- Orthodox interpretation: to stop communist aggression, prevent other nations from falling victim, defend ideals of freedom, protect legitimate national interests; it was "the most selfless war in all of American history . . . it was simply not to abandon friends." (Ernest R. May)
- Revisionist interpretation: to preserve imperialism and capitalism, impose on the world an American model by a leadership deluded with an "arrogance of power" (J. William Fulbright), to win political support for the Great Society
- Post-revisionist interpretation: the war was a tragic blunder; it became a "quagmire" caused by the failure to develop any alternative policy to containment.
Lessons of Vietnam?
- Hawks feared defeat weakened U. S. credibility, caused "Vietnam syndrome" that compared any American intervention with Vietnam defeat; John Rambo asked in the 1985 film Rambo II: "Sir, do we get to win this time?" The Mayaguez incident of 1975 was caused by Kissinger's desire to "look ferocious."
- William Westmoreland believed in a "stab-in-the-back" theory that blamed protesters, fickle public opinion, inquisitive journalists, congressional watchdogs for shackling the military after Tet and not allowing soldiers to win a victory, to use more air and naval power, and even nuclear weapons: "it takes the full strength of a tiger to kill a rabbit." Maxwell Taylor said "the last, most inexcusable of our mistakes, was not knowing our own people." Colin Powell wrote about "half-hearted warfare for half-baked reasons that the American people could not understand or support."
- U. S. adviser John Pancrazio blamed South Vietnam; the ARVN were "very poor fighters" with "absolutely no discipline" whose "timidity endangered American lives." The war caused poor morale, corruption, alienation of villages targeted by the strategic hamplet and agent orange programs. American culture could not coexist with Buddhist culture.
- The U.S. military was corrupt, with 40,000 heroin addicts by 1971, high school dropouts, racism, fragging of officers, pretense and "groupthink pressure."
- Graham Allison blamed the impersonal oversized bureaucracy for making wrong decisions, resisting change, stifling dissent.
- Senator Frank Church blamed the CIA and the imperial presidency.
- Richard J. Barnet wrote that Vietnam was an example of "those drives that impel us toward destruction" such as the capitalist economy and American global expansion and William Fulbright's "arrogance of power."
- The Vietnam war revealed the shortcomings of containment, the failure to distinguish peripheral and vital areas, to apply military force to political problems. Edmund Stillman wrote "Some places are worthy of defense. Some are not. Some are capable of being defended. Some are not." Ronald Steel concluded "Never confuse knights and bishops with pawns."
- Henry Steel Commager wrote that the Vietnam war was deeply immoral and must be lost, and defeat could become a victory for humane values. War dissidents "did not stop the war. But they made it stoppable."
- Walter Lippmann became a neo-isolationist opposed to unrestrained global interventionsim.
- The war produced hundreds of books, films, memoirs, oral histories, college courses, memorials such as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial dedicated November 1982, and the nearby Vietnam Women's Memorial by Glenna Goodacre.
revised 5/1/04 by Schoenherr