By 1979, many considered the United States to be in decline.
There was a sense of "malaise" throughout the country. America appeared to lack confidence and be without a moral center. It couldn't shape world events as it once did, and its economy wasn't doing well.
US President Jimmy Carter captured this mood in a televised address to the nation.
Jimmy Carter's speech was about the country's economic slump. But his speech also reflected the scars left behind from the Vietnam War.
Was the United States no longer a superpower?
Could the United States mend divisions at home?
Could it restore its moral image abroad?
And could the American people trust their government again?
These were some of the questions American politicians, policymakers, journalists, and the American public sought answers to after the Vietnam War.
Answers to these questions were debated then and continue to be discussed now. Easy solutions to these issues may not be forthcoming.
Indeed, the legacy of the Vietnam War — or the American War as it's called in Vietnam — which was one in a series of long, very costly conflicts inflicted on the Vietnamese people, continues to impact Vietnamese politics and culture.
Learn about the costs and consequences of the Vietnam War here. 👈
But the war also impacted American politics, culture, and government in ways still felt today.
1. Mistrust and Disillusionment
Scandal defined the early 1970s. Vietnam and Watergate shook Americans' trust in their government and its institutions.
Many characterize America's involvement in Vietnam as a war of lies, falsehoods, and half-truths. Americans were misled about the war at almost every point in the conflict.
Gulf of Tonkin Incident (1964)
This incident initiated America's escalation of the war. North Vietnam fired at a US destroyer off the coast of Vietnam on August 2, 1964.
This clearly happened. But what came next has been the subject of much speculation.
This destroyer and another ship were again fired upon two days later. This was all US President Lyndon B. Johnson needed for Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution,which authorized the United States to use military force in South Vietnam.
But did this second attack ever happen?
Were mistakes made in the fog of war? Investigations into the matter have since found that evidence of the event was falsified.
The incident, and allegations of its fabrication, would become a sore spot in Congress as the war dragged on. Some members of Congress, who had voted for the Tonkin Resolution, came to view the war more skeptically.
In 1965, the US bombarded North Vietnam, and US troops were rushed into South Vietnam. Their mission went beyond the protection of American forces in the region — they were to prop up the South Vietnamese government.
The conflict had been Americanized.The United States took on the burden of fighting in Vietnam. Washington may not have been "at war," but it sure looked like it.
Casualties mounted. Political gains were few and far between. And public support for the war decreased over time.
US Government officials told Americans that victory was just around the corner. But these statements differed greatly from the news Americans read in the paper or watched on television.
When Walter Cronkite, a trusted American news anchor, returned from South Vietnam in 1968, he said the war was unwinnable. His assessment was certainly a symbolic blow to the war effort.
Later in 1971, with the release of the Pentagon Papers—a classified study leaked to the press — Americans would learn just how common government falsehoods were.
The government had painted rosy pictures of America's progress in Vietnam when in public, but in private, they conceded that America was unlikely to win.
Impact on the Press
During the war, there was a shift in the relationship between government officials and the press.
Part of this was due to technology. Vietnam was considered the "first television war". Americans could watch events unfold at home.
Government censorship had also become less restrictive. In prior wars, reporters had to rely on government officials to tell their stories. Reporters were now able to investigate and dig underneath official narratives.
2. Reform of the Imperial Presidency
The Vietnam War and other Cold War conflicts made it appear that the United States was an empire, with the presidency becoming more imperial. Many believed the Executive Branch had become too powerful and needed reform.
Few, if any, other presidents embodied the imperial presidency more than Richard Nixon, who succeeded Johnson in 1969.
But things had trended in this direction for some time:
Throughout the 1950s and 60s, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) expanded beyond simply collecting intelligence. It conducted covert operations abroad and was involved in coups and assassinations, including one on the president of South Vietnam in 1963.
America's entrance into Vietnam began with a steady stream of military advisors and intelligence officers to assist the South Vietnamese government. This deepened America's commitment to the South with little public debate.
