America’s first taste of defeat in war shaped perceptions of the U.S. at home and abroad.
Forty years ago today, the United States lost its first war. And for the vast numbers of Americans who were deeply affected by the Vietnam debacle – including the military personnel who served there, the families of the nearly 60,000 Americans soldiers who died in Southeast Asia, and the citizens who lost faith in their country because of the events that unfolded – the conflict will remain a defining point in their lives.
For the United States itself, the war resulted in something America had never experienced before: clear defeat. It caused a wave of second-guessing about America’s role in the world, splitting the country between hawks and doves, dividing individual families and the nation itself into angry camps over what went wrong and how much the country had lost its way.
The fall of Saigon, along with the sudden desperation of thousands of Vietnamese attempting to flee the city and, more broadly, the sad history of U.S. involvement in Indo-China, are being commemorated this week in a variety of ways, including television specials on PBS and the Smithsonian Channel. In an essay for ABC News, former Associated Press war correspondent Peter Arnett writes, “The mad scrambles to go anywhere but Vietnam [during the fall of Saigon] remain today an ignominious coda to the already bleak history of America’s last years in Vietnam.”
The defeat ended America’s innocence about its role in the world and shattered the once-cherished belief that the United States always did the right thing internationally. As a practical matter, the defeat undermined for years America’s belief in its own power and damaged the credibility of the presidency as many citizens felt misled by Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon.
And the “Vietnam syndrome” – the reluctance to get the U.S. militarily involved abroad in a sustained way because such an intervention might bog America down in another costly, lengthy, futile war – lasted a long time. Politicians of every stripe said their goal in foreign policy was to avoid “another Vietnam.” Americans understood this to mean a bad war, badly planned, badly executed and badly explained, that exemplified Murphy’s Law, in which everything that could go wrong, did go wrong.