American Leaders and the Vietnam War: Lessons We Should Learn

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In 1961 John F. Kennedy was elected as US president and focused on suppresing the insurgency in South Vietnam and warned Russians against aiding the guerillas. Some scholars argue that Kennedy entered the war very reluctantly. He chose to perpetuate a stalemate, as he feared the political consequences of withdrawal or massive escalation. Kennedy thought that a combination of American warnings, counter-insurgency advice and larger South Vietnamese forces would overcome National Liberation Front (NLF). He never considered neutralization and a graceful exit.

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At the time of Kennedy’s death there were more than 16,000 US military advisors in South Vietnam. Johnson succeeded Kennedy and escalated the Vietnam War. He came to office with the rhetoric of ending it but once in office he appeared to have other motives. His dominating and assertive personality and the history of the involvement had a huge role to play at this time. Johnson maintained a moderate policy until the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was passed in august 1964. The authenticity of the attacks on US warships is doubtful to this day, but Johnson used this to get a resolution to take an offensive stance. The idea of loosing the war freightened Johnson, as he feared it would affect American credibility. He feared loosing Vietnam to communism like China.

From 1965 to 1974 the war was in full swing. The US politicians at that time were failing to agree on a definite foreign policy. Johnson, however, worried for America’s credibility and prestige. Attacking was in favour of his domestic political agenda. Johnson worked without popular public support and didn’t want the Republicans to sabotage his agenda. The war was a result of long term, subterennean currents in American idealogy and culture. If Vietnam fell this would heavily affect his political influence and public agenda. Personal politics was witnessed to be at play around this time. By the end of 1971 there were 156,000 US military personnel in Vietnam.

Nixon inherited the War with the intent to bring it to an end but he took a long while to bring the troops back. There was a huge credibility gap between the public and the government because of no trasnparency in the politics. Documents like Pentagon Papers were an evidence of how the US citizens were being lied to and cause social unrest. The media should’ve played a better role as they mostly emerged as tactical critics of the war after the Tet Offensive, whereas they should’ve condemed the war in its totality. The opposition faced by leadership from within the military shows how divided America was on the War and only the elite had a role to play. Many war crimes were committed in Nixon and Johnson’s time, such as My Lai massacre and use of Agent Orange.

Another reason for US involvement in the region, which falls in the grey area, is the drug trade. CIA was allegedly involved in Drug Trade in Vietnam’s neighbor Laos. Accusations of heroin traffic blossomed in the shadows of a CIA-sustained guerilla war. Another reason to gain regional dominance was to have control of the drug trade route known as Golden Traingle. Air America has been accused of using jets to smuggle Heroin. US have carried out colonialism through controlling drug activities rather than boosting local economies. America’s love for war can also be defined with the help of arms trade. The arms industry is one of the biggest industries of US and the more arms they sell the more profit they make. Americas’s involvement has been questioned to this day and not only did it leave Vietnam in shambles but also had profound affects on American culture, politics, military preparedeness and the perception of America’s role in the world. The institutional decision-making and conduct of war has moral amibiguities for US. The US defeat in Vietnam saw the end of an American ‘arrogance of power’ which showed the policy makers that conventional military might didn’t qualify to impose power in various theatres of cold war. It was no longer plausible to treat communism as some ‘monolithic’ entity that put ‘vital US interests at stake everywhere.

The high rate of drug abuse amongst US soldiers, the level of mistrust between the people, and the high amount of civilian deaths show that US lost the war at all fronts. Although there are a number of lessons to be learnt from the Vietnam War, US failed to learn any. History is an evidence of US getting involved in other countries war such as Afghanistan, Iraq and now Syria. The lesson leaders should take from this is that war should never be the first priority in resolving conflicts. Negotiations and neutrality should be the priority. If war is the only option left, then the leaders should specify goals before deploying troops to the battleground. War might be profitable for weapon industry but it definitley has devestating effects for a country. If war is being fought then it should be fought under the rules of war.

Political leaders should learn that the wars cannot be won with weapons but with an ideology. Proper knowledge of the society you’re trying to transform is important. Leaders should not just flow with the currents of history and make decisions based on the past. They should not be afraid to alter the course of history, as lessons of the past are not always used wisely. Overgeneralization should be resisted when taking lessons from history. Another lesson is that domestic politics should not have a role to play in international politics. Given the time of Johnson, some of his decisions were influenced by the opposition he faced from his fellow politicians, which basically represented a divide in the domestic politics. A country’s foreign policy should not be influnced by ones own personality traits, or else it is no less than a dictatorship. Democracy supports the free will of people and if people want to be communist no one has the right to choose otherwise. Never ending US wars represent the class interest of the elite and ending this imperialist tradition should be a priority for the new leaders. Accountabilty of the utilisation of the tax money, paid by the public is necessary for a transparent democracy. The civilians should be properly informed and political decision should never be hidden from them. They should be made aware of the expenditure upfront.

Another lesson is that communism will prevail, no matter how much money is spent on containment. Imposing ones ideologies and culture on a country alien to it never turns out well as can be witnessed throughout history.

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