Kirill Krasilnikov – The war in Vietnam facilitated a temporary shift toward a less aggressive foreign policy in Washington and made the US public more skeptical of deploying armed forces to achieve foreign policy goals but did not overturn the country’s moralistic approach to international relations, experts told Sputnik.
On March 29, 1973, the United States withdrew its last combat troops from South Vietnam in the wake of the signing of the Paris Peace Accords two months prior. Despite thousands of civilian Department of Defense employees being left in Southern Vietnam to help prosecute the war with North Vietnam, this was effectively the end of the US’s direct military involvement in the conflict.
The Vietnam War proved to be a controversial period of US history, coinciding with the major social upheavals of the 1960s and the 1970s, and reverberating across American society. According to John Mueller, a political scientist and professor emeritus at Ohio State University, while the initial support for the US involvement was roughly 70%, it weakened as casualties mounted. As a result, the US public became much more averse to the nation’s involvement in conflicts abroad.
“There was a ‘Vietnam syndrome’ in which the public still supported the US position in the Cold War, but turned against direct warfare as a tactic. That lasted until 9/11 and we are now in what might be called an ‘Iraq syndrome’ in which support for combating terrorism remains high, but not the tactic of direct war,” Mueller explained.
Similar to the general public, US policymakers were also humbled by the trials and tribulations of the Vietnam War, making them less eager to pursue a muscular foreign policy for a short while.
“[Richard] Nixon aggressively pursued detente with Moscow and rapprochement with China, and remained committed to both as the American commitment in Vietnam was winding down. Each was extremely dear to Nixon. Thereafter, under [Gerald] Ford and [Jimmy] Carter, the US pursued a highly cautious foreign policy, responding only mildly and tentatively to Cuban and Soviet ‘adventurism’ in sub-Saharan Africa (i.e., Angola and Mozambique),” Pierre Asselin, the Dwight E. Stanford chair in the history of US foreign relations at San Diego State University, said.
Nevertheless, the Soviet Union’s involvement in the Ogaden War between Ethiopia and Somalia in the late 1970s as well as the deployment of Soviet troops to Afghanistan resulted in the US opting for a more aggressive approach, according to the expert.
“The Carter administration, we now know, threw its support behind the mujaheddin in Afghanistan. Once [Ronald] Reagan became president, a new Cold War characterized by American aggressiveness and boldness commenced. So, Vietnam humbled US decision-makers in the short-term, but not in the long-term,” Asselin noted.
At the same time, according to Robert Singh, professor of politics at Birkbeck, University of London, the Vietnam War ushered in a political realignment on foreign policy issues that is still relevant today, such as the rise of the so-called neoconservative movement that would become the driving force behind the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
“It ended an era of relative consensus on foreign affairs. For Democrats, it caused many to adopt ‘accommodationism’, to question containment, and to become sceptical about US power and the military. It split these newer, more dove-ish Democrats from old-style Cold War hawks like JFK [John Fitzgerald Kennedy] and LBJ [Lyndon Baines Johnson]. At the same time, it was key in developing the neo-conservative movement of hawkish Democrats who moved right, to the Republicans, and who rejected Kissinger-style detente. So, it split both parties,” Singh noted.
Meanwhile, Paul Gottfried, the editor-in-chief of “Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture” and Raffensperger professor of humanities emeritus at Elizabethtown College, suggested that the war had little effect on the attitude of the US State Department, media and political parties with regard to the issue of military involvement. The expert drew attention to the influence of the Wilsonian political tradition, named after early 20th-century President Woodrow Wilson, which emphasizes an ideal-based foreign policy and the promotion of democracy abroad.
“The nature of American foreign policy was established under Woodrow Wilson and then only intermittently changed in the ensuing century. The US supposedly stands for ‘democratic values’ everywhere, and is the indispensable power for keeping the world safe and making other countries moral. Although some of our military engagements have been defensible, the reasons given for undertaking [them] are based on questionable assumptions about the American way of life. That way of life keeps changing, as does the rest of the world,” Gottfried said.
FROM VIETNAM WAR TO CULTURE WAR
Apart from affecting US foreign policy thinking, the Vietnam War is said to have revealed rifts within American society between those with college deferments, many of whom were vocally opposed to the war, and those who were drafted or volunteered to fight, thus prefiguring the present divisions between “a generally patriotic, god-fearing working class and woke elitists who combine wealth with cultural radicalism,” as Gottfried put it.
“Even in the 1960s, the academic class and those it influenced were culturally well to the left of blue-collar workers and farmers. This social distinction has remained and grown even greater in the intervening years,” the expert continued.
Singh, for his part, drew attention to the fact that one of the consequences of the war in Vietnam was the end of the draft and the transformation of the US military into an all-volunteer force.
“This has been important, since it’s meant less than 1% of Americans have served in the military and hence have little contact with that culture. This has compounded the class split and the growth of two cultures in the US, one progressive and left-leaning, one traditionalist and supportive of nationalism,” Singh stated.
Singh also added the war undermined trust in the federal government and the political establishment as it demonstrated, along with the Watergate scandal, “that government officials, including presidents, had lied to the American people.” According to the expert, “US politics has not recovered since.”