U.S. President George H. W. Bush triumphantly declared after the First Gulf War that "The ghosts of Vietnam have been laid to rest beneath the sands of the Arabian desert."[13]

Reagan's speech to Veterans of Foreign Wars[edit]

In the later 1970s and the 1980s, Ronald Reagan talked about the aspects of the 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), which 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 the latter'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 Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army by alleging that the American public had turned against the war from the influence of North Vietnamese propaganda and implying that officials had let down the soldiers and been "afraid to let them win" the war.

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 because of 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" and blamed 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.[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Kalb, Marvin (22 January 2013). "It's Called the Vietnam Syndrome, and It's Back". Brookings Institution. Retrieved 12 June 2015. In today's world of terrorist threat and guerrilla war, the Vietnam syndrome means, if nothing else, a fundamental reluctance to commit American military power anywhere in the world, unless it is absolutely necessary to protect the national interests of the country.
  2. ^ Jacobsen, Kurt (3–9 November 2001). "Afghanistan and the Vietnam Syndrome". Economic and Political Weekly. 36 (44): 4182. JSTOR 4411323.
  3. ^ Drew, Dennis M. "Rolling Thunder 1965: Anatomy of a Failure".
  4. ^ Bundy, William. "The Pentagon Papers".
  5. ^ Sorely, Lewis. "A Soldier Reports".
  6. ^ Winston, George (Nov 25, 2014). "Why the Americans lost the Vietnam War".
  7. ^ Ben Buley (2007). The New American Way of War: Military Culture and the Political Utility of Force. Routledge. pp. 63–54.
  8. ^ Carole Hodge (2006). Britain and the Balkans: 1991 Until the Present. Routledge. pp. 55–56.
  9. ^ United Press International, 28 May 1984, Reagan's View of Vietnam War Unwavering
  10. ^ Foreign Policy, 7 Jun. 2010, "Think Again: Ronald Reagan, The Gipper Wasn't the Warhound His Conservative Followers Would Have You Think"
  11. ^ Los Angeles Times, 2 Mar. 1991, U.S. Shakes Off Torment of Vietnam
  12. ^ Baltimore Sun, 13 Dec. 1983, "Days of Weakness Over, Reagan Tells War Heroes"
  13. ^ George C. Herring, "From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008) p. 912
  14. ^ Reagan, Ronald (18 August 1980). Address to the Veterans of Foreign Wars Convention in Chicago.
  • Norman Podhoretz, "Making the World Safe for Communism," Commentary 61, no. 4 (April 1976).