Decades later, 'Vietnam syndrome' still casts doubts on military action
By ERIK SLAVIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 12, 2014
The Vietnam War’s lasting impact on America’s foreign policy is largely characterized by doubt, in the opinions of many analysts.
Doubt that the United States, despite possessing the most powerful military on earth, will win a war against a determined enemy.
Doubt among presidential administrations that the public would support a conflict, once television showed them pictures of dead soldiers being dragged through the streets of countries most Americans knew little or nothing about.
Mostly, doubt — with some notable outliers — that the United States can impose its will through force, no matter the situation.
Driving those doubts is the desire to avoid another open-ended commitment with an uncertain endgame, where U.S. troops spend years on the ground in a foreign country, fighting against an enemy that can blend back into the civilian population far too easily.
That desire is part of what some have defined as “Vietnam syndrome,” a concept declared dead and reborn several times in the decades since the last American combat troops left Southeast Asia.
“Getting involved and not being able to get up, like Gulliver tied down by the Lilliputians suffering constant blows, that’s the concern,” said Carlyle Thayer, an American professor and Vietnam analyst who taught a course on the Vietnam War at Australia’s National Defense University.
That concern endures — buffeted by experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan — as Americans debate today’s military actions.
Americans support fighting the Islamic State group by a 60 percent to 31 percent margin — unless that action turns to ground troops, according to a September Gallup poll. Only 40 percent approve of that, according to the poll.
President Barack Obama went so far as to rule out U.S. ground troops before the latest round of air and naval strikes on Iraq and Syria began.
Before the end of the Vietnam War, presidents didn’t speak in such measured, cautious ways about how they would wage war. However, Obama made it clear during a May speech at the U.S. Military Academy that caution would be a cornerstone of his foreign policy agenda.
“Since World War II, some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint, but from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences,” Obama said.
The U.S. would act unilaterally when it was directly threatened and would otherwise explore other options, he said.
Obama, 53, is too young to have served in Vietnam — yet his words that day mirror the definition of Vietnam syndrome offered by journalist and Vietnam War author Marvin Kalb, who called it “a fundamental reluctance to commit American military power anywhere in the world, unless it is absolutely necessary to protect the national interests of the country.”
The term Vietnam syndrome first reached prominence when presidential candidate Ronald Reagan used it during an August 1980 campaign speech. Reagan said the syndrome was created by the “North Vietnamese aggressors” aiming to “win in the field of propaganda here in America what they could not win on the field of battle in Vietnam.”
In Reagan’s view, America failed to secure Vietnam because it lacked the means and the will to do so from the home front.
Nevertheless, fear of another Vietnam “quagmire” became the lens through which military action was viewed in the post-war 1980s.
Although Reagan’s budgets dramatically increased defense spending, his military actions were generally small, covert or obtained by proxy.
Then came the first Gulf War. It was civilian America’s first look at the reconstituted, all-volunteer force in a very large-scale action.
Victory came swiftly and at the cost of relatively few casualties. President George H.W. Bush avoided the quagmire by pulling troops out of Iraq quickly and leaving Saddam Hussein in power — moves that drew little criticism at the time.
Basking in the afterglow of military triumph, Bush ended a speech in 1991 with the proclamation that, “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.”
About two years later, the doubts that Vietnam brought about returned, this time in the Horn of Africa.
On Oct. 3, 1993, the “Black Hawk Down” incident kicked off the Battle of Mogadishu, leaving 18 U.S. servicemembers dead. Americans recoiled at images of Staff Sgt. William David Cleveland’s body being dragged through the Somali capital’s streets.
Days later, Clinton ordered U.S. troops to begin preparing for withdrawal.
A year later, the genocide in Rwanda began, and Clinton sent no military force. He would later describe not intervening in the genocide, which claimed about 1 million Rwandans, as one of his biggest regrets.
“If we’d gone in sooner, I believe we could have saved at least a third of the lives that were lost. … It had an enduring impact on me,” Clinton said on CNBC in 2013.
American overseas involvement remained somewhat restrained up until the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
After that, eight out of 10 Americans supported a ground war in Afghanistan.
If President George W. Bush had any worries about Vietnam syndrome, he didn’t share them publicly.
Defense analysts once again declared Vietnam syndrome kicked, at least, until the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan grew protracted, and opinion polls turned against the conflicts.
In 2009, conservative scholar Max Boot said that George H.W. Bush got it wrong with his 1991 proclamation — Vietnam syndrome was alive and well in the Obama era.
Boot noted several examples of lawmakers and analysts questioning the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through the prism of Vietnam.
Boot dismissed their doubts as defeatist. He saw no reason to make the Vietnam comparison, unless it was to compare administrations “more interested in ending than in winning the war.”
Boot’s view led him to agree on one point with Obama’s assessment: “You never step into the same river twice. And so Afghanistan is not Vietnam.”