The United States could have won the Vietnam War if only American leaders had waged it in a different way. So argues a small but persistent band of authors, pundits, policy analysts, and politicians unpersuaded by the commonly held view that the United States was doomed to failure in Indochina no matter what it did. The contrarians have been making their case ever since Lyndon Johnson abandoned hope of a decisive American victory in the spring of 1968. But something striking has happened in the early 21st century: the idea that the United States stole defeat from the jaws of victory in Vietnam is thriving as never before.
The argument, known as “revisionism,” takes various forms. Some authors assert that bolder presidential leadership could have brought victory by assuring more decisive uses of force and greater public backing of the war. Others contend that victory could have been achieved by doing more to assure the effectiveness of the South Vietnamese state. Still others argue for different decisions about battlefield strategy. Through all of these variations, though, runs a single thread: change some variable in U.S. behavior, and the Vietnam War might have wound up in America’s Cold War win column.
High-profile books published in the last few years have developed the argument in unprecedented detail and with compelling eloquence. In Triumph Forsaken, published in 2009, foreign-policy analyst Mark Moyar argues that the United States made quiet progress toward success in Indochina until 1963. In that year, Moyar contends, weak-willed politicians and ignorant journalists betrayed South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, a flawed but generally effective anticommunist around whom an enduring state could have been constructed. The U.S.-backed coup against Diem, argues Moyar, demolished the foundations of success that had been laid in earlier years and put the United States on a path to disaster.
In his 2018 tome The Road Not Taken, briefly a New York Times bestseller, author Max Boot makes a similar argument via a vivid biography of Edward Lansdale, an Air Force officer and CIA operative who advised the South Vietnamese government in the mid-1950s. In Boot’s telling, Lansdale was nothing short of a “maestro of counterguerrilla warfare and virtuoso of nation-building.”  So skilled was Lansdale, argues Boot, that he might have created a viable South Vietnam if his superiors in Washington had followed his advice about how to win the hearts and minds of the population. In the end, though, Lansdale’s unimaginative superiors rejected his opinions, squandering America’s chance for victory.
Revisionism also seems to be faring better than ever with the American public. To be sure, opinion polls show that majorities continue to think about the U.S. war in Vietnam as Americans always have over the past 50 years—as a mistake, a view that presumably reflects doubts about whether the war was winnable at any reasonable cost. (Unfortunately, pollsters have rarely asked explicitly about the possibility that the United States could have won the war.) But those majorities are smaller than they used to be. According to a CBS News poll from January 2018, only 51 percent of Americans believe the United States “should have stayed out” of Vietnam–a drop-off from the 73 percent who held that view in 1985 or even the 60 percent who took that position in 2000. A Gallup poll from March 2013 similarly found that 57 percent of Americans regarded the war as a “mistake” but noted that number had dropped from a high of 69 percent in 2000. Most strikingly, the Gallup poll found that younger Americans were especially open to the idea that the United States might have been right to intervene in Vietnam. Fifty-three percent of Americans between 18 and 29 years old believed the war was “not a mistake.”
The problem with surging revisionism is that just about every academic expert on the war disagrees. So profound were the deficiencies of America’s allies in South Vietnam and so vast was Chinese and Soviet support for the communist war effort, runs this argument, that nothing the United States could have done would have altered the war’s outcome short of absurd methods such as open-ended military occupation of South Vietnam or the total destruction of North Vietnam. Only the Vietnamese themselves, to put it differently, had the power to determine their nation’s post-colonial destiny. Like Sisyphus rolling his rock up the mountain, Americans flailed away year after year at a task that lay beyond their ability to achieve, no matter how skillfully they deployed their nation’s prodigious power.
American efforts to come to terms with a basic question about the Vietnam War are thus beset by a fascinating paradox: the notion that the United States could have achieved its goals has gained popularity even though precious few of the scholars deeply immersed in the history of the war buy the idea. How can we explain this oddity?
For some scholars, the war’s hopelessness has a distinctly tragic flavor. Americans went to war in Vietnam, holds this interpretation, on the basis of a sincere and even laudable desire to resist communist expansion, only to discover that they had gotten themselves into an irredeemable mess–a “quagmire,” to use the term popularized by the journalist David Halberstam. Others take a harsher view of U.S. motives, arguing that American leaders were guided by imperial hubris, the needs of the global capitalist system, partisan jockeying, the ambitions of an out-of-control military-industrial complex, or some other nefarious influence. But beneath these different appraisals of American motives runs underlying agreement: the United States got itself involved in a war it could not possibly win.
