The Vietnam War’s Impact on the United States

The previous essay concentrated on failing to ‘learn lessons from history.’ This discussion examines the financial, political and legislative impact of unnecessary wars on the U.S.

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All military conflicts are costly. Most importantly, lives are lost and of those who survive, many are forever altered physically, mentally and emotionally. Great amounts of money are spent on military actions which accrue a debt that must be paid over time, sometimes over many generations. The National Debt rises which acts a as drain on the economy and takes away monies that could have been spent on domestic endeavors. It takes money to fund wars but neither financial nor military dominance guarantees victory. The political dynamics that result from war, particularly the Vietnam War, produce a myriad of varying effects. The U.S. lost political capital from within South Vietnam when it continuously bombed North Vietnam, a surprising development that was harmful to the war effort.

The ‘hawkish’ neo-conservative ideology was born in this era. Those of this political philosophy did not believe the U.S. should withdraw from Vietnam and are the ones who took control of the White House in 2000. The ‘neo-cons’ are the group that, a quarter century after the fall of Saigon in 1975, involved the U.S. in the Iraq war debacle and refuse to withdraw. Many parallels can be drawn between these two conflicts that are separated by a generation. The generation of people who lived through the Vietnam period evidently did not learn the lessons from that war. Congress made what they believed would be a lasting political statement following the war by passing the War Powers Act in hopes of preserving the separation of powers as guaranteed by the Constitution. The U.S., because of its involvement in ‘nation building’ that began in Korea and continued during the Vietnam era and is in full effect today, has lost political credibility throughout the international national community.

The hard lesson learned, seemingly, from America’s involvement in Vietnam was that possessing an overwhelming military force does not guarantee victory. Though three million enemies were killed compared to 58,000 on the American side, the ‘big dog’ in the fight eventually had to run home with its tail between its legs, beaten and humiliated. Thanks to the unprecedented media covering the truth of the war, the U.S. rapidly lost credibility worldwide including within the borders of its own country. Support for Nixon’s Vietnam policy dropped sharply in 1970 when he authorized the bombing of enemy strongholds in neighboring Laos and Cambodia. This did disrupt communist supply lines but was seen as a broadening of a war that was growing increasingly unpopular. (Robinson, 2007). The extensive bombing campaigns and numerous offensives caused massive amounts of destruction on the Vietnamese and their property which only served to alienate the indigenous community. It galvanized the enemy and opponents of the war in both Vietnam and America and led many to question the ethics of the campaigns.

The limitations of American power have been clearly evidenced by the misuse of its military superiority. The U.S. has gained many enemies and lost respect and prestige worldwide. In addition, if Vietnam and Iraq had never happened, the limitations of the military would not be as apparent to the world at-large and the U.S. would today be perceived as stronger and more effectual than it actually is thus would have more political clout than it presently does. However, this regrettable reality is likely soon to be a moot point anyway because the U.S. position as the world’s only superpower is a short-lived scenario. It takes money to build and maintain a military force, a lot of it to fund a nation’s superpower status, money which the U.S. no longer has. The most eminent threat to U.S. security is not the ‘red menace’ or the terrorist ‘evil doers.’ The National Debt is spiraling out of control and threatens to not only diminish the military but plunge the nation into the ‘third world’ category. The United States is regarded as a good investment and has an unlimited ability to secure loans without a problem, but loans must be paid back, with interest. Germany, Japan, China and other countries own a large piece of America, a potentially disastrous prospect. One or a combination of creditor countries could cause a sudden and shocking reduction of the economy which would further increase the debt. (Ignatieff, 2003 p.3)

During the Vietnam era, the neo-conservatism movement expanded due to the political polarization occurring in the country between the anti-war, anti-American sentiments of the counterculture and neo-cons who championed blind patriotism. Neoconservatives were not collectively for the expansion or continuance of the war but they were united in their fear that communism would spread. The term ‘domino theory’ was used quite often by the neo-cons to justify America’s military involvement in Southeast Asia. If Vietnam fell to the communists, they reasoned, the remainder of the region would be systematically consumed by the ‘Red Menace.’ Some of the Vietnam era neo-cons, such as Vice President Dick Cheney, went to the right opposing domestic spending; advocating tax reductions for the wealthy and an attack-first, ask questions later mentality.

