The Vietnam Syndrome

Jacob Houston

The recent 2021 US withdrawal from the country of Afghanistan has further fueled a debate that has lasted since the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001: has the Vietnam Syndrome returned to plague the United States?




The Vietnam War (or Second Indochina War), was a destructive struggle that lasted between the years 1955 (the US began militarily supporting South Vietnam in 1964, however) and 1975 and ended in a US withdrawal from what was then South Vietnam. The war took a heavy toll from both sides of the conflict, and the entire conflict was plagued by violent battles across the entire country now known as Vietnam.


No one side made any substantial ground, and at the time, the conflict was the longest in which the United States had ever participated in, surpassing the brutal American Civil War, carnage filled First World War, vicious Second World War, and the recent destructive war in Korea.


To really understand precisely when the conflict really started brewing, one must go back to the end of the Second World War, in 1945, when Viet Minh leader Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnamese independence from France, citing the words of the American founding fathers “all men are created equal. They are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, among them are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”


Despite this, Vietnam received no assistance from the US in their war against the French (the First Indochina War), instead, the US assisted the French, souring relations between Vietnam and the US. Eventually the Vietnamese were able to defeat the French, and thus, the country of Vietnam was split in two. South Vietnam under Ngo Dinh Diem embraced capitalism, while North Vietnam under Ho Chi Minh embraced communism, and with a giant turn of events that led to the famed Tonkin Gulf Incident in 1964, the US landed troops into South Vietnam in order to stop any invasion of South Vietnam by the North.


Fast forward many years later in 1970, the war in Vietnam had not been going well for the United States, and it seemed that there was no end in sight for the conflict. Countless numbers of men were drafted to go off to fight in Vietnam, most of them to their deaths. The American public, outraged at the state of the war, and finding no real reason for the United States to continue supporting South Vietnam with troops rioted through the streets of several American cities, namely Chicago and Washington, D.C. Eventually with this push by the public and the outrage in the US Congress, US President Richard Nixon ordered the withdrawal of all American military forces, a withdrawal process that had actually begun under the Johnson Presidential Administration. Thus, the Vietnam War ended in 1975, and North Vietnam overran South Vietnamese positions, finally reuniting the country after several decades of long, brutal fighting.


Across the Asian continent, The Soviet Union prepared to begin its invasion of the country of Afghanistan in support of the Afghan communist government against the anti-communist Mujahideen, and the war turned out to be something similar to the US war in Afghanistan. The Soviet Union successfully supported the communist government in Kabul, but had increasing troubles with the Mujahideen, which were supported by some major powers of the time, namely China and the United States.


Some questioned the state of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, and the term ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ surfaced. Would the Soviet Union have to go through the same hardship which the US faced in Vietnam, or would it be different this time? Would future wars for America turn into a Vietnam situation? Was the entire Cold War going to last until one side either went into outright conflict, or would the struggle continue for eternity? These were the questions at the time, and some still are not answered. Eventually, the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989.


The conflict had sparked insurgencies across the country of Afghanistan, with warlords across the country striving for control of Afghanistan, eventually leading to the rise of the Taliban, an Islamic Fundamentalist group that eventually defeated the Mujahideen.

With the added United States involvement in the Middle East and Central Asia, the Islamic extremist group of Al-Qaeda led by Osama Bin Laden allied itself with the Taliban, and carried out the 9/11 attacks on the United States, the first surprise attack on American soil since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. The 9/11 attacks sparked outrage in the US and its allies across the world, and thus began the US-NATO coalition invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.


The United States and the rest of the NATO coalition gained control of the Afghan capital of Kabul, effectively driving the Taliban out of governmental control. Eventually Osama Bin Laden was killed by American special forces after he fled to Pakistan, but the Taliban were not completely defeated. Most of the NATO coalition withdrew from Afghanistan, seeing their mission complete, as Osama Bin Laden, leader of Al-Qaeda had been killed, but the United States remained in Afghanistan to militarily subdue the Taliban.

However, the Taliban used countless numbers of violent guerrilla warfare tactics, and the war in Afghanistan continued for twenty brutal years, completely surpassing the US war in Vietnam. The Vietnam Syndrome question rose again, and many questioned the legitimacy of US intervention in Afghanistan. Eventually seeing victory as unreachable in the near future, and with the Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations focusing on the Pacific region, the US withdrew from Afghanistan in August of 2021.


The Vietnam Syndrome has long plagued the military, political, and social views of the US to its allies and competitors around the globe and the question of the central idea of war as a whole remains, with some citing war as man’s unworthiest creation.