The very existence of the draft motivated enough men to enlist voluntarily that all branches of service were able to fill their quotas, often without conscripts.
For this whiteboard we reached out again to several scholars and asked the following:
What, to date, has been the most important legacy of the Vietnam Conflict?
1. Dr Amy Rutenberg (Dept of History, Iowa State University)
Memories of the Vietnam-era draft left such scars on the collective American psyche that when a handful of politicians and pundits advocated its reinstatement as a way to staff the War on Terror, their calls were almost universally met with derision. In such a context, it is hard to remember that between 1948 and 1965, when a different handful of politicians and pundits called for the end of the draft, their calls were equally met with derision. The end of the Cold War draft in the United States, therefore, is one of the Vietnam War’s most important domestic legacies. The death of conscription changed the calculus of American military engagement by dictating how conflicts would be fought and who would do that fighting.
Between 1948 and 1973, the draft was a fact of life for American men. With very few exceptions (i.e. Adlai Stevenson, Barry Goldwater), no one in a policy position advocated discontinuing conscription. The very existence of the draft motivated enough men to enlist voluntarily that all branches of service were able to fill their quotas, often without conscripts. That all changed with the escalation of the Vietnam conflict in 1965. Anti-war sentiment rose along with draft calls. Activists on both the political Left and libertarian Right protested conscription, leading President Nixon to explore the feasibility of an All-Volunteer Force (AVF). He wanted to sweep the legs out from under the antiwar Left and cement support from libertarians. After due study, draft calls were brought down to zero in 1972, and in 1973, the law authorizing conscription was allowed to expire.
The result is our current AVF, a much smaller organization that must compete for labor on the open market. Greater compensation, benefits, and diversity have followed, even as a significantly smaller percentage of the population has grappled with the prospect of military service. The shifting politics of the draft have, ironically, pulled those currently in favor of conscription in line with those who opposed it during the Vietnam era. Both constituencies hoped to move the military closer to the civilian populace by lessening inequities of service and by forcing civilian policymakers to take care when committing American troops to conflict. Regardless, it seems pretty clear that the AVF is here to stay.
2. Dr Meredith Lair (Dept of History and Art History, George Mason University)
What sounds like a historical question is also a math problem: calculation of the greatest change relative to the outcome. The Vietnam War wreaked so much havoc, and yet it changed so little. South Vietnam fell to communism, and the Domino Theory’s most concerning inevitabilities never came to pass. There are a lot of potential answers—so many, in fact, that I once taught an entire course called Legacies of the Vietnam War. Course units included (among others):
- The Vietnamese diaspora, which examined how the war’s immediate legacies in Southeast Asia caused millions to flee for their lives and create new communities.
- Agent Orange, about the environmental and health impacts of dioxin contamination but also the ensuing legal cases that limited the liability of American military contractors in perpetuity.
- Public, political, and doctrinal reluctance to support US military operations overseas, the better to prevent “another Vietnam.”
In the early days of my teaching career, I used an assignment called “Finding Vietnam,” which students could fulfill by interviewing someone—anyone—who was alive during the Vietnam War. The stories they uncovered were often astounding. A Vietnamese American student learned of an aunt he never knew. She was kidnapped and murdered as a toddler by the Viet Cong after her civil servant father—my student’s grandfather—refused to pay taxes to the National Liberation Front. A fatherless young man wrote about his dad, who served as a US Army dental hygienist in Vietnam. Cleaning teeth is about as far from combat as you can get, but the war killed him anyway: he contracted Hepatitis C while doing civic action for Vietnamese villagers and died of liver failure thirty years later. And then there was the young woman who found Vietnam in her own existence. When she got the assignment, she expressed frustration to her mother that she knew no one whose life had been altered by the Vietnam War. Which caused her mother to disclose that, prior to meeting my student’s father, she had been engaged to a young man who died. Serving in Vietnam.
The Vietnam War did not remake the world in a geopolitical sense, but it did implode the life of this woman, leaving her, decades later, still struggling to balance her grief over the path not taken against the joy of the family she made instead. That is an impossible math, yet millions of people around the world quietly perform it every day. The sum of those private, diffuse calculations is enormous, and the change wrought by the war compounds. To date, and forever.