American efforts to come to terms with a basic question about the Vietnam War are thus beset by a fascinating paradox: the notion that the United States could have achieved its goals has gained popularity even though precious few of the scholars deeply immersed in the history of the war buy the idea. How can we explain this oddity? One possibility is that the revisionists are finding favor because they are essentially correct. Revisionists might be gaining favor, as many of them contend, because they are finally setting the record straight by heroically challenging a left-leaning academic establishment congenitally hostile to the use of American military power. The problem with that view is that younger academics, relatively free from the antiwar sensibilities of the older generation and benefiting from unprecedented access to source material, are consistently reinforcing the old view in a remarkable body of new work about the war: No decision the United States could have made would have brought victory in Vietnam at a sensible cost.
Another possibility is that surging revisionism reflects not a breakthrough in understanding of the war but the changing uses that the war plays in the American political and policy-making spheres. Perhaps, in other words, we hear more of the lost-victory school of thought these days because it serves a purpose in a moment of political polarization and anxiety about declining American power to shape international affairs. To come to terms with this possibility, it is illuminating to reach back across the last 50 years to see where revisionism came from and how it has ebbed and flowed over time. By placing the current era within this longer span, we can see more clearly why revisionism has surged in recent times and why it shows every sign of sticking around for a while.
1968: Origins of an idea
The idea of a squandered victory first gained traction in 1968, the crucial turning point of the war and, in many ways, in the conduct of American foreign policy after 1945. Up until then, the United States had generally had its way in the Cold War, shaping a Western economic and geopolitical order around its interests and successfully blocking the extension of communist power. But starting in January 1968, a series of calamitous events signaled that a new era had arrived. On the night of January 30-31, communist guerrillas and North Vietnamese soldiers launched the Tet Offensive, a stunning onslaught against the cities and towns of South Vietnam. The communists hoped this demonstration of power outside the communists’ rural base would provoke a popular uprising against the South Vietnamese government or, failing that, to tilt the political and battlefield situation decisively in their favor.
Measured in strictly military terms, the offensive fell wildly short of communist hopes. U.S. and South Vietnamese forces quickly rolled back communist gains almost everywhere. In political terms, however, the offensive brought decisive gains for the Hanoi government, especially because of the earthquake that the attacks caused in the United States. Having been consistently encouraged to believe that U.S. troops were making progress toward victory, the American public reacted with astonishment and anger at such a brazen display of communist power. Stung by his critics, President Lyndon Johnson went before a national television audience on March 31 to appeal for negotiations and to announce his decision not to run for reelection. LBJ rejected the military’s request for 206,000 additional American troops to fight in Vietnam, approving only a much smaller number to meet immediate battlefield needs.
These breathtaking announcements won approval across much of the American political spectrum. Most Americans, after all, saw the war much as CBS News anchor Cronkite–“the most trusted man in America”–described in a famous televised editorial at the end of February. “[I]t seems now more certain than ever,” insisted Cronkite, “that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate.” Winding down the war appealed as the best–maybe the only–way to get free of a hopeless situation.
Perhaps the most persistent advocate of this view was the overall commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, General William C. Westmoreland, who downplayed communist gains as the battle unfolded and later offered a full-fledged theory of lost victory. He lamented in his 1976 memoir that LBJ and his advisers “ignored the maxim that when the enemy is hurting, you don’t diminish the pressure, you increase it.”
For a few Americans, though, Johnson’s announcements amounted to unwarranted defeatism inspired by media reporting that exaggerated the setback. U.S. officers in Vietnam repeatedly insisted that U.S. and South Vietnamese troops had performed well during the fighting sparked by the offensive and inflicted heavy losses on communist forces. In the hawks’ view, the time was right not for winding down the war but for capitalizing on underappreciated advantages. The U.S.-South Vietnamese counteroffensive, wrote the right-wing National Review, “constitutes possibly the longest step forward we have taken in the entire war.” Perhaps the most persistent advocate of this view was the overall commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, General William C. Westmoreland, who downplayed communist gains as the battle unfolded and later offered a full-fledged theory of lost victory. He lamented in his 1976 memoir that LBJ and his advisers “ignored the maxim that when the enemy is hurting, you don’t diminish the pressure, you increase it.”
