America Since the War (1976–Present)
America Since the War (1976–Present)
Even after the Vietnam War ended in 1975, memories of the conflict continued to haunt the United States. Troubled by the U.S. defeat, the war's terrible destruction, and its shattering impact on national unity, the American people entered a period of self-doubt and disillusionment. This attitude made America's Vietnam War veterans feel even more neglected and isolated.
The American people continued to feel uncertain and depressed about both themselves and their political leadership into the 1980s. During that period, however, attitudes about both Vietnam veterans and the U.S. war effort began to change. Americans continued to disagree about U.S. actions and attitudes in Vietnam, but they showed a greater willingness to move on and look to the future together. Veterans, meanwhile, finally began to receive recognition for the sacrifices they made in service to their country.
Nonetheless, historians agree that the wounds the United States received in Vietnam have not completely healed, even a quarter-century after the war's conclusion. U.S. foreign policy decisions continue to be shaped by memories of the war. In addition, the conflict still evokes emotions of sadness, anger, and regret in many American families and communities.
American self-image and Vietnam
The United States entered the Vietnam War in the mid-1960s as a tremendously self-confident nation. Over the previous two decades, America had become the most economically successful and technologically advanced nation in the world. Moreover, the country was proud of its role in the defeat of Germany and Japan in World War II (1939–45), which was widely viewed as a triumph of good over evil. The memory of this great military triumph—and other American military victories throughout the nation's history—combined with the prosperity of the 1950s to create a feeling of optimism, pride, and self-assurance in most American communities.
In the early 1960s, all of these factors led the United States to see itself as both the most moral and the most powerful nation in the world. Americans believed that they "could not be beaten in war—not by any nation, and not by any combination of nations," notes Loren Baritz in Backfire. "We thought that we could fight where, when, and how we wished, without risking failure." The United States thus entered the Vietnam War with the full expectation of rolling to a quick and relatively painless victory.
But the war in Vietnam shredded America's belief in its military invincibility, its moral goodness, and its status as a unique and special country. The nation lost more than 58,000 soldiers and endured great internal divisions and turmoil over the war, only to see North Vietnam roll to victory in 1975. North Vietnam's triumph intensified the feeling that America had wasted thousands of lives and billions of dollars in the conflict. It also marked the first time in history that the United States had been on the losing side in a war.
A disillusioned country
In the years immediately following Vietnam, many Americans felt great disappointment and anger toward their country. They expressed doubts about the trustworthiness of the government, the morality of American institutions and society, and the future of the nation. "The Vietnamese War produced a profound moral crisis, sapping worldwide faith in our own policy and our system of life, a crisis of confidence made even more grave by the covert pessimism [secret gloominess] of some of our leaders," claimed U.S. President Jimmy Carter (1924–; president 1977–1981) in 1977.
The Vietnam War was not the only reason for these feelings of anxiety and self-doubt. The Watergate scandal, changing gender roles, unsettled race relations, economic troubles, fast-changing business trends, and new standards of conduct and taste all transformed American society during the 1960s and 1970s. Some of these developments—such as improved opportunities and rights for women and minorities—greatly improved the nation as a whole. But other events—like the Watergate scandal and gasoline shortages— contributed to the United States' post-Vietnam crisis of self- confidence. Combined with America's nightmarish experience in Vietnam, these changes convinced many people that the stable and patriotic society of the pre-Vietnam era had been lost for good.
American veterans in the 1970s
The years immediately following the conclusion of the war were especially difficult for American Vietnam veterans. Some veterans suffered from the nagging sense that they had let their country down. As Arnold Isaacs explains in Vietnam Shadows, America entered Vietnam at a time when "the towering triumph in World War II was still the dominant image in the imagination of most Americans—and their soldiers, as well. The great majority of men who fought in Vietnam were born between 1945 and 1953, growing up in [a time] of postwar prosperity and national self-confidence. A large number were certainly the sons of World War II veterans. Virtually everything in their culture—novels, movies, family stories, childhood games, schoolbooks, the traditional patriotic rhetoric [message] of Veterans Day speeches and graduations and political campaigns—conditioned young men entering military service in the mid-1960s to think of Vietnam as their generation's turn to be, as one veteran said, 'the good guys against the bad guys.' . . . And when Vietnam turned out to be such a different and disappointing war, the contrast with their fathers' experience made the disillusionment even sharper."
