Vietnam Syndrome

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The Vietnam Syndrome, in US politics, is a non-medical conservative term referring 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 less interventionist US foreign policy, and a relative absence of American wars and military "Vietnam paralysis" are all the perceived results of the syndrome.

There is a general consensus amongst global historians and even most military analysts that in fact, from a purely strategic point of view, the United states military was, in actual fact, losing the war on the battlefield explicitly despite its superior firepower and superior technology. 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. Historians both inside and outside the military do not accept the idea of Vietnam Syndrome as being legitimate, and they often point out that the superiority in combat exhibited by the Viet Cong and the regular North Vietnamese Army was rooted in those forces' ability to be agile in ways the United States forces and South Vietnamese forces were never able to be. It is generally agreed that the victory of the communist forces in Vietnam actually did indeed come from their superior battlefield performance — not their technology nor even their numbers (millions of Vietnamese were killed, versus many thousands, but not millions, of United States or South Vietnamese troops), but in fact their superior tactics, coming from their perfecting of guerrilla warfare, sabotage, atypical and asymmetric battlefield moves, infiltration, etc., which did indeed both overwhelm and systematically outmanoeuvre the United States and US-supported forces. The general consensus is that the Communists in North Vietnam did genuinely win the war. There are those, therefore, that explicitly equate the Vietnam Syndrome with a similar narrative just prior-to, and during, Nazi Germany, in which the idea was spread that Germany had not actually lost World War One 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, too, is today universally dismissed (and was dismissed in the years before the Nazis as well, but was central to the Nazis' own power during the Nazi reign).

Failure in Vietnam[edit]

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 sufficient resources but that Americans themselves had undermined the war effort. In an 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 United States, one of the world's superpowers, had been humiliated by self-imposed defeat in Vietnam. Many conservatives agreed with Podhoretz:

…a fickle and spineless public, an unpatriotic anti-war movement and undisciplined soldiers had ashamed 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.[this quote needs a citation]

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 Veterans of Foreign Wars[edit]

In the later 1970s and the 1980s, candidate and then President 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 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 from 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.

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. (Subscription required (help)). 
  • Norman Podhoretz, “Making the World Safe for Communism,” Commentary 61, no. 4 (April 1976).