3. Dr Heather Stur (Dept of History, University of Southern Mississippi)
Dr Stur is the author of Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era (Cambridge University Press, 2011).
In 1978, Vietnam veterans gathered in Washington, DC, to discuss their shared concerns and figure out how to establish an advocacy group for Vietnam vets. Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) was born of that meeting, and since then, Vietnam vets have led efforts to ensure that Americans forget neither their service nor the idea that they were treated poorly when they returned to the U.S. Vietnam vets have talked of being uncomfortably visible, drawing the attention of angry protesters who spat on them and called them baby killers. These anecdotes are controversial. Some Vietnam veterans, notably Jerry Lembcke, a sociology professor at College of the Holy Cross, have argued that the “spat upon veteran” is a myth that vets, along with filmmakers, writers, and government authorities, crafted to discredit the antiwar movement. Other vets have said that they felt invisible and longed for a loved one to ask them about their time in Vietnam. The notion that Americans at best ignored and at worst abused Vietnam vets when they arrived home has settled into the collective U.S. psyche and fueled the “support the troops” mentality that has defined relations between civilians and soldiers during America’s 21st century wars. This is the most important legacy of the Vietnam War.
The politics behind the war – the US vying for support among Vietnam’s neighbors, as well as engaging in covert and overt cooperation with regional groups – had a destabilizing effect in the region, especially in Cambodia and Laos.
Today, it isn’t surprising to see a civilian approach an American soldier in uniform and say “thank you for your service.” During the Vietnam War, U.S. troops were the enemy according to some antiwar activists, but in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a largely bipartisan consensus has held soldiers as separate from, and even victims of, war making. Vietnam veteran activists and their civilian supporters crafted a memory of Vietnam vets as distinctly damaged in part because of how Americans treated them back home. As a result, “support the troops” has become the default civilian attitude toward soldiers and veterans since Vietnam. Yet Americans’ concern for service members has its limits. One way to support the troops is to reinstate the draft, which was about as unpopular as the Vietnam War. Conscription could ease the burden of service by spreading it across more personnel, sparing troops from multiple deployments. But the word “draft” often shares a sentence with the words “political suicide,” and so the abolition of the draft in 1973, and bipartisan opposition to it ever since, is a related and equally important legacy of the war.
4. Dr Jacqueline Whitt (Dept of National Security and Strategy, United States Army War College)
Dr Whitt is the author of Bringing God to Men: American Military Chaplains and the Vietnam War (University of North Carolina Press, 2014).
It might be an unpopular argument, but in broad geopolitical terms, the strategic effects of losing the Vietnam War were relatively minimal, especially for the United States. Yes, South Vietnam ‘fell’ to communism. But the dominos didn’t fall as predicted (although Communist governments came to power in both Laos and Cambodia). Contrary to popular opinion and leaders’ instincts that maintaining credibility and resolve mandated intervention and steadfastness, in reality, American credibility as a guarantor of the liberal global order remained largely intact. No vital or existential interests were threatened when American forces withdrew from Vietnam. Less than two decades after the ignominious withdrawal, the Cold War had ended, the world order fundamentally changed, and Vietnam had little to do with it.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the millions of Vietnamese lives, hundreds of thousands of Laotian and Cambodians, 55,000 French lives, and 58,000 American lives lost is that the three decades of fighting changed very little from what might have happened in 1945 under a unified Vietnamese state—even a Communist one. That’s one hell of a depressing story.
And so this argument is deeply unsatisfying. For one, to emphasize the minimal geopolitical and strategic effects sounds coldly calculating and glibly dismissive of the war’s enormous human and environmental toll and the domestic political consequences in both the United States and Southeast Asia. Second, it discounts the profound ways in which the American experience in Vietnam shaped the subsequent language and logic of strategic thinking, particularly in the United States. Contested ideas about the war—and its meaning—continue to reverberate amongst historians, military leaders, politicians, and the public. These battles over memory and narrative are the most important legacy of the Vietnam War.
