The Vietnam War: A Moment of Change in American Foreign Policy?

Since the late-1960s, the Vietnam War has become a powerful symbol in Western popular culture. Award winning films such as Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket herald the war’s transformative effects. The war has a reputation as a moment of change in how America both conducted and viewed itself in an international context.  Vietnam was the first war America lost out-right, the first war to be properly televised, and was a conflict that happened in a country to which America previously had no ties. This simultaneous alienation from the battlefield but the strange connection with it through the media coverage spawned a massive moment of counter-cultural protest. The abrasive military methods have led to many now seeing America’s involvement in the war as immoral; the most glaring example of this may be the bombing of Laos and Cambodia in Operations Menu and Freedom Deal between 1969 and 1973. In these two operations, between 30,000 and 500,000 civilians were killed.

“Hey, Hey, LBJ, How many kids did you kill today?”

This article will explore the impact Vietnam had on American foreign policy. Ultimately, despite ostentatious visions of drastic change, the principal changes that appeared following Vietnam were either short-lived or merely alterations in how the US presented foreign policy. The ongoing Cold War overshadowed Vietnam’s influence, defining American foreign policy from 1945 to 1991 (and arguably today). Before and after the war, how America interacted with the rest of the world was defined by the East and West divide, and was justified by a belief in America’s moral superiority and the concept of American exceptionalism.


The Vietnam War was a proxy war, fought between North Vietnam and South Vietnam. The North was supported by the Soviet Union, and other allies, and South Vietman by the United States and other members of the Free World Military Forces (FWMF). (This included Spain, who, evidently just wanting to sit at the cool table, sent 10 troops).

Quickly, after being sworn in as President following John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Lyndon B. Johnson focused on the situation in Vietnam, which had been engulfed in war since 1955. He stated in late-November 1963 that, “the battle against communism […] must be joined […] with strength and determination.”

Less than a year after this statement, in August 1964, the famous Gulf of Tonkin incident occurred, which saw America’s previously limited involvement in the conflict accelerated exponentially. On 2nd August, 1964, the American ship the USS Maddox was performing an intelligence mission on the North Vietnamese coast when they were reportedly attacked by North Vietnamese torpedoes. In response to this, President Johnson and Congress approved an airstrike two days later. On 7th August, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, giving the president authority to use any means necessary to resolve the Vietnamese situation. Thus followed the longest war in US history until the Afghanistan War (2002-2014), in which 47,000 American soldiers were killed, 150,000 were wounded, and 10,000 went missing, on top of the losses suffered by North and South Korea.

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Short Term

Before and immediately after the war, the US attempted to distance itself from it. Nixon announced the policies of “Vietnamization” and “peace with honour” in 1969; both involved gradually leaving the South Vietnamese to fight for themselves. Also implemented was the “Nixon Doctrine”. This stated that the US would not go to lengths to defend its allies, and that allies must do more to defend themselves; this was, according to Nixon, to ‘prevent future Vietnams’. This policy sharply contrasts with the policies of previous administrations. President Truman, for example, referred to America’s involvement in Korea as ‘police action under the United Nations’, indicating his view that the United States was the policeman of the world. Furthermore, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s doctrine of 1957 sought executive authority to assist any nation fighting against international Communism; this encompassed deploying troops without the declaration of war.

The difference between the doctrines of these previous Cold War Presidents and that of Nixon suggests America’s involvement in Vietnam forced administrations to move away from ‘police actions’ and soured the trust that had been placed by the public in executive powers. In sum, it indicates that Vietnam had a massive impact on the perception of how America should act in the international community. This suggests that America’s actions thus changed. Supporting this was Congress’ 1973 War Powers Resolution, which constrained the president’s authority to deploy troops without a declaration of war or an attack on America. This restriction of the president’s power in declaring war was evidently a response to the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident. Indeed, reasons for entering conflicts has remained under intense scrutiny, and following their withdrawal from Vietnam, America rarely sent troops into struggles until the end of the Cold War.

Augmenting this was the increased frequency and significance of the press and public opinion in foreign affairs. Vietnam was the first US war to be televised; the provocative images the conflict produced influenced the protest movements in America. George C. Herring has argued Vietnam’s largest impact was the transformation of how Americans perceived ‘themselves and their place in the world’, marking a period of ‘disillusionment’.

It is arguable that America experienced a moral crisis during and following the war, as the conflict shook the confidence in the United States’ moral goodness, the ‘myth of an almost divine American mission’. One can see this in the growing belief that the only ‘legitimate form of war’ was ‘to protect your homeland against aggression’. This is also evidenced in America’s lower tolerance for troop deaths. For example, in Lebanon in 1983, 241 marines were killed in an attack on their barracks, triggering US forces to withdraw; in the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, 18 soldiers were killed, ending America’s mission in Somalia. The desire for low-risk warfare increased, with the army adopting low-intensity conflict methods, involving tailoring military actions to the specific event rather than blanket application of a conscripted army (a method that had failed in Vietnam against the guerrilla tactics of the North Vietnamese army).

Simply put, it was far more difficult for American governments to legitimise foreign intervention to the public, particularly when it involved sending troops, in turn meaning the government was more restricted in what foreign policy they could pursue.

