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The Effects Of Vietnam Syndrome On Us

Foreign Policy Making Essay, Research Paper

“Vietnam syndrome” is the term used to describe the poor decisions made by America’s leaders during the period of the war. Americans refer to it as the action – reaction approach that the United States Government used during the Vietnam War by waiting for the Communists to do something and then responding to the situation rather than having a distinct plan or guideline to follow in eliminating the enemy. Vietnam Syndrome also makes reference to the determination of the Americans and certainty of victory in war caused by America’s track record of never losing a war before. President Kennedy said that America would preserve its success rate, it would “pay any price, bare any burden, support any friend and oppose any foe to ensure the survival and success of democracy.” President Lydon Johnson said America would defeat the communists no matter what it cost the country or how long it would take (Goro 1).

Vietnam syndrome is a term that has such a negative connotation towards the credibility of the United States government that today’s politicians are careful to avoid the mistakes that were made in that time. Vietnam taught Americans much about the devastating effects of war and the importance of taking military action while the conflict is still small, rather than letting the situation progress into a full blown war. Many of our nation’s leaders kept this in mind while making their foreign policy decisions. This can be traced beginning with President Carter, to the Reagen, Bush, and Clinton administrations.

After president Anastasio Somoza Debyle of Nicaragua was hospitalized from suffered a heart attack he learned of a plot aimed at preventing the succession of his son to the presidency. Later, as a concession to United States President Jimmy Carter, President Somoza lifted the state of siege that had been in effect in the country. A month later there was a resurgence in guerilla activity under the banner of the Sandanista National Liberation Front (A.K.M. 259). Many other political and economic groups joined the protest for Somoza’s removal from office. During the Carter administration, despite his foreign officers’ advice to intervene in Nicaragua, Carter refused to act. Carter’s emphasis on non-intervention was a direct result of the American public’s disgust with Vietnam. By 1978, the conflict between the rebels and the government had become a civil war. The rebels won in July 1979. Somoza resigned, left the country, and was eventually assassinated. Carter’s policy of non-intervention resulted in a foreign policy failure – the result was a failure in a peace settlement and a take-over by the new Sandanista Government (Adams 405) .

A series of events provoked President’s Regan’s decision to invade Grenada. In October 1983, explosives set off by a terrorist collapsed a four-story marine headquarters building in Beirut. 241 U.S. Troops died as a result of the explosion, as fighting between Lebanese groups in Beirut increased, the United States began moving its troops stationed in Beirut to offshore ships.

Rebellions in Nicaragua and El Salvador also became a major concern in the early 1980’s. Cuba and the Soviet Union were giving war materials to the government of Nicaragua and the rebels of El Salvador. The United States, in turn, sent advisers and arms to the rebels in Nicaragua and the government of El Salvador (A.K.M. 260).

In October 1983, Reagen ordered the invasion of the Caribbean island of Grenada after the Grenadian rebels overthrew the island’s government. Reagen said the invasion was needed to protect Americans in Grenada, including almost 600 students at St. George’s University School of Medicine. Reagen also said that Cuba was planning to use Grenada as a military base (Boyarsky 516).

Despite, the hysteria surrounding the issue, literature on the action suggests that the Medical Students were in no real danger. However, Reagen was a President that was desperately (and successfully) trying to rebuild America’s self esteem from the Vietnam War and the chance to win a fight against Communism in America’s backyard and “save” American lives with a low risk level would have been a good opportunity. Although it was probably more directly related to the issue of the killing of the Marines in Beirut, he consciously took a much different course of action in fighting Communism than the administration during the Vietnam War did.

George Bush made it clear in the Persian Gulf War that “by god, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all” (Honeycutt 4) by setting a deadline for the enemy to comply with and when they did not, he launched a quick and relatively painless (to American soldiers) offensive. President Bush was successful in avoiding the Vietnam syndrome by declaring war in Iraq, rather than trying to make less of the situation than it was, and then launching a major attack designed to incapacitate the enemy very quickly, rather than waiting for the enemy to act and then responding. Every technique Bush and his advisers employed in the Sadaam Hussien/Iraq situation took the lessons of Vietnam into consideration, and the result was a success in foreign policy as Iraq retreated from Kuwait.

An instance of Vietnam effecting foreign policy in the Clinton administration is the United State’s manner of not getting directly involved the Bosnian conflicts. America’s fears about becoming too deeply involved in a conflict, especially in an area as complicated and as unknown as these lands, are directly influenced by the Vietnam experience. The nightmarish images brought to the American public via media and television were reminiscent of Vietnam.

In retrospect it has been a few years since Bosnia-Herzegovina declared independence. In that time more than 200,000 Bosnians have been killed and tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslim women, many of them only girls, have been raped. Two million Bosnians are refugees. The State Department’s 1992 annual report on human rights stated that Serbian Forces in Bosnia were conducting a campaign “cruelty, brutality, and killing” unmatched in Europe “since Nazi times” (Brief History 2). Even with the continuous calls for peace, Serbian forces continue their aggression and ethnic cleansing in the war-torn land. Because of Vietnam the United States government has become wary of involvement in these types of situations.

The Vietnam War has changed the outlook of many on foreign policy. Alleviation of “Vietnam Syndrome” is a slow process. Never again will the United States government make a brash decision to fight, it will no longer “pay any price, bare any burden” or “support any friend” without a worthy cause or just reason. Military strategy has become more definite and quick for a resolution, as government and foreign policy has too.


Adams, K. “Grenada.” World Book Encyclopedia.1992 ed.

A.K.M. “Nicaragua.” Standard Reference Encyclopedia Yearbook. 1977 ed.

Boyarsky, Bill. “Reagen, Ronald Wilson.” World Book Encyclopedia. 1992 ed.

Brief History of the War in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Www.cco.caltech.edu/ bosnia/doc/history.html

Honeycutt, John. Vietnam research page. Http://

Nakamura, Goro. Can the U.S. grow out of Vietnam syndrome? Http://members.aol.com/AACTchrOz/coldthruDesertStorm.html

Thornton, Lee. “Bush, George Herbert Walker.” World Book Encyclopedia. 1992 ed.