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Vietnam Syndrome: Definition, Causes & Impact

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  • 0:01 Vietnam Syndrome
  • 0:34 Causes If Vietnam Syndrome
  • 1:47 Impact of Vietnam War
  • 3:19 Effects of Foreign Policy
  • 4:32 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

Since the 1970s, U.S history and politics have been shaped by the country's experience in the Vietnam War. In this lesson we explore the term 'Vietnam Syndrome'. We will discuss its causes as well as its impact on American politics and on American society in general.

What Is the Vietnam Syndrome?

When you think of the word, 'syndrome,' you might think of a medical disease - something which is perhaps not overt but still affects an individual's functions and decisions. The same was true for the political and societal phenomenon known as the Vietnam Syndrome, which refers to America's wariness to engage in any foreign conflicts after the Vietnam War. In this lesson, we will explore the roots of Vietnam Syndrome and how it manifested itself in our society.

Causes of Vietnam Syndrome

Vietnam Syndrome was caused, in part, by the haphazard way the United States intervened in the Vietnam conflict and the debacle it became. The United States fought a brief but large war in Vietnam, seemingly by accident. The United States first sent advisors to South Vietnam in the 1950s to train troops. The goal was to aid the failing democratic state and stop the spread of communism in Asia. Throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s, more and more military personnel were sent to support that mission.

By 1968, there were more than half a million American troops in Vietnam providing the backbone of South Vietnam's resistance to North Vietnam, which sought to unify the country under communist rule. Ill-equipped and ill-trained for a guerrilla war in the jungles of Vietnam, U.S. forces took heavy casualties. By the time the last American troops were withdrawn in 1973, more than 58,000 U.S. servicemen and women were either dead, missing, or presumed dead. To make matters worse, these deaths ultimately occurred in vain; South Vietnam fell to the communists once and for all two years later.

Impact of Vietnam War

As a result of this military disaster, in the years following the Vietnam War, American politicians were routinely wary of getting the United States involved in foreign conflicts. This tendency became known as Vietnam Syndrome. In the wake of the war, politicians questioned the country's opposition to communism in other parts of the world and whether or not the United States had the duty, let alone the right, to act as the world's anti-communist police force. Left-leaning politicians questioned whether the growth of communism truly threatened American liberty at all.

The American public also remained wary of foreign conflicts in the decades immediately following the end of the Vietnam War. As the war dragged on, it became highly controversial. Many Americans opposed U.S. involvement and questioned the intelligence and competence of political leaders who supported a foreign conflict on the other side of world, where thousands of U.S. troops were dying each year.

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