America’s perennial Vietnam syndrome

By Bernd Debusmann
November 13, 2009

cfcd208495d565ef66e7dff9f98764da.jpg –  Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. –

Prophetic words they were not. “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all…The specter of Vietnam has been buried forever in the desert sands of the Arabian Peninsula.”

Thus spoke a euphoric President George H.W.Bush early in March, 1991, shortly after the 100-hour ground war that chased Iraqi forces out of Kuwait, the oil-rich U.S. ally they had invaded and occupied in the summer of 1990.

The specter of Vietnam, far from being buried in the Arabian sands, has risen again as President Barack Obama and his advisers are considering the course of the war in Afghanistan, now in its ninth year, increasingly unpopular, and considered unwinnable even by America’s senior soldiers if it is fought alongside a corrupt government that lacks legitimacy in the eyes of the population.

That the Vietnam syndrome is alive and well is obvious by the proliferation of analyses and commentaries drawing parallels, or dismissing them as nonsense, since Obama declared Afghanistan a war of necessity. (Type “Is Afghanistan Obama’s Vietnam” into the Google search box and you get more than nine million references).

The cover of the latest edition of Newsweek magazine is taken up by an iconic photograph of the Vietnam war, people clambering up a ladder to a U.S. helicopter waiting to evacuate them off the roof of a Saigon building the day before the city fell to communist forces on April 30, 1975. The story inside: what to learn from the lessons of Vietnam.

The answers to that question differ widely and the Vietnam analogy has come up routinely whenever the United States resorted to military action in the past three decades, from Lebanon and Somalia to Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq.  Obama himself has dismissed the parallel.

“You never step into the same river twice,” he said in October, “and so, Afghanistan is not Vietnam. But the danger of overreach and not having clear goals and not having strong support from the American people, those are all issues I think about all the time.”

Both in scale and geopolitical context the difference between the two conflicts is vast: at the height of its involvement in Vietnam, the United States had more than half a million troops there, fighting both Viet Cong insurgents and North Vietnamese army regulars who could count on aid from China and the Soviet Union.

In Afghanistan, the United States has some 68,000 soldiers, a number that is likely to grow to 100,000 or more (depending on what decision on reinforcement is taken) by the end of Obama’s term. Neither the Taliban insurgents nor al-Qaeda can count on the kind of outside support America’s antagonists in Vietnam commanded. In Vietnam, more than 58,000 soldiers died. The U.S. death toll in Afghanistan stood at 916 in the first week of November.


But there are also parallels, and the Vietnam syndrome the elder President Bush had declared kicked is doubtless one of the reasons why public support for the war in Afghanistan has been declining steadily, despite Obama’s assertion that the American commitment would not be open-ended. The latest poll, by CNN, showed that 58 percent of those questioned were opposed to war.

And the parallels? In the words of Senator John Kerry, a Vietnam veteran who turned into a war critic after his deployment, “Once again, our enemy blends in with the local population and finds sanctuary in a neighboring country. Once again, the danger of being perceived as an occupying force by a war-weary population remains perilous.

“With Afghanistan, as with Vietnam, we have a president facing pressure from the military.”
President Lyndon Johnson, Kerry wrote, failed to stand up to his military commanders when they warned that the U.S. was facing defeat without additional forces – the argument that the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal made when he put forward options to Obama, including up to 40,000 more troops.

History does not repeat itself but the similarities between Obama in 2009 and Johnson in 1963 are striking. Both inherited a war that became their own at a time when they were pushing far-reaching and costly domestic reforms. Johnson’s Great Society programs ranged from reducing poverty to improving medical care. Obama’s key project is universal health care.

Most of Johnson’s reforms were enacted in the first two years of his presidency, with Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. By 1968, the war in Vietnam had eroded his popularity to such an extent that he decided not to run for re-election.

The House of Representatives passed Obama’s health care bill this month, the Senate is expected to vote on its version soon. Polls show Obama’s popularity has been slipping, though his approval rate is still above 50%. Where it will be in a year’s time, halfway through his term when the U.S. goes to the polls for mid-term elections, will partly depend on how the war in Afghanistan is going.

