Vietnam Syndrome

Vietnam Syndrome, like other post-war syndromes, was first used in early 1970s to describe the physical and psychological symptoms of veterans coming back from the Vietnam War, later best known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  By the end of 1970s, Vietnam Syndrome was no longer a medical term and it came to have a pure political meaning, coined by Henry Kissinger and popularized by Ronald Reagan to describe the U.S.’s reluctance to send troops into combat situations overseas. This happened because the U.S. was afraid that they would get bogged down in a “quagmire” again, like they did in Vietnam, and this which would lead to a loss of support for the government.


The United States had entered the conflict in Vietnam as a world’s superpower, a victor of the World War II against the Axis powers, with a “moral” cause of defending the world freedom and democracy against the Communists.

However, after more than 20 years involvement, they left Vietnam with the fall of their ally into the Communist hands, some 58,000 Americans killed and a deeply divided society.


A view held largely by American conservatives that the “loss” of the Vietnam War has created an American public biased against any type of American military conflicts.

They argue that bad memories of the Vietnam War such as massive protests and riots, the Watergate scandals as well as images of killed and wounded soldiers and civilians, have caused the American people to distrust any type of foreign intervention. As a result, any attempt by the United States to engage in a military conflict would be viewed by the American people as “another Vietnam.” American leaders were also afraid of involvement in other nation’s problems.


Post-Vietnam Syndrome also lead to a lot of problems on American society and people. Many veterans came back from Vietnam had been failed in efforts to have a ordinary life. More Vietnam veterans committed suicide due to psychological problems after the war than those who had died during the war in it.  At least three-of-quarters in a million veterans become homeless or jobless.

Nearly 700,000 draftees which came from poorly educated background hardly received honorable discharge. Even worse, many Nam Veterans find it too challenging to get new jobs to maintain support for their family; some even suffer terrible diseases such as post-traumatic stress disorders. There are many movies, documentaries and television programs depicted Vietnam veterans‘ difficult lives and their sad memories – what they suffered when fighting in the conflict and how badly they were treated when coming back from Vietnam.

Americans also distrusted their Government and its involvement in foreign affairs. Many anti-war protests are held against even “anti-terrorist” wars like in Iraq or Afghanistan.


In politics, Vietnam Syndrome made the bipartisan consensus that supported U.S. foreign policies since 1940s dissolved. “Vietnam syndrome” also meant two different things depending on which political orientation one was in.

For politicians on the Left, Vietnam Syndrome was a positive constraint, they questioned the need to prevent Communism and intervene abroad for ”democracy and freedom”. The Democrats majority in Congress had enacted the War Powers Resolution of 1973 forbidding the President from sending army into combat in more than 90 days without Congress’s consent. They also believed that if the U.S. were to intervene again in a similar situation, they would probably get a similar results as they had in Vietnam.

For the Rights, Vietnam Syndrome lowered morale and limited the U.S. from conducting necessary military intervention all around the world, so they would need to overcome it as soon as possible if they wanted to reassert their position in the world.

Are Vietnam Syndrome gone?

There are considerable debates whether the war in Iraq is “another Vietnam”. The appearance of that phrase has caused many to believe that Vietnam Syndrome is still alive.

After the Gulf War (2 August 1990 – 17 January 1991) and its relatively decisive victory, President George H.W. Bush declared that Vietnam Syndrome was finally “kicked”. It’s believed the U.S. had recovered from the disaster in Vietnam. This idea is backed up by the broad support of government in battles in Afghanistan and Iraq in first decade of 21st century.

However, those signs didn’t mean that the U.S. had completely overcome the Vietnam Syndrome. American foreign policies are usually decided based on the political orientation of the incumbent president. Presidents who are Democrats usually try to avoid intervening abroad unless absolutely necessary. For example, American troops were withdrawn from Somalia after Battle of Mogadishu in 1993 under Bill Clinton’s tenure. Barack Obama’s administration was also careful when assessing problems in Libya and Syria in 2013. They showed that Vietnam Syndrome still exists on American foreign policies to a certain extent. Apparently, the United States decide that they would only use military force as a last resort – where national interest is clearly involved; when there is strong public support; and only if they could achieve a relatively fast, inexpensive victory.

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