An expansive interpretation of the Tonkin Resolutionenabled the war to escalate and continue indefinitely. Aspects of the fighting were also kept in the shadows: Nixon secretly ordered the bombing of Cambodia, a neutral country.
Americans who wanted to reign in the President's war powers argued that the executive branch had abused the spirit of the US Constitution and accumulated more power than the founding fathers intended.
Still, Presidents and their defenders argued that it was important for the President to act swiftly in a crisis or national emergency. The Cold War was often treated as a long national emergency. Typical Congressional deliberations in such an environment were considered too slow.
Congress closely monitored the conduct of the war. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was eventually repealed in 1971. Later in the decade, Congress took two significant steps to reign in the power of the presidency.
War Powers Resolution (1973)
The Senate and House of Representatives passed this resolution over President Nixon's veto.
The resolution requires that The President must:
notify Congress within 48 hours of sending troops abroad
only commit these troops for up to 60 days unless Congress authorizes the use of force or declares war
withdraw troops within 30 days if no Congressional approval is given
"The Year of Intelligence" (1975)
The Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal set a tempo among American investigative journalists to expose abuses of power within the government.
Leaks revealed connections between the CIA and the Watergate scandal. Further investigations by Congress and others revealed the CIA conducted unlawful behavior at home (like MK-Ultra) and abroad.
Congress established permanent committees to oversee the intelligence community.
The War Powers Resolution is still with us today, and so is the fight between Congress and the President over matters of war and peace.
Two war authorizations, one signed in 2001, which permitted the United States to go after those responsible for 9/11, and another signed in 2002, which allowed for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, remain on the books over twenty years later.
Multiple presidents of both political parties have used these authorizations as legal cover to wage the global war on terror — even though America's enemies have evolved and changed since the early 2000s.
Still, many in Congress are working to make the Legislative Branch more assertive in foreign affairs.
The war's unpopularity led President Johnson to conclude that he would not win reelection. Before he left office, he began peace talks with North Vietnam to end the war.
Nixon, too, wanted to end the war. It had become too costly to continue.
Militarily: America's focus on Vietnam had diverted its attention from its allies in Europe and left US forces overstretched.
Economically: The war was a money and resource pit. The war partly contributed to a rise in inflation.
Politically: The war's popularity waned and divided America. The domestic consensus which supported other Cold War endeavors had shattered.
Nixon's Peace with Honor
But Nixon wanted to achieve what he called "Peace with Honor". He tried to put South Vietnam in a good position on the battlefield
This meant America needed better cards at the negotiating table.
Militarily, Nixon increased US bombing in North Vietnam and began the process of Vietnamization — that is, South Vietnam took on more responsibility for the war.
Diplomatically, this meant taking advantage of the growing divide within the Communist countries.
Deténte and the Sino-Soviet Split
Soviet-Chinese relations were rocky in the 1960s and 70s, which allowed the United States to play both sides in Beijing's and Moscow's feud.
America improved its relations with the Soviet Union, and the two countries entered a period of relaxed tensions known as deténte.
US relations with China improved as well. Nixon became the first US President to visit Communist China.
Deténte helped bring peace talks, which had labored on in a stalemate, to a close. America's improved relations with China and the Soviet Union helped to isolate North Vietnam from its great power supporters.
Eventually, a peace agreement known as the Paris Peace Accordswas signed in 1973.
America's war was over. But there was no peace in Vietnam. In 1975, the North conquered the South, and the country was reunited under North Vietnam's flag.
Many factors contributed to deténte, but Vietnam was undoubtedly one of them.
Above all, the Vietnam War reduced the American public's support for an assertive US foreign policy. It also showed America's power was limited. America would have to be more cautious in its competition with communism.
Deténte would simmer uneasily until 1979 when Cold War tensions erupted.
