Of the many enduring lessons of the Vietnam War, none, perhaps, is more relevant today than avoiding what Yale historian Paul Kennedy termed “imperial overstretch”—or an excessive reliance on military force to protect a far-flung and often unruly web of alliances and commitments. For many who observed or fought in that war, America’s defeat was due less to the flawed strategies of US generals than to the overextension of American power in a place of questionable strategic significance and with minimal support at home. For a time, it appeared that US policy-makers were determined to avert more Vietnam-like fiascos; but now, as in the George W. Bush era, Washington seems headed toward another foolhardy increase in military activism abroad.
March marks the fiftieth anniversary of the entry of main-force US troops into Vietnam, making this a perfect moment to reflect on the war and its long-term consequences. In this issue, former Nation editor George Black examines one of those consequences: the ongoing legacy of unexploded ordnance and Agent Orange. The Pentagon, meanwhile, is promoting its own interpretation of Vietnam, via an interactive timeline. After criticism from many scholars, who said it distorted the war’s history and character, the Pentagon backed off on some aspects of its new history. (To ensure that critical voices are heard on the subject, a group of antiwar veterans, including Tom Hayden, David Cortright and John McAuliff, are organizing a Vietnam Peace Commemoration in Washington, DC, on May 1–2.)
What is most striking in all this, however, is that many in Washington now seek to embrace the same misbegotten logic that produced the Vietnam debacle in the first place: a belief that America should confront hostile forces wherever they arise, primarily through military action.
As the Vietnam War was ending, US leaders sought to ensure that such myopia would not prevail again by adopting a series of measures—including the War Powers Resolution of 1973 and the establishment of an all-volunteer army—aimed at constraining the war-making ability of future presidents. By requiring the president to secure congressional approval for all future troop deployments, it was believed, the White House would engage in fewer ill-advised military engagements abroad; by eliminating the draft, the Pentagon presumably would be forced to pick and choose among overseas commitments, rather than embracing them all. (This was before the policy of multiple redeployments was adopted, which produced the mental and physical traumas experienced by so many US soldiers.)
For a time, these measures, along with the American public’s still-vivid recollections of the Vietnam War, resulted in a more restrained use of military force abroad (though not, of course, as restrained as many of us would have wished). The United States did not intervene in Iran to prevent the overthrow of the shah (1979), and it withdrew from Somalia following the “Blackhawk Down” incident of 1993. Limited forays were undertaken in Lebanon (1982–84) and Kosovo (1999), but without resulting in the extended deployment of US forces. On the one occasion when Washington did engage in large-scale combat, the drive to eject Iraqi occupation forces from Kuwait (Operation Desert Storm, 1991), it did so with the blessing of the international community and in accordance with limited war aims (i.e., no invasion of Iraq).