After Vietnam: Legacies of a Lost War

After Vietnam: Legacies of a Lost War

by Charles E. Neu (Editor)


View All Available Formats & Editions
Want it by Thursday, November 15 Order now and choose Expedited Shipping during checkout.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780801863325
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press
Publication date: 06/16/2000
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.42(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Charles E. Neu is a professor and chair in the department of history at Brown University. He is the author of The Troubled Encounter: The United States and Japan and An Uncertain Friendship: Theodore Roosevelt and Japan and the editor of The Wilson Era: Essays in Honor of Arthur S. Link. Contributors: Brian Balogh, University of Virginia; Robert K. Brigham, Vassar College; George C. Herring, University of Kentucky; and Robert S. McNamara, former president of the Ford Motor Company, secretary of defense, and president of the World Bank.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Vietnam War and the Transformation of America

* * *


In the early 1960s, as a graduate student at Harvard University, I began to follow the Vietnam War. It seemed a distant struggle in an exotic land; I never imagined that it would become a major conflict that would bring a sea change in the life of the nation. After I completed my Ph.D. in the history of American foreign relations, I moved to Rice University in Houston, Texas, where the war soon became a major issue for me and many of my students. While I was too old for the draft, those I taught were not so fortunate, and they were bitterly divided over the rights and wrongs of the conflict.

    From the start, I was skeptical about American involvement in Vietnam, but I knew I did not understand many aspects of it. After moving to Brown University in 1970, I waited for the literature on the war to develop. Finally, in 1980, I began to teach a seminar on what I called "the American experience in Vietnam" Nine years later I started teaching a lecture course on the war, one that has always been among the most popular courses at the university.

    Teaching the war to a younger generation of students was a constant challenge, as was keeping up with the widening stream of scholarship and the far-reaching revisions this new knowledge brought in our understanding of the conflict. My desire to understand, and to write about, the Vietnam War was strengthened by three trips to Vietnam in the1990s. As I traveled throughout this extraordinarily beautiful country, talking with young people, veterans of the ARVN (Army of the Republic of South Vietnam), and North Vietnamese leaders, I realized that it was a strange and disturbing place to have fought a war, a land that challenged many of our national beliefs and aspirations. My belated trips to Vietnam reminded me that I was part of a generation marked by the war, one that embarked in the 1960s on a long and sad journey to Vietnam chat is still far from over.

* * *

The legacy of the Vietnam War is an unending topic. More than twenty-three years after the fall of Saigon, Vietnam remains an "unfinished war" a conflict that has not found a settled place in the history of the United States. As Arnold R. Isaacs writes, the Vietnam War "lingers in the national memory, hovering over our politics, our culture, and our long, unfinished debate over who we are and what we believe."

    Evidence of the turmoil and controversy surrounding the war is virtually everywhere. Many veterans are still trying to make sense of the war and to assess the meaning of their sacrifice. Some have returned to Vietnam, visiting sites where they fought and meeting former enemies, in an effort to put the war behind them. Aging policymakers continue to argue over the conduct of the war and its lessons for American foreign policy. Memories of the Vietnam War had a powerful effect on the way in which President George Bush and his advisers approached the crisis in the Persian Gulf in 1990 and 1991, while the legacy of the war was woven through the 1992 presidential campaign, when the last president of the World War II generation was challenged and defeated by the first president of the Vietnam generation. Four years later, the contrast between President Bill Clinton and his Republican opponent, Robert Dole, again reminded Americans of the immense gap between those who served in World War II and those who avoided serving in Vietnam.

    Long after the collapse of South Vietnam, controversy swirls around the major architects of the war, especially former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara. For years he steadfastly refused to explain to the American people what had gone wrong; finally, in April 1995, twenty-seven years after he left office, he published his memoir, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, admitting that he had made many mistakes and miscalculations. Some commentators praised McNamara for his courage in finally speaking out; others denounced him for an explanation that came, in their judgment, years too late. In a scathing editorial, the New York Times claimed that "his regret cannot be huge enough to balance the books for our dead soldiers. The ghosts of those unlived lives circle close around Mr. McNamara. Surely he must in every quiet and prosperous moment hear the ceaseless whispers of those poor boys in the infantry, dying in the tall grass, platoon by platoon, for no purpose. What he took from them cannot be repaid by prime-time apology and stale tears, three decades old." McNamara's confession of error struck a raw nerve, revealing all of the anger still felt by many members of the Vietnam generation.