In ways both subtle and blunt, Richard Nixon and his foreign-policy lieutenant, Henry Kissinger, picked up on the lost-victory theme. At first, the administration’s purposes were mostly political, part of a broader effort to curry favor with parts of the American public hostile to the antiwar movement and skeptical of allegedly weak-willed elites. In a nationally televised speech on November 3, 1969, Nixon appealed to the “great silent majority” to support the administration’s Vietnam policy. He did not state explicitly that this majority believed U.S. goals were still obtainable in Vietnam, but he made the point in a backhanded way. “North Vietnam cannot defeat or humiliate the United States,” he said. “Only Americans can do that.”
The effort to single out precisely which Americans were responsible for U.S. defeat in Vietnam gained far more precision in 1975, around the time North Vietnamese forces captured Saigon. Naturally, Kissinger worried that blame for that catastrophe would fall on him, damaging his personal prestige and undermining his diplomatic priorities around the world. He worked hard to shift responsibility to Congress as defeat loomed during the first months of 1975. His version of events went as follows: The Nixon administration had worked doggedly between 1969 and 1973 to secure a peace agreement that preserved an independent, anti-communist South Vietnam. Indeed, the Paris agreement of January 1973 provided reasonable grounds to believe that South Vietnam could be defended into the indefinite future as long as the United States continued to provide necessary economic, political, and military support. But Congress, hostile to the Nixon and Ford presidencies and spineless in the face of communist aggression, refused to provide that help.
Kissinger chastised Congress for leaving South Vietnamese with insufficient weaponry, fuel, and other supplies to defend itself as North Vietnamese armies closed in on Saigon. Back when the ceasefire had taken effect, he told reporters on March 26, 1975, “there was never any question that the United States would continue to give economic and military aid to Vietnam.” What was now at stake, he added, was the question of whether the United States would “deliberately destroy an ally by withholding aid from it in its moment of extremity.” Nixon later put the matter in even stronger terms. “By 1973, we had achieved our political objective: South Vietnam’s independence had been secured.” But in 1975, he added, “Congress destroyed our ability to enforce the Paris agreement and left our allies vulnerable to Hanoi’s invading forces. If I sound like I’m blaming Congress, I am.”
In a nationally televised speech on November 3, 1969, Nixon appealed to the “great silent majority” to support the administration’s Vietnam policy. He did not state explicitly that this majority believed U.S. goals were still obtainable in Vietnam, but he made the point in a backhanded way. “North Vietnam cannot defeat or humiliate the United States,” he said. “Only Americans can do that.”
Two distinct revisionist lines of thinking had thus been articulated within a few years of American’s final defeat in Vietnam, each with its own notion of who was to blame for the bad choices–a spineless executive or a treacherous Congress. Yet neither of these took deep root in the 1970s or gained much acceptance outside small clusters of aggrieved Americans fixated on the issue. Otherwise, Americans mostly tried to move past the war out of a desire to escape the traumas it had caused or to recover the sense of dignity and purpose it had besmirched. A full airing of the lost victory idea awaited more propitious circumstances.
From Reagan to 9/11
That moment arrived in 1980. Americans were reeling from economic stagflation, the humiliations of the Iranian hostage, and alarming signs that the Soviets were growing more aggressive. President Jimmy Carter, whose moralism had played well in the post-Watergate election of 1976, now seemed hopelessly weak in a world that seemed to require not self-abnegation but the reassertion of U.S. power. Ronald Reagan’s campaign promised exactly that. Striking a tone of moral certainty and unashamed nationalism, Reagan pledged to rebuild the U.S. military and confront Soviet expansionism.
Reagan knew, though, that he had a problem. Many Americans, including a good number who supported him, remained wary of using U.S. military power abroad. This sentiment reflected, as Reagan put it, the “Vietnam Syndrome”–the sense that the United States must act cautiously in the world lest it embroil itself in more foreign policy disasters. Almost instinctively, Reagan appreciated that he needed to change the national conversation about the war. Thus did revisionism find a champion eager to promote the idea with the American public at large.
“For too long, we have lived with the ‘Vietnam Syndrome,’” Reagan declared in a 1980 campaign speech. “It is time we recognized that ours was, in truth, a noble cause,” he added, but the real zinger came a bit later. “Let us tell those who fought in that war that we will never again ask young men to fight and possibly die in a war our government is afraid to let them win.” The implication could hardly be missed: If only American leaders had waged with war with greater determination, victory would have been within their grasp. Many of Reagan’s advisers were nervous about these words, fearing that the speech would rankle voters still haunted by the war. But Reagan obviously made the right move.
