The Vietnam Syndrome: America After Vietnam

When the Americans entered the war in Vietnam, they believed they could win the conflict in a swift and easy manner.  The outcome, as you may know, turned out much differently than what was expected.  Not only did the Americans lose, but were taught a valuable lesson by the North Vietnamese.  After the Americans pulled out of Vietnam in 1972, the foreign policy of the United States shifted dramatically from forceful to passive.


U.S. President Richard Nixon, 1968-74


In the past, following the Allies’ victory over the Axis in WWII, the Americans were lauded as war heroes and emerged as one of the two dominant superpowers in world politics (the other being the Soviet Union).  As a result of this prestigious political, economic, and military clout, America wielded the authority to shape the actions and policies of other countries in world politics for the next several decades.  However, after the disastrous results of the American campaign in Vietnam from 1963-72, the power held by the United States seemed to have slipped substantially.

For the next two decades, American foreign policy would be less militarily driven and more involved with moral and economic support.  A good example of the decline in military involvement is when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the Americans supported the Mujahideen with weapons and supplies but never through the military itself.  It appears that American use of the military during the events after the Vietnam War was quite minimal, often exerting their influence through proxy wars rather than direct military confrontation.

It was only until 1990 did America begin to use the military in direct combat again.  This was during the Gulf War period when American forces were sent into the Middle East to confront Iraqi forces occupying Kuwait under the order of Saddam Hussein.

The Vietnam War proved to be a humbling experience for the Americans.  Due to their failure in the conflict, the prestige of the U.S. was damaged significantly.  The trauma associated with the war reverberated on the minds of Americans from all corners of the country.  The protests, disturbing images of wounded soldiers and civilians, condemnation from the American public, and the subsequent defeat at the hands of the North Vietnamese eventually lead to the shift in American foreign policy in the coming decades. The shift can be characterized by the reluctance to use military force as a means to achieve one’s objectives.  This opposition to war and armed conflicts on the basis of non-support from the public and fear of impending defeat came to be known as the Vietnam Syndrome.

4 Responses to “The Vietnam Syndrome: America After Vietnam”

  1. “The Vietnam Syndrome: America after Vietnam” can be summed up as follows: An Empire force could occupe a weaker and smaller nation by force but could never conquer the will of the people of that nation if the action of that Empire was viewed as an invader. After the Vietnam War, the American Leadership finally understood that.

  2. Just to point out there, the US could’ve won the Vietnam War easily. All they had to do is cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail inside Laos. If the trail is cut and blocked, there would be no way the VC/NVA could be resupplied with fresh troops, equipment, and supplies. US General William Westermoreland requested permission from President Lyndon B. Johnson to enter Laos at that time but never got the permission.

  3. Nate Mark Kaufman Says:

    Your assessment is wrong, Ian. The U.S. Armed Forces went into combat in: ’81 and ’89 in the Gulf of Sidra, ’82-84 in Lebanon, ’83 in Grenada (Operation Urgent Fury), ’86 by bombing Libya (Operation El Dorado Canyon), ’86-88 in the Persian Gulf (Operation Earnest Will), and in ’89 in Panamá.

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