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Vietnam’s long shadow

Fifty years on, we are all still paying for Vietnam

By Tom Streithorst  

A marine apprehends a Viet Cong suspect near Da Nang airbase


Look at them, streaming ashore, the first American combat troops landing in Danang, fifty years ago this month. The sons of men who defeated the Wehrmacht and the Imperial Japanese Navy, they would never have imagined that a decade later their allies would be hanging off the skids of helicopters, fleeing Saigon, the mighty American military defeated by a rag tag third world army.

If future historians write the decline of the American empire, Vietnam will be chapter one. In 1965, Americans knew their country was the best in the world, able to create a Great Society at home, fight a war half way around the planet, and put a man on the moon, all without raising taxes. Back then, the United States was the font of modernity, the low cost, high value producer of just about everything. Its technology, its consumer goods were the best on the planet. Ten years, 50,000 American and 2 million Vietnamese lives later, that confidence was gone.

Before Vietnam, America had never lost a war. Before Vietnam, America was the world’s largest creditor. Before Vietnam the dollar was as good as gold. Before Vietnam, Americans trusted their politicians. We all know the effects defeat in Indochina had on the American psyche. Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and the Deer Hunter told us, more than thirty years ago, how America had lost its innocence in the jungles of South East Asia.

The psychological effects of Vietnam were real and damaging but fifty years on, we can also observe its practical consequences. Least noted are its economic costs. In 1965, the American economy was booming. GDP grew almost 9 per cent, stimulated both by increased government spending and the residual effects of the Kennedy tax cuts. Unemployment was falling and inflation less than 1 per cent.

With the economy producing close to its full employment potential, the spending required to wage the Vietnam War ($140bn over the entire war, close to $1 trillion in today’s currency) inevitably caused inflationary pressure. Had President Lyndon Johnson been willing to enact a tax increase to pay for the war, that inflation could have been contained, but he wanted war on the sly, didn’t want to call attention to its expense. The inflation that blighted the 1970s was born in the jungles of South East Asia.

Inflation is no longer a problem. But we still live with the results of the need to eradicate it. The Reagan-Thatcher revolution, the Volcker interest rate hikes of the 1980s and subsequent recession, the crushing of the labour unions—these would have been politically unpalatable without public desire to eliminate the inflation engendered by Vietnam.

Just as pernicious was the destruction of Bretton Woods, the international arrangement that formed the basis of international post-war prosperity. Bretton Woods functioned, at least in part, by fixing the value of the dollar to gold. From 1945 to 1971, for a mere $35, any foreigner could buy an ounce of gold from the US government. But spending for the Vietnam War, most of it overseas, put billions of dollars into foreign hands. With so many dollars floating outside the purview of American monetary control, the $35/oz guarantee was no longer credible. In August 1971, when the French (and the British) threatened to convert their dollars into bullion, rather than taking the chance of bankrupting Fort Knox, Richard Nixon closed the gold window and shortly thereafter, the fixed exchange rate regime of Bretton Woods was history. Floating exchange rates, the elimination of capital controls and indeed the sprawling global financial sector that resulted can be attributed to the massive overseas spending required to finance the Vietnam War. We all pay the cost. US and world GDP growth have never returned to the levels they had before 1971.

It is cynical but undeniable that once Nixon ended the draft, the campus rebellion of the 1960s lost momentum. Sadly, it seems much of the opposition to the war by young Americans may have been based on their personal desire to avoid battle. Eliminating conscription was a savvy political move but it had deleterious effects on America and its military.

In Vietnam, as in Korea and World War II, Harvard boys shared foxholes with sharecroppers’ sons. They served together, saved each other’s lives, and so were forced to recognise each other’s common humanity. Those friendships and the social mixing it engendered created an elite that naturally empathised with the mass of the country. Today, America is much more socially stratified. The well-to-do rarely mix with their economic inferiors and this has had a tragic effect on American society. In the 1960s, no Republican would have dreamed of classing 47 per cent of Americans people as “takers”, as Mitt Romney did in 2012. Back then, poor, working and lower middle class Americans were viewed as the salt of the earth, not as drains on productive taxpayers.

The volunteer military, cut off from the larger society, turned inward. Unlike other sectors, which tried to forget about Vietnam, the military thought deeply about its failure. Unfortunately, the fundamental lesson they learned was that the American public was unwilling to tolerate casualties. Enthusiasm for air war and antipathy to boots on the ground were the result of the 50,000 American deaths in South East Asia.

The First Gulf War suggested this policy might work. But control of the skies alone was not enough to oust Saddam Hussein. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was seen at the time as a demonstration that America had finally overcome its fear of ground war. But American inability, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, to translate its awesome firepower into political effect is also a legacy of Vietnam.

It is now conventional wisdom that the Iraq war was doomed to failure. This is almost as naïve as the earlier notion that post Saddam Iraq would become a pro-American, pro-Israeli bulwark of  democracy and freedom in the Middle East. The mistakes made in the early days of the occupation are well chronicled: the disbanding of the Iraqi Army, the firing of all Ba’athist officials. Perhaps the central error, however, was not providing security for Iraqis in the days and months after the collapse of Saddam’s regime.

After Vietnam, the American military became obsessed with “force protection”, a doctrine that put saving American lives above all else. The rules of engagement told US soldiers that if they believed, for any reason, that an Iraqi might possibly be threat to their lives or the lives of their comrades they should respond with deadly force. Thus the number of Iraqi families slaughtered as they approached a checkpoint, just a little too fast, not understanding shouted instructions in English. Thus the abandonment of most of Iraq to thugs and sectarian militiamen as Americans hunkered down safely behind T walls in their huge bases or in Baghdad’s Green Zone.

Had Americans been willing to mix with the Iraqi population that at first welcomed them, had the American military been willing to hire Iraqis to drive the trucks bringing supplies from Kuwait, had they viewed providing security throughout Iraq as their responsibility, the Iraq War would not have turned out as tragically as it did. But Vietnam taught American officers that avoiding casualties was their primary responsibility, not a particularly bellicose attitude, certainly not one that wins wars. By showing Iraqis that Americans viewed their own lives as sacrosanct and everyone else’s as expendable, the American military unnecessarily alienated the local population and lost any chance it might have had of helping create a peaceful and democratic Iraq.

Perhaps the most pernicious effect of Vietnam was on American attitudes towards their government. My father, who spent a number of years covering the war for American television told me that before Vietnam, he always trusted what government officials told him. After, not so much. America lied to get into the war, with the faked Gulf of Tonkin incident. It lied to itself during the war, making up body counts, officers exaggerating their success, lying up the chain of command, telling their superiors what they wanted to hear. The phrase: ”credibility gap” emerged because of the Vietnam War.

Americans used to trust their government. They don’t any more. Interestingly, “liberal” now an epithet with the tea party right was originally an insult from the New Left, offended by Johnson’s hypocrisy. In most respects, Lyndon Johnson was the most liberal President America has had since FDR. His Great Society, had it succeeded, would have completed the task set by Roosevelt and the New Deal. But the turmoil engendered by Vietnam killed the Great Society. America, before Vietnam, was growing ever more egalitarian. The middle class was growing, real wages were rising. Conservative Republicans back then were in many respects more liberal than Hilary Clinton is today. Vietnam killed liberal America and we are still paying its cost.

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