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Vietnam Syndrome


VIETNAM SYNDROME refers to both a collective and an individual ailment stemming from America's involvement in the Vietnam War. On the collective level, Vietnam syndrome describes America's general reluctance to use military force abroad because of the psychological trauma caused by different aspects of the Vietnam War. Causes cited are America's military "loss" in Vietnam despite U.S. wealth and military superiority, unprecedented media access to the most horrific images of combat, guilt over the mistreatment of Vietnam veterans, and a public perception that U.S. involvement was fundamentally, and even morally, wrong.

The Vietnam syndrome resulted in a political, military, and civilian body unwilling to risk military engagement for fear of "another Vietnam." The syndrome meshed into American foreign and military policy from Richard M. Nixon's presidency to Bill Clinton's. After the fall of Saigon, U.S. policy was one of extreme caution. One of the most vocal advocates of cautiousness was Casper Weinberger, Ronald Reagan's secretary of defense. Requirements for U.S. military involvement abroad included that the conflict be short and have minimal American losses, overwhelming public support, and no civilian restriction on military authority.

During the Persian Gulf crisis of 1990–1991, President George H. W. Bush deliberately attempted to heal the effects of the Vietnam syndrome. As war with Iraq loomed, Bush repeatedly assured the American public that the conflict would not be "another Vietnam." Further, the American public welcomed the chance to support American servicemen and women. Only three days after the fighting stopped, Bush declared the effects of Vietnam were buried in "the desert sands of the Arabian Peninsula."

On an individual level Vietnam syndrome refers to a form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) found in 20 to 60 percent of Vietnam veterans. The symptoms include not only all the classic PTSD symptoms such as anxiety, rage, depression, and addiction but also intrusive combat-related thoughts, nightmares, and flashbacks. Guilt is also a significant part of Vietnam syndrome. Soldiers not only experienced guilt for surviving when their friends did not but also guilt over the Vietnamese killed, especially women and children. The strategies veterans developed to cope with life in a combat zone did not translate back into civilian life and manifested as dysfunctional behaviors. Treatment for veterans with Vietnam syndrome symptoms includes drug therapy, individual as well as group therapy, and behavior management techniques.


Friedman, Matthew J. "Post-Vietnam Syndrome: Recognition and Management." Psychosomatics 22 (1981): 931–935, 940–943.

Isaacs, Arnold R. Vietnam Shadows: The War, Its Ghosts, and Its Legacy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

Lisa A.Ennis

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