Did Vietnam change America’s foreign policy?

Published 7:01 pm Sunday, September 24, 2017

As America tunes in to PBS to watch the Vietnam War documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, you hear a familiar mantra: “Vietnam changed us.” 

But did it really?

My students from my American Foreign Policy class looked at whether that conflict had an impact on policymakers in the executive branch, and this column tells you what we found.

“The Vietnam War changed the way America saw itself and its role in the world,” said National Public Radio host Lulu Garcia-Navarro, the host of Weekend Edition Sunday, a program I listen to, shortly before she interviewed Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, directors of the PBS series about the Vietnam War.

The show is sure to get attention, in part due to the subject matter, and partially to the directors. I was fortunate enough to attend a Ken Burns talk when he came to my college while I was a student at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, when he was best known for his groundbreaking Civil War documentary. He’s made others about baseball and World War II.

And I’ve watched the program. So far, it’s very good. 

Like the Civil War, it isn’t just about the images, or Peter Coyote’s narration, or the technical details. It’s that interview with war hero Lt. Gen. Hal Moore at the time that really get you. Most of my scoutmasters were Vietnam War veterans.  At night, they would sit around the campfire and tell us what it was really like.

Nobody needed to tell a ghost story during those times. 

Co-workers of mine at USAA and in Washington DC and friends out here in west Georgia also related their service stories.

But the questions I have aren’t about the conflict itself.  They are more about what happened afterwards. 

Did we really learn from the experience, or are we going through similar motions today? 

Did we go through a “Vietnam syndrome” where we became less eager to get involved in foreign affairs? 

As Jerel A. Rosati, the author of “The Politics of United States Foreign Policy,” writes “Despite Vietnam, many scholars tend to see continuity in U.S. foreign policy since World War II,” emphasizing the power of Containment Theory. “However, an increasing number of scholars and analysts have begun to conclude that the Vietnam War represented an important break in U.S. foreign policy in the post-World War II period,” Rosati adds, noting several factors like the breakdown in the Bretton Woods system, the fraying of the Cold War consensus, and the rise of non-national security issues in foreign policy.

Is Rosati right, or are those scholars who see little change in policy on the right track? 

That’s what we do in class, testing arguments like the post-Vietnam foreign policy myth.

So, four undergraduates and myself looked at that very subject.  Thanks to the Gerald Ford Presidential Library (and library staff members William McNitt and Donna Lehman), we could look at what Ford’s cabinet meetings were about. 

Of course, America withdrew its troops more than a year before Ford took office, but that did not mean we had disengaged ourselves from Indochina. In fact, there were all kinds of meetings about South Vietnam and refugees.

We examined the cabinet meeting agendas from 1974, 1975 and 1976, with a break set after the fall of Saigon in 1975, to see how many of these involves foreign affairs. The students found that before the fall of South Vietnam, 76 percent of the President Ford team meetings were about foreign affairs. That number shrank to barely half of all meetings after Saigon was toppled.

The results do show a shift in domestic matters, even before the election of Jimmy Carter, despite the continued presence of the Cold War and Middle East conflict. Such issues would return toward the end of the Carter administration, as well as subsequent presidents from Reagan through Obama and Trump. But Vietnam did change our priorities, at least in the short term. 

Watchers of the Burns-Novick series are likely to say “but didn’t we know that already?” 

Well, there were many who thought this way. Now we have some quantitative data to support that assessment, at least in the aftermath of the end of the Vietnam War, thanks to my students.

John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga.  He can be reached at jtures@lagrange.edu.  LaGrange College Undergraduates Robert Allen, Seth Golden, Henry Harrison and Diego Torres served as researchers for this project.