The Vietnam War: Its Relevance for Today


Mr. Briley teaches history at Sandia Prepatory School.

In late May, HBO Pictures began running an original film entitled Path to War about President Lyndon Johnson’s commitment to expanding the American presence in Vietnam. Path to War, directed by veteran filmmaker John Frankenheimer, presents Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Alec Baldwin) as pushing the President to take an assertive stance against communist expansion in Southeast Asia, while Presidential adviser Clark Clifford (Donald Sutherland) is portrayed as the voice of reason, counseling that escalation in Vietnam might lead the United States into a political quagmire. Some historians might quarrel with the film’s depiction of Clifford, who in the Truman administration was one of the architects of the Cold War. The film, however, does a good job of displaying Johnson's (Michael Gambon) anguish over the war’s impact upon his Great Society programs. Reality was more complex than those of us chanting ("Hey, hey LBJ how many kids did you kill today?") antiwar slogans wanted to recognize at the time.

Suggesting to students that they might want to take a look at the film, I was surprised that most found Vietnam to have little relevance for today. After all, the contemporary War on Terrorism involved an actual assault upon the United States and not some far-fetched domino theory based upon false analogies with the Munich Crisis of the late 1930s. Students were also quick to observe that American military success in Afghanistan against the Taliban made notions of an Afghan quagmire irrelevant. In short, here is a new war shorn of the moral ambiguities associated with the Vietnam War. At the risk of being one who dwells upon his youth and fights the last war, I beg to differ with my students. Unfortunately, the Vietnam War may offer important lessons for today which are worthy of serious contemplation.

When citizens are called upon to make sacrifices for the war effort, it is essential that the nation’s leaders clarify the goals sought in the war. In Vietnam, we were attempting to stop the spread of communism. The policy of containment led the United States into a wide array of conflicts ranging from Korea to Vietnam, and whose legacy is still with us in the economic embargo of Cuba and a destabilized Afghanistan. To implement containment, the United States followed the Truman Doctrine which essentially promised military assistance to any government battling communist subversion. The problem with the Truman Doctrine was that it often placed the United States in bed with unsavory anticommunist dictators such as the Somoza family in Nicaragua, Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, Suharto in Indonesia, and the generals in South Vietnam who overthrew and killed Diem. The legacy of this strategy was a"victory" in the Cold War, but at what cost? Support for oppressive anticommunist regimes around the world has convinced many people that the United States is not the friend of liberty as most Americans would assume.

The commitment to South Vietnam and the Cold War was open-ended and ill-defined, leading to the tragedy of the Vietnam War and hostility toward the U. S. in many parts of the globe. Is the war against terrorism any less open-ended? Already authoritarian regimes are receiving American aid if they are fighting an opposition which they label as terrorists. Again, the United States finds itself allied with some very dubious partners such as China, Russia, Uzbekistan, and Pakistan, whose human rights records are suspect. Will association with these regimes enable America to win the hearts and minds of people throughout the world struggling for freedom and economic justice?

President Bush labeled Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as constituting an axis of evil in the contemporary world. The conventional wisdom is that the United States will follow up the conflict in Afghanistan with an invasion of Iraq, attempting to overthrow Saddam Hussein and complete the mission initiated by the elder Bush. This plan is being pursued while American troops are still tied down in Afghanistan. It is true that the American military played an instrumental role in dislodging the brutal Taliban, but where is the exit strategy? There continues to be resistance from Al Qaeda fighters, and the commitment of the Afghan warlords, with whom the United States is allied, to democratic reforms remains problematic. And will deposing of Saddam Hussein assure political stability in Iraq? Or has the United States committed itself to a prolonged military presence in both Afghanistan and Iraq? And when does this expansion of military missions conclude? These questions suggest that the Path to War and Vietnam may have resonance for my students. One of the lessons of Vietnam is that escalation of war is often easier than de-escalation.

Another question which must be pondered regarding the current war on terrorism regards the domestic consequences of the conflict. Johnson feared that Vietnam would undermine his plans for the Great Society. Indeed, it turned out that the country could not afford both commitments, and domestic reform was sacrificed on the altar of the Vietnam War. Such a scenario again seems likely today. The 2000 Presidential campaign was waged upon such issues as education, social security, Medicaid, and prescription drugs. Whether we can now afford to deal with these topics is being questioned. Yet, increased appropriations for the military and national defense have bipartisan support, while the President has called for a department level of Homeland Defense. The bureaucratic expansion represents countless dollars which will now be unavailable for needed domestic reforms. Better health care and equal educational opportunity will also enhance the nation’s long term security. The poor in this country paid a heavy price for the the war in Vietnam when the Great Society was abandoned.

Finally, the Vietnam War and Cold War curtailed freedom of expression in America. Johnson’s fears that he would be perceived as soft on communism encouraged the President in his commitment to Vietnam. Johnson hoped to protect his domestic agenda from the allegations of demagogues who maintained that programs to help the nation’s disadvantaged citizens were socialistic. Similar charges were made against the civil rights movement and other reformers, hindering political debate in this country. Today, the President and Attorney General John Ashcroft have placed a similar chilling limit on democracy by asserting that one is with us or the terrorists. Such statements do little to encourage the national dialogue which we need in order to define what the war of terrorism means for American democracy. The McCarthyism of the Cold War curtailed artistic and political discourse in America, leaving even President Johnson vulnerable. We must be ever vigilant that the war on terrorism does not undermine American liberty and security in a similar fashion.

My students and the nation as a whole would do well not to ignore the lessons of Vietnam. The path to war is sometimes too easily taken without fully evaluating the consequences of our actions. Vietnam should not always stop America from acting, but it should give us pause.

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Pat Britton - 10/11/2002

Criticizing or even comparing our current President to Nixon is like comparing apples to oranges. In the Cold War there existed deterrence, now with muslim crazies there exists none. The lessons from Kennedy should also not be forgotten, for he said
"The biggest threat would be to do nothing at all." Plus, there is also the lesson from Pearl Harbour.

but i do like your site

Joe Krulder - 7/26/2002

Often forgotten in the discussion about the Vietnam War is the Nixon Doctrine. Nixon all but admitted that the United States could not police the world, a trend that the current President seems to contradict. If this argument is carried out to its full extent, the Nixon Doctrine, and the lessons of Vietnam are all but forgotten in Bush's perpetual war.

Walt Moeller - 7/19/2002

Yes, the lessons learned from the war in Viet Nam are very relevant today.

First, get the people behind you. Pearl Harbor did it for FDR; the invasion of Korea did it for Truman, although there are some differences there; the invasion of Kuwait did it for Bush, Sr., and 9/11 did it for Bush, "W." In VN we did not have a mandate from the people, as a result we lost their support, and lost the war at home.

Second, establish clear goals before going in to include when it's over and when we bring Johnny home. Avoid "mission creep" that was a problem in VN.

Third, make sure the American people are brought on board early, and kept informed; don't lie to them.

Fourth, make a decision and establish priorities early on: which is more important: guns or butter?

Fifth: Give the 'General what's in charge' a mission type order and get out of the way. One of LBJ's biggest mistakes was that he tried to micromanage the war. Fight the war to win.

I served two tours in Viet Nam, both with U.S. units, but in different areas of the country. Then I continued as a "Cold War" soldier. I am a graduate of GMU, class of '96; MEd.

Bennett Parsons - 7/11/2002

Mr Briley writes that "the Vietnam War and the Cold War curtailed freedom of expression in America. I must be missing something. It seems to me that their was an overabundance of expression against the Vietnam War in the United States. These protests actually encouraged the North Vietnamese because they knew they could wait us out.