Itwas April 30, 1975. Saigon, the only territory United States and Saigon regime forces ever held with certainty, had fallen to the Vietnamese. The U.S.-invented “nation” of South Vietnam was gone. Vietnam was reunified.
In the United States, which manufactured the war, both fatigue and relief were nearly palpable. And as the years passed, those feelings did not die out. Public repugnance toward military adventures was so pronounced that it imposed an unaccustomed military restraint on U.S. officials. Opinion surveys indicated the public wanted arms control negotiations and trade employed instead of war. The feeling became known as the Vietnam syndrome.
Who in 1976 would even have imagined that, just 28 years after Vietnam, the United States would plunge into another tar pit of a war in dubious circumstances with uncertain public support? And who would have imagined that the U.S. Congress, press and public would again be taken in by another pack of lies issued by officials once again ignorant of the situation and society into which they wanted to intrude?
Presidents chafed under the restriction of the Vietnam syndrome.
In one of the most belligerent speeches ever made by a U.S. presidential candidate, Ronald Reagan in 1980 attacked the Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations for yielding to the public abhorrence of further foolish wars—and attributed that repugnance to manipulation of the U.S. public by the Vietnamese, who Reagan still described as “North” Vietnamese: “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.”
Presidents kept trying to whittle away at the public’s reluctance, using short wars of overwhelming force against weak opponents like Panama and Grenada. After the Kuwait war, the first President Bush exulted, “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.”
In California, then former governor Jerry Brown responded that Bush was reading too much into an easy victory: “It may be, as some say, that victory in the Gulf War has put the ghost of Vietnam to rest in the area of military affairs. But I tell you the Vietnam syndrome is alive and well on the home front.”
Some officials interpreted the syndrome to fit an administration’s objectives, as when Carter assistant secretary of state Hodding Carter III said in April 1978, “I don’t think they [the public] have written off our international obligations, but they have written off believing there is some simple code they are supposed to adopt.”
Some officials seized on every foreign policy crisis—even those caused by the U.S.—to declare the syndrome dead. In June 1980, Philip Geyelin wrote in the Washington Post that officialdom, “heartened by the public response to the hostage crisis in Iran and the Soviet plunge into Afghanistan,” believed the syndrome “has been laid to rest.”
Apparently not, because five years later rightist U.S. Rep. Robert Dornan complained about the “near fatal fever of the Vietnam syndrome which has plagued us for 10 years …”
In April 1978, United Press International ran an interpretive article that began, “It’s called ‘Vietnam syndrome’ and it has left a mark on the attitudes of Americans toward their nation’s foreign policy.” In an article by what conservatives call the liberal press, UPI characterized the syndrome as a problem needing solving, rather than as the solution its supporters considered it.
Military adventurism is hardly a partisan matter. The generational cycle of preventable and unnecessary wars is fostered by both parties. It’s instructive to recall that in 1998, President Clinton—seeking public support for his proposed war against Iraq—sent teams of high officials around the nation to sell the public on Clinton’s claims that Saddam Hussein’s government was seeking “weapons of mass destruction.” On Feb. 18, 1998, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Defense Secretary William Cohen and National Security Adviser Sandy Berger conducted a 6,000-person “town meeting” in an Ohio sports arena live on CNN. The officials encountered public hostility and anger toward another war on Iraq, prompting the administration to screen out critics from crowds at succeeding stops but also forcing Clinton to retreat from his plans for war.
September 11, of course, changed everything. Officials of the second Bush administration believed the syndrome was gone for good. Chickenhawk officials believed they could extend the post-September 11 mandate beyond the Afghan war to Iraq. (The term chickenhawk was coined by U.S. Rep. and Korean war veteran Andrew Jacobs to describe officials who avoided war themselves but try to send others to war.)
Early in the Iraq war there were a lot of folks who drew parallels between Iraq and Vietnam. In the trappings of war, the geography and culture, the parallels really didn’t work. But in the policymaking that led to war, they did. There were leaders who, in order to get the United States into a war, misled both themselves and the nation. There was ignorance of the society and terrain the U.S. invaded. There was an acquiescent press that took its cues from the administration. There were members of Congress who failed to do their duty. And most of all, there was a gullible and passive public that was too unwilling to listen to voices of reason and restraint and too willing to be stirred up and maneuvered by leaders skilled in emotional and chauvinistic manipulation of tragedy.
Now again, in the wake of the second Iraq war, there is a revival of public resistance to doing it again. Will we do it again? In a few years, will we forget the Vietnam and Iraq lies and misery and again place U.S. servicepeople in harm’s way on the same kind of suspicious rationale? Must we keep perpetually re-learning the same lessons?
