Did the Vietnam War Expose the Limitations of American Power? Essay

The Vietnam War confirmed that there are indeed limitations to a military superpower’s capacity to enforce its will on other nations and political systems.  Understanding this reality is a critical facet of foreign policy.  The conflict in Iraq (2003-2010) proved that this important lesson was not sufficiently learned following the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. If this lesson continues to not be fully understood or is ignored in the future the U.S. will become mired in other foreign affairs quagmires which again will weaken the military, economic strength and its political status within the world community.  This same lesson was never learned by the long defunct Roman Empire. A similar outcome looms for America if it continues to replicate the mistake that was Vietnam.  A result of justifications emanating from Cold War, anti-communism sentiments, Vietnam became the standard by which American military power limitations can be measured. 

Following the allied defeat of Japan in 1945, the U.S. became embroiled in a battle over military power and political ideology with the former Soviet Union that was showcased on a world-wide scale for more than four decades, the Cold War.  Communism was America’s declared enemy during this era. The U.S. drew a symbolic line in the sand in Southeast Asia after the Soviets built the Berlin Wall and continued in its aspirations to dominate other Eastern European nations.  The fiasco that was Vietnam triggered anti-military reactions for the majority of Americans whose subsequent response contributed to the Cold War’s end.  Vietnam also forced America to rethink the fundamental purpose of its military power and question the scope of its capability to force it’s will in foreign nations whether, for example, in the deserts of the Middle East or the jungles of Southeast Asia.  In addition the U.S. was forced to question its general foreign policy viewpoint and subsequent strategies. (Hogan, 2006)  “U.S. foreign policy, from its abandonment of isolationism at the ending of the 19th century to its status as the sole remaining superpower, has always been centered on the promotion and conservation of its own interests and ‘the advancement of civilization,’ the exercise of power to assert itself beyond the bounds of the American continents in ‘the interest of civilization and of humanity’ and its own selfish interests.” (Olney, 2004)  This re-evaluation phase lasted about 40 years, from the mid-1970’s until early 2003. 

The U.S. enjoined the Cold War period, Vietnam War and invasion of Iraq to ostensibly spread democracy to subjugated peoples of the world (the official explanation) and with great confidence of victory.  Both military conflicts offered a comparable paradigm: the capability of the U.S. to utilize its armed forces as a political, social and ideological tool is limited.  indisputably, America entered Vietnam with somewhat of a arrogance assuming the North Vietnamese would bow to the powerful American military and that the South Vietnamese would gladly accept and adjust to a western nation style of democratic governance.  Former U.S. national Security Advisor under President Nixon and Secretary of State (1973-1977) Henry Kissinger stated America entered Vietnam with a “brash confidence in the universal applicability of America’s prescriptions.” (Kissinger, 2003)  The ironic epilogue to the U.S. involvement in Vietnam is that America entered into this horrific and bloody and enduring conflict believing it to be the ‘knight in shining armor’ for the South Vietnamese people.  Its leaders did this without appreciating that the South Vietnamese were fighting to be free from a North Vietnamese government that symbolized the same colonialist, imperialistic ideology as did the American government. (Ignatieff, 2003)

This lack of military success in Vietnam was not because the U.S. lacked fire-power. It was due to a failure to understand the opponent.  Although the U.S. benefited from an overwhelming military advantage, the greatest power the world has ever known, it was still wasn’t sufficient to conquer a war-weary, third-world nation approximately the size of New Jersey.  The principal reason for the abysmal outcome was the fact that the U.S. dismissed the reality that “being an empire, or superpower, doesn’t mean being omnipotent.” (Ignatieff, 2003)  Both Presidents, Johnson (Vietnam) and Bush (Iraq) were convinced that because of America’s vast military superiority; a decidedly lesser adversary would be swiftly defeated.  Both presidents failed to recognize or chose to ignore a very obvious truism, one that certain Middle East dictators are beginning to understand today. Projecting military force will generate fear and respect but not admiration and affection.  Numerous and to say the least intrusive ground offensives and extensive bombing missions by air caused substantial amounts of damage on the Vietnamese people and their property which naturally alienated the indigenous population.  It galvanized opponents of the war at home and the enemy abroad. “Johnson did not understand that the enemy in Southeast Asia could not be deterred or coerced, only emboldened by military incursions from a foreign source.” (Ignatieff, 2003)  It is possible that a stubborn, ‘line in the sand’ approach which was deemed necessary during the Cold War, the lack of willingness to withdraw from a altercation against the communist ‘red menace’ influenced decisions regarding the sustained military involvement in Vietnam. (Hunt, 1996) 

From the Cold War’s end in 1989, as epitomized by the much celebrated fall of the Berlin Wall until the Iraq invasion America was undeniably acknowledged as the greatest military power.  This time in which the U.S. stood as the lone superpower therefore the most dominant force was identified as the ‘unipolar moment.’ This ‘moment’ was first, superficial to start with and second, short-lived.  The collapse of the Soviet Union left the U.S. the world’s only superpower and it wasted little time quickly exhibiting the willingness to function unilaterally when pursuing its own interests.  “Those in Washington who believed that superpower status was equal to a unipolar international system justified making decisions without the cumbersome involvement of allies.” MacDonald, 2007) This unipolar moment was a myth of course because a divide has always been present regarding the U.S.’s military capacity to make war and its ability to manage world events to its liking.   

