On Loving the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’


Richard Falk | Global Justice in the 21st Century – TRANSCEND Media Service

2 Oct 2022 – The following post was published in modified form in CounterPunch on September 30 2022. Its essential claim is that the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ exerted a desirable downward pressure on hawkish war making tendencies for a period of almost 20 years after the Vietnam War came to end. For those in the political elite in and out of government this was regarded as a negative spillover from a mismanaged war effort in Vietnam. For the anti-war movement this was a positive sequel to a war in Vietnam that should never have been fought, and was wrongly conceived as well as criminally executed. Not surprisingly, the foreign policy establishment carried the day, erasing memories of the Vietnam political defeat, and paving the way for new military misadventures. Never, in my opinion, is the country and world more in need of a second coming of the Vietnam Syndrome than at present, with pressures building for an existential nuclear confrontation more menacing to contemplate than was the Cuban Missile Crisis 60 years ago. To be balanced in assessing the global setting, Moscow would likewise gift the world if it emerged from the Ukraine War with some durable version of a ‘Ukraine Syndrome.’


“Why I Love the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ of the People”

The Vietnam Syndrome was a term deployed after the U.S. defeat in the Vietnam War to explain and complain about the reluctance of the U.S. Government to use international force robustly in shaping its foreign policy. This reluctance was from its first enunciations resented by the foreign policy establishment in Washington including conservative think tanks. The language of ‘syndrome’ was interpreted by powerful men to refer to what they thought of as a psychic disorder afflicting the U.S. policy establishment that needed to be overcome as soon as possible. Yet to others, situated less prominently in the power structure, including myself, the Vietnam Syndrome was welcomed in the late 1970s as major component of long overdue prudent and principled post-Vietnam advocacy of a law-oriented U.S. foreign policy respectful of the self-determination rights of the Global South and restraints on the use of international force as enshrined in the provisions of the UN Charter.

Over the years, the Vietnam Syndrome lived this double life. One proposed cure was by way of the Weinberger Doctrine for those bristling under its restraining influence, which was formulated with the explicit intention of correcting the alleged government mismanagement of armed intervention in Vietnam over the course of a full decade. What Caspar Weinberger, a right-wing political figure and at the time Reagan’s Secretary of Defense proposed in 1983, was that the U.S, should not enter future non-defensive questionable foreign wars, with the Vietnam War uppermost as an example of what not to do. The Weinberger Doctrine set forth six conditions to guide policymakers:

  1. The commitment must be deemed vital to our national interest or that of our allies.
  2. It should be made wholeheartedly, and with the clear intention of winning.
  3. Political and military objectives and the ways to meet them must be clearly defined.
  4. As conditions change, whether the commitment remains in the national interest must be reassessed.
  5. Before a commitment is made, there must be “some reasonable assurance” of popular and congressional support.
  6. A commitment to arms must be a last resort.

Weinberger, in particular,  was particularly critical of the incremental character of the Vietnam engagement, which he contended, almost always ends in failure. Although Weinberger, and those on the Beltway who quickly subscribed to his prescriptions for the future, embraced the doctrine as a useful formula to gain political credibility in domestic foreign policy debates as well as victory in regime-changing and state-building wars of intervention (what Tom Friedman with customary arrogance later christened as law-free ‘wars of choice’). Read carefully, there are fundamental ambiguities in Weinberger’s formulation. It was never made clear whether the Vietnam War was vital to ‘our national interest’ or that its supporters lacked ‘the clear intention of winning.’ Yet it was hoped in Washington that the Weinberger Doctrine could put to rest the idea that under no circumstance should the U.S. expend blood of its citizen or treasure on non-defensive wars in the Global South. In this crucial sense, Weinberger’s views prevailed in policy circles and even somewhat in public opinion but failed when put to the test, reaching political outcomes resembling the Vietnam War rather than the standard model of the good war, World War IL.

Despite the bureaucratic backlash against a constrained foreign policy, sophisticated national leaders in the U.S. understood there was more political weight to the Vietnam Syndrome than setting forth a formula to ensure that policy-makers would not in the future commit the country to wars it could not win. It was thus not surprising that the first words uttered by President George H.W. Bush in 1991 after a U.S. led victory over Iraqi ground forces in the First Gulf War were “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam Syndr0me once and for all.” The implicit claim was that the desert victory in conventional warfare would demonstrate to the American people and skeptical members of Congress that the U.S. could turn its military superiority into a political victory at acceptable costs in a time span that would not tax the patience of the American public. In other words, the American war machine was revamped to gain the kind of victory is was unable to achieve in Vietnam. Bush’s enthusiasm was ill-conceived and proved disastrously premature. First of all, the Vietnam War was a war of national resistance fought against Western colonialist forces by relying on guerrilla tactics, not a defensive conventional war designed to reverse Iraq’s aggression and annexation of Kuwait. Beyond this the military phase in the Gulf War was mandated by the UN Security Council and a regional consensus, with implementation delegated to an American-led coalition of countries and limited in its goals to restoring Kuwait territorial sovereignty.  Only hawkish ideologues and unperceptive commentators could in good faith confuse the First Gulf War with the Vietnam War.

