The meaning of the Vietnam War has enduringly divided Americans in the postwar period. In part because the political splits opened up by the war made it an awkward topic for conversation, Vietnam veterans felt a barrier of silence separating them from their fellow citizens. The situation of returning veterans in the war’s waning years serves as a baseline against which to measure subsequent attempts at their social reintegration. Veterans, as embodiments of the experience of the war, became vehicles through which American society could assimilate its troubled and troubling memories. By the 1980s, greater public understanding of the difficulties of veterans’ homecoming experiences—particularly after the recognition in 1980 of the psychiatric condition, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—helped accelerate the efforts to recognize the service and sacrifices of Americans who fought in Vietnam through the creation of memorials. Because the homecoming experience was seen as crucial to the difficulties which a substantial minority suffered, the concept emerged that the nation needed to embrace its veterans in order to help restore their well-being. Characteristic ways of talking about the veterans’ experiences coalesced into truisms and parables: the nation and its veterans needed to “reconcile” and “heal”; America must “never again” send young men to fight a war unless the government goes all-out for victory; protesters spat on the veterans and called them “baby killers” when they returned from Vietnam. Strategists debated what the proper “lessons” of the Vietnam War were and how they should be applied to other military interventions. After the prevalent “overwhelming force” doctrine was discarded in 2003 in the invasion of Iraq, new “lessons” emerged from the Vietnam War: first came the concept of “rapid decisive operations,” and then counterinsurgency came back into vogue. In these interrelated dimensions, American society and politics shaped the memory of the Vietnam War.
Gregory A. Daddis
For nearly a decade, American combat soldiers fought in South Vietnam to help sustain an independent, noncommunist nation in Southeast Asia. After U.S. troops departed in 1973, the collapse of South Vietnam in 1975 prompted a lasting search to explain the United States’ first lost war. Historians of the conflict and participants alike have since critiqued the ways in which civilian policymakers and uniformed leaders applied—some argued misapplied—military power that led to such an undesirable political outcome. While some claimed U.S. politicians failed to commit their nation’s full military might to a limited war, others contended that most officers fundamentally misunderstood the nature of the war they were fighting. Still others argued “winning” was essentially impossible given the true nature of a struggle over Vietnamese national identity in the postcolonial era. On their own, none of these arguments fully satisfy. Contemporary policymakers clearly understood the difficulties of waging a war in Southeast Asia against an enemy committed to national liberation. Yet the faith of these Americans in their power to resolve deep-seated local and regional sociopolitical problems eclipsed the possibility there might be limits to that power. By asking military strategists to simultaneously fight a war and build a nation, senior U.S. policymakers had asked too much of those crafting military strategy to deliver on overly ambitious political objectives. In the end, the Vietnam War exposed the limits of what American military power could achieve in the Cold War era.
Robert J. Thompson III
American history is replete with instances of counterinsurgency. An unsurprising reality considering the United States has always participated in empire building, thus the need to pacify resistance to expansion. For much of its existence, the U.S. has relied on its Army to pacify insurgents. While the U.S. Army used traditional military formations and use of technology to battle peer enemies, the same strategy did not succeed against opponents who relied on speed and surprise. Indeed, in several instances, insurgents sought to fight the U.S. Army on terms that rendered superior manpower and technology irrelevant. By introducing counterinsurgency as a strategy, the U.S. Army attempted to identify and neutralize insurgents and the infrastructure that supported them. Discussions of counterinsurgency include complex terms, thus readers are provided with simplified, yet accurate definitions and explanations. Moreover, understanding the relevant terms provided continuity between conflicts. While certain counterinsurgency measures worked during the American Civil War, the Indian Wars, and in the Philippines, the concept failed during the Vietnam War. The complexities of counterinsurgency require readers to familiarize themselves with its history, relevant scholarship, and terminology—in particular, counterinsurgency, pacification, and infrastructure.
Andrew J. Gawthorpe
From 1965 to 1973, the United States attempted to prevent the absorption of the non-Communist state of South Vietnam by Communist North Vietnam as part of its Cold War strategy of containment. In doing so, the United States had to battle both the North Vietnamese military and guerrillas indigenous to South Vietnam. The Johnson administration entered the war without a well-thought-out strategy for victory, and the United States quickly became bogged down in a bloody stalemate. A major Communist assault in 1968 known as the Tet Offensive convinced US leaders of the need to seek a negotiated solution. This task fell to the Nixon administration, which carried on peace talks while simultaneously seeking ways to escalate the conflict and force North Vietnam to make concessions. Eventually it was Washington that made major concessions, allowing North Vietnam to keep its forces in the South and leaving South Vietnam in an untenable position. US troops left in 1973 and Hanoi successfully invaded the South in 1975. The two Vietnams were formally unified in 1976. The war devastated much of Vietnam and came at a huge cost to the United States in terms of lives, resources, and political division at home. It gave birth to the largest mass movement against a war in US history, motivated by opposition both to conscription and to the damage that protesters perceived the war was doing to the United States. It also raised persistent questions about the wisdom of both military intervention and nation-building as tools of US foreign policy. The war has remained a touchstone for national debate and partisan division even as the United States and Vietnam moved to normalize diplomatic relations with the end of the Cold War.
Paul D. Miller
Afghanistan has twice been thrust front and center of US national security concerns in the past half-century: first, during the Soviet-Afghan War, when Afghanistan served as a proxy for American efforts to combat Soviet influence; and second, as the frontline state and host for America’s global response to al-Qaida’s terrorist attacks of 2001. In both instances, American involvement swung from intensive investment and engagement to withdrawal and neglect. In both cases, American involvement reflected US concerns more than Afghan realities. And both episodes resulted in short-term successes for American security with long-term consequences for Afghanistan and its people. The signing of a strategic partnership agreement between the two countries in 2012 and a bilateral security agreement in 2013 created the possibility of a steadier and more forward-looking relationship—albeit one that the American and Afghan people may be less inclined to pursue as America’s longest war continues to grind on.