Free Minds & Free Markets

The Vietnam Syndrome: How We Lost It and Why We Need It Back

How could we be repeating the mistakes of Vietnam already?

PAT BENIC/UPI/NewscomPAT BENIC/UPI/NewscomIn Kabul, Afghanistan, American Embassy personnel who want to meet with their counterparts at the nearby U.S. military base have to travel a mere 100 yards. But they don't make a practice of walking or driving. They go by military helicopter, reports The New York Times. The space between is too dangerous to cross on the ground.

It's the sort of bizarre fact that might have emerged in Ken Burns' new PBS series on the Vietnam War, illustrating our inability to turn South Vietnam into a safe, stable place. But it's not the past; it's the present.

The Vietnam War was the greatest U.S. military catastrophe of the 20th century. A conflict begun under false pretenses, based on ignorance and hubris, it killed 58,000 Americans and as many as 3 million Vietnamese. It ended in utter failure. Never in our history have so many lives been wasted on such monumental futility.

It was a national trauma worse than any since the Great Depression, and it left deep gashes in the American psyche. It instilled an aversion to wars of choice that became known as the Vietnam syndrome.

The allergy might have lasted for generations. It didn't. In 2001, just 26 years after the fall of Saigon, the United States invaded Afghanistan. American troops have been fighting there twice as long as we fought in Vietnam.

Once again we find ourselves mired in an incomprehensible land, amid people who distrust us. Once again we are aligned with a corrupt regime that couldn't survive without our help as we incur casualties in the pursuit of goals we never reach.

In Burns' documentary, President Lyndon B. Johnson is heard in 1965 confiding, "A man can fight if he can see daylight down the road somewhere, but there ain't no daylight in Vietnam." Afghanistan has also been an endless journey down a pitch-black mine shaft.

The American military drew some obvious conclusions from Vietnam. Gen. Colin Powell, who served in combat there, had them in mind when he formulated what became known as the Powell Doctrine. It advised going to war only if we can identify a vital interest, have clear, achievable purposes, are prepared to use decisive force, and know our exit strategy. But Powell's wisdom eventually was forgotten.

How could we be repeating the mistakes of Vietnam already? We didn't wake up one day with severe amnesia. It was not a one-step process. It occurred through a succession of military interventions that convinced us we were clever enough to avoid the pitfalls that had brought us to such ruin in Southeast Asia.

Ronald Reagan lamented the Vietnam syndrome but shrewdly declined to send American forces to fight leftists in Central America. He did, however, undertake one brief, low-risk invasion -- of the Caribbean island of Grenada, against a Castro-backed Marxist regime. Our forces removed the government, and we soon departed.

In 1989, George H.W. Bush tried a more ambitious mission, invading Panama to eject a dictator. Then came Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, which provoked Bush to send a huge air and ground force to expel Saddam Hussein's army—a fight that proved far easier than expected.

Bill Clinton had his own victory, an 11-week bombing campaign that forced Serbia to leave the breakaway province of Kosovo. He managed it without a single American combat fatality.

By 2001, when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Americans had gotten our swagger back. We had proved we could bring about regime changes in hostile countries while incurring few casualties and avoiding long-term entanglement.

We thought we had cracked the code of successful military interventions. The general attitude in Washington was: "We've mastered this."

We proceeded to plunge into Afghanistan, where we realized a stunning initial victory, and then into Iraq, where we rapidly routed the enemy and toppled his dictatorship. The lessons of Vietnam, many assumed, had been refuted once and for all.

But they were just waiting to be retaught. In Afghanistan and Iraq, American troops once again discovered the confusion and terror of fighting an enemy who blends into the populace. They found how hard it is to defeat a guerrilla insurgency without killing innocents and turning locals against us. They learned that their government was willing to expose them to death rather than admit a terrible mistake.

It has been a painful re-education. And there is no guarantee the knowledge will last.


Photo Credit: PAT BENIC/UPI/Newscom

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Tony Cr||

    Recommend reading "The Chickenhawk Syndrome: War, Sacrifice, and Personal Responsibility" by Cheyney C. Ryan. Explores the pro-war leaders and their pro-war children who call on Americans to assume the burden of war and its sacrifices, but avoid those sacrifices themselves.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Ken Burns is a leftist hack, so anyone using his material as a means to solve the Worlds problems, I would find highly suspect.

    It is Chapman, so....

  • Eric||

    Thank you for the textbook example of an ad hominem attack.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Unlike how Chapman was praising Ken Burns for his great documentary, I would pointing out that Ken Burns is a leftist hack.