    The unfinished nature of the Vietnam War is also visible in the broader domain of mass culture. The stream of books by soldiers and policymakers seems endless, as does the production of movies and television specials dealing with the war. The popular 1994 movie Forrest Gump was, in part, anchored in the Vietnam War; in 1998 Home Box Office transformed Neil Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam into a television special. And the remarkable staying power of the MIA-POW issue, expressed in both movies and national politics, reveals that, contrary to all logic and evidence, many Americans still believe that the Vietnamese government holds American prisoners. "The pain of the Vietnam War" James Reston Jr. observes, "did not end with the conclusion of hostilities. It continues today. Wounds remain open, waiting to become scars."


On the policy level, the American failure in Vietnam brought important changes in the conduct of the nation's diplomacy, weakening all of those Cold War assumptions that had crystallized in the late 1940s and guided American leaders through the late 1960s. The controversy over the war contributed to a softening of the policy of containment and accelerated a reaction against two decades of crisis diplomacy and intervention. Weary of the costs and burdens of the Cold War, Americans became skeptical about the use of force as an instrument of foreign policy and acquired a new sense of the limits of American power abroad. In 1981, when Ronald Reagan came into office, he intensified the Cold War and denounced the Soviet Union as an "evil empire" whose leaders were prepared "to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat" to achieve a communist-dominated world. But Reagan was well aware of the anger and frustration bred by the war and realized that the heavy casualties in Vietnam had brought down Lyndon B. Johnson's presidency. Reagan's extravagant, anti-Soviet rhetoric obscured the fact that he was not about to ask for any painful sacrifices from the American people to achieve his foreign policy goals.

    The Vietnam War also divided and hastened the decline of the old foreign policy establishment, a group of centrists and pragmatists that had coalesced during the early Cold War years and had served presidents throughout the postwar decades. Led by former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, this establishment—the "Wise Men," as they were later called—had initially supported Johnson's escalation of the conflict. As the war lengthened, with no end in sight, doubts emerged within this group. But it took the Tet Offensive of January 30, 1968, to shatter their confidence. When Johnson convened his "Wise Men" in March 1968, he discovered that most were disillusioned with the war. Summing up the majority view, Acheson declared: "We can no longer do the job we set out to do in the time we have left, and we must take steps to disengage." Despite this reversal, the Vietnam War discredited the foreign policy establishment and subjected some of its members to public controversy and humiliation. By the end of the war, the nation's foreign policy was deprived of an anchor that had helped political leaders maintain consensus and continuity.

    As the futility of the American effort in South Vietnam became apparent, Congress moved from almost instinctive support of the president's foreign policy before 1965 to aggressive skepticism by 1969. Senator J. William Fulbright, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, deplored the "unhinging of traditional constitutional relationships." "The problem" he declared in 1966, "is to find a way to restore the constitutional balance, to find ways by which the Senate can discharge its duties of advice and consent in an era of permanent crisis." Especially in the 1970s, Congress challenged the imperial presidency in a variety of ways. It hired thousands of experts on a whole range of national security issues and attempted to impose restraints on the president, ranging from the War Powers Resolution of 1973 to the prohibition in that same year of all American military activities in Indochina. Eventually it questioned presidential dominance of American foreign policy more vigorously than it had since the middle of the 1930s, and it demanded some degree of partnership in decisions about war and peace. The White House discovered that Congress was now a force to be reckoned with in foreign as well as in domestic affairs.

    As the mood on Capitol Hill changed, the Central Intelligence Agency was caught up in Congress's growing suspicion of the presidency and of the national security bureaucracy. In January 1975 the House and Senate voted to create special investigative committees, headed by Representative Otis Pike and Senator Frank Church respectively. These committees gained access to a wide range of CIA files, providing Congress and the American people with their first sustained view of years of CIA operations. Some of the walls of secrecy came tumbling down, with far-reaching consequences. On the practical level, these investigations resulted in new congressional oversight committees before which the agency had to justify both its budget and its proposed covert operations. On the abstract level, they weakened the official American history of the Cold War, which had emphasized American rectitude versus communist expediency and immorality. The inquiries of the Pike and Church committees exposed the darker side of American governmental behavior, bringing the melancholy discovery that American policies had sometimes been callous and careless.

    The Vietnam War, therefore, had important consequences even in the short term. In the United States, it altered the assumptions behind the nation's foreign policy, exposed the excesses of the institutions that made it, and brought home the costs of the Cold War to both the American people and the government. In Southeast Asia, the collapse of the Saigon regime in the spring of 1975 brought the unification of Vietnam under communist rule, along with the triumph of communism in Laos and Cambodia.

    But the worst fears of American leaders proved groundless. In April 1954 President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in his classic expression of the domino theory, had spoken of the possible sequence of events in Southeast Asia—"the loss of Indochina, of Burma, of Thailand, of the Peninsula, and Indonesia following ... now you are talking really about millions and millions and millions of people." In the end, however, Eisenhower and other supporters of the domino theory were wrong; the loss of South Vietnam did not undermine America's position in East or Southeast Asia.