The ghost of Vietnam hangs over the White House.

You can contact the author at


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

yes, ‘The ghost of Vietnam hangs over the White House’–its name: DICK NIXXON! (a real history lesson there!)

“and, it’s one, two, three, what are YOU fight’n four?/
well, i don’t eat ham/
next stop, afghanistan…”

don’t we know it well…once again: fake body counts, fake threats, fake dominos, and a fake light at the end of a fake tunnel with a not so fake ‘train’ coming our way if we stay in the tunnel.

presidents affraid to be the first to lose a war to…whatever…will never find a way out. but, there is one!

the way out: The Draft! put enough young middle class american boys on the front (and then into bags) and you’re out! why? because, “it’s one, two, three, what are THEY fight’n four?/…”

Posted by dr arp | Report as abusive

Terrorists don’t want peace. Nor do they value the lives of others. And they don’t even want to liberate their nation from foreign oppression.

The terrorists want the peace of Tyranny. They want America and the West to leave, so that the terrorists can control innocent people and do as they please. And the anti-war supporters want this to happen.

Just like the North Vietnam Army during the Vietnam War.

You know what the true Vietnam Syndrome is?

It is what happens when people are so against the idea of war, they are willing to abandon innocent people to oppression, murder and suffering. They are willing to allow any atrocity, any crime against humanity, as long as their own hands are clean of blood.

A million people can die in Africa, but all that matters to the anti-war supporter is that they can change the channel and say “It isn’t my problem, and my country’s military isn’t involved”.

Posted by Haha | Report as abusive

There’s nothing special about ‘Afghanistan’ in itself for the US.
All nations get tests of their willingness to assert their values over others, the more dominant nations do it more obviously.
The interesting thing is what happens when a dominant nation loses the will to assert itself.
Liberal governments are more prone to this because they can play it off to their more gullible supporters easily.
The Vietnam failure c.1969, and in Britain c.1970 the loss of government in N. Ireland, both heralded a decade of domestic social crisis resulting directly from the same failure of political leadership.
That crisis ended with Reagan & Thatcher’s elections…

If you think pulling out of Afghanistan is a ‘good thing’, that’s because you have no notion of history and are incredibly naive as to larger consequences. But haven’t they always been the defining characteristics of the liberal mentality?

Posted by Rhoops | Report as abusive


What you pro-war people don’t get is what taxing in order to warmonger does to the lower and middle classes here in the U.S.

It’s impossible to save everyone from their gov’ts, so trying to do so at the expense of a lower class american’s ability to put food on their table is crazy. The standard of living for the middle and lower class will continue to plummet for those of you who feel it’s their job to pay the taxes in order to save the world.

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive

This article seems to me like Berd Debussman’s perrenial Arrogance Syndrome?

We might as well talk about Sheep and their lifecycle.

Posted by Ian | Report as abusive

I get that quite well. But what the anti-war supporters don’t get is that:

-The tax paid by the American upper class and their businesses actually fund the nation, not the lower class.

-Pulling out of Iraq and Afganistan will cause terrible suffering, and rewards those who use the tactics of terror.

-If the anti-war protestors succeed in pulling out the troops, they will be responsible for losing the war and the deaths which result. Just as the loss of the Vietnam war and the blood of Saigon was on their hands.

Posted by Haha | Report as abusive


The American gov’ts job is to do what’s best for the American people. Cut taxes that fund our warmongering for businesses, for the upper class, for the middle class, for the lower class.

It just takes an amazing level of faith in US bureaucrats to think they can better the world when they’ve failed so horribly at everything here in the US.

If you want to help the people of Iraq and Afghanistan you can donate to charities, there’s nothing in the Constitution about spreading American-esque gov’ts to people around the world. If they have a problem with their gov’t, they should have to revolt the same way we did.

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive

Haha, blood is on our hands for Saigon. It flowed most of the time we were there. All for going there to prop up corrupt leaders and business men so as to gain favorable access to Viet Nam’s resources. We are repeating the same mistake in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is a violation of one of Adam Smith’s precepts on conducting foreign trade. Do not use military force as the cost will quickly out pace the returns.