By the end of Reagan’s first term, the first of the “Rambo” movies and Chuck Norris’s “Missing in Action”–movies depicting heroic rescues of American POWs who had been shamefully abandoned by a cowardly government–had become box office hits. John Rambo gave Reagan’s core message perhaps its most enduring expression. “I did what I had to do to win!” shouts Rambo. “But somebody wouldn’t let us win!”
The next few years showed that Reagan was finding political traction on the issue. To be sure, opinion polls during the 1980s showed majorities of Americans believed the war to have been a “mistake” and disagreed with Reagan’s description of U.S. intervention as a “noble cause.” But polls also revealed support for Reagan’s decisions to dispatch U.S. troops to participate in an international peacekeeping mission in Lebanon and then to oust a Marxist regime on the tiny Caribbean island Grenada. The Vietnam syndrome, it was clear, had its limits. More to the point, a Los Angeles Times poll conducted in 1985 uncovered data that suggested an important perceptual shift. Three out of five respondents now believed that the United States could have won the war in Vietnam if military commanders had been able to wage the fight as they saw fit. The same point echoed in both Hollywood and the rarified world of defense intellectuals. By the end of Reagan’s first term, the first of the “Rambo” movies and Chuck Norris’s “Missing in Action”–movies depicting heroic rescues of American POWs who had been shamefully abandoned by a cowardly government–had become box office hits. John Rambo gave Reagan’s core message perhaps its most enduring expression. “I did what I had to do to win!” shouts Rambo. “But somebody wouldn’t let us win!”
In the publishing world, meanwhile, two of the most influential revisionist texts of all time made their debuts. In 1978, political scientist Guenter Lewy–one of very few academics ever to contribute to lost-victory thinking–published America at War, which anticipated 21st century works by arguing that America might have won in Vietnam if only U.S. leaders had chosen counter-guerrilla rather than conventional methods of warfare. But Army Colonel Harry G. Summers Jr. made a bigger splash with On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War, in 1982. The book gave intellectual heft to Reagan’s basic message: American forces had performed well in Vietnam but failed to achieve their objectives because of weak civilian and military leadership. In contrast to Lewy, Summers contended that the military failure lay with commanders who bought too heavily into the counter-guerrilla aspects of the war and failed to use sufficient conventional force in the right ways. Above all, Summers contended that U.S. forces should have been used to isolate the battlefield of South Vietnam by blocking the infiltration of enemy troops and supplies from the North.
Surging revisionism did not, however, produce the decisive change in U.S. behavior that Reagan appears to have wanted. During the 1980s, the United States remained notably cautious about using military force abroad, despite strong rhetoric to the contrary. One reason was, of course, that only part of the American public bought into the trend. Even as Reagan mobilized some of the public behind his vision of a newly assertive America, he faced public pressure to avoid “another Vietnam” and clearly if quietly opted not to test the limits of public tolerance for a bold foreign policy.
But the most important reason for the administration’s lack of bold departures was the cosmic shift in the international environment during Reagan’s second term. The steady decline of U.S.-Soviet tensions after 1984 dramatically lessened pressures to intervene abroad, while the whole debate about Vietnam’s key lessons faded into the background as the historical circumstances that had given rise to the conflict evaporated. In fact, questions about the usefulness of U.S power abroad seemed to have been resolved for all practical purposes in 1991, when the United States achieved an overwhelming victory in the First Gulf War. “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all,” President George H.W. Bush proclaimed a few days after the eviction of Iraqi forces from Kuwait.
Bush was wrong. Far from an era of decisive American action, the 1990s proved to be a new era of indecision, largely because of the array of small-scale problems that confronted American leaders far from U.S. shores. Should the United States intervene in trouble-spots like Somalia, Rwanda, Haiti, Bosnia, or Kosovo? The old, still-dominant lesson of Vietnam hung heavy over American debates. Intervention, that is, might land the United States squarely in the middle of new quagmires that defied American capabilities. The deaths of 18 American servicemen in Somalia only reinforced old fears and contributed to President Bill Clinton’s hesitations about involving the United States in the Balkans.
