America and Vietnam: The Unending War

By God, we've kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all!" So said President George Bush in a euphoric victory statement at the end of the Gulf War, suggesting the extent to which Vietnam continued to prey on the American psyche more than fifteen years after the fall of Saigon. Indeed the Vietnam War was by far the most convulsive and traumatic of America's three wars in Asia in the 50 years since Pearl Harbor. It set the U.S. economy on a downward spiral. It left America's foreign policy at least temporarily in disarray, discrediting the postwar policy of containment and undermining the consensus that supported it. It divided the American people as no other event since their own Civil War a century earlier. It battered their collective soul.

Such was the lingering impact of the Vietnam War that the Persian Gulf conflict appeared at times as much a struggle with its ghosts as with Saddam Hussein's Iraq. President Bush's eulogy for the Vietnam syndrome may therefore be premature. Success in the Gulf War no doubt raised the nation's confidence in its foreign policy leadership and its military institutions and weakened long-standing inhibitions against intervention abroad. Still it seems doubtful that military victory over a nation with a population less than one-third of Vietnam in a conflict fought under the most favorable circumstances could expunge deeply encrusted and still painful memories of an earlier and very different kind of war.

To put the Vietnam War in perspective three questions must be addressed. Why did the United States invest so much blood and treasure in an area so remote as Vietnam and of so little apparent significance? Why, despite its vast power, did the United States fail to achieve its objectives? What were the consequences of the war for Americans-and for Vietnamese?

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