    Since Reason has been pushing this Ken Burns series for many articles and I already mentioned why I think he's a hack, here we go again....

    Ken Burn's series Roosevelts did not honestly address FDR putting Japanese-Americans in concentration camps and Teddy genocide of the Native Americans.

    Ken Burns pushes lefty agendas and glosses over the failures of socialism. He also gives money and supports the Democratic Party. He's a lefty hack.

  • Libertymike||

    Last night, I fell asleep watching Episode 4 of Burns' Vietnam. Often, I will prod my wife to watch documentaries and idea oriented programming, but I could not, in good conscience, ask her to watch another Burns production.

    My grading of Burns:

    Civil War: D

    Baseball: B+

    Roosevelts: D-

  • 68W58||

    I agree with the grades-The Civil War is incredibly overrated, but Baseball was good.

  • John||

    I can't give baseball a B+ though it wasn't bad. And no the Civil War was not overrated. May Shelby Foote's ghost haunt you both for saying that.

  • 68W58||

    What is a Shelby Foote haunting like? Does he stand in your living room and talk about Nathan Bedford Forrest until you go mad from boredom?

  • UnrepentantCurmudgeon||

    I agree. I thought it thorough, balanced, and an excellent depiction of the human issues on both sides of the war. And Shelby Foote alone was worth the price of admission

  • L.G. Balzac||

    Learn some nuance, motherfucker.

  • ||

    Thank you for the textbook example of an ad hominem attack.

    Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

    'Duck typing' is an ad hominem attack.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Leftyspeak at it best here.

    Twist that I pointed out Ken Burns is a hack into that I said Vietnam and Afghanistan are good wars.

    Straw man....atten hut!

  • Eric||

    Funny that you are calling out one fallacious argument while engaging in one yourself.

  • Elias Fakaname||

    Except he's not.

  • Shirley Knott||

    The ad hominem comes not from pointing out that Burns is a 'leftist hack' but from following it with "so anyone using his material as a means to solve the Worlds problems, I would find highly suspect."
    'Ken Burns, a leftist hack, accepts heliocentrism and basic arithmetic. I would caution anyone to be wary of those ideas given the nature of the support they attract.'
    See how that works? See how absurd it is, how very beside the point?
    Of course you don't, you daren't permit yourself to.

  • gaoxiaen||

    Sorry, but not sorry. I like his documentaries.

  • Juice||

    So far, this Vietnam one is pretty good. A lot less boring than some of his previous ones. I think it lays out the story really well.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Bill Clinton had his own victory, an 11-week bombing campaign that forced Serbia to leave the breakaway province of Kosovo. He managed it without a single American combat fatality.
    Hillary Clinton was almost a casualty of that lightning war. She flew in under sniper! Sniper fire, I tell you!

  • L.G. Balzac||

    "Hillary Clinton was almost a casualty..."
    Yet it is still considered a success.

  • gaoxiaen||

    Fucking guy should've spent more time at the range.

  • AlgerHiss||

    Thank goodness the North Vietnamese communists were victorious. That country is far better off today.

    It's sort of like Korea: Think of how much better off South Korea would be today if the North Korean communists had prevailed.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Funny, Korea was fought very politically. Truman made it very clear to the USSR that the USA would not get involved in North Japan and Korea, seized by the USSR during WWII. The Korean war has technically never ended in a peace treaty. MacArthur was fired for announcing publicly that the USA could use the atomic bomb on the Chinese hordes to win the Korean War. Truman fired him and we ended up losing that conflict because we will be fighting another Korean war here soon.

  • John||

    No the difference with Korea is that the US never stopped its support for South Korea and never pulled all of its troops out of South Korea. If the US in 1955 had left South Korea, cut off all aid to South Korea and pledged never to return, the North would have immediately invaded and conquered the South just like North Vietnam did to South Vietnam in 1975.

  • John||

    The North wanted to launch a guerrilla war in South Korea but it was unable to after the UN destroyed its army and occupied nearly all of the North. Korea, after December 1950, was a war between the US and the Chinese. The North Korean army ceased to exist in December 1950 and had to be rebuilt after the war. Vietnam would have looked a lot different had the US invaded and occupied the North in the fall of 1965 only to be thrown out by a Chinese invasion.

  • Overt||

    For all intents and purposes the North Vietnamese Army ceased to exist after the Tet offensive. It was a massive military defeat by the NVA, and they would never again be able to field a large military strategy against the south while the US was there.