Many veterans also felt neglected and isolated from their fellow Americans in the years after Vietnam (see Chapter 10, "Coming Home: Vietnam Veterans in American Society"). They often returned home to families and communities that offered little sympathy or understanding of their experiences. "After an unpopular, unsuccessful, and morally confusing war, most Americans . . . just wanted to forget it as quickly as possible," Isaacs explains. "The veterans were an uncomfortable reminder of a subject no one wanted to speak about, or remember. Though the failure of American policy was surely not the fault of the young men who were sent to do the fighting, they were often made to feel as if they alone carried the stigma [mark of disgrace] of failure and the moral burden of violence."
This sense of abandonment was made even worse by the way that American films, television shows, and other media portrayed Vietnam veterans throughout the 1970s. Their wartime experiences rarely were given any serious attention. Instead, movies and television shows typically portrayed them as pitiful, drug-addicted losers or homicidal maniacs. To the many veterans who had served their country honorably in Vietnam despite enormous hardships, these sorts of characterizations seemed particularly cruel and unfair.
Changing attitudes toward veterans
The image of America's Vietnam veterans finally began to change in the early 1980s. One important factor in this transformation was the increased public support that veterans received from some of the nation's political leaders. Presidential candidate Ronald Reagan (1911–; president 1981–1989) declared in 1980, for example, that the effort in Vietnam "was a noble cause . . . . We have been shabby in our treatment of those who returned. They fought as well and as bravely as any Americans have ever fought in any war. They deserve our gratitude, our respect, and our continuing concern."
Another event that changed American attitudes toward Vietnam veterans was the Iran hostage crisis. In November 1979, militant Iranians, angered over U.S. support for Iran's previous government, took 66 Americans hostage. Thirteen of the prisoners were soon released, but the remaining hostages were held captive for 444 days. They were finally released in January 1981, on the same day that Reagan was sworn in to succeed Jimmy Carter as president of the United States.
When the Americans who had been held hostage returned home, they received a tremendous reception. Many U.S. communities celebrated their release, and dozens of former hostages were treated to parades and patriotic ceremonies. But these celebrations reminded many Americans of how Vietnam veterans had been treated when they returned home. "The hero's welcome given the former hostages dramatized by contrast the point expressed by a growing number of veterans," writes Christian G. Appy in Working-Class War. "They returned from Vietnam in virtual isolation, received no national homecoming ceremonies, and lacked adequate medical and psychological care, educational benefits, and job training." With this in mind, American communities began taking steps to make up for their previous treatment of the veterans.
The single biggest factor in America's changing perception of its Vietnam veterans was the creation of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. This memorial is commonly known as "The Wall" because its dominant feature is a vast V-shaped wall of reflective black granite on which the names of all Americans killed in Vietnam are listed.
The push to create a Vietnam Veterans Memorial was led by Jan Scruggs, who was himself a veteran of the war. At first, the plan for the wall was controversial. Some veterans and other Americans objected to the design, which they saw as an insulting change from more traditional monuments. But others defended the design, which had been submitted by a young Chinese-American art student named Maya Lin. After months of bitter debate, the memorial was dedicated on November 13 (Veterans Day), 1982.
In the months following the unveiling of the memorial, the American people gave the memorial a ringing endorsement. Family and friends of the dead soldiers and millions of other Americans whose lives had been changed forever by the war agreed that the monument was a powerful and moving tribute to the men and women who died in Vietnam. "Criticism was quickly overwhelmed by the public's reaction," writes Isaacs. "Rarely in the long history of art, if ever, has an object crafted from stone affected a society's emotions so widely and deeply as the Vietnam memorial. Most intense and dramatic, perhaps, was its impact on the veterans themselves, for whom the wall represented a place for healing and the end of the long silence in which most had shrouded their experiences for many years."
