Why America Fights: Patriotism and War Propaganda from the Philippines to Iraq

By Susan A. Brewer | Go to book overview

5
Why Vietnam

More Questions Than Answers

If freedom is to survive in any American hometown it must be preserved in
such places as South Viet Nam.

President Lyndon B. Johnson, 1965

War… what is it good for?

Edwin Starr, 1970

FROM THE BEGINNING, government leaders found it hard to explain to the American people why U.S. troops fought in Vietnam. As historian Marilyn Young has observed, America’s longest war was “war as performance.”1 U.S. leaders feared that failure to prevent Vietnam from going communist would damage America’s image of strength considered to be vital in the stand-off with the Soviet Union. Policymakers relied on the Cold War official narrative to justify U.S. involvement. Their purpose, they said, was to contain the spread of communism from North Vietnam to U.S.-backed South Vietnam. As in the Korean War, “good Asians” fought with Americans against “bad Asians,” who followed the doctrines of Moscow and Beijing. As U.S. policymakers knew, the narrative ignored the complicating reality that Vietnamese communists were also nationalists who sought to reunite their divided country and liberate it from foreign rule. But the Americans believed that an impressive demonstration of U.S. military strength and economic power would convince the enemy to quit. To quote U.S. Army officer John Paul Vann, U.S. leaders combined “massive self-delusion” with “bright shining lies.”2 In the end, the conflict would cost the lives of millions of Vietnamese civilians, between 500,000 to a million North Vietnamese troops, 350,000 South Vietnamese troops, and more than 58,000 Americans.

-179-

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