The Vietnam War had a profound and lasting impact on the American psyche. Beginning in the 1960s, the New Left (and the anti-war movement that it led) seized upon U.S. involvement in the war as a justification for smearing the country as an imperialist, racist aggressor. The left's relentless assault upon American traditions, values, and motives imbued the nation's consciousness with a deep sense of guilt and shame that ultimately became manifest in the so-called "Vietnam Syndrome," whose hallmark was America's subsequent reluctance to intervene militarily in foreign affairs -- particularly where the conflict was likely to be protracted and hard-fought.
New Leftists organized the first "anti-war" demonstration in the U.S. in 1962. One prominent New Leftist reflects on the objectives that he and his ideological comrades pursued at that time:
"Let me make this perfectly clear: those of us who inspired and then led the anti-war movement did not want merely to stop the killing, as so many veterans of those domestic battles now claim. We wanted the communists to win. It is true that some of us may have said we only wanted the United States to get out of Vietnam, but we understood that this meant the communists would win. 'Bring the troops home' was our slogan; the fall of Saigon was the result."
Many of these New Leftists were communists and socialists who believed that Marxist economic planning was the most rational means of bringing prosperity to the world. At the same time, they were convinced that America, however amenable to reform in the past, was set on a course that would make it increasingly rigid, repressive, and ultimately fascist; that the United States was the leviathan of a global imperialist system; and that its ruling class could only grow more reactionary and repressive. This expectation was the basis of the New Left's political view of the world generally and of its strategy of opposition to America's war in Vietnam in particular.
As leftists' opposition to the war grew more passionate (and violent) and their prophecies of impending fascism more intense, they deliberately crossed the line of legitimate dissent and abused every First Amendment privilege and right granted them as Americans. They spat on the flag, broke the law, denigrated and disrupted the institutions of government and education, and gave comfort and aid (even revealing classified secrets) to the enemy. Some of them provided a protective propaganda shield for Hanoi's communist regime while it tortured American servicemen; others engaged in violent sabotage against the war effort. The erosion of American pride and self-confidence continued inexorably.
The leftist agitators began as a peripheral minority, but as the war dragged on without an end in sight, other people joined them: first in thousands and then in tens of thousands, swelling their ranks until finally they reached the conscience of the nation. This trend was propelled,in large measure, by the media. For example, after the 1968 Tet Offensive -- a decisive American victory militarily -- major figures in the American press depicted Tet instead as an emblem of a military quagmire from which the U.S. needed to extract itself as quickly as possible. "It seems now more certain than ever," the revered newsman Walter Cronkite told his audience in a de facto editorial, "that the bloody experience of Vietnam is a stalemate" and that the war was "unwinnable." Cronkite's statement, and his call for U.S. withdrawal, helped turn public opinion against the war. It also demoralized American troops and President Johnson. The nation simply lost its will to continue the war and withdrew.
America not only withdrew its forces from Vietnam, as the left had said it would never do, but also from Laos and Cambodia and, ultimately, from its role as guardian of the international status quo. But far from increasing the freedom and well-being of Third World nations, as the left had predicted, America's withdrawal resulted in an international power vacuum that was quickly filled by the armies of Russia, Cuba, and the mass murderers of the Khmer Rouge. After U.S. funding to Vietnam and Cambodia was terminated in January 1975, the regimes of both countries were quickly overrun by the Communists, who would go on to slaughter some 2.5 million Indochinese peasants.
These events confronted leftists with a supreme irony: the nation they had believed to be governed by corporate interests, a fountainhead of world reaction, was halted in mid-course by its conscience-stricken and morally aroused populace. Meanwhile, the forces the left had identified with progress, once freed from the grip of U.S. "imperialism," revealed themselves to be oppressive, predatory, and unspeakably ruthless. But the left failed to acknowledge or learn from these Marxist atrocities, adhering instead to the narrative of a racist, imperialist America intruding on the internal affairs of other nations. Thus did the Vietnam Syndrome gain its foothold in the American psyche.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the U.S. was involved in a handful of military incursions (including, most famously, the Gulf War of 1991), but none of these ever threatened to drag on interminably or to cause large numbers of American casualties.
The Vietnam Syndrome reasserted itself post-9/11, however, when the U.S., in its first protracted battle since Vietnam, engaged a bloodthirsty Islamist enemy in the Middle East. Once again, the left, as it had done in the Sixties, placed the blame for the conflict squarely on America's shoulders. Once again, the left impugned America's motives for waging the war -- claiming that the nation was chiefly interested in establishing worldwide hegemony and usurping the lucrative oil fields of Iraq. Once again, the left spotlighted, and greatly exaggerated, instances of U.S. transgressions in the war -- most notable were the charges of abuse and torture in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, and the charge of mass murder in Haditha. Once again, the media was complicit in misrepresenting, overstating, and even fabricating the nature of these alleged transgressions. Once again, the U.S. fought this war with self-imposed restraint, as evidenced by the restrictive rules-of-engagement to which its troops were required to adhere. And once again, the constant drumbeat of negativity by leftists in politics and the press steadily eroded the American people's support for the war.
Parts of this summary are adapted from "My Vietnam Lessons," by David Horowitz (1985).