Americans reconsider Vietnam
In the months and years following the unveiling of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a wave of new films, television shows, and works of literature about the Vietnam War also appeared. As with earlier movies and books, these works portrayed the Vietnam conflict as a terribly violent, depressing, and morally confusing war. Unlike earlier works, however, many of the books, films, and television shows of the 1980s portrayed veterans in a positive or even heroic way.
By the mid-1980s, it was clear that the American people had adopted a new attitude toward the men and women who had served in Vietnam. They now recognized that most American soldiers had done their best in Vietnam under circumstances that were often terribly frustrating and frightening. As Reagan declared in 1988, " For too long a time, they [the American Vietnam veterans] stood in a chill wind, as if on a winter night's watch. And in that night, their deeds spoke to us, but we knew them not. And their voices called to us, but we heard them not. Yet in this land that God has blessed, the dawn always at last follows the dark, and now morning has come. The night is over. We see these men and know them once again—and know how much we owe them, how much they have given us, and how much we can never fully repay. And not just as individuals but as a nation, we say we love you."
Of course, the American people—and Vietnam veterans themselves—continued to disagree about nearly every other aspect of the war. Friends, family members, and communities remained divided about the morality of U.S. actions in Vietnam. They also disagreed about the motivations and influence of the antiwar movement of the 1960s and early 1970s. In addition, historians, military and political leaders, veterans, and peace activists continued to express great differences of opinion on American military strategy, Vietnamese hopes and desires, American press coverage of the conflict, and a range of other war-related subjects. "On both sides [supporters and opponents of the war], there were some who found moral clarity in the wartime choices they had made, or that circumstances had imposed on them," notes Isaacs. "But for most, . . . the issues of an anguished time continued to defy easy or comfortable judgments, remaining as painful and morally confusing—or more so—as during the war itself."
U.S. foreign policy after Vietnam
In the years following the war's conclusion, memories of Vietnam also had a major impact on U.S. foreign policy decisions. Whenever the United States debated using military force in another country, critics compared the situation to Vietnam. In almost every case, American policymakers decided not to commit its troops. As novelist and journalist Jack Fuller commented, "[America] sees Vietnam everywhere, a ghost in every conflict. Vietnam in Angola. Vietnam in Nicaragua. Vietnam in El Salvador, in Guatemala, in Beirut. The ghost whispers contradictory messages. To some it says, 'Stay out [of the conflict].' To others it says, 'Fight this one to win.' . . . From time to time, politicians have proclaimed that we have finally put the war behind us. But we have always proven them wrong."
As the years passed, each new American president insisted that the United States was prepared to use its military might to protect its interests around the globe. They pointed out that many nations looked to the United States—as the world's leading superpower—to intervene in conflicts that threatened innocent peoples. But each administration reacted very cautiously whenever military solutions were proposed for international problems. After Vietnam, U.S. lawmakers simply did not believe that the American people would tolerate any military operations that endangered American soldiers. "Our ineptness [incompetence] in Vietnam led many Americans to question the wisdom of using our power at all," explains former President Richard Nixon (1913–1994; president 1969–1974) in No More Vietnams. "Many of our leaders have shrunk from any use of power because they feared it would bring another disaster like the one in Vietnam."
The Vietnam War also had a lingering effect on the attitudes of America's military leadership. Many members of the nation's armed forces believed that the U.S. military was not to blame for the defeat in Vietnam. They rejected charges that America's failure in Vietnam could be traced to flawed military strategies or clumsy military leadership. Instead, they blamed America's loss in Vietnam on timid civilian leadership and weak public support for the war effort. This opinion was shared by conservative legislators and many ordinary Americans.
