The Vietnam Syndrome, as coined by Kissinger and popularised by Reagan, describes a widespread reluctance to endorse U.S military involvement after the country’s ordeal in the Vietnam War. The war had left the country with a gruelling experience. It had created divisions on the home-front and gifted America its first defeat. Hoping to avoid another Vietnam experience, policymakers and the American public became wary of an interventionist foreign policy. This uneasy attitude towards intervention would shape policy, as administrations, like President Regan’s, would seek/aspire to operate in Central America, while still being aware of the public’s scepticism. Because of the legacy of Vietnam, operations in this region were then considered and apprehensive to avoid the public from flagging parallels. To recognise how this apprehensiveness has shaped policy, I will examine the notion of a Vietnam Syndrome, and its influence by means of analysis of U.S responses in Central America. These events show that even though the American government partook in conflict, the legacy of Vietnam still lingered to ward off any notion of a prolonged conflict.
In an address to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in 1980, then-candidate Reagan outlined his understanding of the Vietnam syndrome. In this definition, an anxiety surrounding the Vietnam war’s legacy had driven the government, the Carter presidency, to submit to noninterfering foreign policy demands.1 This submission had allowed for a Soviet drive for expansion, while America in response was contemplating a post-Vietnam War malaise. Places like the Caribbean were being made by way of Soviet surrogates ‘into a red lake’2. To counter this, Reagan proposed a policy of ‘peace through strength’3 (which promised to restore America’s ability to defend its national interest). This was a promise to commit to a more interactive foreign policy in places like Central America, to stem the Soviet advance. However, the American populace did not desire ‘another Vietnam’. In 1983, polls showed how traumatising the Vietnam experience was, as there were displays of disapproval towards Reagan’s policy positions. 66% of Americans were displeased with Reagan’s conduct in El Salvador, and 25% assumed he would begin a needless war.4 The American public was not ready to involve themselves in more conflicts, and thus administrations in charge would have to reflect upon this opinion when coming to decisions. This aversion to intervention, in part formed by a Vietnam Syndrome, would come to affect not just Reagan’s but also Carter’s and Bush’s conduct of foreign policy. One of these direct effects was a reluctance to use military intervention as a foreign policy initiative.
This hesitation to use military force would be spurred by the unpopularity that the action now symbolized. The last military action in Vietnam had been limited in origin but escalated gradually into a full-on war. This war produced division on the home-front with a splintering into several factions, who were all in opposition to each other’s position on the conflict.5 To the American people, an involvement in places like Central America represented a similar prospect. It would be in their mind better to stay out of these affairs. However, this would not be possible for someone like Reagan, as he subscribed to an understanding which implicated the nations of Central America, like Grenada and El Salvador, as essential to America’s national interest. These nations, if left to a communist takeover, would come to threaten the U.S position in Reagan’s notion of the domino theory. For Reagan, the stakes were too high to refrain from involvement in these countries. The issue then became how it would be feasible for administrations like Reagan’s to fulfil their foreign policy aims, while not using direct military action. The answer to this quandary arose in the use of less conventional approaches. In Central America, many of these operations were carried out in the supporting and financing of anti- socialist powers, such as the pro-American regime in El Salvador.
This U.S sponsorship of El Salvador initially transpired under Carter’s presidency, with military aid supplied in 1980.6 When Reagan assumed control in 1981, this approach was extended. Besides the flows of capital, the US also sponsored the ascent of Jose Napoleon Duarte’s regime in 1984. This support came in national polls which were undertaken in an “atmosphere of terror and despair, of macabre rumour and grisly reality’7. The Reagan administration ignored the junta’s atrocities in order for the wider considerations of the Cold War to take precedence. Paralleling America’s support of regimes like Ngo Diem in Vietnam, domestic critics noted the correlations relating the circumstances in El Salvador and the prelude to war in Vietnam. Some congress men and women even suggested that the ‘similarity to Vietnam is so close it’s almost uncanny’8. These similarities also came to be raised in the Oscar-nominated film El Salvador: another Vietnam. The fact that academy voters even endorsed this film, draws on the power and influence the Vietnam syndrome had in shaping people’s minds. This comparison made direct involvement less politically workable. To even challenge these accusations and calm public fears too much political capital would be needed. Therefore, the American government’s decision to offer capital for El Salvador, rather than militarily intervening was down to the prominence of the Vietnam syndrome among the American populous.
Another situation in which comparisons constrained policy was in America’s dealings with the Contras in Nicaragua. The Contras were a rebel group which opposed the Sandinista revolutionary government. With Nicaragua being a key target for Reagan, the CIA in 1982 were then allowed to assist the Contras. This assistance would educate Contras on terrorist techniques explored in the infamous CIA manual, Psychological Operations in Guerrilla war. It offered tips on ‘implicit and explicit terror’, describing in ways which Sandinista officials could be ‘neutralized’. Due to the constraints on direct intervention, this covert method shaped policy by providing one of ‘the fruits of the Vietnam syndrome’. It reshaped Washington’s views on how to destabilize countries by showing covert methods as a plausible alternative. While not new, Covert action had been discredited after Operation Mongoose in the 60’s against Castro. This dependence in Nicaragua, with a covert program fronted by the Contras, challenged the earlier failure by restoring belief in these types of operations.
To stave off any attack from dissenters, Reagan had to justify these Nicaraguan relations with no intentions of deploying troops in the region. This statement of intent was needed to address the political concerns of enacting a proactive foreign policy. Even with this statement, Congress remained sceptical of this intervention. This led to amendments made by Congress in the Boland agreement which prohibited trade with the Contras. To preserve support for the Contras via the CIA, the Reagan administration illegally sold arms in the Iran-Contra affair. This violated the amendments and was unconstitutional. The fact that individuals of the executive were prepared to risk this, undoubtedly shows great commitment to their operations in Nicaragua. It also shows the environment in which the executive now had to operate in to get things done. Previously, as seen with the Tonkin Gulf resolution of 1964, the executive was trusted with a lot more freedom in policy. However, given the lack of faith in the executive post-Vietnam, a new environment emerged where Congress now kept these affairs in check. If there was no scepticism and apprehension from the experiences of Vietnam, it can be postulated these manoeuvrings with Iran would never have been needed. Shifting from direct intervention to indirect aid, as shown with the Contras, was again caused by the apprehensive political outlook on military intervention after Vietnam. However, this mythos and apprehension surrounding intervention would come to be challenged with American operations concerning Granada.