Death of American Idealism in War: South East Asia

The United States' experience in Vietnam ended America's romantic idealism of warfare and established its vulnerability. What makes this conflict unique is that the U.S. did not decisively win militarily or politically. What added to the significance of this conflict was an alienation of soldiers America sent to fight and the loss of confidence in its political leadership. North Vietnam did not defeat the United States in battle, they just outlasted the Americans. In the end, North Vietnam gained what they set out to do: control all of Vietnam.

8th Infantry Rgt. descending Hill 742 during Operation MacArthurCredit: US Army, 1967 ; Uploaded by BrokenSphere

Note: The basis for material presented comes primarily from the accounts of author Stanley Karnow and Truong Nhu Tang's memoir.

A Failure to Understand

The U.S. marched slowly into Vietnam with the idea that it as engaging in this conflict to thwart a communist infestation spreading across Asia. Unfortunately, the U.S. policy makers and American people did not understand Vietnam, its people, and its history. From the North Vietnamese perspective they were in a battle to stop the tyrannical capitalists in their efforts to acquire more power and territory as world conquerors. The South Vietnamese people that the U.S. swore to protect from northern aggression had no real conviction of their own to whether or not they desired U.S. influence or show the intent to stand on their own if the U.S. was successful.


The U.S. Government was also less committed than they would allow themselves to admit. Presidents, L. B. Johnson and Richard Nixon, were idealistic minded in their commitment to defeat the communism of North Vietnam. However, neither was committed to using the force necessary to actually defeat the North Vietnamese. Johnson could not totally commit himself to something that he felt strongly about, because of the potentially long lasting impact on his future political career and legacy. The American people were split between those that supported the president versus those that spoke out vehemently against the American involvement and policies in Vietnam. Eventually, other American political officials began asking themselves "Why are we here?" (Karnow 460)[2]. In response to a public outcry, Nixon tried to end this war in a fashion that would not result in his being known as the first U.S. President to lose a war. His goal was to find a solution that achieved what he called "Peace with Honor."


"The biggest dilemma for American soldiers in Vietnam was distinguishing friendly from hostile peasants (Karnow 449)."[2] In this conflict the Vietcong and civilian community dressed alike; only the North Vietnamese regulars wore traditional uniforms. American soldiers faced an unconventional warfare. The front lines were not clearly definable: the threat was not a force existing directly in front of the American soldier, it was all around. The Vietcong would fire at American soldiers from within the villages masked and shielded by non-combatants. Soldiers drudged week after week through rice paddies and jungles only occasionally engaging the Vietcong. Others fought farther north in the highlands and faced large forces of North Vietnamese regulars (Karnow 479).[2] Danger laid in each trail, field, bush, small crevice, in the villages and huts. The Vietcong were especially adapted at making use of booby traps, hiding them in various places waiting for their intended victims; even children were recruited to carry hidden explosives into the hands of American soldiers. American soldiers found themselves eerily adjusting, as if it was natural, to this way of life living in the bush, developing skills to detect and recognize potential danger in a hyper-vigilant state of mind.

Boeing B-52 dropping bombsCredit: USAF - U.S. Air Force photo 020926-O-9999G-001 from the USAF website

Fear the Beast in the Sky: B-52

As to the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong, the weapons feared most were the B-52 Bomber and particularly napalm bombs because of the relentlessness carnage inflicted by these tools of destruction. However, the more the Americans bombed North Vietnam the stronger the North Vietnamese resolve became to outlast the foreign intervention. Colonel David Hackworth described the sight of a communist bunker being deluged by American bombs. "The fortified positions were manned by hard-core mothers who didn't give even after their eardrums had burst from the concussion (Karnow 21)."[2] In Truong Nhu Tang's Vietcong Memoirs, he relates his experiences facing the American forces. "For all the privations and hardships, nothing the guerrillas had to endure compared with the stark terrorization of the B-52 bombardments (CAPCO 104)".[1] "The first few times I (Truong) experienced a B-52 attack it seemed, as I strained to press myself in to the bunker floor, that I had been caught in the Apocalypse. The terror was complete (CAPCO 104)."[1]

The 1973 agreement reached between North Vietnam and the U.S. formalized the process for the U.S. to withdraw its troops. All parties were well aware that this spelled the eventually fall of the South Vietnamese government. Though Nixon may have thought that he achieved a "Peace with Honor" for the U.S., Karnow points out that the American soldiers that served in Vietnam and especially those that were POW's, wounded, or killed in action from this war, received no honor or glory when they returned home. They were treated with much less dignity, not as their fathers in previous wars were, not as heroes were, but as the forgotten and representatives of U.S. failure.

Blind Trust

Prior to Vietnam, the American people blindly trusted and followed its' Presidents and the official government statements regarding the progress of the war; however, information provided by the media coverage of Vietnam War conflicted with the words of its leaders. In the end it was clear that as the war progressed, the U.S. leadership was not committed to success. As a result most Vietnam veterans and the public at large blamed the political leadership in Washington for the failure. Most veterans believed that they were restricted from winning this war (Karnow 480).[2] The mental and physical devastation of war left permanent scares on the U.S. image as a superpower. Unfortunately, in the end, 58,000 American soldiers died in a failed attempt of a wanting political crusade.

Vietnam: A History
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