The ‘lessons’ of Vietnam are dependent on perspective and interpretation. Is the cautionary tale for strategists about the dangers of imperial overstretch and prolonged wars, or about the tragedy of abandoning an ally in its time of greatest need? Was the problem of American strategists that they mistook a conventional war for an irregular one and did not employ sufficient military power, or was it the reverse? Did American strategy fundamentally change when command in Vietnam changed over from William Westmoreland to Creighton Abrams—could the war have been won?
Decades after the conflict ended, we are still trying to sort out what happened as documents are declassified and as scholars are increasingly enabled to work in international archives. Scholarly interpretations of the war will continue to evolve, but the story of the Vietnam War as popularly imagined and as a politically- and militarily-useful analogy may be much harder to dislodge.
5. Dr Rachel Jacobs (Dept of Political Science and International Studies, Dickinson College)
Dr Jacobs wrote her dissertation (University of Wisconsin-Madison) on “Organizing the Revolutionary State: Governance and Mass Death in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge”.
The Vietnam War was critical for many actors throughout Southeast Asia, not only due to the war itself but also the shifts in local political dynamics. The politics behind the war – the US vying for support among Vietnam’s neighbors, as well as engaging in covert and overt cooperation with regional groups – had a destabilizing effect in the region, especially in Cambodia and Laos. The events in Cambodia in particular were not merely a sideshow, but were, in fact, especially destructive and continue to have repercussions for the region.
The 1960s began as a bright era in Cambodia, the newly independent state was poised to become a powerful player in the region, led by Sihanouk, a popular leader. However, his willingness to support the war in Vietnam and continued US bombing of eastern Cambodia, where the Ho Chi Minh Trail ran, led to a waning of his popularity by the end of the decade. In response, the US backed General Lon Nol, who staged a coup that overthrew Sihanouk’s regime. Under General Lon Nol, Cambodia cooperated with the US, allowing not only the secret bombings of the Ho Chi Min Trail, but also targeting local Cambodian communist groups. In this context, the civil war between the state and an alliance of the Cambodian Communists (to become the Khmer Rouge) and the monarchists led to spiraling food shortages and mass migration to the cities for work, food, and safety. It was those conditions that led to the rise of the Khmer Rouge – both increasing their popular support and their ability to win the civil war. Once in power, the Khmer Rouge regime unveiled brutal policies that killed approximately 1.8 million of Cambodia’s 7 million people, devastated the economy and de-institutionalized the state, in the span of 4 years.
While the brutality of the Khmer Rouge regime was certainly not the direct result of the war in Vietnam, the conditions that allowed for their rise to power came out of the broader destabilization by the Lon Nol government and the secret bombing campaigns along eastern Cambodia’s border with Vietnam. In the attempt to stop the spread of communism in Vietnam, the politics behind the war led to the rise of communist regimes in Vietnam’s neighbors, alongside bloody civil wars, and in Cambodia’s case, a period of genocide and mass violence.
The views expressed in this Whiteboard Exercise are those of the contributors and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, U.S. Army, or Department of Defense.
Photo Description: Vietnam Veterans Memorial
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons user Dsdugan Public Domain
Other releases in the “Whiteboard” series:
- AFTER 2020, WHAT’S NEXT? A WHITEBOARD
- IMAGINING OVERMATCH: CRITICAL DOMAINS IN THE NEXT WAR – A WHITEBOARD
- THAT ONE MOST IMPORTANT THING: A WHITEBOARD
- SHALL WE PLAY A GAME? (WARGAMING ROOM)
- WAR(GAMING) WHAT IS IT GOOD FOR? A WHITEBOARD
- LEADERSHIP ROLE MODELS IN FICTION REVISITED: A WHITEBOARD
- WHAT GOOD IS GRAND STRATEGY? A WHITEBOARD
- THE UNITED NATIONS’ GREATEST ACCOMPLISHMENT: A WHITEBOARD
- LEADERSHIP ROLE MODELS IN FICTION: A WHITEBOARD
- THE MOST IMPORTANT LEGACY OF THE VIETNAM CONFLICT: A WHITEBOARD