The Vietnam War was waged, General Phillip B. Davidson observes, not only on a distant battlefield, but also "in the uncharted depths of the American psyche and in the obscurity of our nation's soul." As the conflict wound down and eventually ended, it became apparent that it had changed the mental landscape of the nation. The Vietnam War marked a great divide, separating those who came of age in the triumphant atmosphere following World War II from those who, as Isaacs writes, "grew up into the frustrations and divisions and moral confusion of Vietnam."

    The escalation of the Vietnam War in 1965 came only twenty years after the end of World War II, a culminating event in the nation's history. The protagonist in Philip Roth's American Pastoral proclaims that after World War II, an "upsurge of energy" swept across the country. "Around us," he continues, "nothing was lifeless. Sacrifice and constraint were over. The Depression had disappeared. Everything was in motion. The lid was off. Americans were to start over again, en masse, everyone in it together.... The miraculous conclusion of this towering event, the clock of history reset and a whole people's aims limited no longer by the past." At home the end of the war ushered in a period of unprecedented prosperity and optimism, which historian James T. Patterson characterizes as a time of "grand expectations." Abroad the nation moved to the center of the international system, entering a web of global entanglements in a new era of American predominance.

    The defeat of the Axis powers gave new life to old national myths, confirming a whole cluster of beliefs about America's destiny, innocence, and invincibility that were deeply rooted in the nation's past. Early in their history, Americans developed distinctive visions of their nation and its future. America could be imagined as a redeemer nation or, in John Winthrop's phrase, as a "City upon a Hill," chosen by God to set an example for an unregenerate world. Or America could be conceived as a republican experiment, undertaken in defiance of history and uncertain in its outcome. Or it could be seen as an expanding frontier where, in a series of conflicts stretching over several centuries, the American spirit was renewed. At the core of this myth of "regeneration through violence." Richard Slotkin writes, was the savage war, one in which Americans "must cross the border into 'Indian country' and experience a 'regression' to a more primitive and natural condition of life so that the false values of the 'metropolis' can be purged and a new, purified social contract enacted."

    In the early years of the republic, America seemed an experiment, for the Founding Fathers knew that they had launched the nation on a bold and difficult journey. Threatened by European monarchies and uncertain of the safety of their republican form of government, the revolutionary generation was wary of foreign entanglements. The United States, to be sure, was a promised land, but one that should lead the world through the power of its example. In his Fourth of July speech in 1821, John Quincy Adams said, "America goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion only of her own."

    In the nineteenth century, as the nation expanded across the continent, survived the ordeal of the Civil War, and grew more confident in its power and the durability of its institutions, the ideas of America as an experiment or a promised land gave way to the idea of America as a nation with a sacred mission, unique in its virtue and destiny. Toward the end of the century, more and more Americans concluded that the United States should spread the blessings of liberty and plenty to other lands. In 1885 the Reverend Josiah Strong, in his best-seller Our Country, proclaimed that Americans were a

race of unequaled energy, with all the majesty of numbers and the might of wealth behind it—the representative, let us hope, of the largest liberty, the purest Christianity, the highest civilization—having developed peculiarly aggressive traits calculated to impress its institutions upon mankind, will spread itself over the earth.... Is there room for reasonable doubt that this race ... is destined to dispossess many weaker races, assimilate others, and mold the remainder, until, in a very true and important sense, it has Anglo-Saxonized mankind?

    Over the course of the twentieth century, as the United States was drawn deeper into world politics, this belief in national righteousness and providential destiny grew stronger. Involvement in two world wars and the Cold War transformed America, in Walter A. McDougall's phrase, into a "crusader state" convinced of the superiority of its institutions and way of life and intent on imposing them on the outside world. At the start of the Cold War, President Harry S. Truman expressed his belief that "God has created us and brought us to our present position of power and strength for some great purpose"; near the end of the Cold War, President Ronald Reagan said that he had "always believed that this anointed land was set apart in an uncommon way, that a divine plan placed this great continent here between the oceans to be found by people from every corner of the earth who had a special love of faith and freedom."

    Inevitably, America's efforts to fulfill such exalted ideals brought conflicts with other peoples and the emergence of a distinctive war story. From the seventeenth century through the end of the nineteenth century, white Americans fought Indians on what the former regarded as the borders of civilization. This nonwhite enemy sometimes overwhelmed and defeated small groups of U.S. soldiers or settlers, but such defeats in the end served as a prelude to victory. Whether the nation's enemy was Indians or, later, Mexicans, Spaniards, Filipinos, Germans, or Japanese, every foe was defeated by American forces. During World War II the nation's war story, like so many other aspects of its history, reached a climax, especially in the Pacific War against Japan. After the initial surprise attack on the American garrison at Pearl Harbor, the war became a series of bitter, savage campaigns, a "war without mercy" on distant Pacific islands, where Japanese forces were overwhelmed by the superior might of the American war machine.

