The Once Essential War

It was not too long ago that Vietnam stood as the model war against which to measure all other wars. It took years to digest the tragedy. But, eventually, a consensus was reached that the first and most vital lesson learned from the ill-fated incursion was that the United States should not fight a war unless its people fully supported the effort. Those military adventures that lacked the backing of a majority of the American people and its media were doomed to fail because the resources and effort needed for victory would be at least, in part, withheld. The image of one arm tied behind one’s back became the lasting symbol for the message. And how far have we come? Has this lesson of consensus support been digested and respected? Do we fight only those wars backed by the American public? For that matter, do we fight wars the American public understands? How many Americans know the difference between Mosul and Aleppo? the Balkans and the Baltics? Implicitly, the idea that the American public need support American foreign interventions rests on the assumption of an inherent wisdom in the American people to understand the world and all its complexity. It is a naïve and fanciful conception. And yet, what is the alternative?

It is said that Vietnam, what Lyndon Johnson called “that bitch of a war,” was a conflict fought to defend American “credibility” in the world (and, of course, the credibility of the Democratic Party, John F. Kennedy and later Lyndon Johnson.) At the war’s outset in 1964/5, most Americans, if paying attention at all, “tended to support the effort.”[1] The United States needed to contain Moscow and Beijing lest it tempt the Soviet Union and China to meddle on the Vietnamese peninsula and tip the balance between the free world and its communist foil. It was a time to “rally around the flag,” a time of “Cold War Consensus.”

Carpet bombing, bloodshed, sit-ins and dissent, a $167 billion price tag and runaway inflation, eight years later the war was lost.[2] Four million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians, 10 percent of the population died.[3] It was a strategic failure at the highest level of the American government. The United States was humiliated. “Stay away,” Senator John Kerry felt the message from his fellow Americans on his return as a soldier from Vietnam. “Don’t contaminate us with whatever you’ve brought back.”[4]

In 1980 a survey was taken of Vietnam veterans.[5] Eighty-two percent believed that they had lost the war because they did not have the full support of the American people and government to win; 66 percent were willing to resume the conflict if what they saw as the shackles were shed. The notorious General William Westmoreland blamed President Lyndon Johnson for fighting a limited war. He (among many American military officers) also blamed a biased American media. “A lesson to be learned,” he espoused “is that young men should never be sent into battle unless the country is going to support them.” General Fred Weyand, the last American military leader to leave Vietnam agreed. “The American army is really a people’s army,” he professed. “When the American people lose their commitment it is futile to try to keep the army committed.”

Many claimed that the war was doomed from the start. The Americans’ investment could never compete with North Vietnamese fervor. “You can kill ten of my men for every one I kill of yours,” the North’s leader Ho Chi Minh crowed. “But even at those odds, you will lose and I will win.” The final lesson was codified years later in the Powell Doctrine: “you don’t get into a conflict unless you are willing to exercise all means necessary to winning it.”[6]

Simultaneously, a belief developed that American leaders caught the “Vietnam syndrome.” Afraid of a repetition of the catastrophe, they were unwilling to intervene in even righteous foreign causes. And yet intervene we did. And we must ask if the lesson that leaders needed popular support to sanction foreign intervention was ever really adhered to. The list of unsanctioned and/or unpopular interventions is plentiful. It is a murderer’s row of foreign entanglements: Angola (1976-92), Iran (1980), Libya (1981, 1986, 2011), El Salvador (1981-92), Nicaragua (1981-1990), Lebanon (1982-84), Grenada (1983-84), Iran (1984, 1987-88), Bolivia (1986), Philippines (1989), Panama (1989), Saudi Arabia (1990-91), Iraq (1990-91, 2003-2011, 2014-?), Somalia (1992-1994), Yugoslavia (1992-1994, 1999), Bosnia (1993), Haiti (1994, 2004-5), Afghanistan (2001-2014, 2015-), Yemen (2000, 2002, 2009), Syria (2014-?).[7]

There was a time not too long ago that the Vietnam War stood as the war by which to measure all wars. “Vietnam is still with us,” Henry Kissinger once mused.[8] “It has created doubts about American judgment, about American credibility, about American power—not only at home, but throughout the world.”[9] The Iraq War has replaced Vietnam as the standard to judge foreign entanglements. And yet, the Vietnam question persists over whether the idea that Americans need vehemently support every foreign venture is not a cloying naïve confection. Is it realistic? Is it desirable?

First, rather than announce its every intention to the American public, does the American military need to maintain a level of secrecy from its enemies for its strategy and tactics to perform at peak proficiency? Second, are Americans only engaged by foreign policy when something has gone terribly wrong? Can their interest ever be maintained long enough to act as a consistent force for oversight during times of conflict that have not reached a catastrophic pitch? Third, and more controversially, are the international affairs too complicated for the lay American to understand? Is it best (if not necessary) to eschew direct democratic control in which each American has equal voice in affairs foreign for a reliance on representative democracy in which we elect leaders whom we rely on to make the difficult decisions of war and peace while maintaining strict oversight by fair-minded committees and a strong balance between the branches of government? Of course, the conflict here is a question of whether the representatives making foreign policy decisions are the same leaders selecting the committees to oversee them.  And whether the United States, for better or worse, would be tied up in so many foreign interventions, whether Pax Americana would stretch so far, if the people really had their say.

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[1] Fredrik Logevall. Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of Wart in Vietnam. Berkley: University of California Press, 377.

[2] George C. Herring. America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975, 4th edition. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2002, 346.

[3] Karnow, 11.

[4] Karnow, 27

[5] Stanley Karnow. Vietnam: A History. New York: Penguin Books, 15-16.

[6] Herring, 355



[9] Victor W. Sidel. War and Public Health. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, 332.

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