Rise in Language of Human Rights and the Cold War

Early in his presidency, Nixon and his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, viewed human rights as ‘“sentimental nonsense”’. President Carter, in his inaugural address in 1977, expressed a desire for renewed morality. Perhaps as a hangover from Vietnam, Carter emphasised the previous immorality of Washington, referencing the Watergate scandal that would forever cast an oblique shadow over Nixon’s presidency, and the handling of Vietnam. Carter further promised ‘not to intervene in other nations’ internal affairs’. Due to anxiety that America was the harbinger of human rights violations, compounding Vietnam syndrome, a tainted perception of America as “good” may have inspired an anti-interventionist rhetoric.

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Children flee after being burnt by Napalm.

However, the idea that ‘violations of human rights in one country threatened those rights in all countries’ was growing, and in 1980 the Carter Doctrine was announced. This was a series of retaliatory measures against Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, including a quiet ‘program of military assistance to anti-Soviet guerrillas in Afghanistan’. Shortly after Vietnam, then, interventionism remained central to US foreign policy.

The language of human rights and morality initially may have inspired significant changes in US foreign policy, bringing the focus of the Cold War away from pragmatism and back to morality. Before the emphasis on human rights, there had been attempts to thaw the Cold War through a series of diplomatic talks between America (under Nixon and Kissinger) and the USSR’s leader, Brezhnev between 1969 and 1979. These diplomatic efforts resulted in, most significantly, the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) and the Helsinki Accords (1975). SALT attempted to limit the powers’ military arsenals, whilst the Helsinki Accords essentially ratified the already-existing spheres of influence. These diplomatic meetings were borne out of pragmatism rather than ideology or morality, inspired by the knowledge of how destructive Cold War tensions could be. Under Carter’s presidency (1977-1981), this period of détente began to deteriorate, his foreign policy being based, according to Sargent, on ‘arms control and human rights’. In short, Carter wanted the USSR to follow the Helsinki Accord’s requirements for basic human rights, stating in 1978 that he would ‘sought to rekindle the beacon of human rights in American foreign policy’.

This language of morality continued throughout the remainder of the Cold War. President Reagan famously defined the USSR as an ‘evil empire’. Even following the collapse of the USSR in 1991, President Clinton’s foreign policy involved the idea of humanitarian interventionism, as well as the language of evil and sin, for example in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995.

One can argue, therefore, that the language of human rights arose from the perception that America’s role in Vietnam was immoral, a crisis of confidence which significantly changed American foreign policy. However, was this language really an alteration?

Human rights may have been a new language of political discourse. The opposition between America and the Soviet Union being expressed in moral terms was not. The language and policies implemented by Carter and Reagan were not novel in the Cold War; they remained founded in the idea of US moral superiority and sought to expel Communism as a threat to US hegemonic power. The Carter Doctrine of 1979 was a return to containment, a policy famously used in the early Cold War; Reagan’s aggressive policies were the same as the early Cold War arms races and Eisenhower’s rolling-back of Communism. Reagan’s ‘Evil Empire’ speech of 1983 contained similar rhetoric as the 1961 speech from President Kennedy; both argued that America was the beacon of freedom in the world, and was needed to strengthen the flames of freedom in other countries.

Vietnam Overshadowed: Murkiness of Cold War Politics

It is important to note that the language of human rights and morality was just that: a language. This rhetoric was used to justify foreign policy; alterations in rhetoric were a means by which America could continue to pursue its aims without facing significant backlash from the American people. Carter’s response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, as well as Reagan’s funding of anti-Communist Contras following the Nicaraguan Revolution of 1979, were similar to Kennedy’s response to Fidel Castro seizing power in Cuba; embargos and covert military operations. Vietnam ended whilst the Cold War was ongoing. Applying a new language to foreign policy would not change it because the world in which it was deployed was still defined by the Cold War dualistic framework. Even during détente, the period of apparent pragmatism, not defined by ideological battles, America engaged in the proxy war in Vietnam, to prevent the greater speed of Communist or anti-American regimes. US foreign policy would not shift from this understanding until the collapse of the USSR in 1991.

The period of the Cold War is littered with examples of America’s government supporting undemocratic regimes in Latin America simply because they opposed the USSR. Key examples of this are the aforementioned Contras in Nicaragua and the Batista regime in pre-Castro Cuba. These examples, taking place twenty-years apart, are a testament to the firm determination of American Presidents and their administrations to not allow the USSR to achieve a foothold.

Chomsky has argued that American foreign policy is consistently ‘justified in terms of defence against merciless foes. This trend is consistently visible, in Vietnam, throughout the Cold War and after the collapse of the USSR. Furthermore, American mainstream media outlets consistently portray US foreign intervention or actions with a patriotic bias; for example, the widely spread image of Saddam Hussein’s statue being torn down, which was staged by US soldiers.


The Vietnam War’s consistent and perpetual lingering in the popular imagination would suggest the war was a massive turning point in how America conducted itself in its foreign policy. This is not the case. Whilst one may argue that the language of human rights and morality may have only started defining foreign policy after Vietnam, these were neither novel to foreign policy, nor did they fundamentally change America’s aims. Expansion in military technologies and understanding of how to fight wars beyond conventional warfare has meant that American aims could remain the same, but low-risk means of warfare has avoided the same public outcry that Vietnam produced.

Ultimately, the largest change to foreign policy was the way actions were justified, rather than a change to foreign policy in general. Vietnam’s influence on foreign policy was limited by its context. Existing as it did in a Cold War world, the defining feature of American foreign policy was clear: global hegemony.

Written By Kate Mesher 



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