Neo-conservative intellectuals eager to exploit the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s understood that the Vietnam Syndrome continued to stand in the way of their ideological commitments to democracy promoting military interventions, especially in the Middle East, by taking advantage of what they declared to be an opportune ‘unipolar moment.’ One of its prominent advocacy platforms, The Project for a New American Century (PNAC), actually recognized the political dependance of their expansionist program on ‘a new Pearl Harbor’ to reawaken the dormant fighting instincts of the American public. Although PNAC didn’t itself connect the dots, the Vietnam Syndrome had withstood earlier erasure efforts, and the rapturous welcoming of unipolarity had an abstract quality that did not overcome citizen qualms about Americans fighting and dying for the sake of a geopolitical abstraction. The Vietnam Syndrome was only existentially overcome in the public sphere by the 9/11 Attacks, which President George W. Bush seized upon in a moment of national hysteria to declare the Great Terror War in 2001. These attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon were, in effect, the performative reenactments of Pearl Harbor that the PNAC was waiting for. Yet once again the analogy was disastrously misleading, inducing failures reminiscent of Vietnam that doomed U.S. political efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as indirectly in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. The Weinberger Doctrine and revisions of counterinsurgency doctrine may have influenced the Pentagon to substitute air power and drones for boots on the ground to the extent possible and rely upon ‘shock and awe’ tactics to overwhelm a lesser adversary quickly, but as it turned out, these tactics were no more successful than what failed in Vietnam. In the end of costly, controversial, prolonged occupations of hostile societies the desired political outcomes were not attained in the targeted countries of the Global South. Despite the Soviet collapse the U.S. continued to encounter frustration in its attempts to manage geopolitics, especially when the political undertaking encompassed a regime-changing intervention with state-building along Western neoliberal lines.

In my view, the dominant and sensible interpretation of the Vietnam Syndrome was as an inhibition on entry into non-defensive, essentially internal wars without at least the authorization of the UN and the conformity of the mission with international law. The Vietnam Syndrome was not initially articulated in the aftermath of the Vietnam War as a warning to war-mongering bureaucrats against fighting losing wars, but as opposition to all wars of intervention and aggression. This primary meaning of the Vietnam Syndrome has been lost over the decades, a casualty of state propaganda and a complicit media, reinforced by those private sectors that benefit from militarism and war. U.S. military overinvestment had succeeded in managing geopolitical power in the aftermath of the Cold War, but its innovations in weaponry and tactics achieved no notable political victories in wars surrounding the politics of national self-determination. What should arouse deep concern is that the militarist leanings of the government are undeterred by repeated experiences of failure, and keep trying, which adds to the devastation and suffering endured at the site of the struggle, and may defer the outcome, but it does not end in victory for the foreign intervenor, and hence is recorded as yet another political defeat. In one sense the Vietnam Syndrome was an acknowledgement that in these types of conflicts, military superiority had lost its historical agency. The Era of Western Colonialism was over, or at least coming to an end.

When the elder Bush was announcing to the world the burial of the Vietnam Syndrome ‘beneath the sands of the Arabian desert,’ he wasn’t gloating over successful the application of the Weinberger Doctrine. He was celebrating the first clear post-Vietnam victory in war. The legacy of defeatism prevalent among the American people was what was annoying and inhibiting the Washington establishment, especially its lingering presence in Congress. Already a decade earlier Ronald Reagan had declared ‘[f]or too long we have lived with the Vietnam Syndrome.’ As with Bush, Reagan had no trouble accepting the guidelines of the Weinberger Doctrine. They were little more than talking points to wary members of Congress and inquisitive journalists. What Reagan opposed was the national mood of political timidity in the country that undermined the willingness of public opinion to support going after leftist adversaries in the Global South with America’s military might.

