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Some Legacies and Lessons of Vietnam

ISSUE:  Spring 1984

More than ten years have passed since the end of direct American involvement in Vietnam, and it now seems appropriate to examine some of the major consequences of the war, its impact, its legacies. I do this not, as is so often done, to find renewed justification for the war or to show once and for all that we were wrong to get involved but to establish an admittedly crude historical record. I do not pretend to be all-inclusive. My sources include what can be gleaned from the press and other printed materials. In addition, over the past year and a half, I have participated in symposia on Vietnam in Kentucky and Texas, at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, and at the University of Southern California. I have incorporated observations drawn from these varied and very revealing gatherings. My central conclusion is that, for those intimately touched by it, the war in Vietnam continues to have profound human suffering and tragedy as its principal legacy. Elsewhere, a mixture of indifference, confusion, and persisting controversy is the norm.

The real losers of the war were those South Vietnamese who supported the United States. We sacrificed a great deal of blood and treasure, but we lost mainly our pride, our presumably unblemished record in war. The South Vietnamese lost their country; for them, the consequences of war have been enormous and unhappy. Those who remain in Vietnam face poverty, oppression, forced labor, and reeducation camps. For those who left in 1975 or after, the price was also high. In most cases, Vietnamese refugees sacrificed their worldly possessions simply to escape Vietnam. They arrived in the United States or other adoptive countries with virtually nothing. They had to begin new lives from scratch in a period of economic hard times. Often they met resentment on the part of Americans, some of them also recent immigrants.

The South Vietnamese themselves feel a resentment that is rarely expressed openly but is nonetheless quite deep. It was manifested in a number of dramatic ways at a February 1983 conference in Los Angeles, site of the nation’s largest Vietnamese community. The first thing I saw upon arrival was a sizable group of young Vietnamese, clad in black pajamas, carrying banners that read: “Support Human Rights in Vietnam.” During the proceedings, angry refugees pressed former antiwar activists to know why, now that the war was over, they did not begin to speak out for the thousands incarcerated by the Hanoi regime and for the boat people.

The resentment was voiced in a more quietly dignified but no less compelling way by the former South Vietnamese ambassador to the United States, Bui Diem, at the Woodrow Wilson Center a month earlier. Discussing lessons drawn from the Vietnam experience, Diem was direct and forthright. “My advice to small nations considering U.S. aid,” he said, “is that they should be wary of the U.S. We small nations can end up losing higher stakes than the U.S. itself because for the Americans you can turn the page and say, “Well, it is an unhappy chapter for U.S. history.” But that is not the same now for the South Vietnamese.” In earlier comments, Ambassador Diem developed a theme that has characterized much of the South Vietnamese post-mortem on the war: the United States intervened on too large a scale with too many men, too much money, and too much equipment. Instead of helping the South Vietnamese win the war, America pushed them aside and tried to do the job alone. Then, just as suddenly, it tossed the war back to the South Vietnamese without adequately preparing them to fight it. At the hour of decision in 1975, the U.S. stood by and watched while an ally of 20 years was defeated. Obviously such a view is inadequate as an explanation of complex historical events, but that is beside the point. We should understand that the South Vietnamese have adopted such a viewpoint in seeking a scapegoat for the tragedy that befell them.

Much like the Nationalist Chinese in the 1950’s, the South Vietnamese cherish hopes of liberating their homeland, and they have begun to take steps in that direction. Thousands of refugees met in Los Angeles in February 1983 and in Washington in April for “Righteous Cause” conferences. During the past year, the National Support Movement for the Resistance in Vietnam has been organized and now claims 96 local committees in refugee communities around the world. Accusing the Hanoi regime (which they still call “Vietcong,” a pejorative term meaning Vietnamese Communist) of subjecting the Vietnamese people to “unconscionable repression and exploitation” and of selling out to “imperialist Russia,” they appeal to the historic nationalism of their countrymen and to anti-Communist sentiments in the West. The support committees hope to awaken the conscience of an apparently indifferent world to what is happening in Vietnam. They provide financial and oral support to a resistance movement in Vietnam. They even claim to be landing soldiers from abroad to link up with the guerrillas already operating in Vietnam. Ironically, it is the former South Vietnamese, targets of the earlier insurgency, who now shout “Giai Phong!”