    During the postwar years, the nation's heroic war story encountered new and troubling realities. The Cold War, along with the atomic age, brought a loss of focus, for it was difficult to imagine victory in a large-scale clash with the Soviet Union. With the spread of communism to many parts of the world and the emergence of a domestic Red scare, the nation's enemy became both diffuse and omnipresent. And inevitably setbacks occurred, such as the triumph of communism in China in 1949—a stunning rejection of more than one hundred years of efforts by America to change China.


At the time of John F. Kennedy's inauguration, the Cold War, well into its second decade, had brought countless crises and covert interventions and a bloody war in Korea that ended in stalemate. The mood of the new administration, however, was tough and energetic. Kennedy wanted a more active policy of containment, especially in the Third World, and was convinced that the nation could afford ambitious programs both at home and abroad. His inaugural address, devoted almost entirely to Cold War issues, was a stirring call to action and sacrifice, a plea for heroic engagement in "a long twilight struggle" against communism. "Let every nation know," the young president proclaimed, "whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.... Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty. The graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe."

    Kennedy acted on this rhetoric, launching ambitious programs such as the Peace Corps, Food for Peace, the Alliance for Progress, and landing a man on the moon; confronting the Soviet Union in a series of crises; and increasing America's commitment to South Vietnam. In pursuing these initiatives abroad, Kennedy carried the American people with him. They were willing to support his administration in the "long twilight struggle" that had no end in sight. The war in Vietnam was a part of that struggle, a war where it seemed Americans could test their character and work out their special destiny. In the early 1960s the scale of the war remained small, allowing room for individuals to make their mark. One American general, in a talk to advisers attached to the South Vietnamese Army, summed up the prevailing attitude when he remarked, "It isn't much of a war, but it's the only war we've got, so enjoy it."

    On the policy level, Kennedy and his advisers were divided and often confused about the war. On the mythic level, however, the war had a deep appeal. As John Hellmann writes, "Vietnam promised ... the qualities of America's remembered frontier triumphs: remoteness from dangerous confrontations with a major European power, a savage enemy who could be righteously hunted down, a wilderness landscape in which the American could renew his virtues where the European had proved only his vices, and the Asian people America historically saw as the appointed beneficiaries of its destiny." The attraction of the Vietnam War, conceived in these terms, was revealed in the extraordinary success of Robin Moore's The Green Berets, published in 1965. In Moore's adventure tale, a few dedicated individuals pursued America's mission in the Vietnamese wilderness. Kennedy's emphasis on the Green Berets and counterinsurgency warfare had a powerful resonance in the American past.

    Kennedy's call for sacrifice and heroic engagement abroad affected many young people. Philip Caputo, who landed at Danang, South Vietnam, in March 1965, with the first American ground combat troops, remembers how "for Americans who did not come of age in the early sixties, it may be hard to grasp what those years were like—the pride and overpowering self-assurance that prevailed. Most of the thirty-five hundred men in our brigade, born during or immediately after World War II, were shaped by that era, the age of Kennedy's Camelot. We went overseas full of illusions, for which the intoxicating atmosphere of those years was as much to blame as our youth."

    Illusions of this sort, however, did not prepare Americans for the reality of the Vietnam War. Leaders of the U.S. government, preoccupied with the Cold War and confident of American power and technology, viewed the war in Vietnam in abstract terms, as a test of the nation's will and determination to combat communist expansion in the Third World. They found it hard to focus on Vietnam itself, on either its history and culture or the nature of the revolution there. On his first trip to South Vietnam, in May 1962, Secretary of Defense McNamara revealed this cursory approach. After spending only forty-eight hours talking to officials and traveling in the field, he told reporters that he had seen "a great deal of South Vietnam" and "acquired a 'good feel'" for conditions in the country.

    Most of the nation's high-ranking military commanders, still basking in the glow of their great triumph in World War II, had a can-do attitude and pushed for escalation. In July 1965, when Johnson and his advisers were debating the escalation of the war, the president asked General Earle G. Wheeler, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, what leaders in Hanoi would do if the United States increased its forces. Wheeler admitted that the North Vietnamese might respond, but he insisted that they could not put more than 25 percent of their 250,000-man army into South Vietnam. Wheeler was confident that if they did so, the United States would "cream them." In hindsight, it is clear that the president's senior military commanders suffered from what Neil Sheehan terms the "disease of victory" and that they approached the struggle in South Vietnam with a certain arrogance and complacency. While their estimates of the magnitude of the challenge varied, they found it hard to imagine how America could not prevail in such a small and seemingly primitive country.

