The Vietnam Syndrome, as coined by Kissinger and popularisedby Reagan, describes a widespread reluctance to endorse U.S militaryinvolvement after the country’s ordeal in the Vietnam War. The war had left thecountry with a gruelling experience.
It had created divisions on the home-frontand gifted America its first defeat. Hoping to avoid another Vietnamexperience, policymakers and the American public became wary of aninterventionist foreign policy. This uneasy attitude towards intervention wouldshape policy, as administrations, like President Regan’s, would seek/aspire tooperate in Central America, while still being aware of the public’s scepticism.Because of the legacy of Vietnam, operations in this region were thenconsidered and apprehensive to avoid the public from flagging parallels. Torecognise how this apprehensiveness has shaped policy, Iwill examine the notion of a Vietnam Syndrome, and its influence bymeans of analysis of U.S responses in Central America. These events show thateven though the American government partook in conflict, the legacy of Vietnamstill 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. Inthis definition, an anxiety surrounding the Vietnam war’s legacy had driven thegovernment, the Carter presidency, to submit to noninterfering foreign policydemands.1 Thissubmission had allowed for a Soviet drive for expansion, while America inresponse was contemplating a post-Vietnam War malaise. Places like theCaribbean were being made by way of Soviet surrogates ‘into a red lake’2. Tocounter this, Reagan proposed a policy of ‘peace through strength’3 (whichpromised to restore America’s ability to defend its national interest). Thiswas a promise to commit to a more interactive foreign policy in places likeCentral America, to stem the Soviet advance. However, the American populace didnot desire ‘another Vietnam’.
In 1983, polls showed how traumatising theVietnam experience was, as there were displays of disapproval towards Reagan’spolicy positions. 66% of Americans were displeased withReagan’s conduct in El Salvador, and 25% assumed he would begin a needless war.4 TheAmerican public was not ready to involve themselves in more conflicts, and thusadministrations in charge would have to reflect upon this opinion when comingto decisions. This aversion tointervention, in part formed by a Vietnam Syndrome, would come to affect notjust Reagan’s but also Carter’s and Bush’s conduct of foreign policy. One ofthese direct effects was a reluctance to use military intervention as a foreignpolicy initiative.This hesitation to use military force would be spurred bythe unpopularity that the action now symbolized. The last military action in Vietnam had beenlimited in origin but escalated gradually into a full-on war. This war produceddivision on the home-front with a splintering into several factions, who wereall in opposition to each other’s position on the conflict.
5 To theAmerican people, an involvement in places like Central America represented asimilar prospect. It would be in their mind better to stay out of theseaffairs. However, this would not be possible for someone like Reagan, as hesubscribed 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.Sposition in Reagan’s notion of the domino theory. For Reagan, the stakes weretoo high to refrain from involvement in these countries. The issue then becamehow it would be feasible for administrations like Reagan’s to fulfil theirforeign policy aims, while not using direct military action. The answer to thisquandary arose in the use of less conventional approaches.
In Central America,many of these operations were carried out in the supporting and financing ofanti- socialist powers, such as the pro-American regime in El Salvador.This U.S sponsorship of El Salvador initially transpiredunder Carter’s presidency, with military aid suppliedin 1980.6When Reagan assumed control in 1981, this approach was extended. Besides theflows of capital, the US also sponsored the ascent ofJose Napoleon Duarte’s regime in 1984.
This support came in nationalpolls which were undertaken in an “atmosphere ofterror and despair, of macabre rumour and grisly reality’7. TheReagan administration ignored the junta’s atrocities in order for the widerconsiderations of the Cold War to take precedence. Paralleling America’ssupport of regimes like Ngo Diem in Vietnam, domestic critics noted the correlations relating the circumstances in El Salvador andthe prelude to war in Vietnam. Some congress men and women evensuggested that the ‘similarity to Vietnam is so close it’s almost uncanny’8. Thesesimilarities also came to be raised in the Oscar-nominated film ElSalvador: another Vietnam.
The fact that academy voters even endorsed thisfilm, draws on the power and influence the Vietnam syndrome had in shapingpeople’s minds. This comparison made direct involvement less politicallyworkable. To even challenge these accusations and calm public fears too muchpolitical capital would be needed. Therefore, the American government’sdecision to offer capital for El Salvador, rather than militarily intervening was down to the prominence of the Vietnam syndromeamong the American populous.Another situation in which comparisons constrained policywas in America’s dealings with the Contras in Nicaragua. The Contras were arebel group which opposed the Sandinista revolutionary government. WithNicaragua being a key target for Reagan, the CIA in 1982 were then allowed toassist the Contras. This assistance would educate Contras on terroristtechniques explored in the infamous CIA manual, Psychological Operations inGuerrilla war.
It offered tips on ‘implicit and explicit terror’, describing inways which Sandinista officials could be ‘neutralized’. Due to the constraintson direct intervention, this covert method shaped policy by providing one of’the fruits of the Vietnam syndrome’. It reshaped Washington’s views on how todestabilize countries by showing covert methods as a plausible alternative.While not new, Covert action had been discredited after Operation Mongoose inthe 60’s against Castro.
This dependence in Nicaragua, with a covert programfronted by the Contras, challenged the earlier failure by restoring belief inthese types of operations. To stave off any attack from dissenters, Reagan had to justifythese Nicaraguan relations with no intentions of deploying troops in theregion. This statement of intent was needed to address the political concernsof enacting a proactive foreign policy. Even with this statement, Congressremained sceptical of this intervention. This led to amendments made byCongress in the Boland agreement which prohibited trade with the Contras. Topreserve support for the Contras via the CIA, the Reagan administrationillegally sold arms in the Iran-Contra affair.
This violated the amendments andwas unconstitutional. The fact that individuals of the executive were preparedto risk this, undoubtedly shows great commitment to their operations inNicaragua. It also shows the environment in which the executive now had tooperate in to get things done. Previously, as seen with the Tonkin Gulfresolution of 1964, the executive was trusted with a lot more freedom inpolicy. However, given the lack of faith in the executive post-Vietnam, a newenvironment emerged where Congress now kept these affairs in check.
If therewas no scepticism and apprehension from the experiences of Vietnam, it can bepostulated these manoeuvrings with Iran would never have been needed. Shiftingfrom direct intervention to indirect aid, as shown with the Contras, was againcaused by the apprehensive political outlook on military intervention afterVietnam. However, this mythos and apprehension surrounding intervention wouldcome to be challenged with American operations concerning Granada.12345678