Among my current fears is that it is Russia’s attack on Ukraine that has finally nullified the calculus of restraint implicit in the Vietnam Syndrome so far as the American public is concerned, with the odd partial exception of the extreme right of the political spectrum that is less enamored of assuming national responsibility for global security than is the broad bipartisan internationalist consensus that controlled American foreign policy during and after the Cold War. Ukraine as a seemingly victimized white, European society involves an attack by a hostile rival country that has sent tremors of fear and trembling throughout other Russian neighbors, especially those in East Europe that had been coercively subjugated within the Soviet sphere of influence throughout 40+ years of the Cold War and had strong political bases of ethnic and emotional support in the leading countries of Western Europe and North America.

Currently, the escalating Ukraine Crisis suggests that the absence of the inhibiting influence of the Vietnam Syndrome. As such, it is irresponsibly risking catastrophic consequences in blood and treasure, seemingly oblivious to the dangers of challenging the traditional spheres of influence of great powers historically accustomed to geopolitical prerogatives such as Russia. It is not a matter of endorsing Putin’s aggression, but rather concerns about the failure to exert a greater effort to make the world somewhat more insulated against the onset of major wars, especially warfare with high enough stakes to make strategically plausible the use nuclear weapons. The pre-2022 efforts to interfere in the politics of Ukraine by promoting anti-Russian moves while overlooking abuses by Ukraine toward the Russian-oriented majorities in the Dombas do not vindicate Putin but they do cast a dark shadow on NATO claims of virtuous and responsible behavior guided by respect for the territorial sovereignty of states, human rights, and a mutual concern for maintaining conditions of peaceful coexistence between geopolitical rivals.  The apocalyptic dangers now confronting the world with a greater risk of nuclear war than that posed by the Cuban Missile Crisis should also remind us that the political failure in Vietnam was primarily a result of promiscuous militarism. The geopolitical takeaway should have focused on conflict avoidance rather than avoiding future defeats in comparable geopolitical escapades, the regressive preoccupation of the Weinberger Doctrine.

Against this background, I find myself a fervent advocate of the revitalization of the Vietnam Syndrome in its populist variant, as a doctrine of existential restraint when it comes to  international uses of military force, and not only in the Global South. Rather than a ‘syndrome’ it was from its outset 50 years ago primarily an angry public reflex to a botched war effort that was intended to inhibit and even discredit future belligerent impulses in Washington.

I love the Vietnam Syndrome because it was the proper redemptive path for American foreign policy to take after the Vietnam defeat. Yet the promise of the Vietnam Syndrome was first reformulated in a manner pleasing to the militarized bureaucracy in Washington not to the citizenry eager to prevent such wars. Future wars would become supposedly winnable if the six precepts of the diversionary Weinberger Doctrine were followed. Such an approach made some sense conceptually but it failed miserably when operationalized as in Iraq, Afghanistan. More recently any sense of restraint has been marginalized in American foreign policy deliberations when dealing with a major nuclear weapons state facing defeat on its own borders and led by a dangerous autocrat.  Privileging the righteous cause of resisting Russian aggression in Ukraine while neglecting the offsetting imperatives of geopolitical caution in the nuclear age is a stunning display of managerial incompetence in Washington that is jeopardizing the future of the entire human species. It should enlighten people everywhere about the severe dangers of taking big risks to maintain a unipolar form of world order. These risks are magnified by the dispersed possession, deployment, and alert status of first use nuclear weapons. One false step on either side and we are done for as a species.


Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University, Chair of Global Law, Faculty of Law, at Queen Mary University London,  Research Associate the Orfalea Center of Global Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Fellow of the Tellus Institute. He directed the project on Global Climate Change, Human Security, and Democracy at UCSB and formerly served as director the North American group in the World Order Models Project. Between 2008 and 2014, Falk served as UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Occupied Palestine. His book, (Re)Imagining Humane Global Governance (2014), proposes a value-oriented assessment of world order and future trends. His most recent books are Power Shift (2016); Revisiting the Vietnam War (2017); On Nuclear Weapons: Denuclearization, Demilitarization and Disarmament (2019); and On Public Imagination: A Political & Ethical Imperative, ed. with Victor Faessel & Michael Curtin (2019). He is the author or coauthor of other books, including Religion and Humane Global Governance (2001), Explorations at the Edge of Time (1993), Revolutionaries and Functionaries (1988), The Promise of World Order (1988), Indefensible Weapons (with Robert Jay Lifton, 1983), A Study of Future Worlds (1975), and This Endangered Planet (1972). His memoir, Public Intellectual: The Life of a Citizen Pilgrim was published in March 2021 and received an award from Global Policy Institute at Loyala Marymount University as ‘the best book of 2021.’ He has been nominated frequently for the Nobel Peace Prize since 2009.

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