Effects of the Vietnam War on American Policy

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  • 0:04 Vietnam War Domestic Effects
  • 1:45 Vietnam's Effect on…
  • 3:13 Post-Cold War Effects
  • 5:14 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason McCollom

Jason has a PhD.

The seemingly ceaseless Vietnam War and eventual communist victory in 1975 had a profound effect on American domestic and foreign policy for decades. In this lesson, we'll learn about the war's lasting impact from the 1970s through the early 21st century.

Vietnam War: Domestic Effects

As the Vietnam War continued to drag on and American casualties continued to rise throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, Americans began taking a more pessimistic view on war and the government. The draft, or conscription of civilians into the military, had become increasingly unpopular along with the war for numerous reasons. Wealthier Americans often avoided the draft by paying for time in college, which meant the burden frequently fell on lower-income groups and minority communities to fight.

In order to avoid being drafted, a timely and self-imposed injury might lead the doctor to characterize one as unfit for duty, or one could head north to Canada; British Columbia on the west coast was a popular spot for so-called ''draft dodgers''. After the withdrawal of American forces in 1973, U.S. soldiers could only enlist voluntarily rather than being conscripted. To reinstate the military draft would be highly controversial and difficult in 21st-century America, with the likelihood of a draft returning becoming decreasingly likely as time goes on.

Another domestic effect of Vietnam was the evaporation of Americans' trust in government and politicians. The release of the Pentagon Papers in 1970 demonstrated that U.S. presidents from the 1950s onward had misled the public and over-exaggerated U.S. interests in Vietnam. Further eroding the public's trust in politicians was the Watergate scandal. This scandal, which led to President Richard Nixon's resignation in 1974, also revealed the illegal acts of Nixon and other high-level federal officials.

Vietnam's Effect on the Post-Cold War

Not even the raw wounds of Vietnam shook Americans' faith in the belief that Communism must be confronted and contained. The U.S. was momentarily humbled by the communists in Southeast Asia (President Lyndon Johnson had described North Vietnam as a ''piss-ant country''). Nonetheless, the Cold War with the Soviet Union carried on in various capacities.

The decades-long confrontation with the Soviets would never take the form of a long, drawn out war with hundreds of thousands of U.S. ground troops. The reasons for the U.S. avoiding open conflict became known as ''Vietnam Syndrome'', which helps explain Americans' fear of a military quagmire, or war with no foreseeable end. One response to Vietnam Syndrome in American foreign policy was the Reagan Doctrine.

In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan's administration provided military aid to various anti-communist forces around the world: aid was sent to Afghanistan, Cambodia, Mozambique, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Angola. This indirect support was preferable to a direct U.S. intervention that would have resulted in American casualties.

When Reagan did have American boots on the ground, it was in places where a quick, decisive victory was almost certain. In the small Caribbean nation of Grenada, for instance, the threat of a communist takeover prompted Reagan to send an elite squadron of troops to quickly restore order in 1983.

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