The to endorse U.S military involvement after the

The Vietnam Syndrome, as coined by Kissinger and popularised
by Reagan, describes a widespread reluctance to endorse U.S military
involvement after the country’s ordeal in the Vietnam War. The war had left the
country with a gruelling experience. It had created divisions on the home-front
and gifted America its first defeat. Hoping to avoid another Vietnam
experience, policymakers and the American public became wary of an
interventionist foreign policy. This uneasy attitude towards intervention would
shape policy, as administrations, like President Regan’s, would seek/aspire to
operate in Central America, while still being aware of the public’s scepticism.
Because of the legacy of Vietnam, operations in this region were then
considered and apprehensive to avoid the public from flagging parallels. To
recognise how this apprehensiveness has shaped policy, I
will examine the notion of a Vietnam Syndrome, and its influence by
means of analysis of U.S responses in Central America. These events show that
even though the American government partook in conflict, the legacy of Vietnam
still lingered to ward off any notion of a prolonged conflict.

In an address to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in 1980,
then-candidate Reagan outlined his understanding of the Vietnam syndrome. In
this definition, an anxiety surrounding the Vietnam war’s legacy had driven the
government, the Carter presidency, to submit to noninterfering foreign policy
demands.1 This
submission had allowed for a Soviet drive for expansion, while America in
response was contemplating a post-Vietnam War malaise. Places like the
Caribbean were being made by way of Soviet surrogates ‘into a red lake’2. To
counter this, Reagan proposed a policy of ‘peace through strength’3 (which
promised to restore America’s ability to defend its national interest). This
was a promise to commit to a more interactive foreign policy in places like
Central America, to stem the Soviet advance. However, the American populace did
not desire ‘another Vietnam’. In 1983, polls showed how traumatising the
Vietnam experience was, as there were displays of disapproval towards Reagan’s
policy positions. 66% of Americans were displeased with
Reagan’s conduct in El Salvador, and 25% assumed he would begin a needless war.4 The
American public was not ready to involve themselves in more conflicts, and thus
administrations in charge would have to reflect upon this opinion when coming
to decisions.  This aversion to
intervention, in part formed by a Vietnam Syndrome, would come to affect not
just Reagan’s but also Carter’s and Bush’s conduct of foreign policy. One of
these direct effects was a reluctance to use military intervention as a foreign
policy initiative.

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This hesitation to use military force would be spurred by
the unpopularity that the action now symbolized.  The last military action in Vietnam had been
limited in origin but escalated gradually into a full-on war. This war produced
division on the home-front with a splintering into several factions, who were
all in opposition to each other’s position on the conflict.5 To the
American people, an involvement in places like Central America represented a
similar prospect. It would be in their mind better to stay out of these
affairs. However, this would not be possible for someone like Reagan, as he
subscribed to an understanding which implicated the nations of Central America,
like Grenada and El Salvador, as essential to America’s national interest.
These nations, if left to a communist takeover, would come to threaten the U.S
position in Reagan’s notion of the domino theory. For Reagan, the stakes were
too high to refrain from involvement in these countries. The issue then became
how it would be feasible for administrations like Reagan’s to fulfil their
foreign policy aims, while not using direct military action. The answer to this
quandary arose in the use of less conventional approaches. In Central America,
many of these operations were carried out in the supporting and financing of
anti- socialist powers, such as the pro-American regime in El Salvador.

This U.S sponsorship of El Salvador initially transpired
under Carter’s presidency, with military aid supplied
in 1980.6
When Reagan assumed control in 1981, this approach was extended. Besides the
flows of capital, the US also sponsored the ascent of
Jose Napoleon Duarte’s regime in 1984. This support came in national
polls which were undertaken in an “atmosphere of
terror and despair, of macabre rumour and grisly reality’7. The
Reagan administration ignored the junta’s atrocities in order for the wider
considerations of the Cold War to take precedence. Paralleling America’s
support of regimes like Ngo Diem in Vietnam, domestic critics noted the correlations relating the circumstances in El Salvador and
the prelude to war in Vietnam. Some congress men and women even
suggested that the ‘similarity to Vietnam is so close it’s almost uncanny’8. These
similarities also came to be raised in the Oscar-nominated film El
Salvador: another Vietnam. The fact that academy voters even endorsed this
film, draws on the power and influence the Vietnam syndrome had in shaping
people’s minds. This comparison made direct involvement less politically
workable. To even challenge these accusations and calm public fears too much
political capital would be needed. Therefore, the American government’s
decision to offer capital for El Salvador, rather than militarily intervening was down to the prominence of the Vietnam syndrome
among the American populous.

Another situation in which comparisons constrained policy
was in America’s dealings with the Contras in Nicaragua. The Contras were a
rebel group which opposed the Sandinista revolutionary government. With
Nicaragua being a key target for Reagan, the CIA in 1982 were then allowed to
assist the Contras. This assistance would educate Contras on terrorist
techniques explored in the infamous CIA manual, Psychological Operations in
Guerrilla war. It offered tips on ‘implicit and explicit terror’, describing in
ways which Sandinista officials could be ‘neutralized’. Due to the constraints
on direct intervention, this covert method shaped policy by providing one of
‘the fruits of the Vietnam syndrome’. It reshaped Washington’s views on how to
destabilize countries by showing covert methods as a plausible alternative.
While not new, Covert action had been discredited after Operation Mongoose in
the 60’s against Castro. This dependence in Nicaragua, with a covert program
fronted by the Contras, challenged the earlier failure by restoring belief in
these types of operations.

To stave off any attack from dissenters, Reagan had to justify
these Nicaraguan relations with no intentions of deploying troops in the
region. This statement of intent was needed to address the political concerns
of enacting a proactive foreign policy. Even with this statement, Congress
remained sceptical of this intervention. This led to amendments made by
Congress in the Boland agreement which prohibited trade with the Contras. To
preserve support for the Contras via the CIA, the Reagan administration
illegally sold arms in the Iran-Contra affair. This violated the amendments and
was unconstitutional. The fact that individuals of the executive were prepared
to risk this, undoubtedly shows great commitment to their operations in
Nicaragua. It also shows the environment in which the executive now had to
operate in to get things done. Previously, as seen with the Tonkin Gulf
resolution of 1964, the executive was trusted with a lot more freedom in
policy. However, given the lack of faith in the executive post-Vietnam, a new
environment emerged where Congress now kept these affairs in check. If there
was no scepticism and apprehension from the experiences of Vietnam, it can be
postulated these manoeuvrings with Iran would never have been needed. Shifting
from direct intervention to indirect aid, as shown with the Contras, was again
caused by the apprehensive political outlook on military intervention after
Vietnam. However, this mythos and apprehension surrounding intervention would
come to be challenged with American operations concerning Granada.