The war in Vietnam demonstrated that there are limitations to a military superpower’s capabilities. Comprehending this reality is a crucial aspect of foreign policy. The current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan prove that if this important lesson learned from the involvement in Vietnam is not understood, the U.S. will find itself in other foreign relations quagmires which ultimately will weaken its military, economic stability, and political standing within the world community.
This is a lesson the defunct Roman Empire never learned and a similar fate waits for America if it continues to repeat the same mistake that was Vietnam. A product of justifications stemming from the Cold War, anti-communism sentiments, Vietnam became the benchmark by which American military limitations can be measured.
Following the American victory over Japan in 1945, the U.S. and the Soviet Union became engaged in a battle over political ideology and power that played out on a worldwide scale, the Cold War. Communism was America’s enemy and after witnessing the Soviets build a wall in Berlin and continue to aspire to conquer other Eastern European nations, which came to be known as ‘satellite countries’ of the Soviet Union, the U.S. drew a metaphorical line in the sand in Vietnam. Many thousands of ground troops were deployed during the decade-long war despite claims by some after the atomic bomb destroyed two Japanese cities, that boots on the ground would only be necessary for a clean-up role after ‘the bomb’ was dropped. The debacle of Vietnam was the cause for an anti-military sentiment among the majority of Americans which contributed to the Cold War’s demise. Vietnam also caused America to redefine the purpose of the military and question the extent of its ability to force its will in foreign lands such as the jungles of Southeast Asia. America was also forced to question its overall foreign policy philosophy and subsequent strategies. (Hogan, 2006). “U.S. foreign policy, from its abandonment of isolationism at the ending of the 19th century to its status as the sole remaining superpower, has always been centered on the promotion and conservation of its own interests and ‘the advancement of civilization,’ the exercise of power to assert itself beyond the bounds of the American continents in ‘the interest of civilization and of humanity’ and its own selfish interests.” (Olney, 2004). This re-evaluation period lasted from the mid-1970s until March of 2003.
Unquestionably, the U.S. entered the Vietnam War with somewhat of a swagger believing that the North Vietnamese would bow the greatness of the mighty American military and the South Vietnamese would readily accept and adapt to the democratic system of government.
According to Henry Kissinger, former U.S. Secretary of State under President Nixon, America entered Vietnam with a “brash confidence in the universal applicability of America’s prescriptions.” (Kissinger, 2003). The ironic epilogue to the Vietnam War is that America marched into this bloody, horrific, and enduring conflagration believing it to be the great liberator of the South Vietnamese people. They did this without realizing that these people were fighting to be liberated from the North Vietnamese government which represented the same colonialist mindset as did the American government. (Ignatieff, 2003).
This failure in Vietnam was not due to a lack of military fire-power, it was because of a lack of understanding of the enemy. Though the U.S. enjoyed an overwhelming military advantage, this was still insufficient to defeat a war-weary, third-world country about the size of New Jersey.
The underlying reason for the negative outcome originated from the fact that the U.S. forgot that “being an empire, or superpower, doesn’t mean being omnipotent.” (Ignatieff, 2003). President Johnson was convinced that because of U.S. military superiority; a decidedly inferior opponent would be quickly defeated. Johnson failed to understand that projecting military power will generate respect and fear of the U.S. but not affection and admiration. 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. Johnson did not understand that the enemy in Southeast Asia could not be deterred or coerced, only emboldened by military incursions from a foreign source. Substitute Iraq for Vietnam and all of these conditions and reactions apply as well. (Ignatieff, 2003). The ‘battle of wills’ mentality that was set in motion during the Cold War and the corresponding lack of willingness to withdraw from a confrontation against the ‘red menace’ of communism possibly influenced the decisions regarding the continued involvement in Vietnam. (Hunt, 1996)
From the end of the Cold War in 1989, as symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall the U.S. was undoubtedly the world’s greatest power militarily, economically, and therefore politically.
However, this time in which the U.S. operates as the only superpower and therefore the world’s dominant force, known as the ‘unipolar moment’ was first, superficial to begin with and second, fleeting. The Soviet Union’s collapse left the U.S. as the lone superpower and it quickly showed a willingness to operate unilaterally when pursuing its interests.