Despite its demise, deténte changed geopolitics:
Nuclear and conventional arms control talks between the United States and the Soviet Union were firmly planted on the agenda. This pattern of negotiations continued after the Cold War — though it's under threat today.
Nixon's visit to China opened the door to more formal diplomatic and trade relations. Today, the economies of China and the United States are very interconnected, despite today’s attempts to make them less so.
Many people in the 1970s, including President Jimmy Carter, began to look beyond the Cold War to the challenges presented by globalization.
But not everyone saw things this way...
4. Foreign Policy Consensus Shattered
The Cold War is remembered as a period where most American politicians and policymakers agreed on foreign policy regardless of their differences.
The Vietnam War shattered this consensus. The experts who thought about and discussed foreign policy were deeply divided.
Many American thinkers reassessed America's role in the world. Generally, two camps emerged: the "Doves" and the "Hawks".
Vietnam was generally seen as a tragedy, both militarily and morally. Doves thought Washington needed a more restrained approach to the world, which looked beyond the Cold War and its "inordinate fear of communism".
The world was more interconnected than ever, and the US had to address globalization’s challenges and opportunities, from nuclear proliferation to human rights and economic development.
America's behavior in Vietnam was seen very critically by countries in the global South. And to win back their trust, the US would have to use its power more responsibly.
Jimmy Carter, who became President in 1977, most exemplified this approach to foreign policy. He believed deténte would allow US foreign policy to move in a more prudent direction.
In reaction to the Doves, others took a more hardline approach to US foreign policy.
The Vietnam War was generally seen as less of a cautionary tale of military overreach and more of a lesson in what happens when Americans lose the will to fight. America shouldn't necessarily avoid foreign interventions but should learn to do them better.
The Cold War wasn't over. Deténte was seen as a mistake. America was losing its focus while the Soviets were making inroads in the global South. America's fear of military intervention had enabled the Soviet Union's influence to spread under its nose.
Human rights were also seen as necessary. But, while Doves generally believed all countries should be held equally to account, Hawks thought Communist countries were the worst offenders and should be treated as such.
President Ronald Reagan, who succeeded Carter in 1980, most exemplified this foreign policy approach.
The Doves and Hawks each had learned very different lessons from the war in Vietnam. Some Cold Warriors transformed into Doves, while other Cold Warriors became even more hawkish.
Meanwhile, American politics became more polarized, and US foreign policy moved in a more hardline direction in the early 1980s.
Hardliners in both major political parties in the United States had attacked deténte from the beginning. The Carter administration was the last straw. His (mis)management of a series of international crises left him vulnerable to accusations of weakness.
In 1980, Jimy Carter, a Democrat, lost his election to the Republican Ronald Reagan, who promised to get tough on defense.
This period saw many hawkish Democrats migrate to Reagan and the Republican party, most notably the neoconservatives,whose thinking helped shape US foreign policy into the 2000s.
5. A Divided America
The war in Vietnam exposed deep cleavages within American society.
Many of these differences had to do with the war. But they also had to do with social and cultural issues.
The 1960s and 70s saw a groundswell of mostly young Americans who rebelled against the cultural and political establishment.
Many were what you might think of as hippies. Rock n' roll was popular. Some experimented with drugs and alternative lifestyles.
But American counterculture wasn't just Woodstock and Haight-Ashbury. It was young and old Americans with different aims and goals who worked to advance peace, racial equality, women's rights, free speech, and other important issues.
As the United States escalated the war, protests against the war escalated as well.
Protests occurred across the country. Many were peaceful. But they did, at times, turn violent — often due to heavy-handed police tactics.
Notable demonstrations include the 1967 March on the Pentagon and the 1968 protests outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Though highly dramatized, the movie The Trial of the Chicago 7 captures the many different groups and views which made up the anti-war movement.
Among these groups were American veterans who came back from the war disillusioned and demoralized. They weren't provided adequate support and weren't always treated well by the anti-war movement.
