4 lessons not learned about the Vietnam war

vietnam lessons

Lessons not yet learned by the American people

First Lesson

Do not intervene in the civil war of other countries.

President Obama recently visited Vietnam. In 2016, recollections of the Vietnam war still seem mired in a poor understanding of why the United States involved itself militarily in that country. It cost the lives of nearly 60,000 American soldiers and a million + Vietnamese. I recall some illuminating lessons I learned having studied the Vietnam war at school in a Recent America history course. Vietnam veterans visited our classroom to discuss their experience during the conflict. There are some undisputed facts, which I will now share on this blog. I do so because I still think as a society, we have not learned the lessons of the Vietnam war, and as a result, we find ourselves repeating history, much to our detriment.

The Vietnam conflict was a civil war between North and South Vietnam. Vietnam was under colonial rule; first from the Japanese and then under the French. What started the civil war was Ho Chi Minh’s uprising in 1954 in Dien Bien Phu against the French authorities. Inspired by the Bolshevik revolution, Minh was a communist and founded the Indochinese Communist Party. The French backed Emperor Bao Dai. The 1950’s and 60’s were the height of the “cold war” between then Soviet Russia and the United States.  American foreign policy architects, such as George Kennan, advocated the so-called “domino theory.”  The idea behind the domino theory was to contain the spread of communism. The fear lay that if one country went communist it would spread the political philosophy to other neighboring countries. Vietnam was still under the yoke of French colonial rule in the early 1950’s until Ho Chi Minh sparked the beginning of revolt. When the French lost the military battle at Dien Bien Phu, they knew it was time to pack it up and leave. President Eisenhower was not going to let Vietnam fall completely into the hands of the Communists. By the mid 1950’s, Eisenhower began sending military assistance to the South Vietnamese and from there, it never stopped. President John F. Kennedy expanded the U.S. role militarily,  including supporting the assassination of South Vietnamese president, Ngo Dinh Diem. President Lyndon B. Johnson sent more fighting troops to Vietnam by 1965.

The United States created a false premise for intervening in what was a civil war between North and South Vietnam. Communism never spread like the contagion that American cold war diplomats feared.

Second lesson

Never stop questioning your government’s official position on military foreign intervention. I already mentioned our country’s Cold War containment policy which drove our country to spend millions in propping up the South Vietnamese government. But the worst part came in 1964. Vietnamese PT boats allegedly attacked the American Destroyer, USS Maddox, off the Gulf of Tonkin. Thanks to declassified information back in 2005 and 2006, we now know these attacks were based on faulty evidence. According to these documents, “the evidence suggests a disturbing and deliberate attempt by Secretary of Defense McNamara to distort the evidence and mislead Congress.”

President Johnson used the alleged attacks upon the USS Maddox as a pretext for seeking support from Congress to take unilateral military action against North Vietnam. In August of 1964, at President Johnson’s urging, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which gave President Johnson the authorization without a formal declaration of war by Congress, to use conventional military forces in Vietnam. The United States government, as proven by the release of the Pentagon Papers, deliberately misled the public about the degree of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.  Up until President George W. Bush’s disastrous decision to invade Iraq, Vietnam represented America’s biggest American foreign policy fiasco. George W. Bush’s administration deliberately misled the American public about the existence of WMDs in Iraq. To date, no WMDS have ever been found.

How much lying does our government get away with today? President Bush and his administration used the pretext of the existence of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in Iraq to invade that country. His administration lied about the existence of WMDs and scared the American populace with propaganda about the alleged evidence taking shape in the form of a “mushroom cloud.”

Third lesson

Never confuse a war with those who are fighting the war. Many veterans who saw action in Vietnam came back to a country that was split in half over its support of our government’s military intervention in Vietnam. Many civilians vilified those soldiers who were unlucky enough to fight in it.

American GIs deserve the nation’s respect and deepest gratitude. They are putting their lives on the line. It is not their decision to have to fight. Many Iraqi war veterans returned to the United States with health injuries, such as PTSD and missing limbs.

How does our government treat vets today? Vietnam war veterans still struggle to gain benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. More than one million veterans still do not have any health insurance whatsoever, according to a 2010 report by the Urban Institute. 

Fourth lesson

We must be less arrogant when presuming to know how a foreign culture thinks. Just because the United States was the lone superpower right at the conclusion of World War 2 didn’t mean it should impose its capitalist will upon the rest of the world. The Cold War containment policy assumed that communism was a threat to the entire capitalist world. As a result, beginning with Eisenhower, America began to send military advisors to Vietnam to support Emperor Bao Dai’s rule. America did not make the effort to engage in diplomacy with Ho Chi Minh, who at the start of his political life was an anti-colonialist. Once the Vietnamese defeated the French in 1954, the last thing Ho and his supporters wanted to see was another colonial power trying to impose its will upon their country.

Has this fourth lesson been learned today?  How did the architects of the U.S. led invasion of Iraq “sell the war” to then President George W. Bush? According to Kenneth Adelman, a former prominent national-security official in the Reagan Administration who also served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board,  demolishing Hussein’s military power and liberating Iraq would be a cakewalk. According to then-Vice President Dick Cheney, “the war would go “relatively quickly,” and that American troops would be “greeted as liberators.” Of course, this proved to be a sham. Nearly 5,000 American soldiers died in Iraq, thousands maimed or wounded. Iraq today barely holds together and experiences crippling sectarianism, the violent spread of terrorism, and an ongoing refugee crisis. Given Iraq’s precarious situation, we know that the consequences of invading it have proven to be utterly devastating to the country and spawned ISIS.


We have not learned several core lessons of Vietnam. Our government still lies. Our government still presumes to know how a foreign culture thinks. Our government still does not come clean with the American people on when there is sufficient justification to intervene in the civil war of another country. What is known is that when there is conflict abroad and the United States participates in any military action or trumps up evidence as a pretext for involving itself militarily, it is the weapons and military contractors who benefit.

While relations with Vietnam have improved since the American military departure from the country back in 1973, the future remains cloudy as it relates to American military foreign policy. If the American people fail to learn the right lessons from Vietnam, it will keep letting our government get away with behavior that is immoral, unjust, and patently illegal.

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