The passage of time has made clear that our South Vietnamese were not the only losers. In what appears to be one of the most cruel ironies of a war that had more than its share of ironies, the National Liberation Front, or at least some of its members, appears to have lost the war as well, this despite the fact that it bore the burden of the struggle until at least 1965 and might well have won the war with small-scale North Vietnamese support had not the United States at that point intervened in force. There is now fairly reliable evidence to suggest that, since 1975, the NLF has at best been shunted aside, subjected at worst to the same oppression as the South Vietnamese who worked with the United States. The non-Communists in the NLF were quickly purged. The Cao Dai and Hoa Hao, the politico-religious sects that collaborated with the NLF from the early days of the war, have been suppressed, some of their leaders apparently imprisoned or executed. Some of the non-Communist leftists who suffered persecution and imprisonment at the hands of the Thieu government survived only to die in North Vietnamese reeducation camps after “liberation.” According to testimony from some former NLF officials, Hanoi moved quickly at the moment of liberation to establish control over South Vietnam. The Vietcong army was immediately merged with the North Vietnamese Army in such a way that its identity was lost. The NLF was disbanded. Those southerners who led the struggle against the United States and suffered so heavily during the war, especially at Tet in 1968, were obviously considered a threat and were dealt with strictly. Evidence suggests that, in its efforts to unify Vietnam, Hanoi has targeted not simply potential political opposition but also the distinctive political culture of South Vietnam. Ironically, the regime now openly admits—and probably even exaggerates—something it went to great lengths to hide in the 1960’s: its instrumental role in the southern insurgency.


Even for the ostensible winners in Vietnam, victory has been a bittersweet prize. To some extent, in terms of its essential war aims, the Hanoi regime has been a loser like its southern compatriots. It has nominally achieved what may have been its goal from the start of the war: hegemony in former French Indochina, with compliant regimes installed in Laos and Cambodia. This, however, is being done at considerable cost. An estimated 180,000 Vietnamese soldiers remain in Cambodia, 45,000 in Laos. The Hanoi accomplishment is far from solidified. The Vietnamese now appear to be bogged down in a drawn-out and expensive guerrilla war in Cambodia. It is easy to take this comparison too far and even easier to find ironic satisfaction in continuing human tragedy, but the parallels are striking. At one point in 1982, the Vietnamese appear to have concluded that “search and destroy” operations had become too costly, and seemed to be shifting to a form of “kampucheanization,” assigning greater responsibility to the Cambodians they were training to fight Cambodian guerrillas. In any event, the war is a heavy drain on an economy already strained to the breaking point. Maintaining hegemony in Laos and Cambodia, in addition to defending against a hostile China, compels Vietnam to maintain one of the world’s largest armies (an estimated million men) in a country the International Monetary Fund lists as one of the world’s dozen poorest.

Hanoi’s longstanding objective of unifying the country seems at this point also to have been achieved in name only. Information from Vietnam is fragmentary, of course, but certain things seem well established. An estimated 900,000 Vietnamese have left the country since 1975; most of them were southerners, large numbers of them Chinese, many of them skilled people without whose expertise it has been difficult to manage vital segments of the economy. Another 20,000 to 100,000, most of them former members of the South Vietnamese government and army, still languish in rehabilitation centers of one kind or the other.

Nevertheless, mass emigration and harsh methods apparently have not forced the south into the mold designed by Hanoi. As it resisted American influence in the 1960’s, southern Vietnam continues to resist outside influence today. Refugee leaders claim that a number of resistance groups have recently coalesced into the National United Front for the Liberation of Vietnam, which maintains a guerrilla army of some 10,000 men in the central highlands. The Montagnards persist in a stubborn opposition to Vietnamese domination which has gone on for centuries and appears to have intensified when Hanoi attempted to resettle ethnic Vietnamese in the highlands. The Hoa Hao and Cao Dai are attempting to regain the autonomy they maintained under French colonialism. The Buddhists, who so perplexed Americans in the 1960’s, have grown restless again. Thich Tri Quang, the bonze who was a particular nemesis of Washington and Saigon, proves to be equally vexing to Hanoi. Throughout much of southern Vietnam, moreover, passive resistance is widespread. Acts of sabotage against the regime are fairly common: railway trains are attacked, Communist cadres murdered, telephone wires in Ho Chi Minh City severed. On the Mekong Delta, farmers have slaughtered their livestock rather than collectivize their farms. It appears quite unlikely that the various dissident groups will collaborate effectively or, even if they do, that they can seriously challenge Hanoi’s rule. But they have made the task of consolidation very difficult and will probably continue to do so.

