How did the Vietnam War affect America?

The United States had entered the conflict in Vietnam as the world’s superpower following its decisive victory over the Axis powers in World War II, but left Vietnam with a humiliating defeat, shockingly high casualties, American public sharply divided and its leaders uncertain of what lay ahead in foreign policy. The nation’s longest and most debilitating war – the only war the U.S. ever lost, had far-reaching consequences and impact on most aspects of American life from the economy, culture to domestic politics and foreign policy – some of which continue to do so today.

Damage the Economy

The Vietnam War damaged the U.S. economy severely. The U.S. had poured some $168 billion into the war, but the real cost of the conflict was its impact on the economy.

After a few truly good years during 1962 – 1965 when there was low inflation, almost full employment and a favorable balance of trade, President Lyndon B. Johnson, who succeeded President Kennedy after his assassination in 1963, declared a “War on Poverty” through his “Great Society” programs while escalating the war in Vietnam at the same time.

However, his decision to finance both “guns and butter” – a major war and the Great Society simultaneously, without a significant increase in taxes unleashed an acceleration of inflation peaking at a runaway double-digit in mid 1970s.

Not until 1969 did President Johnson decided to introduce a 10% income tax surcharge, which is considered by many economists “too little and too late” and in turn also slowed down the economy. It’s worth mentioning that Congress would not allow that “surcharge” to be implemented until President Johnson agreed to cut $6 billion from domestic spending on Great Society programs. Despite their relative success, Johnson could have undoubtedly spent more on these programs had he not had to pay for the war abroad, which Martin Luther King, Jr. had referred to as a “America’s tragic distraction” at the beginning of Johnson administration.

Moreover, huge spending on the war in Vietnam led to an increasingly unfavorable balance of trade, which contributed to an international monetary crisis and threat to U.S. gold reserves in 1967-68. That threat was seen as convincing evidence that the U.S. could no longer afford the war.

Inflation fueled by the escalation of the Vietnam and later Yom Kippur War also increased food prices and contributed to the oil price hike in 1973, which then led to inflationary expectations. President Nixon had to deal with these economic problems through various monetary and fiscal adjustments and ultimately wage and price controls in August 1971 through April 1973.

Spur Policy Changes

The conflict in Vietnam spurred a series of policy changes almost immediately. First of all, the conflict led Congress to end the military draft and replace it with an all-volunteer army as well as reduce the voting age to 18. Besides, Congress also passed the War Powers Resolution (or War Powers Act) over Nixon’s veto in November 1973, which restricted the president’s power to send American troops into combat for more than 90 days without explicit Congressional consent. The resolution represent legislators’ desire to restrain presidential power and to prevent further U.S. involvement in a war like Vietnam.

The Right to Vote at Age 18

During the Vietnam War, the notion that 18-year-old men could be drafted and forced to risk their lives in the war without the privileges of voting in state and local elections or the ability to consume alcohol legally put pressure on legislators to lower the voting age nationally. Congress eventually passed the 26th Amendment in March 1971 and President Nixon ratified it on July 1, 1971.

The End of the Draft

Even though the draft had been employed since the Civil War, it became highly controversial during the Vietnam War as President Johnson begun to commit huge numbers of ground troops to Vietnam in mid 1960s and the death toll mounted day after day.

The draft lottery in 1969, which failed to address the unfair discrimination against the low-educated and low-income class, only encouraged stronger resistance to the Vietnam war and the draft itself. As a result, there were more and more draft dodgers and the anti-war movement expanded.

In the midst of widespread disillusionment with the conflict in Vietnam, President Nixon, who had promised to end the draft during his 1968 presidential election, saw ending the draft as an effective political weapon to diminish the anti-Vietnam war movement. Nixon believed middle-class youths would stop protesting the conflict once it became certain that they would not have to fight and risk their lives in Vietnam. 

Despite initial opposition from both Congress and Department of Defense, President Nixon signed a new law to end the draft and put the selective service structure on standby. The end of direct American ground involvement in Vietnam also saw the last men conscripted & reported for duty in December 1972 and June 1973 respectively.

An All-Volunteer Force

As the Selective Service announced that there would be no further draft calls on January 27, 1973, the U.S. shifted to an all-volunteer force (AVF).