    Young Americans who went to fight in South Vietnam had grown up greatly influenced by World War II. Their image of war was shaped by the memories of their fathers and by the movies, especially movies with John Wayne. By the early 1960s, Wayne was a major cultural icon, a folk hero who had come to represent the old West and the American soldier. As Garry Wills writes, all Americans "are entangled in his story, by the dreams he shaped or inhibited ... by the things he validated and those he scorned, by the particular definition he gave to 'being American.' ... Down the street of the twentieth-century imagination, that figure is still walking toward us—graceful, menacing, inescapable." Ron Kovic, who was born in 1946, remembers Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), in which Sergeant Stryker, played by Wayne, led his squad of Marines in a charge up Mount Suribachi, only to be killed just before reaching the top. Wayne and the Marines were his heroes. The Marine recruiters who visited his high school looked just as they had appeared in the movies and "spoke in a very beautiful way about the exciting history of the marines and how they had never lost and how America had never been defeated." Kovic loved the Marine Corps hymn.

    Americans who stayed at home, lifted up by the tidal wave of postwar prosperity and inspired by Kennedy's vision of a "New Frontier," could not imagine the way in which the war and the turmoil of the 1960s would affect their lives. "The death-littered valleys of Vietnam ... changed the way I thought of my family, my nation, my faith, and myself," writes James Carroll. Carroll had grown up with a "vivid and continuous sense of connection with America." As a two-year-old, he had been at Franklin D. Roosevelt's last inauguration, and in the postwar years, as he attended one inauguration after another, he realized that they were "like a sacrament of the streets to me, rituals of rebirth, the one true American gala, a quadrennial instance of Jefferson's 'peaceful revolution.'" The Vietnam War transformed Carroll and his sense of America until, at Richard M. Nixon's second inauguration, in January 1973, he shook his fist and "cursed the president of the United States"—an act that measured the distance he had come from his "youthful worship of these men."


In 1965, as the war in Vietnam grew rapidly in scale and intensity, it became apparent that President Johnson would have trouble explaining this conflict to the American people, linking it to the nation's sense of mission or to its traditional war story. In mid-1965 the government produced a film entitled Why Viet-Nam, which opened with Johnson reading a letter from a Midwestern woman asking why her son was in Vietnam. The president responded by asking a question of his own: "Why must young Americans born into a land exultant with hope and with golden promise, toil and suffer and sometimes die in such a remote and distant place? The answer," the president concluded, "like the war itself, is not an easy one." As the film progresses, the narrator attempts to answer Johnson's question, justifying the war as an effort to honor America's commitment to the government of South Vietnam and to prevent communism from spreading into Southeast Asia. But officials in Washington could not construct a convincing narrative for the war; as it continued, they had more and more difficulty explaining, in Tom Engelhardt's words, "the story of a slow-motion defeat inflicted by a nonwhite people in a frontier war in which the statistics of American victory seemed everywhere evident."

    As the war lengthened and casualties mounted, no aspect of the struggle confirmed the traditional American war story. Enemy forces were largely invisible, blending in with the peasantry, hiding in remote jungle or mountain sanctuaries, and generally able to control the pace of the conflict, striking American units when it was advantageous to do so. Main force Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldiers were formidable opponents, displaying a fanatical devotion to their cause and great ingenuity and persistence in exploiting the land and people, whether in building elaborate tunnel complexes underground or keeping supplies flowing down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. By American standards, VC and NVA units took staggering casualties, but time after time they were able to withdraw and rebuild their strength. Worse still, enemy soldiers acquired an almost heroic stature. "In our minds," William Broyles Jr. remembers, "the enemy wasn't another soldier, a man like us. He was mysterious and elusive—a vision from the unknown, a bogeyman with terrible powers rising up out of the earth.... The primitive methods that the enemy adopted in the face of our technology made him that much more formidable." And the government in Hanoi portrayed President Ho Chi Minh, its legendary leader, as a benevolent grandfather who sought only the freedom and independence of his people.

    The big-unit war of 1965 and later, with its search-and-destroy missions and massive use of artillery and airpower, was far removed from the earlier version of the war embodied in Kennedy's counterinsurgency strategy and in the myth of the Green Berets. As Johnson transformed the conflict, he lost sight of how, as John Hellmann writes, this new war "would look to an American youth uncomfortable with the affluence, bureaucracy, technology, and racism of their society." Leading intellectuals of the antiwar movement, such as the novelists Norman Mailer, Mary McCarthy, and Susan Sontag, exploited these anxieties, idealizing North Vietnam as a harmonious, pastoral society while depicting America as a decadent, violent, machinelike empire. The antiwar movement began to gain the high ground in its struggle with the American government over the meaning of the war.