Read Sun Tzu Haha. Terror is the poor man’s tactic for war when facing an opponent with overwhelming military and economic superiority. The liberators of South Africa were called terrorists by the supporters of the aparthied government. Geurilla tactics by the Green Mountain Boys during the American revolution were greeted with similar disdain by the British.

Survivors of Tarawa and Guadalcanal could give us a real lesson as to what depths of depravity humans can sink to when locked in life or death struggles. The U.S. incinerated 900,000 Japanese from 4 months of fire bombing prior to the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This action by our part precipitated the subsequent Kamikaze attacks on U.S ships. The Japanese people believed we intended to anihilate their race. Cannot a state engage in terror?

It is easy to feed in to the rhetoric of evil and enslaving forces that must be defeated. Unfortunately the distinctions we draw as to who is good and who is evil are at best foggy and at worst propaganda to mislead the people. Herman Goering stated prior to his trial at Nuremberg, “It matters not what form of government rule a people. The people will not long support a military venture to achieve apolitical objective. However if you make the people believe their religion and their freedom are threatened they will line up willingly to fight and die”.

Posted by Anubis | Report as abusive

True that Michael. The founding fathers and a majority of the colonists heeded the words of Thomas Pain, John Locke and the like. Self determination by the “People” everywhere. No treaties and no favored nation status. Open doors for peaceful trade with all nations of the world.

Posted by Anubis | Report as abusive

I have read Sun Tzu. Have you, Anubis? You seem to mistake terror warfare for guerrilla warfare.

Guerrilla warfare is when you fight low intensity conflicts, and avoid heavy fighting in order to bleed the enemy and avoid casualties among your own men.

Terror warfare is when you are willing to breach the laws of war, and commit atrocities on innocent people in order to secure their loyalty against the enemy.

Guerrilla warfare is the poor man’s tactic for war when facing an opponent with overwhelming military and economic superiority.

But guerrilla warfare can be defeated by numbers, technology and ruthlessness. As Afghanistan, Vietnam and Sri Lanka have shown, victory is a matter of willpower and time. And victory only ends when the willpower is gone.

But Terror warfare is the evil man’s tactic against the moral man. The evil man shows just what depravity he is willing to stoop to in order to secure victory. Whether it involves human shields in Gaza, car bombs in Iraqi marketplaces, or killing Afgani villagers and dumping them in mass graves.

The moral man confronted with these tactics is then faced with a dilemma. To which he has three solutions:

1- He can decide he will commit such worse atrocities in return, that even the evil man will flee from him rather then risk being captured alive.

2-He can remain moral. And resign himself to fighting a long, bloody and drawn-out war with one hand tied behind his back for the entire duration.

3-He can run away like a coward.

Solution number three is your solution. And it is the terrorists goal. You want to run away, which is exactly what the terrorist wants. And the terrorist’s tactics, no matter how horrible, are rewarded yet again.

Is it any wonder that such tactics now dominate modern warzones? Terrorist uses terror tactics, because these tactics work. And anti-war supporters are the living proof of it.

Posted by Haha | Report as abusive


Name a terrorist who wants us to run away. What we’re doing is exactly what Osama bin Laden says he wants us to do.

He wants us to go over there, Al-Qaeda has been able to kill a lot more Americans on there homeland than they were able to over here.

We’re the greatest Al-Qaeda recruiters in the world. Osama and others don’t have to do anything to get the people of the land in their region to hate us. All they have to do is look outside and see how we’re destroying their country and boom, they become members of terror cells.

Your plan is to continue raising taxes, continue hurting the american economy, continue destroying the lower and middle class quality of life at the expense of chasing terrorists, which will never end. So you can spread all your soldiers out around the world and leave your own borders wide open and slowly bleed out america, or you can bring your troops home to your own borders and cut taxes for Americans.

I know what the sane and rational choice is, and I’m in the very low minority in America.

