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Impact of the Vietnam War on the US Government

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Politics
Wordcount: 2264 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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The Vietnam War introduced to the United States a concept virtually unknown and unanticipated to the new global superpower: failure. America’s involvement with Vietnam began in 1954 by assisting their French and South Vietnamese allies with supplying the war effort against the communist Northern Vietnam. However, the first U.S. troops did not arrive until 1965 and after the spending of $150 million combined with the loss of 58,000 American lives, they pulled out in 1973 with the Paris Peace Accords. The withdrawal was due to the extreme public criticism against the war and the wave of effects that were spreading across the entire country. They failed at achieving their goal of containment, because in 1975 the war ended between the divided Vietnam with a communist victory. During the late 20th century, the result of the Vietnam War was significant because it brought multiple military policy changes, reduced the public’s faith in the government, and began a period of American non-interventionism.

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The conclusion of the Vietnam War led the United States military to completely rethink the way they undertook military action. It would take the Army and Marine Corps up to 15 years to regain the power they once had at the end of World War II.[1] The military was seen in a state of distress rather than success and America’s tolerance for casualties had decreased. Therefore, under the Nixon administration, in 1973 the draft was eradicated and replaced with an all-volunteer army. However, according to America: A Narrative History,the Vietnam War, “…eroded respect for the military so thoroughly that many young people came to regard military service as corrupting and dishonorable…”[2] This led to another major military reform in 1973 called the War Powers Act. The Act mandated that the president alert Congress within two days if any American soldiers are deployed, and unless the action is accepted in under 60 days, the troops must be withdrawn. The military was at one of its weakest points in the 20th century and continued to decline dramatically. The demise began to be evident even before the close of the Vietnam War. In 1968, America sent a rescue mission and crashed their planes like amateurs. As summarized in American Reckoning, “A once dominant military machine…now looked incapable of keeping its aircraft aloft even when no enemy knew they were there… despite four months of practice…”[3] Overall these reforms were an attempt to compensate for the blow America’s military suffered as a result of the Vietnam War.

The closing of the Vietnam War was a massive embarrassment, not only to the nation but to the citizens representing that nation as well. The war was one of the most controversial topics of the decades that the United States was involved in and the country was most certainly divided throughout. Before the humiliating loss of Vietnam, the country had an extreme sense of pride that was created from World War II. Now the population’s belief in their personal morality and military invincibility was severely wounded.[4] There was extreme unpopularity of the war effort and a multitude of suspicion concerning the government and its officials. This was due to the way that the government dealt with issues like the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964 which let President Johnson take any measures he saw necessary to maintain peace in Southeast Asia.[5] The Resolution only further engaged the U.S in the conflict, and angered the anti-war movement further, leading to the distinct tensions after the war. The hatred was heightened with the Kent State Tragedy in 1970, which killed 4 college students because they were at a rally opposing the war. Another aspect adding to the decreased faith in the government was when Daniel Elsberg released thousands of pages of Pentagon papers, containing secrets that had been kept from both Congress and the public.[6] The papers included the truth about the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, the secret bombings in Cambodia, and the My Lai Massacre which all had parts that had not been transparent. These secrets were one of many direct deceptions of the American public and the reduction of trust slowly began. The trust continued to decline with the Watergate scandal in 1974 concerning President Nixon, leading him to be the first president to ever resign from office, avoiding inevitable impeachment.[7] This proved to the people that they no longer possessed any credible officials in office that they could trust.

Not only did the general population lose respect and faith in the government, more specifically the returning veterans received the brunt of the public’s frustration. They had fought, but because of the shadiness in the government, the people assumed they participated in the conspiracy. 700,000 Vietnam veterans suffered from the psychological effects that followed, mostly PTSD. About 150,000 veterans committed suicide after returning home, which is over double the number that died in combat.[8] That led the soldiers to also begin to despise the government and question its truthfulness. A Vietnam soldier Doug Ramsy professes, “I share with Vietnamese veterans, the belief that we have been screwed by our respective governments.”[9] All of them were under the impression that everyone would respect them and be happy to see them, however they soon discovered that assumption was not true. Coupled with this, President Johnson’s choice to fund a massive war and maintain the American economy boom with a lack of taxation led to monumental inflation and major national debt.[10] The end result was a decrease in living standards and further fueled the distaste for the government.

Ever since the Truman Doctrine in 1947, the United States had begun an interventionalist strategy of containment during the first part of the Cold War. That strategy would all change with the aftermath of the Vietnam War.  Starting at the beginning of the Nixon administration in 1969, America no longer monopolized nuclear weapons and no longer had economic superiority. The president soon began the process of, “Vietnamization” which taught the South Vietnamese soldiers to brunt the burden of the war wholly.[11] This was pertinent because, on January 27, 1973 America and both sides of Vietnam signed the Paris Peace Accords. This officially withdrew America from Vietnam, with the promise to the South to help if the Accord was ever broken by the North. Predictably, the North did not respect the Accord and resumed fighting, but the United States broke its promise to South Vietnam and stayed out of the issue entirely.[12] Since South Vietnam was so dependent on America, they inevitably collapsed to the communists soon after. This demonstrates America’s commitment to this new isolationist policy following their withdrawal. Furthermore, the president passed the Nixon Doctrine in 1969 which stated that countries facing communist pressures would be on their own and America would only provide weapons and money, but not men. Also, he began the détente policy to pursue partnerships with communist countries that had mutual interests.[13] This officially signaled the end of America’s aggressive containment policy.

The Vietnam War completely humiliated the U.S. on the world platform and their confidence took a direct hit which led to, “The Vietnam Syndrome”. This was a non-intervention policy that meant that American troops would only go overseas when it was crucial for our safety or when there was an abundance of public support.[14] This led the United States to ponder whether acting as the planet’s policeman was truly beneficial for them in the long run. The paranoia of getting mixed up in another Vietnam-like predicament was enough for Congress to constantly accentuate that American power did have its limits.[15] The new approach completely altered the way the U.S. looked at foreign policy and the same country that had joined NATO in 1949 was abandoning their allies to communist punishment less than two decades later.[16] The troops that were actually going to the battlefields fully agreed with this new isolationist view after what they had been through at Vietnam. A former Vietnam soldier expressed, “I was never again willing to put my life on the line for a cause.”[17] The fact that the military didn’t desire to fight for their country displays the extent of how deep this feeling of non-intervention ran.

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The Vietnam War was a wake-up call to the United States, exhibiting the consequences that come from spreading out a country too thin without the ability to keep up. It destroyed the military’s moral and brought forth new strategies to take steps to cure that mindset. The public could no longer view the presidency or the government as a place of respect and integrity. Also, the war taught us that we were not invincible and could not always get involved in conflict that only remotely pertained to us. This war would stay in the backs of leaders’ minds for the decades to come and influence the decisions made purely because of the aftermath this war inflicted domestically.


  1. Max Hastings, Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975(Broadway, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2018), 745.
  1. David Shi, George Tindall, America: A Narrative History (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2016), 314.
  1. Christian Appy, American Reckoning (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2015), 235.
  1. Hastings, 745.
  1. Alan Rohn, “How did the Vietnam War Affect America?” The Vietnam War, https://thevietnamwar.info/how-vietnam-war-affect-america/ (accessed May 10, 2019).
  1.   Shi, Tindall, 1396.
  1.   Alan Rohn, “How did the Vietnam War Affect America?” The Vietnam War, https://thevietnamwar.info/how-vietnam-war-affect-america/ (accessed May 10, 2019).
  1.   John Ketwig, “More Veterans Commit Suicide Than Were Killed in Vietnam,” The Roanoke Times, https://www.roanoke.com/opinion/commentary/ketwig-more-veterans-commit-suicide-than-were-killed-in-vietnam/article_2d841f24-c167-50bd-9e0b-02e42feb98d1.html (accessed May 11, 2019).
  1.   Hastings, 746
  1. Harvard Sitikoff, “The Postwar Impact of Vietnam,” Modern American Poetry (1999): 9, http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/vietnam/postwar.htm (accessed May 10, 2019).
  1. Shi, Tindall, 1393.
  1. Appy, 221.
  1. Shi, Tindall, 1401.
  1.   Alan Rohn, “How did the Vietnam War Affect America?” The Vietnam War, https://thevietnamwar.info/how-vietnam-war-affect-america/ (accessed May 10, 2019).
  1. Sitikoff, 9.
  1. Hastings, 727.
  1. Hastings, 746.


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