The Vietnam War was the most controversial war in American history. Costing more than 47,000 U.S. lives and $140,000,000, the war had momentous impact on the country, politically, economically, and socially. More significantly, the United States failed to achieve its stated war aims, for the first time in history. The goal was to preserve an independent, noncommunist government in South Vietnam, but by the war's end in 1975, all of Vietnam was under the communist rule of Ho Chi Minh's Democratic Republic of Vietnam. The U.S. emerged from the war disgraced: a global superpower had been bested by the nearly third-world nation of North Vietnam. But how? Antiwar sentiment among the civilian population contributed to the American defeat, but the most fundamental fault lay in the flawed reasoning behind U.S. involvement.
As the human and material costs of the war increased, the American public questioned the objectives of the war.
The nation became divided into two opposed groups: the "hawks," who believed that the war must be won to prevent the spread of communism, and the "doves," who believed that America should withdraw from the war to prevent further loss. Scholars discredited the president's justifications for escalation. The war, they charged, was a civil war between the North and South Vietnamese, and not an effort by Soviet and Chinese communists to expand. Antiwar protests erupted across the nation, concentrated in college campuses. In the April of 1967, more than 300,000 people attended a demonstration in New York City. Later that year more radical demonstrations arose as antiwar radicals besieged a draft center in Oakland, California.
Such strong opposition amongst the public was echoed by objection to the war in the political world. Public protesting forced congressmen to reexamine the justice of the war, and politicians such as Senator William Fulbright were sharply critical of America's policy. By 1967, even Defense Secretary Robert McNamara opposed President Johnson's course of escalation. Although doves were a prominent minority, the adversary force they created was enough to undermine the will of the government to continue fighting. Without the full support of its people and with a deeply divided government, the United States was hindered in its efforts to effectively fight the Vietnam War.
The greatest problem with the war in Vietnam was its flawed purpose. Washington had sought to control international communism, but this global strategic concern masked the reality that the appeal of communism in Vietnam derived from local economic, social, and historical conditions. In essence, the U.S. response to Vietnam's communist threat was to apply a military solution to an internal political problem. America's infliction of destruction on Vietnam served only to politically discredit the independent South Vietnamese government that the United States sought to support.
The rhetoric of U.S. leaders following World War II about the superiority of American values, the dangers of appeasement, and the hazards of communism recognized no limit to the United States' ability to meet the test of global leadership. In actuality, neither the United States or any other nation had the power to guarantee alone the freedom and security of the world's peoples. Furthermore, the United States underestimated the tenacity of the enemy. For the Vietnamese communists, the struggle was a total war for their own and their cause's survival. For the United States, it was a limited war.
Thusly, the failure of the United States in the Vietnam War was a result of two major factors: strong antiwar sentiment, and inaccurate rationalism. The Vietnam War brought an end to the domestic consensus that had sustained U.S. policy since World War II, and reshaped the nation forever.