There are also signs that, in the classic tradition of the Far East, the ways of the conquered are rubbing off on the conqueror. The corruption that epitomized Saigon during the American war seems to have carried over to postwar Ho Chi Minh City and even to have afflicted northern officials sent south to enforce revolutionary purity. The black market still operates, although obviously on a much smaller scale in the absence of American wealth. Palms have to be greased to get anything done—to see a doctor, visit a relative, or purchase meat. Despite the party’s vigorous efforts to suppress it, prostitution still flourishes in Ho Chi Minh City. Capturing continuity amidst massive change in an apt metaphor, Bob Secter of the Los Angeles Times described the former Paris of the Orient as an “aging mistress, bent and wrinkled but still possessed of a wink and a wiggle.”

For Vietnamese north and south, the most obvious and pressing legacy of the war has been economic deprivation. In the words of a postwar saying; “We eat and our bellies are not filled; we dress and our nakedness is not covered; we die and we have no coffins.” The economic growth rate has hovered around 2 percent instead of the 14 percent optimistically projected in the five-year plan of 1975.Per capita income fell from $102 in 1976 to $98 in 1980 and has risen by only 1. 5 percent since. As of 1982, Vietman’s external debt exceeded $3.5 billion. Record rice crops in 1981 and 1982 eased a chronic postwar food shortage, but the food supply remains far below the nutritional needs of the population. The lack of food and medicines has led to a rise in malaria, tuberculosis, and malnutrition in many areas. The birthrate remains high, “Since 1975, we have six million more people and ten billion less dollars,” a Vietnamese historian has written. “The fact that we have survived at all is a miracle.”

The postwar economic crisis has forced Hanoi to modify if not to abandon another longstanding goal, the rapid socialization of South Vietnam and the economic integration of the country. Some leaders now readily admit that their hasty efforts to build up heavy industry and collectivize agriculture had disastrous results, and in the past few years pragmatists who place production above ideology seem to have won out over the more traditional-minded ideologues. At the party congress in March 1982 there was much self-criticism and a partial shake-up in the top echelons of the leadership. The leaders have since designed new economic policies which aim to increase production by such capitalist gimmicks as bonuses, piecework rates, and limited managerial autonomy. The resettlement of refugees and the collectivization of agriculture, programs which sparked the greatest resistance, have been slowed if not scrapped altogether.

The essential goal of the revolution of 1945 and the wars that followed was to rid Vietnam of foreign domination. Here again, it is obvious that the victory of April 1975 was less than complete. Because of its poverty and its diplomatic isolation from the United States and China, Hanoi has been forced into a dependence on the Soviet Union that provides advantages to each but is apparently a source of resentment to both. Estimates of Soviet aid to Vietnam run as high as $3 to $4 million a day, a huge sum for the overburdened Soviet economy. And if this aid is essential to the Vietnamese, it is also resented by them. The Russians push the Vietnamese relentlessly—and unsuccessfully—to use the aid money more efficiently, adding to Vietnamese annoyance. At the same time, Russia gouges Vietnam with high prices for necessities such as oil. The Russian presence in Vietnam is increasingly visible and, to the Vietnamese, increasingly obnoxious. Russians have eagerly bought up treasures the Americans left behind: Japanese transistor radios, wristwatches, textiles, and especially blue jeans. The Soviet navy is in Vietnamese ports. The Russians have monopolies on fishing and oil exploration. Some Vietnamese apparently have come to regard their new allies as merely another in a long line of foreign imperialists—”Americans without dollars” they are called. Russians have been mugged and killed by resentful Vietnamese.

To a large extent, then, the legacy of victory for the Vietnamese has been one of disappointed dreams and continuing sacrifice and pain. The goals of 30 years of war have been achieved only partially, if at all.


In contrast to most wars, the impact on the “loser” in Vietnam has been much less direct and significant than that on the “winner.” Although the Vietnamese conflict was one of the most searing and divisive events experienced by Americans since the 1860’s, relatively few people were directly touched by it, and the great majority have been no more affected by the aftermath than they were by the war itself. The war was eagerly put aside when the last American troops left Vietnam 11 years ago this past March. Most Americans have little desire to discuss it, even to recall it. It is an episode from the past well-forgotten.

