Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


MAY 2000

President George Bush declared nine years ago, after the Persian Gulf War ended, that America had put the Vietnam experience behind it, that victory there had made the country proud again and prepared to take on new challenges in the 1990s.

But, as was demonstrated during the soul-searching that occurred recently during the twenty-fifth anniversary of Saigons fall, Mr. Bush was mistaken.

What is it about the Vietnam conflict that so divided this country a generation ago and continues to affect the way we currently view military interventions abroad?

A fundamental reason is that the United States lost that war, despite twelve years of strenuous efforts by four presidents--Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Ford--tve South Vietnam as a noncommunist country. Fifty-eight thousand Americans were killed and several hundred thousands more were wounded for a purpose that most Americans in 1965 believed was a legitimate reason for our military intervention. By 1968, however, the country realized that the war was costing far more in casualties and financial drain than it had expected.

In sum, Americas leaders grossly underestimated the cost of intervention because they misjudged the determination of North Vietnamese to pay any price to rid their country of foreign troops--as they had against the Japanese during World War II and the French in the 1950s.

The Vietnam experience may be seen from three different perspectives: the views of several million Americans who fought there; reactions of young Americans who did not serve in Vietnam; and the reasoning of policy makers in Washington who decided in 1963-964 that defending a noncommunist South Vietnam was a vital national interest, but most of whom changed their minds when they understood the true cost of defeating North Vietnam.

The recollections of U.S. troops who fought in Vietnam was on display a few weeks ago when the media highlighted their stories, including the reactions of Senator John McCain when he returned to the prison in Hanoi where he had endured five years in captivity. Vietnam veterans have now gained a belated respect for their sacrifice, particularly from young Americans, in contrast to the 1970s when they endured public derision from antiwar protesters.

No one who has been at the Vietnam war memorial on the Mall in Washington is unmoved after watching veterans, friends, and relatives search for names on that awesome black marble wall. Belatedly, we appreciate that those mens sacrifice in Vietnam probably made it possible for Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia to remain noncommunist states after 1975.

The present mood of Americans who joined the antiwar protests, especially in their marches on Washington in 1967 and on college campuses after Kent State in May 1970, is difficult to assess. Many believe the war was immoral and so justify their opposition to it. Others feel guilty because they got draft deferments by going to college while men from lower income families were drafted and sent to do the fighting. This Vietnam War generation, now in their fifties, shows ambivalence in dealing with the experiences of John McCain and others who chose to serve in the war instead of denouncing their government.

Policy makers are a fascinating group of Americans who were affected by the war. Their experiences continue to be described in books, articles, and oral history projects.

The presidents responsible for taking the country to war were John Kennedy, who made the initial decisions in 1961 to escalate American involvement, and Lyndon Johnson who concluded in 1965 that combat forces were required to prevent South Vietnams collapse. Richard Nixon, who understood the war could not be won without tearing this country apart, and Gerald Ford, who reluctantly acquiesced in the final North Vietnamese victory in 1975, bore the brunt of the United States humiliation in 1975 when North Vietnam declared victory. Yet, the most interesting officials in this drama were not elected U.S. leaders, but the cabinet secretaries, senior White House staff aides, and top military officers. This group included Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, McGeorge Bundy, Walt Rostow, Clark Clifford, General Earle Wheeler, General William Westmoreland, Henry Kissinger, and Melvin Laird. These were the key advisers who persuaded two presidents that the war was worth fighting, and two others that that it was unwinnable and should be ended by negotiations.

The most prominent of these are former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara who served Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and Henry Kissinger who was national security adviser and secretary of state to Nixon and Ford. Both have written extensive memoirs.

In the 1960s I worked on McNamaras staff at the Pentagon, and it was known by 1966 that he had serious doubts about whether massive bombing and the introduction of several hundred thousand combat troops would persuade Hanois government to accept a settlement that preserved a noncommunist South Vietnam. After many years of agonizing privately, McNamara published a remarkable book five years ago in which he said the war was a mistake for the United States and sought to explain why it had occurred.

Kissinger believes that the new Kennedy administration was carried away with the rhetoric of the president, who said in his 1961 Inaugural Address that the United States would "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to ensure the survival and success of liberty." This open-ended commitment suggested, Kissinger argues, that anything less than victory in Vietnam was unacceptable.

Thirty-five years after Lyndon Johnson sent combat troops to Vietnam to ensure "the survival and success of liberty," Americans ask whether another war to promote American values, this time in Kosovo, has accomplished its objectives. Just as the cost of defeating North Vietnam was underestimated, policy makers in 1999 grossly misjudged the determination of another nationalist leader, Slobodan Milosevic, to oppose American efforts to detach a piece of his country. Fortunately, the United States in this case did not lose; but neither did it win. Milosevic is still in power in Belgrade, his military forces remain strong, and the Serb province of Kosovo continues to be torn by economic hardship and ethnic hatred.

Colin Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had it right when he told Tim Russert on NBC's "Meet the Press" April 30 that America went to war in Vietnam for a worthy cause, but it was not willing to pay the price to defeat the North Vietnamese. The effort was not a mistake, he said; but rather an armed struggle that we ultimately could not win.

Henry Kissinger, the best secretary of state America has had since Dean Acheson, wrote in Newsweek on May 1 ("The Long Shadow of Vietnam"): "Vietnam bequeathed a new generation divided into two camps: one in search of riskless applications of our values, another in an erratic quest for a focal point for our national strategy." He thinks the country will not overcome the shadow of Vietnam or be able to meet new challenges "until we can achieve a national consensus" on this country's national interests.

These crucial issues should be debated during the coming election campaign. If not, we may be in danger of slipping into the kind of sloppy thinking about foreign policy's costs and risks that resulted in the Vietnam quagmire thirty years ago.

File last modified on Tuesday, 17-AUG-2004 09:30 PM EST

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