Cost & Legacy of Vietnam

Viet Cong prisoners line up to be loaded on trucks for repatriation under the Paris Peace Accords, early 1973
Viet Cong prisoners line up to be loaded on trucks for repatriation under the Paris Peace Accords, early 1973.

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The Cost and Legacy of Vietnam

Vietnam was America's longest war, with U.S. involvement beginning in World War II and ending with the fall of South Vietnam to the Communists in 1975. Approximately 2.8 million American servicemen and women are classified as Vietnam veterans. At its peak in 1968, a total of 584,000 troops were in the Southeast Asia theater -- in Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, and surrounding waters. The USAF complement numbered 94,000 while the Army and Marine Corps provided about 450,000 of the troops. In dollars, the cost of the Vietnam War has been estimated at between $500 billion and $1 trillion (in 2006 dollars) including direct and some indirect costs of the war.

The U.S. was drawn into the war as part of the prevailing Cold War struggle with Communism, unwilling to allow a Communist takeover of Vietnam or its neighbors, Laos or Cambodia. In the end, the U.S. objectives were not achieved and much was lost in the attempt. On this page, some of the impact, costs and surrounding issues will be explored.

See also the topics:

The Domino Theory

A key motivation for U.S. entry into the war in Vietnam was the so-called "Domino Theory". The idea was that the loss of Vietnam (or Laos) to Communism would be the first domino to fall in a series that would include Thailand, Cambodia and other states in Southeast Asia. In the 1950s-1960s Cold War worldview, such losses would be compounded with assistance from the Soviet Union or mainland China into Communist domination of more and more of the world. The United States was firmly against any expansion of Communism and had to resist.

Anti-War commentators insisted that there was no domino effect, that Vietnam had little to do with other countries' fates and the U.S. was misguided in tying Vietnam to such concerns. The truth is mixed. The Domino Theory clearly predicted what happened to Vietnam's neighbors as the U.S. withdrew in failure:

While there was no world-wide Communist surge as a result of Vietnam, in general enemies of the U.S. were emboldened and Communist or Marxist governments did appear in many "third world" nations, particularly in Africa. However, Communist movements in Burma, Malaya, and Indonesia were successfully resisted and the Thai government was never seriously threatened. In the Philippines, Japan, New Zealand and Australia no problems arose. Some argue that the U.S. period of engagement in Vietnam provided time for these other countries to strengthen their resistance to Communism and thus a more severe Domino effect was in fact avoided by Vietnam.

Concern with the political system of these countries is more than theoretical. Because the U.S. was not successful in creating a viable non-Communist state in South Vietnam, Laos, or Cambodia local Communist insurgencies were able to ally with North Vietnam to take over these governments. The brutal dictatorships that then controlled the three nations were responsible for the deaths of millions of civilians and imprisonment, forced labor and severe hardship for many millions more. A U.S. success in South Vietnam and adjacent areas probably would have avoided much of this brutality at a lesser human cost. The exact calculus of costs and benefits for different outcomes will never be known.

Impact on the United States

Anti-war rally at the Lincoln Memorial, 21 October 1967. Fifty thousand people gathered to protest the Vietnam War in a peaceful demonstration.  That evening, a determined crowd of 35,000 headed for the Pentagon where a riot broke out
Anti-war rally at the Lincoln Memorial, 21 October 1967. Fifty thousand people gathered to protest the Vietnam War in a peaceful demonstration. That evening, a determined crowd of 35,000 headed for the Pentagon where a riot broke out.

The Vietnam War was polarizing as no other American conflict except the Civil War. As soon as the war grew beyond the U.S. Military Advisors stage in 1965, major protests erupted across the nation, especially on campuses where draft age people were concentrated. The newly emerging youth movement promising "sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll" seized upon the war issue as its defining cause. Opposition to the war in Vietnam brought together numerous anti-establishment groups and gave them a common goal. TV coverage brought the war directly to America's living rooms in a way never before experienced. Tens of thousands participated in violent street demonstrations and thousands more fled to Canada or other countries to resist the draft.

But it was not just the draft-sensitive youth who were against the war, it was much broader. As the human and financial costs became clearer, and the country's leaders could not articulate compelling reasons for the war, more and more of the U.S. population turned against the conflict. Protests grew larger when it was revealed that the government had been lying about many war factors and secret missions had been ordered in violation of law. When the Communist drive to victory in South Vietnam in 1975 degenerated into a rout, complete with images of Americans in panic grabbing the last helicopter out of town while friends and allies were left behind, supporters of Vietnam were hard to find. The U.S. public was left distrustful of its own government, disdainful of the military, and mired in an economic recession. The negative mood lasted into the 1990s.

Impact on the U.S. Military

The U.S. military was damaged by Vietnam on many levels. On the ground the military did its job -- there were no Communist victories on the field of battle. But the troops in the field were not supported by commensurate strategic level thinking, planning and commitment with clear goals and progress milestones. Therefore, the war became mired in an endless series of operations that were individually successful but did not add up to victory. When it became clear, after Tet in 1968, that political will had ebbed and the U.S. was primarily interested in finding a way out, the soldiers still in Vietnam experienced a collapse of morale and discipline. It took many years to rebuild the trust between the enlisted soldiers, officers and the national authorities.

On another level, military officers were left with a Vietnam-induced reluctance to become entangled in counterinsurgency wars and internal conflicts. It is an American trait to resist such entanglements -- since George Washington -- but Vietnam provided a recent and relevant example for those opposed to any specific mission. This "fear of quagmires" conjures images of unacceptable levels of casualties to be endured by the military on the whim of policymakers whose ill-defined goals will be abandoned when the political pressure rises too high. While it is reasonable to be prudent, United States policy cannot be guided by such fears alone and a balance must be achieved. Although never disloyal, the experience of Vietnam made it difficult for the highest levels of the U.S. military to trust the political leadership in such decisions.

Military and the Media

At the outset of the Vietnam War, the U.S. press was cooperative with the government and was willing to rely primarily on official press briefings for source material. President Eisenhower and especially President Kennedy enjoyed warm relations with the press. But as the Vietnam War went on, investigative journalists found one instance after another where the official line was false or misleading. Johnson did not get along with the press and Nixon was intensely disliked adding to the growing negative dynamic. By 1968 the media was feeding the public a steady stream of sensational revelations that undermined support for the war. The Watergate scandal that enveloped Nixon further undermined public trust in government and replaced it with trust in crusading reporters.

The total impact of the Vietnam War on the relations between the U.S. military and the media was profound. The press regards the almost unrestricted access and uncensored reporting that it enjoyed in Vietnam as the norm, not a historical anomaly. Many journalists believe that Vietnam confirmed and validated the power of the press to influence public opinion and, by extension, policy. The fact that the post-Vietnam press is largely unfamiliar with military service -- unlike the World War II generation -- and is largely liberal-left in political orientation, creates a natural chasm that has to be overcome to reach any balanced paradigm for reporting on military matters.

For the military, many officers saw proof of long-standing suspicions that the press is an adversary and must be kept at armís length during conflicts. The Army in particular feels that a new, and distinctly destructive, press was born in Vietnam -- skeptical of authority, liberal in political outlook, and invariably hostile to military values and missions. The mistake of Vietnam, many military people feel, was to give the media free rein, license that they used to subvert popular support.

Recommended Books about the Impact of the Vietnam War