For those who were touched directly, of course, forgetting is impossible. But having shouldered a disproportionate burden at the time, relatively few other Americans bear the emotional scars of the war. Foremost among these, perhaps, are the families of the nearly 2,500 soldiers counted missing in action who live with a special anguish of uncertainty. The percentage of U.S. troops missing in action in Vietnam is small compared to American MIA’s in World War II and to the more than 20,000 French soldiers missing in the First Indochina War. Such figures represent cold comfort to MIA families, however, and thousands of reported sightings of Americans held captive in Indochina keep alive flickering hopes and constant anguish. “Death is final, I could live with that,” the mother of a navigator on a Navy A-6 recently commented. “But he was my only child, and, well, I guess I’ll wait and hope forever.”

The list of those deeply affected also includes the former prisoners of war, once designated the only real heroes of the Vietnam conflict. Some, such as Jeremiah Denton and James B. Stockdale, have gone on to fame and influence. Others, after a brief initial period of readjustment, resumed normal lives almost as though their captivity had not intervened. For still others, the path has been more difficult. Their heroic status was fleeting, and they quickly learned, as one put it, “that the medals, all that stuff, didn’t mean anything to anyone but me.” Many continue to suffer severe physical pain from the torture inflicted on them in North Vietnamese prisons. For some, broken marriages, bouts with alcoholism, career uncertainty, and chronic restlessness were part of a very difficult process of readjustment.

The injured list further contains, perhaps most particularly, the American Vietnam veteran. It is difficult to generalize about a subject so enormously complex which has long suffered from gross distortions in the media. Still, some observations seem in order. First, the popular stereotype of the Vietnam veteran as a gun-toting drug addict, prone to violence and unable to readjust to “normal” society, applies only to a small minority if it applies at all. The overwhelming majority of veterans have made sufficient, if sometimes difficult, adjustments, although some readily admit to symptoms of what is now called post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Veterans’ feelings about a war that had such an impact on their lives differ as much as the individuals themselves. Some continue to feel victimized by their combat experience and by a society which wanted as little as possible to do with it. At the Los Angeles symposium, a veteran told me that he found reassurance in studying the historical origins of the war in the 1940’s and 1950’s. It helped him deal with feelings he sometimes had that Vietnam had been invented to mess up his life. Hard polling data, on the other hand, indicate that a solid majority of Vietnam veterans found what they did in the war personally satisfying and would do the same thing again if necessary. So much for the myth of veteran as victim.

Yet it is abundantly clear that many veterans live with a great deal of anger and uncertainty. Some continue to feel cheated, observed veteran Gino Bianchi at the Texas symposium, because this nation has never offered Vietnam veterans the sanction or approval that nations have traditionally bestowed on returning warriors. Others harbor deep, sometimes unmanageable, and understandable fears of the potential effects of such war hazards as exposure to Agent Orange. They also feel that their government has dragged its feet in dealing with an issue fraught with so many profound legal, moral, and financial implications. Some veterans still have not been able to assimilate the experience of war, the conflict of wartime expedients with the values they brought to Vietnam. Some feel that they gave the best years of their lives for nothing. Some harbor a deep anger stemming from their homecoming. “I’ve been ridiculed, spit on, cussed, discriminated against, embarrest [sic] in college to the point that I quit to stop the pain and suffering,” a veteran wrote me last spring. “I had one professor. . .who asked me to stand in front of the entire class of about 100 students and apologize for my involvement in the war effort.” Some veterans feel a compelling urge to recapture something of those years that left an indelible impression on them. A small group in northern Kentucky dresses each weekend in full battle regalia and retreats to an isolated corner of the state, renamed Vietnam, Kentucky, where they conduct their own eerie war games.

Evident in the faded uniforms some still wear, for many veterans the war is not over. Their lingering anxiety was manifested in the especially bitter attacks on former national security adviser Walt Rostow at the Texas symposium. It was even more evident in the sometimes vicious verbal attacks on the several generals who appeared at the Los Angeles gathering, including General William Peers, who conducted the Army’s investigation of the My Lai massacre and cover-up. In Los Angeles, a group of veterans, angered at having to pay to attend a conference on the war they fought, crashed a dinner that had been scheduled for the panelists alone. “Vietnam will never be over,” a former Ranger who led the charge told Fox Butterfield of the New York Times.