When the Iraq war entered its fourth year in March 2007, this newspaper published the names of every servicemember the nation had lost to that date.
In March of most years thereafter, we published an anniversary report of some kind. Now, th Iraq war is supposedly over, and March is here again, so we asked authors, activist, veterans of both war and antiwar:
Will we do it again?
Michael Archer is author of A Patch of Ground, an account of the siege of Khe Sanh, which he experienced as a Marine Corps radio operator. He is now writing the biography of a childhood friend who fell at Khe Sanh.
The good news is that American military leaders seem to have taken to heart some valuable lessons from Vietnam and will likely take even more away from the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
During the decision-making process leading up to the major U.S. troop deployment in Vietnam, President Johnson and Secretary of Defense McNamara were enthralled by the promises of Generals Westmoreland, Wheeler and Curtis (“Bomb them back into the Stone Age”) LeMay, that a quick and decisive victory could be won against the Viet Cong and North Vietnam by the use of big-ticket armaments, such as B-52 bombers. These officers had no respect for the military capability of our adversary, which was substantial, or the religious, cultural and nationalist sensibilities of the population of South Vietnam. As World War II-trained officers, they disregarded the lessons learned by the French in Vietnam, or during their stalemate in the Korean conflict a decade before, and were still flush with overconfidence from victories over Japan and Germany.
Only a few high ranking officers, like Marine Corps General Victor Krulak, stood against such a strategy in Vietnam. Krulak particularly objected to the forced relocation of much of the rural population from their ancestral lands, thus alienating them and helping Viet Cong recruiting efforts. So convinced was he that the plan would result in quagmire and eventual defeat for the U.S., Krulak chose to commit career suicide by going over the heads of his superiors directly to the Oval Office, where his arguments failed to move the President.
The 2003 invasion of Iraq was personally directed by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney, civilians who had virtually no practical military experience and little regard for input by military experts. These two men were guided by the neo-con historical view that Vietnam had been a winnable war, lost by a radical-left antiwar movement and a “liberal media”— rather than a misguided strategic plan. Consequently, they resurrected that same old swagger, the same disrespect for the ability of insurgency forces, and a blind faith that expensive military hardware would “shock and awe” the enemy. A “Generals Revolt,” publicly denouncing Rumsfeld for his “abysmal” military planning and lack of strategic competence, forced his resignation in 2006.
I am encouraged that this more cautious, unpretentious generation of military commanders, unafraid to learn from past mistakes, and more willing to speak out against incompetent leadership, will make better decisions about when, where and how to fight again. Future budgetary restraints will also force them to be more selective. And, electing national leaders whose worldview is less delusional, and whose public personas are less condescending toward other cultures, wouldn’t hurt either.
Christiane Brown’s Solutions Zone is broadcast on the Progressive Radio Network.
In a heartbeat.
The defense industry is one of the most powerful forces in American politics. No-bid defense contracting in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Israel is the goose that laid the golden egg for the military-industrial complex. With more than 1,000 U.S. military bases throughout the world, perpetual war—regardless of the tar pit it pulls the US into—is a guaranteed way for these multinational defense companies to insure that the goose continues producing.
In the 2008 election cycle, $24 million was spent by the military-industrial complex to fund politicians, split equally between Democrats and Republicans. As we enter another election year, massive campaign contributions from Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics will once again pour into the pockets of our candidates, guaranteeing that when the time comes to decide, our elected representatives will vote in their favor for war—regardless of negative public sentiment.
Without campaign finance reform, the will of the people pales in comparison to the size of the wallet, and future wars, with the huge profits they engender, are a given.
Cory Farley served as a Special Forces medic in Vietnam, spending most of his tour at Pleiku and Plei Me.
What we do militarily depends a lot on who’s elected in 2012, I think. In the absence of a military draft, public sympathy is an unreliable tool. I know a lot of conservatives who claim to support our actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance—but only one I can think of who actually has a family member who’s served there. It’s a necessary war as long as their housekeepers’ kids are fighting it. If their own kids were subject to being called up, their attitudes might change.
Having said that, though, I don’t see any reason to doubt that we’ll do it again, and in a shorter time than [a] “couple of decades” if conservatives remain influential. Increasingly, they have little to offer ordinary people. Cuts in social programs that help the poor, sick and elderly, tax hikes for the average family, and tax breaks for the wealthy aren’t going to attract many middle-class voters. The GOP’s best hope is to keep us all scared and position themselves as our protectors. That, plus their obeisance to big business, pretty much guarantees a succession of small and probably fruitless wars. Which is not to say some of their fears aren’t justified, but you can count on them to magnify them for political leverage.