“Those in Washington who believed that superpower status was equal to a unipolar international system justified making decisions without the cumbersome involvement of allies.” (MacDonald, 2006). This unipolar moment was, of course, a myth because a gap has always existed between the U.S.’s military capacity and its capability to control world events to its liking.
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. Vietnam only exacerbated a loss of credibility and reproved that the belief that a technologically advanced military machine combined with the world’s mightiest economic power is adequate to conquer any enemy is only a dangerous delusion. It was widely assumed following the end of the Cold War that the U.S could act without the approval or cooperation of other nations if it desired when taking any military actions for any reason and that no nation or coalition of nations could effectively intervene. This assumption was, is, and always will be incorrect. The U.S. cannot be involved in a unilateral conflict without operating under the constraints of its limited resources and range or without the support of the people in the region it intends to occupy. “In that fictional world, the sole superpower might be tempted to act as if others didn’t matter, while regional powers would strive toward multipolarity but the world can be stable only to the extent that these conflicting tendencies can be balanced.” (Adhikari, 2004).
The U.S. has used its military power to initiate needless calamities by entering into inadequately designed and insufficiently justified conflicts in Vietnam. It has also intervened in regions such as Bosnia, Libya, Somalia and even Iraq, the 1991 version, with either successful or at worst, rather unremarkable results. 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 and economic prowess, the U.S. occupies the position of a world leader. The responsibilities involved in this position can be compared to that of a CEO in a major corporation who generally possesses skillful persuasive techniques, knows how to create a consensus, and exercises power with discretion following due contemplation. “If the United States wants to reassert itself as a widely accepted, and respected, leader of the democratic world, it will have to carry the world with it. Its efforts will fail if it continues to believe it can wield unilateral power indefinitely in a unipolar world.” (Adhikari, 2004).
The advantage of the U.S. nuclear arsenal has been largely mitigated because Russia, India, and China all have access to a practically endless supply of troops and a nuclear weapon stockpile as well. Even engaging the small nation of North Korea would be an immensely challenging and complex undertaking and it only has a handful of short-range nuclear missiles.
The latest threat to the U.S. is terrorism. Clearly the ‘war on terrorism’ cannot be won by military means alone, no matter how all-powerful it might believe itself to be. The unconventional characteristics of terrorist actions do not provide an obvious enemy to pursue, no certain nation or axis of nations upon which to declare war. The U.S. military alone will never win this war. The greatest military in the world proved it could not defeat tiny North Vietnam and it has no chance against terrorism. In both, guerilla-type tactics are the desired mode of operation which the U.S. is ill-prepared to effectively fight. The term war on terrorism is a dangerously misleading misnomer. Conventional thinking dictates that a war must be fought by the military but this is hardly the case. Terrorism is a tactic, used by an elusive, well-financed and internationally dispersed enemy. To combat terrorism requires innovative strategies. “Building a worldwide coalition of allies to fight such an enemy is not a ‘policy choice’ it is the only option in a war without conventional battlefields.” (Adhikari, 2004).
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 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. (McGourty). 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.
It has severely hampered America’s ability to continue to effectively defend itself or become involved in other potential conflicts worldwide.
Adhikari, Gautam. “American Power: The End of the Unipolar Myth.” International Herald Tribune / YaleGlobal. (2004). Web.
Hogan, David W. Jr. “The Cold War Army.” Centuries of Service The U.S. Army 1775-2004. Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History United States Army, (2006).
Hunt, Michael H. Crises in U.S. Foreign Policy. New Haven: Yale University Press, (1996).
Ignatieff, Michael. “The Burden” The New York Times. (2003).
Kissinger, Henry. Ending the Vietnam War: A History of America’s Involvement in and Extrication from the Vietnam War. USA: Simon & Schuster, (2003).
MacDonald, Scott B. “The passing of the unipolar moment.” Asia Times. (2006). Web.
McGourty, Steve. “An Analysis of the Presidents who are Responsible for Excessive Spending.” United States National Debt (1938 to Present). (2006).
Olney, Richard. “Growth of Our Foreign Policy.” The Atlantic Monthly. Vol. 85, N. 509, (1900) cited in Niall Ferguson Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire. New York: The Penguin Press, 2004.