Post-War Issues: Aftereffects of the Vietnam War on the U.S.

Post-War Issues: Aftereffects of the Vietnam War on the U.S.
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  • 0:02 In the Shadow of Defeat
  • 1:47 A Collective Amnesia
  • 4:12 Reconciliation
  • 6:09 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Adam Richards

Adam has a master's degree in history.

The defeat of the United States in the Vietnam War gripped the nation in the decades that followed. Learn more about the post-war years, including policy, veteran affairs and the American psyche, in this lesson.

In the Shadow of Defeat

The fall of Saigon, the capital city of South Vietnam, on April 30, 1975 marked the official end of the Vietnam War. Yet, while the actual combat ended, the painful struggle of the post-war years had just begun. The loss in Vietnam was the first true defeat the United States had suffered in an international conflict. Nationalism within the nation was at its apex following the successes achieved during the Second World War, but that pride and credibility was shattered when North Vietnam stood triumphantly in the streets of Saigon. For 25 years the United States had been a part of an attempt to contain communism in Southeast Asia. The defeat quickly forced the nation to reassess itself and its international endeavors.

Two important periods emerged following the end of the Vietnam War. The first period, from 1975 to 1981, was often referred to as the 'amnesia' period. Simply put, the United States attempted to collectively forget about the conflict. Unfortunately, issues such as the struggle of returning soldiers, a contracting economy and the birth of the 'Vietnam Syndrome,' or the unwillingness of the United States to engage in a military conflict without the assurance of total victory, kept the legacy of the conflict at the forefront of American minds.

The second period, from 1982 through contemporary times, was a time of reassessment, remembrance and rebuilding. The construction of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, or 'The Wall,' led to an increased interest in reassessing the conflict. Scholars began to search for answers, war veterans received their deserved adulation, filmmakers focused on visually depicting the war, the foreign policy of the United States was strengthened and America began to heal. Let's take a look at the specific aspects of both periods in our attempt to navigate the post-war era.

A Collective Amnesia

In the immediate aftermath of the end of the Vietnam War, the American spirit was crushed. The idealism of the United States as a superpower that stemmed from victory in the Second World War temporarily ceased. Blame for the loss became ubiquitous. Americans criticized Congress as well as presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. They cast blame on the media for being unnecessarily involved. Americans even blamed one another for the defeat in Vietnam. For instance, many held the antiwar movement responsible for not allowing the military to do 'what was necessary' to win the war. The discord within the United States turned what should have been a jovial celebration of America's bicentennial in 1976 into a somber acknowledgement.

The credibility of the United States within the international arena suffered only slightly. Many questioned the strategy of the nation, especially considering France was easily defeated by the same enemy prior to American entrance. The biggest fallout came from within. The American public forced the temporary retreat of the United States from international affairs. This withdraw was a byproduct of what became known as the 'Vietnam Syndrome.' Between 1975 and 1991, the United States remained out of large conflicts. Smaller engagements, such as the strife in Grenada, were approved, but with significant apprehension.

Another serious aspect of the immediate post-war years involved a significant downturn in the American economy. The United States had spent an estimated $170 billion on funding the war in Vietnam. Simultaneously, President Johnson spent huge amounts of money in implementing the Great Society program. The problem was that there was never an increase in the tax rate to offset such a massive bill. The result was an economic downturn which plagued the United States throughout the 1970s.

Yet, the most disheartening aspect was the treatment of American soldiers returning from Vietnam. There was not a victor's celebration; there was not a ticker-tape parade. Over 2 million men and women served during the conflict; over 58,000 perished, nearly 300,000 were wounded and more than 2,000 were deemed missing. Veterans were largely mistreated and ignored. There were few benefits or assistance for survivors, especially for those who suffered under the effects of Agent Orange and the scourge of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Many turned to drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism. Others lived throughout the 1970s in outrage over their mistreatment, but their cries were left unanswered in a society attempting to forget about the war.

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