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive

I disagree. The purpose of attacking an enemy is not to create everlasting war.

It is to bully a foe into submission when they are unwilling to fight. Or to bring them into a fight and defeat them so they flee. Either of those things is a victory.

So whether you argue we shouldn’t have fought at all, or argue that we should now run away, you argue for surrender and defeat.

You believe this is the one sane and rational choice. And you also admit you are also in the small minority.

So that leaves three possibilities:

1) The entire nation is insane and irrational aside from you and your small minority.

2) The majority of the nation is sane and rational, except for you and your small minority.

3) Your dilemma is flawed, and the issue is simply a matter of national priorities and democracy.

While I could take the easy way out and say the answer is two, the correct answer is actually three. If America wishes to take the path of humiliation and surrender as you wish, then it will happen democratically or not at all. Just like Saigon.

Posted by Haha | Report as abusive


I do think you caught me in a mistake, I think I’m wrong in saying I’m in the large minority.

Only about 50% of eligible americans vote, and that’s typically split down the middle reps and dems. I’ll bet if I were able to gather up and survey every american they would agree with me that they would prefer not to have 40% of their income go back to gov’t (in large part to pay for warmongering/nationbuilding/”defense”) and they would prefer to have a country that wasn’t bankrupted by also paying for these things.

We’ve tried the liberal interventionist foreign policy my entire 24 years on the planet and it’s failed miserably every single year of it.

I’m not quite understanding where you get your faith that we’re taking a moralistic stand in our intervening. Look up where Saddam was getting his support, money and gas from when he was killing towns worth of his own people.

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive

1. “And we’ve hit a profound turning point in Afghanistan. In this new budget year, which started Oct. 1, for the first time, the war in Afghanistan will cost Americans more than the war in Iraq.”

2. You never step into the same river twice,” he said in October, “and so, Afghanistan is not Vietnam. But the danger of overreach and not having clear goals and not having strong support from the American people, those are all issues I think about all the time.”

Well i honestly think that we are gonna be in the Middle east for a very long time. From the looks of it we are going to have to deal with terrorism spreading and evolving over their. Remember these propaganda tactics will always be pointing the finger on America. The middle eastern peoples hatred towards us will always exist. And unfortunately, look at our home grown terrorism…we cannot afford sending our lower and middle class to good public school. But we danm shore can send them off to the middle east to fight and educate themselves on weapons and war fighting tactics???.

Im not trying to be negative but its just the reality of it…i at one point was ready to join the United States Marine Corp. To this day i still do… But im smarter than that. Im not gonna go strap up and fight a sophisticated enemy with unlimited funding from terrorist network’s. Give me something to really fight for! Give me a clear goal an objective! Dont let me wonder around “patroling” the streets and villages! Thats like asking for these danm fools to “hey im here shoot me”, “Ambush Me”.

Question is how can we win?, how can we win in a battle zone that’s one unpredictable. Two the enemy is nearly undetectable!…im outraged to know that our warfighters, are 18,19,20,etc year old and have to give up their all and then come back home to get hit with criticism,PSTD, and NO JOBS!

Please on my behalf their needs to be another way to defeat the enemy…We should not be failing our family and kids and increasing tuition for our generation and the next.Im 21, i cannot stand here and stay shut, i will not and i vow to DO something. Join me, lets look pass our ignorancy, our selfishness…Stop taking things for granted open doors for those less fortunate.. Thank you.
Junior A. Herrera

Posted by ALEX | Report as abusive

The spectre of a continuing military cost, like the one engaged for Vietnam, is always a difficult one to discuss. Those who do not consider history are destined to repeat it.

That being said, what is the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan meant to accomplish? Simplistic answers are probably not the real answers…e.g. we just need to do this to win! More appropriate would be, what political solution are we hoping to achieve. Is the exorcism of Al Qaeda or the Taliban one that can be achieved? Is there a way to co-opt the existing political strengths in the country to make that visionary achievement a reality?

I know, there are more questions…but the probable answer is not a simple one…don’t be mistaken.

Posted by DBC | Report as abusive