In Salado, Texas especially, there were abundant signs that, for those who served, the war continues. There was Walt Rostow, standing before maps of Southeast Asia, pointer in hand, warning of the dangers of a Communist takeover of a vital region. There was antiwar poet Robert Bly, winner of a 1968 National Book Award, demanding in highly indignant tones that Rostow and several Army generals in the audience apologize to the American people for lying to them during the war. Bly criticized me for speaking with too much detachment. “When you speak of Vietnam” he said, “you must have compassion in your voice.” His attacks on Lyndon Johnson, which might have been made in 1967 for the passion with which they were delivered, provoked Liz Carpenter, Mrs. Johnson’s White House press secretary, to respond in equally passionate tones. She reminded the audience of the heartache Johnson felt daily because of battle losses and of the angry pain she felt when protesters outside the White House shouted “Hey, hey, LBJ, How many kids did you kill today?” In short, at both Salado and Los Angeles, I often had the feeling of returning as in a time machine to the late 1960’s. It was obvious that the old emotions had been repressed, not expunged, that the wounds needed merely a scratch to be reopened.

Are the wounds healing? Somewhat, I think. At Salado, the final day, Rostow was huddled with the same men who had just attacked him, discussing how they might collaborate to deal with problems left over from the war. A retired Army officer, at first shocked at the rage of the veterans, later, after talking with them, began to discover his own identity as a Vietnam veteran. In a much larger sense, the memorial wall in Washington, the unanticipated and truly moving assemblage at its dedication in November 1982, and the daily crowds it attracts (it has already become the third most visited site in the city), symbolize a process of healing that seems at least to be beginning. In addition, the popularity of books such as Al Santoli’s Everything We Had and Mark Baker’s Nam suggests that the indifference which greeted the veterans’ return is giving way to curiosity about what they did and why they have protested with such anger.

The impact of the war is much easier weighed for those who fought in it than those who fought against it. Some of the rebels of the 1960’s have settled comfortably into the very lives they once protested. Others, such as mobilization leader Sam Brown, retain a tempered faith in poilitical activism and have worked for the government they once fought so vigorously. Many antiwar protesters have kept the faith by joining crusades against environmental abuse, the nuclear arms race, and intervention in Central America. Thousands of war resisters, though, are true silent victims of Vietnam. Unlike the veterans, they do not speak out; it is impossible to determine the price they have paid for their convictions. Some met total disillusionment and simply, in the phrase of the time, dropped out. Others went underground to avoid arrest, surfacing only much later if at all. Despite various amnesty programs, thousands of deserters and draft resisters remain exiled from their families and native country in Canada and elsewhere, content with their choice but resentful they were forced to make it.

Even those who avoided the draft legally bear emotional scars. James Fallows, who starved himself below the minimum weight for induction, has confessed to a “sense of shame which remains with me to this day [for taking] the thinking man’s routes to escape while lower-class Americans went off to die.” Most draft evaders probably suffer less from outright guilt than from what one psychologist has called a “vague malaise,” a sense of incompleteness, a feeling of having missed out on something, a concern with the lack of commitment in their lives symbolized by their unwillingness to take a forthright stand on the war.


Leaving the personal and emotional legacies for the political, it becomes clear that the consequences of the war in Vietnam have been mixed there as well. Vietnam, along with Watergate, bred a marked cynicism, a loss of faith in leaders and institutions, and a disillusionment with politics and the political process that has not yet dissipated. In other important ways, however, what seemed ten years ago to be principal consequences of the war turned out to be short-lived phenomena. In 1973, antimilitarism prevailed in the country. The ROTC was dying on campuses where it had not been ejected. The defense budget was very much on the defensive. For a varity of reasons, ROTC now flourishes, and the defense budget, although by no means sacrosanct, has skyrocketed in an era when budget cutting has become a national pastime. The isolationism that Dean Rusk and President Nixon saw as an inevitable and catastrophic consequence of defeat in Vietnam never really materialized. To be sure, a 1974 poll did indicate that a majority of Americans were willing to send troops abroad only in the event Canada were invaded by a hostile power. Ten years later, however, the specter of isolationism seems no more than that. Americans remain skeptical of 1960’s-style globalism and dubious of such internationalist mechanisms as foreign aid and the United Nations. On the other hand, they are increasingly willing to send troops abroad in the event of a direct threat to key allies such as the Western European nations and Japan.