This attitude led American military leaders to insist that certain conditions be met before committing U.S. troops to hazardous duty in foreign lands in the future. They told lawmakers that they never again wanted to commit troops without overwhelming public support (although critics pointed out that the American people voiced broad support for the Vietnam War throughout the first three years of that conflict). They also stated that before any military intervention, they wanted clear military objectives and permission to use over- whelming military power. Finally, they expressed determination to exercise greater control over the news media in future military actions. Many U.S. military leaders believed that media coverage of the Vietnam War had poisoned the American public's attitudes toward the conflict. They wanted to prevent that from ever happening again.
Vietnam and the 1991 Persian Gulf War
In January 1991, the United States launched its largest military operation since the Vietnam War. This operation in the Middle East came in response to Iraq's August 1990 invasion of Kuwait, an American ally that was a major source of oil for the United States. When Iraq seized control of Kuwait, U.S. President George Bush (1924–; president 1989–1993) organized a massive military build-up of forces on the border of Kuwait. American military units accounted for most of this build-up, but they were joined by forces from a number of other nations as well. They warned Iraq's President Saddam Hussein (1937–) to remove his troops from Kuwait, but Hussein refused to do so.
During the final months of 1990, Bush repeatedly assured the American people that if the situation in Kuwait exploded into war, "it is not going to be another Vietnam." A vocal minority of American citizens protested the U.S. military presence in the Middle East. But Bush succeeded in convincing most Americans that important U.S. national interests were at stake in Kuwait.
In January 1991, the United States and its coalition of allies launched a major air bombing campaign against Iraq. A month later, they mounted a ground invasion of Kuwait. These military actions quickly smashed the Iraqi military and forced it to abandon Kuwait. With Kuwait freed from Iraqi control, some observers wanted the United States and its allies to enter Iraq itself and overthrow the government of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. But this idea did not have broad support. Arab members of the coalition objected to the idea of overthrowing another Arab government, and the United States worried that targeting Hussein might involve it in another long and costly war.
Reaction to the Gulf War
The battle to liberate Kuwait—commonly known as the Persian Gulf War—proved enormously popular with the American public. The war ended quickly, with the U.S.-led forces registering a decisive victory over the enemy. Moreover, the successful attack on Iraq resulted in only light casualties for the United States (148 American soldiers were killed; 458 were wounded). Americans were relieved and delighted by the outcome of the war. As Anna Quindlen noted in the New York Times, the Gulf War let Americans see themselves "as the lead- ers of the world again, assured of their inherent [basic] greatness and the essential evil of the enemy."
Both during and after the Persian Gulf War, American communities flew millions of flags and yellow ribbons to show their patriotic support for the U.S. troops operating in the Middle East. As Isaacs observes, "there was a palpable [detectable] national thirst to make the war a successful and satisfying event—the exact reverse of its experience in Vietnam." This attitude could clearly be seen in American news coverage of the war, which Isaacs termed "more celebratory than skeptical .... The vision of the war reaching the home front was pretty clearly just what the public wanted. What it did not want, unmistakably, was the kind of painful, morally confusing information it remembered receiving about Vietnam . . . . The war on Iraq was everything Vietnam had not been: a triumphant display of American resolve, skill, and technology, responding to a clear-cut act of aggression and waged against a dictator who could plausibly be pictured as a sinister thug."
After America's big Persian Gulf victory, Bush declared that the United States was no longer haunted by Vietnam. "The specter [ghost] of Vietnam has been buried forever in the desert sands of the Arabian Peninsula," he told American troops in a radio broadcast. As it turned out, however, the victory over Iraq failed to change basic American doubts about military operations in foreign countries. U.S. economic troubles drained away Bush's post-Gulf War popularity, and he lost the 1992 presidential election to Democrat Bill Clinton (1946–; president 1993–2000).