But many joined the movement. Images of Vietnam veterans throwing away their combat medals symbolized their opposition to the war.
The Student Movement
Many of the most vocal protestors were college students on campuses throughout the country.
The University of California, Berkeley, the University of Wisconsin, and Columbia University were among the hotbeds for activism.
Some students burned their draft cards. Others took over campus buildings and went on strike, which disrupted campus life.
Again, many were peaceful, but violence sometimes erupted. Protests at Kent State University in 1970 shook America when National Guardsmen shot and killed four unarmed students.
These sit-ins were polarizing. The backlash to the demonstrations led supporters of the war to double down on their views.
Anti-war sentiment among students was a reasonable reaction to the draft. College-aged Americans didn't want to fight a war they thought unjust.
African-Americans leaders, such as Martin Luther King Jr., and organizations like the Black Panthers opposed the war.
African-Americans fought for their country while they faced discrimination in the armed forces and at home. These Americans were disproportionately represented among those who served in Vietnam.
American public support for the war decreased as it went on.
This was in part due to the draft, American casualties, revelations of war crimes such as the My Lai Massacre, and the return of physically and psychologically wounded veterans to the US.
Still, a significant portion of America supported the war and/or took issue with the peace movement. Protestors were called "un-American", accused of being communists, and blamed for America's struggles in Vietnam.
Richard Nixon harnessed this sentiment when he appealed to this so-called "silent majority".
Divides were so deep that they turned violent. In 1970, construction office workers attacked protestors in New York City in an event known as the Hard Hat Riot.
It was clear to Johnson and Nixon that the war couldn't be sustained indefinitely.
The era's counterculture couldn't sustain itself either. Many Americans swapped peace signs for suits and ties, but the idealism many had in the 1960s — that the world could be made better — stuck with them. This can be seen in Silicon Valley's desire (if not always realized) to push boundaries and foster community.
It also paved the way for today's popular culture, from movies to music.
And perhaps, most importantly, it changed American politics. America was deeply divided. Views hardened. The backlash against the counterculture movement set the stage for patterns we see in today's politics.
The Vietnam War had lasting effects on American politics. It polarized Americans, severed trust in the government, and shaped culture.
But individuals, culture, and politics have also shaped how Vietnam and its consequences are remembered and interpreted.
In other words, we remember Vietnam as what we want it to be rather than what it was.
Films produced in the 1970s like Apocalypse Now and Taxi Driver looked at the war and its impact on soldiers and veterans critically.
But attitudes shifted in the 80s.
President Reagan lauded the war as a noble cause with clear heroes and villains.
Movies like Rambo didn't necessarily show veterans as victims of an ill-advised war but as victims of a society that failed them at home during and after the war.
Rambo even returned to Vietnam to refight the war in his second film.
The Vietnam War continues to influence America's relationship with war and peace.
It serves as a reference point by which the success or failures of other wars are compared.
Following America's swift and decisive victory in the 1991 Gulf War,President H.W. Bush triumphantly proclaimed:
By God, we've kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all!
Later, the Vietnam War again served as an easy analogy when the United States became mired in Afghanistan and Iraq.
What meaning should Americans and the United States ascribe to the Vietnam War?
There is undoubtedly a sense that a malaise has, again, descended on America. This may be true. In some respects, today's America indeed resembles Jimmy Carter's America.
America has just wrapped up its twenty-year war in Afghanistan.
There is significant economic uncertainty.
Scandals have ensnared America’s institutions.
Many say America is in decline, and its ability to influence the world has waned.
America is politically and culturally polarized. While both ends of the political spectrum may agree that there is a crisis of confidence, they profoundly disagree on the cure.
Yet, there does seem to be at least one area of agreement in the realm of foreign policy —that China poses a threat.
But is a bipartisan foreign policy consensus all that it's cracked up to be, especially if it helped — as we explain in this Byte — lead the United States into the Vietnam War in the first place?
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