One reason that the political effects of Vietnam have been limited thus far may be that opinion-making elites are no more agreed now than they were at the time on the meaning, significance, and lessons of the war. Although some nuances and shades of gray can easily be lost, the divisions seem reasonably clear and parallel quite closely those that existed in the war years.

The basic issue, of course, is the morality and wisdom of any intervention in Vietnam. Few Americans now openly condemn intervention as immoral, an important sign since a recent poll indicated, surprisingly, that 72 percent still felt intervention was “more than a mistake, it was fundamentally wrong and immoral.” Today, most would probably argue that intervention was unnecessary or impractical or both, and most liberals contend that at best it represented overcommitment in an area of peripheral national interest—at worst an act of questionable morality.

The conservative point of view has been more vocal in recent years, and it takes two forms. First are those, such as President Reagan, who have found in the actions of the Hanoi regime reason to speak out anew on what they always felt was a fundamental truth, that, as candidate Reagan put it in 1980, Vietnam was a “noble war,” an altruistic attempt on the part of the United States to defend a free nation from outside aggression. Others, including Henry Kissinger and General William Westmoreland, argue differently. They concede that the United States might have been mistaken in entering Vietnam at the beginning (and Richard Nixon blames it on the global zeal of liberals like President Kennedy). But they go on to argue that the longer we remained in Vietnam the more we established an interest that had to be defended for the sake of our credibility at home and abroad. They conclude, of course, that failure to uphold that commitment cost the nation dearly in terms of its international prestige and influence.

The second great issue, equally without consensus, addresses the reasons for U.S. failure in Vietnam. The conventional wisdom among many participants—and you hear it from General Westmoreland right down to the lowest “grunt”—is that America failed because politicians did not permit the military to win the war. Especially in the Johnson years, it is argued, U.S. ground and air power were hedged about with so many restrictions that they could not be effective. By adopting a strategy that could not produce victory, the United States lost the war by default. Some conservatives claim that the war was lost because the United States pursued the wrong strategy. They blame the military as much as the government. Instead of fighting World War II or Korea over again in Vietnam, they argue, the military should have adapted to the war in which it found itself, a revolutionary war which required counterinsurgency methods. All conservatives agree, however, that an essential cause for failure was the breakdown of popular support at home. They blame the media and the antiwar movement, which allegedly turned the nation’s opinion against the war and prevented a victory that was within grasp.

On the other hand, many of those who argue that intervention was immoral, unnecessary, or both also contend that the war could not have been won at any cost acceptable to the United States. Some Vietnam specialists insist that the outcome may have been settled as early as the 1930’s or 1940’s when the Communists gained firm control of the nationalist movement in Vietnam. Others argue that the loss of the political struggle in the Diem years was probably decisive. Once the United States was forced to resort to military power, the outcome was probably assured because of the constraints that existed on the use of that power. America placed itself in a classic, no-win situation, and the result was predictable if not inevitable.

The lessons drawn from Vietnam are as divergent as the arguments advanced. Some contend that Vietnam is unique, and nothing can or should be learned from it in terms of future policy. For those who feel that we lost because we did not use our power decisively, the fundamental lesson is obvious. If we become involved in war again, we must employ our military power decisively with a view to winning quickly before public support erodes. For many liberals and some conservatives, the lesson is to avoid any situation comparable to Vietnam, where intervention may be hard to justify morally or from the standpoint of national interest and where local weakness mitigates the use of our military power.

As far as the public is concerned, Vietnam seems to have left considerable ambivalence and more than a touch of confusion. Most Americans, according to the polls, see generally negative effects stemming from the war; they would apparently prefer that the whole unpleasant episode be relegated to the scrap heap of history. At the same time, they cannot quite shake off the trauma of the war, and the old emotions are likely to be stirred in crisis situations. On the one hand, Americans feel a deep frustration and repressed anger at what is widely interpreted as the nation’s first defeat in war. The majority, according to the polls, share the conservative view that defeat was primarily a failure of will, that politicans lost the war. Under the right circumstances, this anger might produce an aggressive foreign policy. And if the United States does go to war, there will probably be demands for victory, for taking off all restraints. Paradoxically, though, there is a deep lingering reluctance to get involved in any situation even remotely resembling Vietnam. How this conflict will be resolved is unclear.