    Unlike Korea, though, the media back in the US painted the Tet offensive as a great success and- to be fair- it did go against the narrative that the US Government had been selling for the previous year.

    There are times that I wonder if the Battle of the Bulge, if fought under the same circumstances as Vietnam, would have resulted in everyone thinking that the Germans couldn't be beat.

    (Not trying to disagree with you, just pointing out that the circumstances in all these wars had very close parallels, and it was more the conditions back home that led to Vietnam and Korea ending so differently.)

  • UnrepentantCurmudgeon||

    There's a reason for the old saw: "Never get into a land war in Asia"

  • Dan S.||

    Did we pledge never to return to Vietnam? Only if the North honored the peace agreement, which it didn't. So the U.S. could have sent troops back in when North Vietnamese troops started rolling into Hue. The main reason we didn't is that, after taking office in the wake of Watergate, President Ford felt (correctly) that the last thing the country wanted was to return to Vietnam.

  • Eman||

    Well technically it never really started...

  • gaoxiaen||

    Asian Chavistas.

  • Qsl||

    Questionable as at least the Viet Nam war ended, and within a generation or so the country has moved away from communism, adopting market reforms. While not rainbows and ponies, certainly not as bad as North Korea.

    The Koreas however have just kicked the can of civil war down the line, inviting an international response for what is essentially a local problem. I'm not so certain that is an improvement.

    Nevermind the sheer hubris of playing policeman to the world (the USSR still fell even with expanding into South East Asia).; it might be better just to not get involved at all.

  • mtrueman||

    "It ended in utter failure. "

    That'll be news to the Vietnamese who finally managed to rid themselves of foreign empire builders. Next you'll be telling me it was a civil war.

  • John||

    The millions of people murdered by the Vietnamese Communists or who died trying to escape them would disagree. The South was a sovereign nation. If anything, its fall represents the reassertion of the domination of foreign empire builders in the form of Chinese and Russian backed Marxists.

  • mtrueman||

    "The South was a sovereign nation...."

    Because the UN said so, right? Sounds like something out of a Ken Burns documentary.

    "The millions of people murdered by the Vietnamese Communists or who died trying to escape them would disagree. "

    History is written by the winners. The losers lost. Vietnam is not part of some Russian/Chinese empire; you can go and see for yourself if you doubt me.

  • John||

    The South was a sovereign nation because it had a government, an army, and controlled territory. Furthermore, the North recognized it as such when it signed the 1973 peace accords.

    And all of Vietnam was most certainly a part of the world Marxist empire until 1989. The Marxists committed genocide in South East Asia and not just the Khmer Rouge. What the hell is wrong with you?

  • mtrueman||

    "The South was a sovereign nation.."

    No, it was a puppet and the US were pulling the strings.

    "The Marxists committed genocide in South East Asia and not just the Khmer Rouge. "

    Those planes dropping all those bombs were not piloted by Marxists, but red-blooded American boys and girls.

  • John||

    Yeah the South was a US puppet but North Vietnam was not a puppet of the USSR. And I really have no time for anyone who is dumb enough to play false equivalence between the Marxists and anyone.

  • mtrueman||

    The Vietnamese managed to play the Russians and the Chinese off against each other. This was also the strategy that the US was attempting to pull off, only with less success.

  • Elias Fakaname||

    we We're killing some very bad peoples because they were very bad. You're talking like the US were the bad guys. If you really believe that, then you're just another treasonous leftist piece of shit.

  • John||

    For Chapman, this managed to not be as horrifyingly stupid as I have come to expect. It still, however, shows Chapman to not know very much about Vietnam. The US defeated the insurgency in Vietnam. The VC ceased to be a credible force after the Tet Offensive. After Tet, the war became much more of a conventional force on force conflict. Moreover, the war ended in 1973 with a peaceful and stable South Vietnam. The US got everything it wanted in the 1973 Peace Accords.

    After 1973, the North ignored the 73 accords and rearmed almost immediately. Then in January of 1975, the US cut off all military aid to the South and Ford said under no conditions would the US ever return to defend the South. Upon hearing this, the North launched a conventional land invasion and conquered the South. So whatever you think of Vietnam, it is not an example of the US being unable to defeat a guerilla force.

  • Juice||

    Ok, it was unable to defeat a conventional force.

    It wasn't just politics. The US lost militarily.

  • I can't even||

    When? Where? What battle?

  • Juice||


    In Vietnam.

    What battle?

    The Vietnam War.