Columbia University sociologist Todd Gitlin headed Students for a Democratic Society in 1963-64 and helped organize the first national protest against the Vietnam War, held on
April 17, 1965. He is author of 15 books, including The Sixties (1987) and Occupy Nation (2012).
There is political viability to short wars—Grenada, Panama, Gulf War I. But the September 11 attacks removed restraints. Still, I daresay few who supported the attack on Afghanistan shortly thereafter had any idea that American troops would be in action there more than a decade later. Bush, with his go-for-broke attitude, promised a short war—claimed one, in fact (“Mission Accomplished”)—and left a bad feeling about long wars. It must be recognized, too, that the Iraq war was a catastrophe—not least for the hundred thousand or more Iraqi dead and their survivors.
If I read the situation correctly, the Pentagon has given up the idea that it can fight and win two wars simultaneously. For a long time, very probably decades, as after 1975, they will be reluctant to commit Iraq- or Afghanistan-sized expeditionary forces. “Exit strategies” will be scrutinized much more tightly. The emphasis now, and for the foreseeable future, seems to be on high-tech, specialized warfare deploying elite units, like Seals, with drones and other low-manpower equipment. This is cheaper than troops, less visible, and less politically risky. It seems apparent, though, that if another president chooses to send large detachments of professional soldiers into a big war on the scale of Afghanistan or Iraq, he or she will be able to count on the isolation of the troops from the population at large, which means that opposition to the war will not be boosted by draftees at risk.
Mark Rudd was a leader of the Weatherman faction of Students for a Democratic Society and is now a New Mexico college mathematics professor.
What I’ve learned over the last 40 years is that the powers that want and need war are so great that it can only take an enormous public outcry, such as during the Vietnam era, to stop a war. And that is rare. There is no peace party. There are many war parties—the military, the defense contractors, the construction and oil interests, the shallow patriots.
So until we develop a peace party—people who understand and reject the militarist nature of our society—we’ll have many more wars. As the national economic and moral decline continues, and by this I mean the improvement of the society for the benefit of the few, the frequency and duration of wars will increase because that’s the only solution we’re geared for. Unless we organize.
Rebecca Thomas, former director of the Washoe Temporary Protection Order Office, is a graduate student at the University of Nevada, Reno. Her son is a U.S. Army infantry soldier who spent 18 months in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, known as the “valley of death.”
Yes, I think it is a possibility that is more likely than not. In the run-up to the Iraq war, the Bush administration fell victim to what social psychologists call confirmation bias. Once a person has a belief, they will look for and interpret information that confirms the belief, and reject information that disconfirms the belief. The Bush administration already had a belief that Iraq had continued its weapons program in defiance of UN restrictions. When information about aluminum tubes being sought by Iraq surfaced, the administration filtered that through their belief that Iraq was attempting to develop nuclear weapons and voila!—justification for invasion. There was no need to investigate more thoroughly because another confirmation bias, that Saddam was deceitful and uncooperative with the UN, made any attempts at diplomacy and non-military intervention seem naive.
I recall the Bush rhetoric of “you are either with us or against us,” which created a bias that forced the public to take sides. It included the idea that being against the war in Iraq meant that you were against the U.S. (recall that polls showed a large portion of the public believed that Iraq was behind the terrorist attacks in the U.S., another example of confirmation bias). No matter how deep the Vietnam syndrome, we wanted our country to be safe from another attack. I heard many people state they were “against the war but for the troops.” This could be interpreted as a response to the Vietnam syndrome, where individuals were having cognitive dissonance because their confirmation bias was created by Vietnam. We wanted to guard against further attack, very clearly did not want a repeat of Vietnam, and also did not want a repeat of the damage done to veterans—both physical and psychological—in that war. The public reaction to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars may be to shake their heads and call it another Vietnam, but we certainly have demonstrated much clearer separation of enlisted men and women from the politics. It no longer seems contradictory for someone to be against a war but support the troops fighting it.
The U.S. has seen lots of military actions since Vietnam … we will continue to have them. The most that we can hope for is a leader who is aware enough of his or her own beliefs to check and double check their decisions for bias. I suppose theoretically this is supposed to happen when Congress considers the question of invasion, but representatives have confirmation bias, too.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist, author of nine books and coauthor, with Jack Germond, of four books.
The notion dies hard that after one calamitous war, as in Vietnam and even more notably in Iraq, a public “syndrome” sets in assuring that never again will an American administration commit lives and treasure to an overseas military adventure of dubious purpose or prospect of success. But never is a long time, and the ability of elected leaders to fire up an aura of patriotic duty and allure, as achieved by Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam and George W. Bush in his war of choice in Iraq, should never be underestimated, and demands public vigilance.