The Vietnam War was America’s longest war lasting from November 1955 to April 1975. The war claimed the lives of 47,415 American’s and costed the US $173 billion (Visions of America,pg 811). The Vietnam War was not only the longest war in US history, it was also the most controversial. US involvement was viewed as a way to prevent communism from spreading throughout Southeast Asia. The theory was if Vietnam fell to communism then the countries around it would as well. This became known as the Domino Theory and was the backbone of why the US was there. In the end, the US withdrew and the communist North Vietnam took control of the country. The US lost in Vietnam and there was no real reason for the US to be there. The war made a profound impact on the military as well as social and political life at home in the US.
The impact the war left on social life in the US is staggering. Never before had American’s disapproved of a war so strongly. The peace movement became strong and made itself well known through mass demonstrations and propaganda. Many American’s however dislike both the peace movement and the war. It was almost impossible for American’s to unite and overcome the racial, and class divisions that existed in America. No one could even agree on why we should end the war in Vietnam. They did agree however that the war was killing American democracy. They disliked that we went to war without a formal declaration of war. American’s began to lose their trust in the government because of secrets, lies, FBI surveillance, and draft deferments for upper and middle class men who could afford to go to college. Martian Luther King Jr. spoke out against the war to highlight the racial injustice in America until he was assassinated. Never before had peace advocates significantly influenced the political debate of a war.
The war also made a significant impact on politics in the US. Four different Presidents were in office during the Vietnam War. All were committed to be involved in Vietnam because they didn’t want to be the President that “lost” Vietnam to communism like the US had “lost” China. The war in Vietnam changed the power of the President. It was the first time that a President had committed troops to fight without a formal declaration of war from Congress. This lead to policy changes after the war. The War Powers Resolution was passed to remove the power of the President to send troops overseas for more than sixty days without Congressional approval. US relations with both China and the Soviet Union improved through efforts made by President Nixon, which lead to the signing of SALT 1. A treaty that limited the number of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched missiles, and the number of antimissile launching pads each side could stockpile. After the war ended the US became hesitant to become involved in international affairs and issues for fear of another Vietnam like war.
The War in Vietnam was the first time the US military faced guerrilla warfare where the enemy blended in with civilians. To combat this the US launched the largest bombing campaign in US history and utilized Napalm and Agent Orange to destroy the heavy vegetation. The US also used search-and-destroy missions to try and draw the enemy out. The US was fighting a war of attrition, trying to kill as many Vietcong as possible. It was virtually impossible to determine how many enemy were killed and body counts were always inaccurate. These tactics however lead to immense civilian causalities which fueled the peace movement at home. Disapproval of the war eventually plagued the troops in Vietnam. When the war began the first wave of troops were volunteers. By the end of the war almost all the troops were draftees who didn’t want to be there and had no illusions of heroism that the first volunteers had. When negotiations began and slowly troops were being withdrawn, moral plunged and there were many cases of enlisted men “fragging” officers. The troops were no longer willing to risk their lives for a cause that was soon to be abandoned. To make matters worse when troops returned home they didn’t receive the warm welcome that WWII soldiers had. Many returning from Vietnam were spit on, called names, and pushed around because American’s were so strongly opposed to the war. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. listed the names of every American killed in Vietnam on black marble slabs that descended into the ground. One veteran described it as “hidden in a hole as if in shame,” while another said, “It is exactly the right memorial for that war.”
The Vietnam War divided the country in a way that no war had since the Civil War. In a war of attrition there was no way to tell who was winning. The truth is the US lost the war in Vietnam. Thousands died, billions of dollars were spent, and society was even more divided than it was before the war. With improving technology and the increased use of televisions in American homes, the war reached American’s in a way it never had before. Americans saw images and videos from Vietnam on a daily basis. These images greatly fueled the antiwar sentiment in the US. The Vietnam War left a lasting impact on America, changing the way American’s viewed war and changing US politics forever.
Keene, Jennifer D., Cornell, Saul, and O’Donnell, Edward T. Visions of America: A History of the United States, Volume 2, 3rd ed. 2019.