The American people, meanwhile, remained opposed to any military operations that risked U.S. lives or long-term involvement. This attitude convinced most observers that the victory in the Persian Gulf War had failed to erase America's dark memories of Vietnam. As Newsweek columnist Meg Greenfield noted in 1994, "Merely mention the possible use of our military now any place on Earth and you will hear the pessimistic refrain: it will mean 500,000 ground troops, the military will fail, the wily enemy will prevail, the terrain is inhospitable, we will be hated, etc." In fact, most experts agree that these feelings were a major factor in America's decision to avoid large-scale military intervention in the war-torn nation of Bosnia during the mid-1990s. It also has led the United States to secure broad support from other nations before it considers military intervention in foreign countries.
Reestablishing diplomatic ties with Vietnam
In the mid-1990s—more than twenty years after the last American troops withdrew from Vietnam—the United States finally established normal diplomatic relations with the Vietnamese government. Reaching this agreement took much longer than Vietnam had hoped. In fact, Vietnam repeatedly tried to establish better relations with the United States during the late 1970s and 1980s. Vietnam's leadership recognized that America's diplomatic actions against their nation—including an economic embargo (suspension of trade with a country) that had begun in 1975—were hurting its economy and its ability to interact with other countries.
But many U.S. political and community leaders resisted Vietnam's attempts to reach agreement with America. They claimed that Vietnam was interfering too much in Cambodia's internal affairs, even though Vietnam had removed the brutal Khmer Rouge from power. Other opponents of normalizing relations with Vietnam charged that American soldiers from the Vietnam War are still held in captivity by the Vietnamese government. This controversy over the fate of American soldiers classified as MIAs (Missing in Action) in Indochina became a major barrier to establishing diplomatic ties, even though many experts reject the theory that American soldiers remain imprisoned in Vietnam as a myth. Finally, some Americans resisted normalizing relations with Vietnam because they were still angry about the outcome of the Vietnam War.
As time passed, however, U.S. business leaders and many political and community leaders declared their support for normal relations with Vietnam. These supporters of normalization ranged from people who had been at the forefront of the Vietnam-era antiwar movement to Vietnam veterans who had endured imprisonment and torture during the war.
In the early 1990s, the United States and Vietnam reached agreement on a general plan to improve relations between the two nations. As part of the plan, Vietnam agreed to help investigate the fate of American MIAs in Indochina, as well as to return the remains of U.S. soldiers to American soil. The Vietnamese government also agreed to free all prisoners who had been jailed for wartime activities or affiliations. According to most observers, the Vietnamese government cooperated in all of these areas.
In 1992, the Bush administration approved U.S. dealings with Vietnam for "humanitarian" purposes. It also relaxed restrictions on travel, communications, and relief agency activities in Vietnam. A year later, President Clinton changed U.S. policies so that American firms could participate in development projects in Vietnam. In February 1994, Clinton completely removed the embargo. On July 11, 1995, complete diplomatic relations were established between the two countries. Since then, on July 12, 2000, the United States and Vietnam signed a sweeping trade agreement, granting Vietnam the same trading rights with the United States that most other nations have. Congress is expected to approve the pact.
Some Americans strongly disagreed with Clinton's overtures to Vietnam. These opponents included anti-Communist lawmakers, some Vietnam veterans, and organizations associated with the MIA issue. But the majority of Americans— including large numbers of Vietnam veterans—expressed support for normalizing relations. As one U.S. veteran of the war commented, establishing normal diplomatic and trade relations with Vietnam does not "dishonor the memory of our fallen or missing comrades. It is to recognize the truth. The war is over."
Appy, Christian G. Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.
Baritz, Loren. Backfire: A History of How American Culture Led Us Into Vietnam and Made Us Fight the Way We Did. New York: William Morrow, 1985.
Ehrhart, W. D. Passing Time. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1989.
Franklin, H. Bruce. M.I.A. or Mythmaking in America. Brooklyn, NY: Lawrence Hill, 1992.
Hellman, John. American Myth and the Legacy of Vietnam. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.
Isaacs, Arnold R. Vietnam Shadows: The War, Its Ghosts, and Its Legacy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
Kahn, Joseph. "U.S. and Vietnam are Said to Agree on Normal Trade," New York Times, 13 July 2000. national edition.
