Fifty years ago today, the United States began to abandon a combat base at Khe Sanh, South Vietnam, just months after the Marines successfully defended the base against a grueling 77-day siege by the North Vietnamese Army. More than 200 Americans had died, as had thousands of Vietnamese. Khe Sanh’s abandonment left many Americans questioning whether that prolonged battle had a purpose — and fueled skepticism about the U.S. war in Vietnam.
For years after, many American policymakers were left with a general aversion to using U.S. military power overseas. The hawks who remained criticized this “Vietnam syndrome” for weakening U.S. power in the world — because afflicted decision-makers would hesitate to use force even when situations called for it.
So was there a “Vietnam syndrome”?
That’s what we examined, a half-century after the U.S. war effort peaked. Our new research on the attitudes of U.S. foreign-policy elites — individuals poised to become policymakers and opinion leaders in foreign affairs — reveals a kernel of truth in the idea of a Vietnam syndrome. Many such “elites” did turn against the war in Vietnam and remained skeptical about U.S. interventionism for years.
However, U.S. elites were not uniformly “dovish” after Vietnam. Predictable divisions grew out of the positions that individuals took during the war. When compared with those who supported the war until its end, those who had turned against the war remained considerably more skeptical of U.S. policies that would use or threaten military action abroad.
In other words, elite attitudes on foreign policy after the war mirrored the elite’s attitudes toward the Vietnam War. But while the “syndrome” was chronic, it was not permanent — and it quickly subsided after the Cold War ended.
How we did our research
In a study published in International Studies Quarterly, we present a fresh analysis of survey data collected by scholars Ole Holsti and James Rosenau. Every four years, from 1976 through 1996, their Foreign Policy Leadership Project (FPLP) surveyed public officials, military officers, academics, and other potential decision-makers and opinion leaders.
Among other things, Holsti and Rosenau asked these “elite” respondents whether they supported the Vietnam War early on, and if they changed their minds later. This is important because the overwhelming majority of elites surveyed, like the rest of the American public, initially supported the war.
We found that those who had turned against the Vietnam War — “converted critics” — remained significantly more dovish than consistent supporters of the war on possible military intervention or demonstrations of resolve against foreign adversaries. Converted critics were predictably dovish toward prospective interventions arguably reminiscent of Vietnam, such as Ronald Reagan’s covert war in Nicaragua and his intervention in the civil war in El Salvador. But they were also dovish on very different issues, such as arms control with the Soviet Union and protecting oil tankers in the Persian Gulf during the war between Iran and Iraq that raged from 1980 to 1988.
We found a significant difference in attitudes between converted critics and consistent supporters from 1976 through 1988. Was it just that liberal Democratic converted critics were more dovish than conservative Republican consistent supporters? No. Even after controlling for party and ideology, elites’ positions on the Vietnam War significantly influenced their subsequent foreign policy views — until the Iron Curtain fell.
Vietnam syndrome ended with the Cold War
Once the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union dissolved, so did this nearly uniform pattern — which was much weaker by 1992 and entirely gone by 1996. By then, “consistent supporters” and “converted critics” were all over the map. Elites still disagreed about U.S. foreign policy, but positions on the Vietnam War were no longer a good predictor of where they stood on such questions as whether to intervene in the ethnic conflict in Bosnia, in the civil war in Somalia or whether to expand NATO to include former Soviet client states.
Why did Vietnam syndrome disappear? Our results suggest that the world looked different to U.S. elites after the rivalry with the Soviet Union ended. Many who had become dovish after the Vietnam War were far less dovish after the Cold War. Others who took hawkish positions during and after the Vietnam War became less inclined to do so once the Soviet Union collapsed.
The lessons of “the lessons of Vietnam”
The “Vietnam syndrome” in elite opinion, it turns out, was not about avoiding military entanglements generally; rather, it was about the role of force in Cold War foreign policy. For nearly 15 years after Vietnam, the same divisions arose on issues as distinct as arms control treaties that would restrict the two rivals’ nuclear weapons and whether to deploy intermediate-range nuclear forces in Europe. But these divisions disappeared after the Cold War — suggesting that even dovish U.S. elites had not given up on U.S. military power entirely; they just disagreed with their hawkish counterparts about its usefulness in the U.S.-Soviet rivalry.
Unconstrained by that rivalry, some who had opposed interventionism during and after the Vietnam War changed their minds. Other events influenced their viewpoints, like the international community’s failures to prevent genocide and ethnic cleansing in Rwanda in 1994 and Bosnia between 1992 and 1995. Some, such as former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, concluded that a more aggressive U.S. military posture could prevent such humanitarian disasters. Conversely, some — such as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) — who had thought the United States needed to look tough during the Cold War were more skeptical about the use of force once this struggle was over.
In 1991, after driving Iraq’s army back from its invasion of Kuwait, President George H.W. Bush jubilantly declared an end to Vietnam Syndrome. He was right, but for the wrong reason. The cure was not victory in the Gulf War; it was the dramatic change in strategic context that reshuffled elite attitudes.
As a result, “Vietnam syndrome” had disappeared by the time of the 9/11 attacks, opening the door for the George W. Bush administration’s invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq — which ironically forced elites to relearn lessons about the limits of U.S. power that Vietnam might have taught us 50 years ago.
Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that U.S. troops were fighting the Viet Cong at Khe Sanh. It was the North Vietnamese Army. We regret the error.
Jonathan M. DiCicco (@dicicco_jon) is associate professor of political science and international relations at Middle Tennessee State University; he investigates international conflict, peace, and foreign-policy processes.
Benjamin O. Fordham (@PSBenFordham) is a professor of political science at Binghamton University (SUNY) whose research focuses on the influence of domestic political and economic considerations on foreign policy choices.