    While the enemy in Vietnam was mysterious and, to some Americans, heroic, America's allies in Saigon seemed venal and corrupt, more interested in graft than in combat and unable to rally their people behind a common cause or to create an effective military force. The client state that America supported in South Vietnam for more than twenty years stumbled along, led (after the assassination of President Ngo Dinh Diem in November 1963) by military officers with little understanding of American politics or culture and with little ability to appeal to the American people.

    American officials who dealt with South Vietnamese leaders were puzzled and frustrated. Assistant Secretary of State William P. Bundy characterized President Nguyen Van Thieu and Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky, who came to power in 1967, as "the bottom of the barrel, absolutely the bottom of the barrel," while Secretary of State Dean Rusk asked the American ambassador in Saigon, "Is there any way we can shake the main body of the Vietnamese leadership by the scruff of the neck?" American troops who worked with their South Vietnamese counterparts were initially shocked, then angered, by the unwillingness of many ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) units to fight aggressively. Occasionally American officers were impressed by the dedication and skill of South Vietnamese commanders, but more often relations between American and South Vietnamese troops were tense. Robert Mason, an American helicopter pilot, had heard stories from other pilots about problems carrying ARVN troops. Even so, he was unprepared for the ARVN Rangers who, when he carried them into a landing zone, refused to get off until his crew chief threatened them with a pistol. "Whose war was this, anyway?" he wondered.

    In the summer and fall of 1965, as American troops and materiel poured into South Vietnam, the expectations of the U.S. officers and their men were high. Sometimes they received unpleasant surprises. In August of that year, Marine units assaulted a VC regiment in the central coastal area of South Vietnam. On the second day of the battle the VC, badly hurt, slipped away, but the Americans were amazed at the stamina of their new enemy. As one Marine general, a veteran of Saipan and Iwo Jima, put it: "I thought that once they ran up against our first team they wouldn't stand and fight. I made a miscalculation." Still, most American commanders believed that their forces would inflict unacceptable casualties on enemy troops and break their will to resist.

    Both generals and soldiers soon realized that the war in Vietnam did not fit their preconceived notions. By the autumn of 1965, Philip Caputo remembers, "what had begun [in March] as an adventurous expedition had turned into an exhausting, indecisive war of attrition in which we fought for no other cause than our own survival." The enemy was elusive, the climate and terrain treacherous, and peasants in the countryside often unfriendly. The pattern of warfare that emerged was formless yet lethal, consisting of haphazard, episodic contacts with the enemy and few set-piece battles. In contrast to World War II and Korea, Vietnam was a war without a front, without any clear direction or momentum, in which progress was measured by the number of enemy troops killed rather than by the amount of territory gained. Combat had a circular quality; American units would often patrol the same territory over and over, engaging in fleeting contacts with the enemy, or take an objective and then abandon it.

    For Harold G. Moore, who arrived in South Vietnam in September 1965, doubts began to emerge in early 1966, when he led his brigade in a campaign against NVA troops in a densely populated rice-farming region along the coast of central Vietnam. After heavy fighting, American units prevailed. But soon enemy troops returned to the area, and twice in the spring Moore's brigade returned to drive them out. How, Moore wondered, could the United States ever win, if the South Vietnamese government could not reestablish control in such newly cleared areas?

    For combat soldiers, the war bred confusion. Most were ignorant of Vietnam's past and knew little about the history of the French and American wars there. When William Broyles Jr. tried to explain to his radioman why American forces were fighting, he found that his answer, "We're here to help South Vietnam stay independent," was too abstract. His next response, "Our mission is to protect the Da Nang vital area," brought the question "Why is Da Nang a vital area?" "I guess," Broyles explained, "it's because of all the American support troops back there." "Yeah," said the radioman, "but why are they there?" Completing the circle, Broyles answered, "Well, to support us."