The ghost of Vietnam has hovered over the debate on El Salvador from the beginning and shows no signs of going away. In undertaking the commitment to El Salvador in early 1981, President Reagan and Secretary of State Haig apparently saw the chance for a quick victory that might cure what they called the “Vietnam syndrome,” the perceived reluctance of Americans to support tough stands on foreign policy issues. The victory did not materialize, however, and involvement in El Salvador aroused the very fears the administration had hoped to assuage, forcing Washington to convince a skeptical nation that El Salvador is not Vietnam. Haig insisted that Central America is different because geographical proximity gives the United States obvious vital interests that were not present in Southeast Asia. While escalating the commitment in El Salvador along lines strikingly similar to Vietnam, Reagan repeatedly insisted that “there is no comparison with Vietnam.”

Large numbers of Americans remained unconvinced or at least uncertain. As the commitment deepened, critics warned with growing force that the administration was leading the nation straight into another quagmire. They accused the president, like Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam, of exaggerating the influence of outside forces in Central America and of elevating into a Cold War conflict what was basically an indigenous struggle. They warned that the United States was once again supporting an unpopular and ineffectual regime against an insurgency that had widespread backing. Polls indicated overwhelming opposition to direct military intervention. More than 70 percent of those questioned feared that the United States was heading into another Vietnam.

A standoff has resulted. Domestic opposition has been sufficiently strong to check the pace of escalation in El Salvador, denying the administration the decisive moves it seems to think are required. On the other hand, opponents of administration policy are not willing to shoulder responsibility for the “loss” of a Central American nation to communism, and thus acquiesce in small measures. The middle-of-the-road policy pursued in Central America clearly reflects the perceived lessons of Vietnam. Ironically, though, it is patterned almost exactly after the policies actually pursued in Vietnam.

The long-range impact of Vietnam is rendered more uncertain by the emergence of a generation that has virtually no memory of it. Today’s students have only fragmentary images of a war that preceded their political consciousness (my son, a college sophomore, was born just after the Gulf of Tonkin incidents in 1964). They are curious about the war and about war in general; they flock into courses on military history. Vietnam does not carry the same emotional baggage for them, however. It is a subject of history, like World War II or the Civil War. Several years ago, a fraternity on my campus could not comprehend the controversy it precipitated when it staged a Mekong Delta party. Perhaps, as Walt Rostow has suggested, this is all for the good. This generation will not suffer the hang-ups that have afflicted the rest of us. Or perhaps, as others have warned, it is positively dangerous. A generation that does not remember Vietnam, to paraphrase Santayana, will be condemned to repeat it. I doubt the result will be quite so clear-cut in either direction. In time, this generation will probably make its own mistakes on its own terms without reference to Vietnam.

To conclude, then, the legacy of Vietnam at this point is mixed and uneven. In Indochina, conflict persists, and the human suffering from more than 30 years of war shows no sign of abating. In America, by contrast, the tangible effects have been limited to those few people touched directly by the war, and the nation as a whole seems to be reaching an uneasy truce with the conflict that tore it apart in the 1960’s. Emotions have subsided or have been repressed. Revulsion and indifference seem to be giving way to fascinated curiosity. Americans are increasingly willing to discuss Vietnam and its lessons, even though there is still widespread disagreement on what those lessons should be.

In important ways, the nation continues to deal with the war in Vietnam by avoiding it. Americans have not really probed why it happened, what it meant, or what it tells about America and our dealings with other peoples. The noisy, moralistic debates of the 1960’s have given way to subdued discussion in which moral issues are rarely raised. The debate on El Salvador concerns itself with means and results rather than the more basic issue of whether the United States should intrude in the internal affairs of another sovereign nation. Even in films and literature, there is a tendency to avoid exploration of the deeper meaning of the war. What was without question a watershed in American history has provoked little analysis of the values and myths we live by, of our images of ourselves and others.

One cannot foresee whether these matters will ever be properly addressed. Vietnam in time may recede quietly into the past and become the exclusive preserve of historians. Or some future crisis may dredge up memories and reopen old wounds, forcing a debate that has long been avoided. In the latter case, the full impact of our longest and most divisive war may still lie waiting for us.


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