Kovic, Ron. Born on the Fourth of July. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976.
MacPherson, Myra. Long Time Passing: Vietnam and the Haunted Generation. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1984.
Marshall, John Douglas. Reconciliation Road. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1993.
Nixon, Richard. No More Vietnams. New York: Arbor House, 1985.
Palmer, Laura. Shrapnel in the Heart: Letters and Remembrances from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. New York: Random House, 1987.
Scruggs, Jan. To Heal a Nation: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.
Turner, Fred. Echoes of Combat: The Vietnam War in American Memory. New York: Anchor, 1996.
Words to Know
Cambodia Southeast Asian nation located on the western border of South Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, Cambodia experienced its own civil war between its pro-U.S. government and Communist rebels known as the Khmer Rouge.
Khmer Rouge Communist-led rebel forces that fought for control of Cambodia during the Vietnam War years. The Khmer Rouge overthrew the U.S.backed government of Lon Nol in 1975.
MIAs Soldiers classified as "missing in action," meaning that their status is unknown to military leaders or that their bodies have not been recovered.
Watergate A political scandal that forced U.S. President Richard Nixon to resign from office in 1974. In June 1972, Republican agents associated with Nixon's re-election campaign broke into the Democratic campaign headquarters in the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., to gather secret information. Nixon and several members of his administration attempted to cover up the burglary.
People to Know
George Bush (1924–) President of the United States, 1989–1993; also served as vice president under Ronald Reagan, 1981–1989.
Jimmy Carter (1924–) President of the United States, 1977–1981. In 1977, he pardoned people who had resisted the draft during the Vietnam War.
Bill Clinton (1946–) President of the United States, 1993–2000. In 1995, he resumed full diplomatic relations with Vietnam.
Ronald Reagan (1911–) President of the United States, 1981–1989.
Night Sounds in Postwar Vietnam
In 1999, veteran and author Philip Caputo returned to Vietnam, where he had been a marine platoon leader in 1965 and 1966. Writing in National Geographic Adventure, he talks about the vast difference between wartime Vietnam and its postwar atmosphere:
At two in the morning . . . I pad outside through the courtyard gate and down a pitch-black path. If ever I'm going to suffer a flashback, it would be now, but I don't. Hearing crickets sing and frogs chirrup near the riverbank and in the paddies, I recall listening to those sounds on watch [during the war]; listening for them to fall silent. When the frogs and crickets stopped, it meant that someone—or a whole battalion for all you knew—was moving around out there in the black unknown beyond your foxhole, and you waited with every sense alert, every nerve tensed for a burst of gunfire, a grenade to come arcing out of the underbrush. But now the chorus goes on without interruption, the ceaseless song of ordinary and peaceful night.
American Veterans Return to Vietnam
Since the Vietnam War ended in 1975, some American veterans of the conflict have returned to Vietnam to revisit the jungles, villages, and cities that dominate their wartime memories. In fact, tourism officials estimate that several thousand U.S. veterans returned to Vietnam each year in the late 1990s. There are many different reasons for their decisions to return to Vietnam. Some of the veterans have made the journey to assist in the rebuilding of the nation's war-torn communities. They have helped build medical clinics, schools, and bridges. Others have gone to Vietnam to seek out former allies and enemies in hopes of reaching a greater understanding of the war.
But most veterans have returned to Vietnam to mourn the deaths of comrades and to come to terms with their own grim memories of the war. "Going back to Vietnam helped veterans put the war behind them simply by letting them see that it was over," writes Arnold Isaacs in Vietnam Shadows. "The scenery they remembered—charred timbers that had once been farmers' houses, sandbagged bunkers and sprawling coils of concertina wire, little hills of expended shell cases heaped untidily along blackened gunpits— was no longer there. In its place was a landscape of orchards, shimmering fields of ripe rice, peaceful villages, gleaming-eyed children on the swaying backs of water buffaloes." "For most [veterans], it is a journey to see a land at peace that they last saw in turmoil," confirmed an American who organizes tours of the country.