    As the war went on, the confusion deepened and old myths dissolved. Soldiers arrived in Vietnam with images of war derived from John Wayne movies; as they gained experience, however, his name was used to identify individual acts that looked good in the movies but that would bring death in combat. As Samuel Hynes observes, "It is a sign of how completely the old values had faded that Wayne, hero of the Westerns and war movies that the Vietnam War generation had grown up on, and the embodiment of what seemed a particularly American kind of independent courage, had become a soldier's joke, an anti-hero, everybody's example of how not to fight a war." For some American officers and soldiers, the war retained a clarity and sense of moral purpose; for others it brought disillusionment and a loss of faith. Tobias Wolff, who served as adviser to an ARVN battalion in the Mekong Delta, noticed that a nearby American unit seemed to be in a state of despair. "At Dong Tam," he writes, "I saw something that wasn't allowed for in the national myth—our capacity for collective despair.... The resolute imperial will was all played out here at the empire's fringe, lost in rancor and mud. Here were pharaoh's chariots engulfed; his horsemen confused; and all his magnificence dismayed."

    In Vietnam a troubling reversal occurred in the image of American soldiers. In World War II they had generally been hailed as liberators, often aided by resistance groups and surrounded by cheering crowds as they occupied towns and cities. In Vietnam, American units that moved through the countryside encountered a wary peasantry, especially in areas controlled by the VC. Many villages were emptied of young men and surrounded by deadly booby traps and land mines. Confronted with an often hostile population and what seemed at first glance a primitive, repugnant way of life, many Americans units retaliated against villagers. David Donovan, an officer who had received training in Vietnamese history, culture, and language, was appalled by the "contempt and disrespect" most American soldiers showed toward the Vietnamese and by "the generally abysmal relations between Americans and the Vietnamese villagers." And General Creighton W. Abrams, who became General William C. Westmoreland's deputy commander in May 1967 and replaced him in June 1968, remembered that "Americans as a whole had trouble with the whole idea of the Vietnamese. Their color was a little different, their eyes were a little different, they were kind of small—those kinds of differences tend to bother Americans."

    Soon the war began to produce disturbing visual images. In August 1965 Morley Safer and a CBS news crew accompanied a Marine patrol as it moved into the village of Cam Ne. Both Safer and, later, the American public were shocked to see U.S. soldiers casually setting fire to the huts in the village while Vietnamese peasants cowered in fear or begged for their homes to be spared. Americans were accustomed to viewing their soldiers as liberators, not avengers. American units with good leadership understood the importance of treating villagers decently and trying to win the peasantry over to their side. But occasionally discipline broke down. The worst incident occurred in the village of My Lai in March 1968, when more than 400 civilians, including women and children, were killed by American troops. Not until December 1969, when poignant photographs by a military cameraman appeared across ten pages of Life magazine, did the American people realize the extent of the atrocity, and the extent to which the Vietnam War had transformed the behavior of at least some American soldiers.


Most Americans found it difficult to judge the wisdom and progress of the war. Information from South Vietnam could be read in different ways, and assessments by the nation's leaders varied widely. In November 1967 Senator Robert F. Kennedy, rejecting the administration's geopolitical arguments, said on Face the Nation, "We're killing South Vietnamese, we're killing children, we're killing women, we're killing innocent people ... because we don't want to have the war fought on American soil ... because [the communists are] 12,000 miles away and they might get to be 11,000 miles away." That same month, however, Westmoreland, convinced that the crossover point had been reached (when the losses suffered by enemy units exceeded their ability to replace them), told the National Press Club in Washington, "We have reached an important point when the end begins to come into view." In two years or less, Westmoreland predicted, it would be possible to reduce American ground forces and turn more of the fighting over to the South Vietnamese. It took the Tet Offensive of January 30, 1968, to convince most Americans that Westmoreland was wrong. The war had become a killing field for Americans and Vietnamese with no end in sight.

    Throughout the remainder of 1968, fighting was intense and peace negotiations deadlocked. When Nixon came into office, his policy of "peace with honor"—with its gradual withdrawal of American troops, transfer of responsibility for the war to the South Vietnamese, and search for a negotiated settlement—seemed plausible to many Americans. The signing of the Paris Peace Accords in January 1973 confirmed their hopes that somehow the nation's objectives could be achieved. But the dramatic collapse of South Vietnam in the spring of 1975, ending with the fall of Saigon on April 30, destroyed any illusions that remained. The final scenes of panic and desperation shocked the nation. Americans were not prepared for this sort of flight.

    The outcome of the Vietnam War seemed almost beyond understanding. How had the war become a quagmire? How had the nation become so sharply divided? How had the architects of the war miscalculated so badly? In short, where had John Wayne's America gone wrong?

    Some Americans concluded that the Vietnam War revealed deep flaws in American society and foreign policy. They urged the nation to engage in a fundamental rethinking of Cold War assumptions and to accept a reduced role in world politics. In 1977 George F. Kennan, the author of the policy of containment, asked his countrymen to consider "whether the great miscalculations which led us into the folly of Vietnam were not something more than just the shortsightedness of a few individuals—whether they did not in fact reflect a certain unfitness of the system as a whole for the conceiving and executing of ambitious political-military ventures far from our own shores."