  • I can't even||

    Seriously, during the time the U.S. had troops in Vietnam - when and where did they lose militarily?

  • Juice||

    Well, that's not the point, but here's a list:

    The US lost the war militarily because they didn't win the war militarily. The communists won the war militarily because they didn't lose the war militarily. For the US to win, they had to have total victory and have complete control over the whole country. For the communists to win, they just had to not lose and eventually the US would withdraw in frustration, which is what happened.

    It's like a boxer who wails away at his opponent for 11 rounds and wears himself out to exhaustion, then quits in the 12th because he can't get off his stool. He may have won almost every round, but he lost the fight because the other guy never gave up.

  • John||

    The US didn't lose any war. The war the US fought ended in 1973. As I say elsewhere on this thread, the people who negotiated the 73 Peace Accords won the Nobel Prize for Peace. Look it up if you don't believe me. The fact that North Vietnam started another war in 1975 and invaded and conquered South Vietnam doesn't mean the US lost the war that ended in 1973. They were two separate wars and the "catastrophe" such as it was in 1975 was a political one not a military one.

    And the North most certainly lost the war in 1973. The Christmas bombings completely destroyed their capacity to fight and forced them to agree to a peace agreement that granted the US everything it demanded.

  • Juice||

    Ok, so to claim that the US didn't lose the Vietnam War, you have to split it into two wars and say the US won the first one and chose not to fight the second one.

    Whatever makes you feel better.

  • John||

    In 1973. There was a peace accord. People won noble peace prizes and there was no more fighting. How is that not the end of the war?

    How is the invasion in the spring of 1975 not a new war? Is there a definition of "peace" that I am unaware of?

  • ||

    There was a peace accord. People won noble peace prizes and there was no more fighting. How is that not the end of the war?

    Giving Henry Kissinger a Nobel Peace Prize was more cynical than giving one to Barack Obama and Lê Đức Thọ refused to collect his. It was only a pause in the inevitable.

  • Elias Fakaname||

    John, you have to understand that some people here are absolute anti-patriots. It's important for them to believe that the US is bad, and a loser.

  • mtrueman||

    "The Christmas bombings completely destroyed their capacity to fight and forced them to agree to a peace agreement that granted the US everything it demanded."

    The Americans couldn't even manage to resolve the POW issue. Granted the US everything it wanted, my ass.

  • John||

    Yes it did. The POWs returned home. Rambo wasn't a documentary. No one was left behind except for people who were deserters who wanted to stay there.

  • mtrueman||

    There were lots of bodies never accounted for, thanks to commie obstinacy and foot dragging. Doubtless you'll be anxious to tell me this was not the case.

  • John||

    There were lots of bodies never accounted for in every war. That is how war works.

  • mtrueman||

    The party that is defeated is expected to cooperate with the victors in accounting for their dead. The fact the Vietnamese were not cooperating means that they were no as defeated as you imagine they were. In fact they managed to achieve pretty much everything they set out to do.

  • John||

    The US did defeat every conventional force it faced. What the US failed to do was create a South Vietnam who could defeat a Chinese and Russian aided invasion from the north without US help.

  • Juice||

    The US did defeat every conventional force it faced.

    Not really, but that's irrelevant. They lost the war.

  • Juice||

    The US did defeat every conventional force it faced.

    Not really, but that's beside the point. They lost the war. They realized it was unwinnable and did the smart thing and finally quit. They got beat.

  • John||

    Again, that is not what happened. The war ended in 1973. The North then started a new war in 1975 after the US cut off aid to the South and Ford said we would never aid the South. There was no war between 1973 and the spring of 1975.

  • Juice||

    And then in 1975, the war picked back up and the US pulled out because they were like "not this shit again, we're done."

    Maybe the US got "everything it wanted" in 1973, but 2 years later the communists got everything they wanted because the US knew it couldn't win and did the smart thing.

  • John||

    There was nothing to be "done" with. There was no war in 1974. We made the political decision to tell the communists they were free to invade the South. That is not a military catastrophe. That is a political one.

  • I can't even||

    I hope you realize that movies like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket aren't historical documentaries. They were made by anti-war lefties, kind of like this thing with Ken Burns.

  • Elias Fakaname||

    And a lot like the commenters above who appear very 8nvested in be,Irving the US lost.

  • Juice||

    Woops. Squirrels.

  • I can't even||

    This. The U.S. had won the war on the battlefield by the end of '71. The VC was gone as an independent force, the NVA had been beaten badly and the incursion into Cambodia had seriously damaged their ability to attack into southern South Vietnam.

    Support the South Vietnamese for a decade in a manner similar to how we supported South Korea or are currently trying to prop up Iraq and Afghanistan - and there would still be a free and prosperous country there instead of a post-communist dictatorship.

    Vietnam was lost in Congress, purposely, by fellow socialists.

  • Elias Fakaname||

    Indeed. South Vietnam's greatest foes were not the VC, it was the likes of Ted Kennedy. The same piece of shit who conlsired with the Kremlin Abehind Reagan's back to install a Democrat in the presidency in 1984.

  • gaoxiaen||

    +1 irrelevance

  • John||

    The truth is never irrelevant. Vietnam is not an example of the US failing to defeat an insurgency.

  • John||

    What Vietnam is an example of is the difficulty of getting a nation to defend itself when it is otherwise too corrupt or divided to do so. In many ways, the fall of the South is a reflection on the failures of the South Vietnamese nation than it is on the US. The South Vietnamese had 8 years of full American involvement, hundreds of billions of dollars in aid, 50,000 American lives sacrificed on their behalf, and at the end of it couldn't stop a land invasion by a half-assed peasant army. Vietnam was nothing but an international aid operation with guns. And like all international aid operations, it failed. It failed because you can't force a people or a nation to do something they lack the will to do themselves.

  • ||

    I tip my hat to you John. In one paragraph and without even using the word Afghanistan you managed to do a better job of portraying the actual parallels between Afghanistan and Vietnam than Chapman (and Burns) did.

    I still think there's a more patently obvious and compelling case for twinning or book-ending Iraq and Vietnam rather than Afghanistan and Vietnam but I suppose that doesn't advance Chapman's shitty narrative as well.

  • Elias Fakaname||

    Chapman is just shitty, period.

  • L.G. Balzac||

    I guess we need a litmus test for hubris. Voters seem to love it, though.

  • BeamMeUp||

    You're right on target, John. The root problem from day one in Vietnam was that the South Vietnamese were not united. The Diem regime, to put it mildly, wasn't much help. LBJ kept begging the South Vietnamese to put aside their differences. The U.S. generals in Vietnam were fighting the last war, WW2, and insisted all that was needed were more men, more bombs and more time. But this wasn't like Western Europe, where we drove out invaders who had conquered with a conventional army. In Vietnam, we were fighting a guerilla war in a country were the people hated their ruling regime and saw Americans either as not much help or worse as invaders like the French. The American right overlooks this fact when they blame the media for losing Vietnam.

    The left in the 1960s, meanwhile, say nothing wrong with Communism, the Soviet Union, China or North Vietnam. Instead of putting the blame on the politicians and generals, they extended the blame to the troops themselves.

    Iraq and Afghanistan aren't much different. These are regions that are countries in name only, and where there is little loyalty above the tribal level. After the U.S. left Iraq, there was some chance for unity, but Al-Maliki ruined that by antagonizing the Sunnis, which helped make them fodder for ISIS. Now, it looks like Iraq will probably go the way of Yugoslavia. Will the same thing happen with Afghanistan?

  • Mickey Rat||

    The Afghan government was harboring a militant organization that had committed an atrocity agsinst US citizens. Afghanistan was not a "war of choice" in the same way Vietnam was. What was a choice was the idea that we had a responsibility to fix Afghanistan politically after we had thrown that government out.

  • John||

    If Chapman considers Afghanistan a "war of choice", and I have little doubt he does, then there is no war no matter how justified or necessary to its self-defense, that Chapman would support. Chapman is really that far gone.

  • I can't even||

    Our choice wasn't whether or not to go to war in Afghanistan. The choice was to make it a punitive raid or an open-ended nation-building exercise. Bush was a fool for choosing the latter.

  • Conchfritters||

    Exactly. We defeated the Taliban with a few hundred bearded special forces riding horseback along with the Northern Alliance of tribes, along with bombers flying in from Diego Garcia. We defeated them in weeks with little expended. It was time to go home. But we decided to stay and build out wifi for nomadic sheep herders, and probably the worst thing we did was put Kharzi in power.

  • bevis the lumberjack||

    Exactly. We were attacked by what amounted to a surrogate of the then-government of Afghanistan. Calling the Afghan War a war of choice is effectively the same as calling the war against Japan in the '40s a war of choice.

    The 2nd Iraq War, on the other hand........

  • L.G. Balzac||

    Why not just kick ourselves in the balls instead?

  • Calidissident||

    I agree the initial invasion was not a "war of choice." But, as you hint at in your last sentence, after 16 years of occupation, I think there's a pretty good case that at some point it became a war of choice.

  • mtrueman||

    "The Afghan government was harboring a militant organization that had committed an atrocity agsinst US citizens. "

    The Pakistan government, a strategic partner of the US, harboured Bin Laden for years. He was finally found in a compound near Pakistani secret service headquarters. The Americans never chose to wage war on Pakistan, and indeed continues to provide them (both Pakistan and the Jihadis) with a wide variety of expensive weaponry.

  • creech||

    I saw the first Burns Vietnam episode that discussed the "domino theory." I don't think he ever explained why the domino theory was wrong. We know in hindsight (and hindsight isn't wisdom) that the dominoes didn't fall, but could that have been the result of the U.S. 's actions in Vietnam? Would the dominoes have fallen if the U.S. didn't engage in Vietnam for 12 years and give the surrounding countries time to shore up anti-communist bulwarks?

  • John||

    The fact that the Chinese and Russians spent 8 years and enormous resources propping up North Vietnam and the rest of its proxies in Southeast Asia almost certainly hampered their ability to support Marxists causes in the rest of Asia. So the fact that South Vietnam and Cambodia eventually fell to the communists after 8 years of struggle and effort is hardly conclusive evidence that the domino theory was not true. It is called a fire wall.

  • Paul E||

    Actually, the US successfully pushed the Commies back into North Vietnam and left a stable safe South Vietnam. It was Congresses cowardly lack of desire to continue to assist the South after the resignation of Nixon that doomed the whole thing. The North re-invaded once they realized that our guarantees were worthless and the South fell. Instead of a free South Korea and South Vietnam we have a free South Korea and Communist Vietnam; all thanks to the idiots in DC who never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

    In summary, this entire article is garbage because the author doesn't even know what happened in Vietnam.

  • John||

    Chapman is sort of the poster child for the "20 something liberal arts major who literally knows nothing" made famous by Ben Rhoades. The history of Vietnam is well known. Why so many in the media persist in believing lies about it is a mystery to me.

  • L.G. Balzac||

    Holy Fuck!
    "stable South Vietnam" my ass.
    Didn't you see that part? And you would have liked more of it?

  • John||

    Holy fuck, if you don't like the truth, go live in another universe. But please stop expecting the rest of us to lie to make you feel better. South Vietnam was stable and peaceful in 1973. It continued to be that way until the spring of 1975 when the North invaded it with a land army built in violation of the 1973 accords and conquered it. That is what happened. Make of it what you will, but don't pretend the facts are anything other than what they are.

    And the signers of the 1973 accords won the Nobel Peace Prize for ending the Vietnam War. It was in all of the papers. You can look it up.

  • L.G. Balzac||

    Wasn't talking to you, but I guess we have different definitions of "stable".
    You contend that the U.S. didn't lose the war, South Vietnam did.
    Paul E above wanted to keep "winning".

  • ||

    So, do we hold our breath for the article that compares/contrasts all the political and cultural toxicity and violence that the Vietnam war essentially validated and/or eclipsed?

    An entire generation of college(-aged) kids raised under the umbrella of violent socialist upheaval, bona fide/overt armed race-based nationalists, and violently oppressive political parties that were all rather generally accepted because no one was drafted and didn't generally kill 60,000 people.

    All the rampant amorality inoculated these kids and the fairy tale ends nicely with them, as grown adults, teaching their kids not only to avoid fighting pointless wars but that violent cultural oppression/clashes and coercive dystopic redistribution schemes are icky too, right? ...Chapman? ...Steve?

  • L.G. Balzac||

    "The Vietnam War was the greatest U.S. military catastrophe of the 20th century. A conflict begun under false pretenses, based on ignorance and hubris, it killed 58,000 Americans and as many as 3 million Vietnamese. It ended in utter failure. Never in our history have so many lives been wasted on such monumental futility."
    And yet JFK is considered one of the great US presidents. Probably for the single fact that he was assassinated. Had he lived we might be referencing his Presidency when discussing those that followed. ie "_____ if the worst fuck-up to hold the office since Kennedy."
    Ignorance and hubris. I think Hillary would have brought that. Nobody can claim it doesn't describe Trump, as well.

    Game over, man. Game over. -from Alien

  • John||

    If you see Vietnam as a military catastrophe, rather than a political one, you are a fucking moron who doesn't understand or doesn't want to understand what actually happened.

  • L.G. Balzac||

    semantics. I would prefer it not be repeated.

  • Juice||

    But it was a military catastrophe. 58k+ soldiers dead. Billions wasted. Nothing to show for it but millions of dead Vietnamese. The US lost the war and not just because of dithering and politics. Those are just excuses. The US got beat because to win it had to have total victory. For the communists to win, they just had to not lose and wait for the US to withdraw.

  • John||

    No, in 1973 it had a peaceful and stable South Vietnam to show for it. The fact that two years later Congress and the US walked away from supporting that nation and it was unable to defend itself against a Chinese and Russian aided invasion is no reflection on the military success achieved when the US was involved. That was a political catastrophe that happened after US military involvement had ended.

  • Juice||

    in 1973 it had a peaceful and stable South Vietnam to show for it

    Uh huh. So stable and peaceful. Whatever you tell yourself to make you feel better.

    The fact that two years later Congress and the US walked away from supporting that nation

    Because they couldn't keep it up. The North could and that's why they won and the US lost.

  • John||

    It was peaceful and stable. If it wasn't, why did the North have to invade it in 1975? It is not about telling myself anything. Those are the facts. That is what happened.

    And the North could only keep it up because Russia and China kept aiding them. The North got billions in aid from Russia and China to rebuild its military and the South got cut off. Needless to say, the North won when it invaded. How could it not? It wasn't exactly a fair fight.

    Those are the facts. That doesn't make Vietnam right or wrong. That is a value judgment. But, the facts are what they are. Stop denying them.

  • mtrueman||

    "It was peaceful and stable."

    No doubt you are right that Americans considered the situation stable. I doubt many Vietnamese, north, south, east or west, thought the status quo, a nation divided by the UN, as something that would last long. And they were right.

  • Juice||

    JFK might not have escalated the way LBJ did. We'll never know, of course.

  • Curt||

    "But Powell's wisdom eventually was forgotten."

    That's so unfortunate. If only there had been someone who remembered Powell's wisdom in the early 2000's. Someone who believed in the Powell Doctrine and held a position of power within the government to ensure that we didn't foolishly embark on a couple of wars with no objectives. Someone who might have even had direct access to the President. If such a person had existed, maybe we could've avoided repeating the same mistakes by not pretending that this was somehow a different kind of war.

  • Colossal Douchebag||

    The American public rebelled against the Vietnam war because there was a draft at the time. Young men were being *compelled* to go to their deaths.

    In 1973, the U.S. adopted the All Volunteer Force. No more draft.

    As a nation we have been getting gradually more militarily adventurous ever since.

    I'm surprised no one has mentioned this yet; I wonder if the documentary did.

  • John||

    The other thing that never gets mentioned is that Vietnam War protests were never significant until they ended the college deferment. As long as the middle and upper class were able to avoid service by going to college, they were not bothered by Vietnam.

    Also, what Chapman fails to mention is that the Congress was the main driver behind US committing combat troops to Vietnam. People like Senator Fullbright as much as called Johnson a commie sympathizer for expressing doubts about sending troops to Vietnam only to three years later turn on Johnson and pretend it was Johnson's war when the political winds changed. Vietnam was Congress' war more than it was Johnson's war.

  • mtrueman||

    I doubt the Congress perpetrated the fraud at the Gulf of Tonkin.

  • John||

    It wasn't a fraud. And Congress authorized the war and demanded Johnson engage in it. Go back and read the actual history instead of the leftist "it was all Johnson's fault" propaganda that you have apparently been reading.

  • mtrueman||

    "It wasn't a fraud. "

    Yet again you choose to parrot the Ken Burns line. You are nothing but a leftist yourself, apparently, as long as you are in thrall to this 'documentarian.'

  • John||

    I am not watching the documentary. I really don't care what Ken Burns thinks. It has been established over and over again that it wasn't a fraud. It is what it is.

  • mtrueman||

    "It is what it is."

    That depends on your sources. Both you and the documentarian seem to be taking as gospel the official US version offered to the public.

  • John||

    As opposed to the gospel version offered by the Communists.

  • mtrueman||

    "As opposed to the gospel version offered by the Communists."

    Questioning the statements of officials doesn't necessarily make one a communist.

  • GILMORE™||

    It instilled an aversion to wars of choice that became known as the Vietnam syndrome.

    Panama, Grenada, Gulf 1, Lebanon, Libya, etc.,

    oh, you define "war" solely as 'invading and occupying countries"? how convenient.

    Chapman somehow manages to be dumber than Shikha or Richman on foreign policy + history, which is.... saying a lot.

