Solutions to Violent Conflict

Vietnam: Wrong Lessons Learned

In Vietnam, War on May 18, 2015 at 2:45 pm

Andrew Bacevich

Andrew Bacevich is Professor Emeritus of History and international relations at Boston University. He was a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army and served as platoon leader in Vietnam in 1970-71.

The major lesson that the U.S. national security apparatus took away from the Vietnam War was this: long wars fought overseas by armies of citizen-soldiers severely limit Washington’s freedom of action. Worse still, such wars invite the larger public to intrude into matters hitherto under elite control. From the perspective of those who manage national security establishment, this poses a terrible problem since the public is fickle and untrustworthy, and tempted by isolationism.

VIETNAM SYNDROME

In the 1970s, this problem had a name. It was called the Vietnam Syndrome—a pronounced reluctance to use force for fear of adverse consequences that might ensue. Members of the national security elite viewed the Vietnam Syndrome as a monstrous thing—a positive danger (not to mention a threat to the status and prerogatives to which they had become accustomed).

Vietnam Contingencies

In Vietnam, War on May 18, 2015 at 2:44 pm
'The Three Soldiers' -- Vietnam War Memorial Washington, D.C. (Flickr - Ron Cogswell)

‘The Three Soldiers’ — Vietnam War Memorial Washington, D.C. (Flickr – Ron Cogswell)

Marilyn Young

Marilyn Young is Professor of History at New York University. She is author of The Vietnam Wars: 1945-1990.

As we reflect on how the war began, it is worth considering how things might have played out differently. We know that Ho Chi Minh used the U.S. Declaration of Independence as a basic text for his own declaration of the end of French colonialism. He wrote a series of appeals for help to President Truman, and he offered specific economic inducements to American capital.

The Vietnam War: Lessons Unlearned

In Vietnam, War on May 18, 2015 at 2:44 pm

David Cortright

David Cortright is Associate Director for Programs and Policy Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. As an enlisted soldier during the Vietnam War, he spoke out against that conflict.

There are many lessons of Vietnam, but three stand out in explaining why the United States lost the war—ignorance, arrogance, and the absence of a viable local ally. All three continue to characterize American policy today and help to explain why wars in Iraq and Afghanistan also have failed to achieve success.

MISGUIDED INTERVENTIONS

The United States entered Vietnam without an understanding of the country’s history and culture. We did not speak the language or know the people. We viewed Vietnam through the lens of a Cold War struggle against communism rather than as a national independence struggle against colonialism and foreign domination. We did not realize the extent of the social revolution in Vietnam led by the National Liberation Front (NLF), which gave land to the tillers and solidified support for the liberation struggle. We did not understand that the war was lost politically before it ever began militarily.

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