    Other public figures disagreed, arguing that the war was lost at home, not in Southeast Asia, and that the final collapse of the Saigon government came only because the United States reduced aid to South Vietnam and allowed the North Vietnamese Army to carry out a conventional military offensive. Convinced that the subsequent harshness of North Vietnam's rule vindicated the "moral soundness" of America's intervention, they were angry over the outcome. In the end, America appeared weak and helpless, irresolute and lacking in courage. Supporters of the American war effort were determined to rebuild the confidence, moral resolve, and military strength of the nation, so that America could resume its rightful primacy in world affairs. "For too long" Ronald Reagan declared in August 1980, "we have lived with the Vietnam Syndrome. This is a lesson for all of us in Vietnam. If we are forced to fight, we must have the means and the determination to prevail, or we will not have what it takes to secure peace. And while we are at it, let us tell those who fought in that war, that we will never again ask young men to fight and possibly die in a war our government is afraid to let them win."

    Those who served in Vietnam, whether in high-level policy positions or in ground combat, were frustrated by the way in which the war ended. General Westmoreland blamed his political superiors for the defeat. "Had the president allowed a change in strategy and taken advantage of the enemy's weaknesses," he maintains, "the North Vietnamese doubtless would have broken." William E. Colby, who directed important CIA programs in Vietnam, believed that a counterinsurgency strategy would have won the war. Over the final evacuation efforts from Saigon, he remembers, "hung the tragedy of this waste of lives and the years of effort of both Vietnamese and Americans who had hoped that Vietnam might develop in freedom."

    Severely wounded soldiers were especially disillusioned. Ron Kovic's terrible wound—which left the lower half of his body paralyzed—led to a loss of faith in the nation and its leaders. Bitterly he wrote, "I have given my dead swinging dick for America. I have given my numb young dick for democracy.... Yes, I gave my dead dick for John Wayne." Lewis Puller, also seriously wounded, had been apolitical before leaving for Vietnam in the summer of 1968, accepting the judgment of leaders in Washington. Returning to America, he concluded that the war was a mistake and "began to feel that my own sacrifice and that of all of us who had fought the war were meaningless." Many other veterans who had fought in what had become a lost cause were also unable to find meaning in their sacrifices, or to understand what had gone wrong to deprive the nation of victory.

    Americans had entered the Vietnam War with the expectation that a distinctively American story would unfold. When the conflict developed in unexpected ways, as John Hellmann observes, "the true nature of the larger story of America itself became the subject of intense cultural dispute. On the deepest level, the legacy of Vietnam is the disruption of our story, of our explanation of the past and vision of the future." The collapse of South Vietnam left many Americans with a sense of loss and betrayal, as if, in the words of Arnold Isaacs, "it was some vital piece of America's vision of itself—trust, self-confidence, social order, belief in the benevolence and ordained success of American power—which had disappeared in the mountain mists and vine-tangled jungles of Vietnam, and which so many Americans wanted so desperately to get back." The war had seared the consciousness of an entire generation and altered the mood of the nation.

    Most Americans sensed that the nation had entered a new era after Vietnam, one that was filled with divisions, uncertainties, and moral confusions, both at home and abroad. After 1974, James T. Patterson writes, "the United States, so powerful for much of the postwar period, seemed adrift, unable to reconcile the races (or the classes or the sexes) at home or to perform as effectively on the world stage." Neither the powerful rhetoric of President Reagan in the 1980s, nor the stunning success of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, nor the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War in 1991 could restore the old sense of innocence, destiny, and national self-confidence.

    Amid all the currents and countercurrents of contemporary American life, a yearning for a more cohesive, heroic past mingled with anxieties about the future. The nation's nostalgia was revealed in 1998 in the remarkable critical and box-office success of Steven Spielberg's World War II film Saving Private Ryan. While it contained horrifying scenes of warfare, in the end Saving Private Ryan took Americans back to the nation's moment of glory, when its leaders were decent and wise and its cause just. And in An Empire Wilderness, journalist Robert D. Kaplan documented Americans' unease about the future, about the erosion of national unity. His book is an unsettling vision of America in the twenty-first century, a nation in which old loyalties and allegiances are dissolving into an emerging transnational society. The nation that sent young men off to war in distant Vietnam in the mid-1960s is gone. What, if anything, Kaplan wonders, would citizens of this new, globalized America be willing to fight and die for?

Table of Contents


What People are Saying About This

David L. Anderson

"The book provides intelligent and insightful analysis of the Vietnam War's connection to the present and future. The contributors draw together and interpret some of the best of the huge outpouring of scholarship on the war and add interpretations from their own research."

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews