Why Americans Still Can’t Move Past Vietnam

Created: October 11, 2017  |  Last Updated: October 7, 2021  |  Category:   |  Tagged:

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s documentary “The Vietnam War” has critics gushing. Reviews speculated that the film would inspire a much-needed national conversation about the war and its legacies. Some coverage took this claim even further, venturing that the film would finally resolve the enduring trauma of the war.

As the review in The Washington Post put it, “ ‘The Vietnam War’ is a mighty attempt to get one’s arms around the whole hideous, tangled history of it — perhaps with a sense that it can be finished, or at least converted to the past, despite its ability to cling to the present.” The San Diego Tribune called the film “an 18-hour look at the Vietnam War that’s as much about healing as it is about history.”

Viewers should be skeptical of such claims. Healing from Vietnam’s trauma has been a national preoccupation since the last helicopter left the roof of the CIA headquarters in Saigon more than four decades ago. At memorials and parades and in popular films and presidential speeches, Americans have struggled to come to terms with the war, define its effect on American culture and achieve some semblance of closure.

Those efforts, however, have universally failed, because the Vietnam War is too great a trauma to be dispensed with. Instead of being something that the nation can put behind it, Vietnam reshaped American culture to the point that it now provides the prism through which Americans debate contemporary foreign policy problems. When Americans debate our leaders’ foreign policy decisions and the impact of the nation’s wars, we do so in a language that emerged from the efforts both to get over Vietnam and to avoid the mistakes that turned Vietnam into a national trauma in the first place.

In the 1980s, conservatives like Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush argued that the nation was afflicted with a “Vietnam syndrome” that had left the nation fearful of war and militarily feckless. They sought to rebuild both the U.S. military and Americans’ faith in its capacity to win.

Efforts to cure this illness reached their apotheosis during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, which Bush declared “would not be another Vietnam.” Afterward, he insisted that “the specter of Vietnam has been buried forever in the desert sands of the Arabian Peninsula.”

This insistence was premature. The specter of Vietnam reappeared throughout the 1990s as Americans criticized the Clinton administration’s humanitarian deployments to Somalia and the Balkans. And, of course, it loomed large over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite repeated claims by those who managed the wars — from Donald H. Rumsfeld to Barack Obama — that they were not replicating the errors of Vietnam, Americans on all sides of the debate over them have evaluated, contested and protested their decisions with the specter of Vietnam looming large.

In January 2007, the Bush administration committed an additional 30,000 troops to Iraq in what became known as the surge, which happened to coincide with the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermon at Riverside Church, in which he finally spoke against the Vietnam War by declaring that “silence is betrayal.”

In the days after Bush announced the surge, House Democrats and some commentators repeatedly invoked King as they sought to atone for their earlier acquiescence to the war and argue against its expansion. “We are going to stand up with courage, just like Martin Luther King did,” Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) claimed.

For these politicians and commentators, Iraq increasingly seemed to resemble Vietnam: a war that policymakers had begun disingenuously, that had become intractable and to which the president remained willing to commit yet more troops despite its futility. By pointing to King’s decision to come out against the Vietnam War, they legitimated their own journey from acquiescence to silent disagreement to outspoken opposition.

Even at a moment when more than 60 percent of Americans viewed the Iraq War as a mistake, critics still felt compelled to invoke a famous example of Vietnam-era resistance to cast their own opposition as morally justified.

Two years later, it was Obama who confronted Vietnam’s legacy as he committed more troops to Afghanistan in a surge of his own. And while he declared that the comparison between the two wars amounted to “a false reading of history,” his more hawkish critics — who wanted an even greater commitment to the war — were quick to connect his plan to the United States’ failure in Vietnam. To these conservative hawks, the stench of Vietnam actually emanated from the decision to abandon a struggling ally for the sake of political expediency.

One political cartoon published in the days following Obama’s speech recalled Hubert Van Es’s famous photograph of a U.S. helicopter atop a Saigon rooftop. It never mentioned Vietnam, but it didn’t have to. For readers of a certain age, it automatically signified that Obama’s plan should be viewed as a similarly ignominious abandonment of the cause. The imagery of Vietnam here provided the vocabulary through which Americans were encouraged to imagine Obama’s policy as a shameful failure to persevere.

For more than 40 years, Americans have confronted foreign policy challenges not only by asserting or denying that they will replicate the errors of Vietnam but by repurposing the language, images and practices through which Americans sought to make sense of that endlessly problematic conflict.

Whatever important work the Burns and Novick documentary does, it will not close the book on the Vietnam War’s trauma. Some moments in the nation’s past are too grievous to be healed. Instead, they permanently reshape how we think and act as we debate the nation’s global role and responsibilities. Vietnam has become part of who we are, and that alone must be counted among its most profound legacies.