  • I can't even||

    The Vietnam War was the greatest U.S. military catastrophe of the 20th century.

    No, not even close. The loss of much of the Fleet at Pearl Harbor and the loss of the 4th Marines in the Philippines was probably the worst catastrophe.

    MacArthur and his staff toadies ignoring intelligence reports about Chinese intervention in Korea in 1950 led to an absolute catastrophe in North Korea and resulted in the longest retreat in U.S. Army history.

    Nothing in Vietnam came close. Tet was a publicity loss for the U.S. but a devastating military loss for the commies.

  • mtrueman||

    "Nothing in Vietnam came close. "

    Mutiny was feared. A new word, 'fragging,' was coined to describe how conscripted service persons dealt with their superior officers.

  • sharmota4zeb||

    Putting the death toll in perspective:

    58,000 Americans killed in the Vietnam War in about 20 years is around 2,900 per year. That is like a 9/11 every year, so yes, it is a large death toll.

    In 2015, the most recent statistics I could find, the CDC death tally for 15 to 24 year-olds is:
    12,514 for unintentional injuries
    5,491 for suicide
    4,733 for homocide
    1,469 for cancer
    997 for heart disease

    So when you consider the young age of the military personnel we lost, the Vietnam War was worse than today's adolescent cancer.

    I had trouble finding deaths from car accidents broken down by age, but this document on trends in total car accident deaths shows that the annual death toll from car crashes was several times greater than the toll from the Vietnam War.

  • CptNerd||

    "Once again we find ourselves mired in an incomprehensible land, amid people who distrust us. Once again we are aligned with a corrupt regime that couldn't survive without our help as we incur casualties in the pursuit of goals we never reach."

    All the more reason for the US to leave California, New York and Illinois.

  • jelabarre||

    All the more reason for the US to leave California, New York and Illinois.

    We only need to cut off NY City, maybe part or all of Westchester County along with it (once we sell grandma's property there of course). The rest of the state isn't the socialist cesspool NYC is.

  • blameline||

    Clinton had a success in Kosovo - but what was that in Mogadishu? Ever since Powell developed his doctrine, and before that, the Weinberger doctrine, we've been successful when it was observed. When it was disregarded - well, we end up in Afghanistan.

  • UnrepentantCurmudgeon||

    The simple reality is that all of these interventions contravene a fundamental principle: that of sovereign self-determination. Any given people must have the right to make their own decisions as to the type of government they want to have, even when we don't like their choice at the time. Our task is to understand and deal with new reality, not step in at every opportunity in a feckless attempt to control that new reality. And "threat to our national security" is usually not a justification for intervention: anything and everything can be cast as a threat to our national security if one has a mind to do so.

    I am not an isolationist; I recognize there are justifiable (if not just) wars. But I am against keeping our nation on a constant war footing. We must be prepared for war, but not anxious to jump in at every seeming opportunity

  • BeamMeUp||

    The lesson of Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan is that before we embark on any military venture, no matter how noble the goal may sound, we need to ask how effective we can be. It's one thing when we're driving out invaders, like we did in Western Europe in World War 2, in Korea in the Korean War (before proceeding north of the 38th Parallel), and in Kuwait during Desert Storm. But it's another thing when we get involved in another country's civil war or embark on regime change.

    In Korea, we should have ended the war in 1950 once we drove the North Koreans back across the 38th Parallel. Instead, we decided to proceed with regime change and went all the way to the Yalu River. This brought China into the war, which then dragged on until 1953.

    In Vietnam, we were supporting an unpopular regime involved in a civil war. In Iraq and Afghanistan, we overthrew repressive regimes that supported terrorists. But we ended up with civil wars on our hands in regions that are countries in name only with little sense of unity about the tribal level. No matter how much we try to build democracies or improve infrastructures, the tribal and ethnic groups in Iraq and Afghanistan have too much animosity between each other to make any hopes of unification work.

    This interview on Reason about a month ago, where John Stossel spoke with a GOP Congressman who said we should get out of Afghanistan, is on the mark:

  • Ride 'Em||

    The argument I presented to my father was that the villager didn't care whether it was a corrupt communist dictator who was in power or a corrupt military dictator. The lessons I took from Vietnam was that polititions would lie even if it killed people and warriors should direct wars not polititions. After Tet the US should have leveled Hanoi. Just taking out military targets doesn't win wars. The civilians who support the war have to feel defeat. It is why the Brits fire bombed Dresden.


Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online