Unquestionably, critics invoked revisionist themes connected to Vietnam in chastising Clinton for excessive caution. Revisionist thinking also got a boost in 1999, when Lewis Sorley, a Vietnam veteran and highly regarded military analyst, published A Better War, which still stands as the definitive version of the argument that U.S. forces fought effectively in the years after the Tet Offensive and commanded the battlefield to an extent unrecognized by the politicians who pulled the plug on the American military effort. For the most part, though, debate over the winnability of the Vietnam War remained muted at a time of general prosperity and drastically diminished international threats to the United States. Tellingly, Hollywood turned away from Vietnam, Americans proved willing to elect two baby-boomer presidents with dubious records of evading service in the war, and the United States normalized diplomatic relations with the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
The age of terror
Immediately after September 11, the Vietnam War was notable for its absence from discussion of how the United States should retaliate. The U.S.-led attack on Afghanistan enjoyed strong popularity; few fretted about looming quagmires. But then came the Iraq war. The Vietnam revival began in 2004, when the U.S. invasion–initially successful in overthrowing Saddam Hussein–bogged down into a grueling counterinsurgency campaign against an array of Iraqi forces. Predictably, critics of the Bush administration began drawing connections to the American experience in Vietnam. Just as in Southeast Asia, the critics charged, George W. Bush and his aides had blundered into disaster in a distant, complex society about which they knew little.
The rhetorical high point of such criticism came in January 2007, when Senator Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy took the podium at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., to oppose the Bush administration’s plan to send 20,000 additional American troops to Iraq. Calling on the American people to oppose this “surge,” Kennedy used language certain to generate headlines. Just as in Vietnam 40 years before, Kennedy asserted, the United States was doubling down on a failed enterprise, hoping irrationally that expansion of the conflict would somehow accomplish what earlier escalation had not. “Echoes of [the Vietnam] disaster are all around us today,” insisted Kennedy. “Iraq is George Bush’s Vietnam.”
Bush himself drew on the Vietnam War most explicitly in 2007 as his surge policy played out in Iraq. Speaking before the annual convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the president likened his critics to the antiwar activists who, in his view, had led the United States to pull out of Indochina before achieving its objectives.
More remarkable was the counterattack from Bush and his supporters. In the run-up to the 2004 presidential election, Bush’s political allies exploited the war as a major theme in the race against Massachusetts Senator John F. Kerry. No doubt the Bush team feared that Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran for his service aboard Navy “swift boats,” might exploit his military record to paint Bush as an incompetent commander in chief. To blunt such attacks, Bush’s political alchemists worked strenuously to turn Kerry’s advantage into a liability. Campaign advertisements called attention to Kerry’s famous 1971 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in which the recently returned veteran lambasted American leaders for carrying on the war long after any hope of victory had evaporated. Meanwhile, a pro-Bush organization called “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” sowed doubts about the legitimacy of Kerry’s decorations for his service in Vietnam. Against all odds, many Americans came to see Kerry, not Bush, as a weak, dishonest leader who had failed his country in Vietnam and could not be trusted with U.S. national security in the new era.
Bush himself drew on the Vietnam War most explicitly in 2007 as his surge policy played out in Iraq. Speaking before the annual convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the president likened his critics to the antiwar activists who, in his view, had led the United States to pull out of Indochina before achieving its objectives. “Then as now,” Bush asserted, “people argued the real problem was America’s presence and that if we would just withdraw, the killing would end.” In fact, the president continued, the withdrawal of U.S. power had unleashed a chain of horrors. “One unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America’s withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like ‘boat people,’ ‘re-education camps,’ and ‘killing fields.’”
The uses of Vietnam in the first half century
Scholars quickly jumped on Bush for a poor understanding of the Vietnam War, just as historians (and many others) criticized the “swift-boating” of John Kerry in 2004. More recently, the vast majority of historians have reviewed revisionist texts by Moyar and Boot unfavorably, critiquing their books for questionable use of sources and politically inspired wishful thinking.
But those critiques seem to make little difference. Proponents of revisionism and practitioners of academic history are, after all, speaking past each other as much today as they ever have. This is not to suggest that scholars are free of dovish bias or cannot be fairly criticized for knee-jerk hostility to revisionism claims. The best new work about the Vietnam War takes seriously important revisionist arguments. Ngo Dinh Diem was better than the old caricature that described him as a hopelessly unimaginative and unpopular leader. U.S. forces did fight better after 1968 than they had done before. But better does not mean decisively better. Historians are still on strong grounds in emphasizing the overwhelming political problems that beset the South Vietnamese government from its inception and the persistent U.S. failure to turn the situation around, no matter how much money, know-how, and military power they sent. New scholarship focused on North Vietnamese decision-making amplifies the point by showing how adamant Hanoi was in pursuing Vietnamese reunification.