The U.S. benefited greatly from its broadly accepted unipolar status perception following the Cold War.  This perception should be examined when trying to comprehend the concept of a world superpower along with its limitations in an age of globalization.  A unipolar world never actually existed.  The term was fabricated by casual spectators of events who saw only the surface effects of the Cold War’s demise.  The French referred to the U.S. as the first hyperpower but that term is also misleading, at best, and dangerous if believed by the U.S. as has been demonstrated by its military arrogance.  Other descriptive phrases such as ‘indispensable power’ and ‘leader of the free world’ describe the supposed power boasted by the U.S. These monikers should be re-examined when attempting to define America’s place in the world community.  An immense inconsistency exists between America’s alleged ability to wage war and its actual ability to weave events, nations and societies in accordance with its objectives.  America’s military and technological advantage over all other countries is not in dispute, however, because it allocates more funds for defense than all other nations of the earth combined.  “An $11 trillion economy that facilitates enormous technological prowess and a defense budget that exceeds the combined total of the next 25 powers should leave no doubt about the potential of the United States.” (Adhikari, 2004)

Because the media enjoyed unprecedented access during the Vietnam War the hard truths of warfare caused the U.S. to swiftly lose credibility. The war in Iraq extended and reinforced this loss of integrity and has proved the idea that a technologically superior military machine in combination with the world’s greatest economic power is sufficient to conquer any adversary is merely a perilous delusion.  It was generally assumed following the Cold War that America could take military action without the cooperation or approval of other countries if it wanted for any reason and that no country or group of countries could effectively interfere.  This baseless assumption was and always will be inaccurate.  The U.S. cannot be engaged in a unilateral conflict without functioning under the limitations of its effective range and resources without the backing of the people of the area it intends to occupy.  “In that fictional world, the sole superpower might be tempted to act as if others didn’t matter, while regional powers would strive toward multipolarity but the world can be stable only to the extent that these conflicting tendencies can be balanced.” (Adhikari, 2004) 

The U.S. has utilized its military power to start needless catastrophe by entering into insufficiently designed and unsatisfactorily justified conflicts such as Vietnam.  The U.S. has also involved itself in regions such as Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Bosnia and even Iraq, the 1991 version, with mixed results, some successful, others ended with somewhat unremarkable but not catastrophically harmful results.  The American military has also been involved worldwide responding to a seemingly countless number of humanitarian missions.  If a major conflict were to erupt somewhere in the world, the U.S. would unquestionably be asked to suppress the situation.  No other nation can come close to the America’s capability to intercede in a major outbreak.  America is certainly by default the world’s policeman whether or not it wants this title.  Due to its military and economic prowess, America occupies the world leader position.  The responsibilities of this position can be equated to that of the head of a major company who possesses competent persuasive skills, understands how to construct compromises and exercises power with good judgment following suitable contemplation.  “If the United States wants to reassert itself as a widely accepted, and respected, leader of the democratic world, it will have to carry the world with it.  Its efforts will fail if it continues to believe it can wield unilateral power indefinitely in a unipolar world.” (Adhikari, 2004)   

No country is as well stocked with a technologically advanced arsenal but it appears that any other nation, region or even a loosely organized faction can defeat the U.S. military. The benefits gained by the U.S. stockpiling nuclear weapons has been basically neutralized because India, China and Russia all have access to a virtually endless supply of personnel and a formidable stockpile of nuclear weapons as well.  Even taking on the tiny country of North Korea would be an enormously challenging and difficult mission and that nation has but a few short-range nuclear missiles.  In recent years the perceived threat to America is terrorism.  Plainly the ‘war on terrorism’ cannot be won. The military cannot defeat this enemy by itself, no matter how invincible it might think itself to be.  The unusual characteristics of terrorist activities do not present a clear and obvious enemy to hunt, no one particular nation or group of nations to declare war upon.  In both the Vietnam War and the current war on terrorism, guerilla-type tactics are the preferred manner of operation which no country can beat conclusively. The term war on terrorism is a perilously misleading misnomer.  Conventional thought dictates that war must be engaged by military means but not in this case.  “Terrorism is a tactic, used by an elusive, well-financed and internationally dispersed enemy.  To combat terrorism requires innovative strategies.  Building a worldwide coalition of allies to fight such an enemy is not a ‘policy choice’ it is the only option in a war without conventional battlefields.” (Adhikari, 2004)   

The Vietnam War could not have created a more pronounced, poignant or historically significant message but the lesson has been largely ignored to the peril of America’s respect and status throughout the world in addition to its economy, military, security and soldiers lives.  ‘Never again’ was the nationwide mantra subsequent to the Vietnam War.  It’s disgracefully ironic that the generation of people that should have understood this reaction the most is the one who repeated the mistake. 

Works Cited

Adhikari, Gautam.  “American Power: The End of the Unipolar Myth.”  International Herald Tribune / YaleGlobal.  (September 27, 2004).  February 24, 2011 <http://www.iht.com/articles/2004/09/27/edgautam_ed3_.php>

Hogan, David W. Jr.  “The Cold War Army.”  Centuries of Service The U.S. Army 1775-2004.  Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History United States Army, (September 7, 2006).  

Hunt, Michael H.  Crises in U.S. Foreign Policy.  New Haven: Yale University Press, (1996).

Ignatieff, Michael.  “The Burden”  The New York Times.  (January 5, 2003).

Kissinger, Henry.  Ending the Vietnam War: A History of America’s Involvement in and Extrication from the Vietnam War.  USA: Simon & Schuster, (2003).

MacDonald, Scott B.  “The passing of the unipolar moment.”  Asia Times.  (February 22, 2006).  February 24, 2011 <http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/HB22Ak01.html>

Olney, Richard.  “Growth of Our Foreign Policy.”  The Atlantic Monthly.  Vol. 85, N. 509, cited in Niall Ferguson Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire.  New York: The Penguin Press, 2004.