Though domestic issues were once a rallying point then abandoned by contemporary neo-cons, foreign-policy matters invoked the most emotion therefore attention from this group. They reasoned then, as they do now, that foreign affairs were a more important consideration for national discussion because the very survival of the nation was at stake. “If a domestic policy fails, you can try another. If a foreign policy fails, you may find yourself at war” (Muravchik, 2007). The Vietnam War sharply divided the country but neo-cons, even the ones who were less than hawkish, were always on the defensive regarding the consequences of losing to communism. When war opponents voiced the opinion that communism wasn’t the most imperative concern, that American imperialism and expansionistic tendencies were the big issue, neo-cons were quick to rebuke what they thought was unpatriotic rhetoric. They feared the proliferation of communism and argued this fear was not unfounded.

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Congress attempted to regain its sole authority to declare war when it passed the War Powers Act in 1973 as a response to the undeclared Vietnam War. The Act allows the Commander-in-Chief to respond to emergency situations and deploy troops for a limited amount of time without a formal declaration of war. According to the United States Constitution Article One, Section Eight, only Congress has the exclusive authority to “to declare war [and] grant letters of marque and reprisal” (United States Constitution). Presidents do not have this authority. However, the War Powers Act of 1973 circumvented the Constitution. The Act allows for the President to deploy troops to a country for 60-90 days without the consent of Congress (War Powers Resolution, 1973).

It is intended to first allow the president to deploy troops in an emergency situation but secondly to strictly enforce Congressional authority to declare war, to adhere to the framers of the Constitution’s intention for the people’s representatives in Congress to decide if military action was in the nation’s best interest. Given the ambiguity of this license the office of President now has to initiate war, but the President could, hypothetically of course, act without specific congressional approval to wage war against a sovereign nation that did not pose a military threat. This could theoretically lead to a seemingly endless, bloody conflict that greatly impairs the credibility and security of the U.S. The U.S. has the ability to invade a country simply because it can and not because it is the option of last resort.

The War Powers Act of 1973 was intended to rein in the president’s authority to wage war without the approval of Congress but was, in effect, unsuccessful and may as well not been enacted at all. The Act has been ignored by all presidents subsequent to its enactment. The major flaw of the Act was that it does not stipulate Congressional redress if a President declines to abide by the Act. The War Powers Act was written to restore the authority of the Constitution and assure that the balance of intended powers between the three branches of government is retained. The result of an imbalance of power has been realized during the former Bush administration and if not curtailed will lead down the pathway to the authoritative, totalitarian government the Founding Fathers fought a revolution to escape.

The U.S. military has also been involved in worldwide humanitarian ventures too numerous to mention. If a major war was to break out somewhere on earth, the U.S. would undoubtedly be called to quell the situation. No other country has near the capability to intervene in a major outbreak. America is indeed by default the policeman of the world regardless of whether it wants this title or not. Because of its military, political and economic prowess, the U.S. occupies the position of world leader. However, when the U.S. intervenes in foreign conflicts, such as in Vietnam, it ultimately loses economic and political capital both at home and abroad. War is brutal which translates to U.S. brutality depending on an individual’s perspective.

No matter where the conflict or the reasons for deploying military forces, much of the world will likely be against the action. This underscores the reason for demonstrating extreme caution when making the decision to use force. Vietnam was a lesson learned until President Bush and a rubber-stamp congress took office. Had this lesson, that because America is the lone superpower, it is not all- powerful, been learned, the lives lost in Vietnam would not have been a total waste. The war in Vietnam could not have produced a more poignant or pronounced message but has been ignored to the peril of American prestige and respect throughout the world and to its military, economy, security and young soldiers lives. ‘Never again’ was the national mantra following the Vietnam War. It’s shamefully ironic that the generation that should have understood this sentiment the most is the one that repeated the same economic, political and military mistakes that cost so many so much.

Works Cited

Ignatieff, Michael. “The Burden” The New York Times. (2003).

Muravchik, Joshua. “The Past, Present, and Future of Neoconservatism.” Commentary Magazine. (2007). Web.

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Robinson, James A. “Nixon, Richard Milhous.” Encyclopedia Americana. Grolier Online. (2007). Web.

United States Constitution. Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute. 2009. Web.

War Powers Resolution Public Law 93-148. 93rd Congress, H. J. Res. 542 The Avalon Project Yale Law School. (1973). Web.

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