U.S. forces did fight better after 1968 than they had done before. But better does not mean decisively better. Historians are still on strong grounds in emphasizing the overwhelming political problems that beset the South Vietnamese government from its inception and the persistent U.S. failure to turn the situation around, no matter how much money, know-how, and military power they sent.
The real problem with revisionism, as the last 50 years have shown, is that it is driven not so much by an honest desire to fine-tune what we know about the war as by a desire to use the Vietnam War as a cudgel in political and policy-making battles. On the political side, it is no coincidence that revisionism has surged in moments of polarization when right-of-center leaders have found advantage in emphasizing nationalist themes and degrading liberals as out-of-touch elites incapable of using American power to maximum effect. That line of thinking served Nixon well in the period when the lost-victory line of thinking first took root. It played well again when Reagan won the presidency on the strength of his apparent willingness to use American power more boldly than liberals who had failed the nation. Finally, George W. Bush similarly capitalized on suspicions of Kerry as a haughty aristocrat disconnected from the world of ordinary, right-thinking Americans. For all three, the Vietnam War was useful in exploiting deep-seated cultural cleavages.
It is also no coincidence that revisionism has gained momentum at moments when political leaders sought to push back against constraints on their ability to use American power abroad. That was certainly the case in the Nixon-Kissinger years, when the lost-victory idea, by focusing blame for the Vietnam debacle on Congress, promised to help the administration maintain its credibility in international affairs. In the Reagan years, revisionism served an even more obvious purpose, helping the administration’s effort to recover the ability to use American military power.
The connection between revisionism and policy goals is just as clear in the last couple of decades. In an era of metastasizing threats to the United States since September 11, 2001, a good number of Americans sense an urgent need to restore their nation’s ability to use its power abroad. That urge came to the fore in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when President George W. Bush proclaimed a new era of American activism to preempt threats and spread democracy. That vision crumbled amid the catastrophic war in Iraq, but the urge to use American power amid an increasingly hostile world did not go away. Rather, it morphed into a cruder instinct, epitomized by President Donald Trump, to use American power unilaterally and overwhelmingly, stripped of ennobling purpose or any pretense of multilateral endorsement. For champions of this new assertiveness, there are few conceptual tasks so important as demolishing the cautionary lessons that many Americans have imbibed about the Vietnam War and substituting a different view of history.
The real problem with revisionism, as the last 50 years have shown, is that it is driven not so much by an honest desire to fine-tune what we know about the war as by a desire to use the Vietnam War as a cudgel in political and policy-making battles.
Indeed, several proponents of Vietnam revisionism have been explicit about their present-day purposes in rethinking events from half a century ago. Revisionist authors Moyar and Boot, for example, are well-known hawks who believe that the United States can intervene successfully in distant, alien societies if only Washington uses its power deftly and puts the right people in charge. Their intellectual mission for several years, conducted mostly from conservative think tanks in Washington, has been to promote counterinsurgency and nation-building as key elements of the U.S. tool-kit for dealing with threats in the wider world, despite the apparent lessons of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Persistent polarization suggests that Vietnam will be useful as a tool of political mobilization for a good while yet. Indeed, the politics of anti-elitism seem more effective than ever in the Trump era. Meanwhile, persistent overseas challenges in places as diverse as Ukraine, Syria, Nigeria, and the South China Sea assure that Vietnam will remain a useful analogical tool in American policy debates. Perhaps the fading of the Vietnam generation will ultimately diminish the war’s utility. Yet another trend suggests that controversy surrounding the war will outlive the generation that spawned it. The simple passage of time means that fewer Americans have much knowledge of—or preconceptions about—the war or its place within the longer flow of history beyond a broad sense that it was important. The most significant finding of all in the 2018 CBS poll may have been that 27 percent of all Americans responded “don’t know” when asked whether the United States did the right thing or should have stayed out—up from 9 percent in 1995 and 16 percent in 2000. Given shallow assumptions about America’s unbroken march of military success across the centuries, it presumably stands to reason in the minds of many Americans unfamiliar with the peculiarities of the Vietnam War that their country could have prevailed even in its most problematic conflict.