The AVF turned out to be a positive development in the midst of widespread sentiment against the military after the Vietnam War. It was deemed feasible, affordable, and therefore, one of the best way to raise military manpower. The AVF was also more agile and more-engaged and responsive to government needs in a post-Cold War era of smaller wars.

Mistrust the Government

Beyond policy changes, the U.S. also paid a high political cost for the Vietnam War. The long and traumatic conflict saw a mounting mistrust of government and its officials. A chain of unexpected events starting in mid 1960s – such as the way President Johnson obtained the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution to send troops to Vietnam, revelations of secret bombings of Cambodia, the My Lai massacre and Kent State tragedy under Nixon administration – put America into a crisis of confidence and faith. On the eyes of American people, government leaders were no longer credible. The abrupt end of Nixon’s presidency with the Watergate scandal only confirmed this sentiment.

The Vietnam conflict totally changed the attitudes of a generation. More and more American citizens became suspicious, skeptical and cynical about the government and public institutions in the wake of the Vietnam War. The military, in particular, was discredited for years after the conflict.

“Vietnam Syndrome”

More than 58,000 men made the final sacrifices; hundreds of billions of dollars spent on the conflict in an attempt to “contain” Communism, yet the U.S. had failed abjectly. The defeat in Vietnam was a humiliating experience for the U.S. It undermined American confidence in U.S. superiority, both moral and military, and most importantly, U.S. commitment to internationalism.

After Vietnam, American leaders became more wary of intruding in another country’s problems. They were afraid of getting stuck in “another Vietnam” which would cost American lives and destroy American prestige.

President Jimmy Carter, who took office in 1977, was the first U.S. President hamstrung by what is known as “the Vietnam Effect” or “the Vietnam Syndrome”, which describes America’s reluctance to commit troops oversea unless it is absolutely necessary to protect the national interests or when there is a strong public support with a high probability of a relatively quick and inexpensive victory.

Carter’s failure to stop the Russians from invading Afghanistan in 1979 and his clumsy attempt at handling the Iran hostages crisis, which resulted in the death of 8 American servicemen, exemplified how reluctant the U.S. was after the conflict.

No More “Quagmires”

During the 1980s, the U.S. continued to be cautious about getting involved anywhere else in the world.

Although the defense budget rose dramatically under President Ronald Reagan when he escalated the Cold War, his military actions were mainly small, covert or obtained by proxy. His secret support to the Contras against Nicaraguan government was an exemplary example. President George H.W. Bush went to war against Saddam Hussein in the Persian Gulf War in 1991 with the same cautious approach. After its swift victory at the expense of relatively few casualties, President Bush declared in March 1991:

“By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam Syndrome, once and for all!”

Nevertheless, Bush refused to give aid to the Kurds uprisings against Iraq and Hussein, saying that America did not want to find herself in a “quagmire” in Iraq. This U.S. non-intervention policy attracted criticism from many Iraqi and American critics, showing how tough it was to erase Vietnam from the consciousness of American foreign policy-makers.

The Continuing Effect

The fear of foreign intervention returned just about two year later in the Horn of Africa. The 15-hour Battle of Mogadishu (“Black Hawk Down”) in Somalia in October 1993 left 18 American servicemen dead – America’s deadliest firefight since Vietnam. In response, President Bill Clinton ordered American troops to withdraw from Somalia days later, leaving a haven for extremist groups.

Half a year later, starting on April 6, 1994, up to one million Rwandans were killed within three months. However, President Clinton decided not to intervene in the genocide out of fear of a repeat incident in Somalia, which becomes one of his biggest regrets. On a visit to Rwanda in 1998, Clinton formally apologized for American inaction. He believes American intervention, albeit marginal, at the beginning of the genocide might have saved as many as 300,000 people.

In general, the U.S. overseas intervention remained restricted until the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Lately, there are renewable debates and comparison with Vietnam regarding how President Obama handles the war in Afghanistan, Iraq and against ISIS.

All in all, the Vietnam War stopped the post-World War II era of aggressive and unquestioning U.S. foreign intervention. Vietnam also continues to loom large in the minds of American leaders decades after the end of the conflict. In fact, it has been used as a metaphor for almost every single time the U.S. flex its military muscles overseas. It is likely that the Vietnam Syndrome will continue to impact American foreign policy for years to come.

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