Lecture 14: Vietnam


The Twentieth Century was dubbed by Theodore Roosevelt the American Century, and in most ways it lived up to his expectations. The Vietnam War is the single greatest exception to that general statement. It showed the limits of American power and influence in the world. It also fostered divisions and fears in American society that still constrain.



“Generation Gap” and “Credibility Gap” are two phrases associated with the 1960s and the war in Viet Nam. They indicate that this chapter in American history is a traumatic one dividing generations and the nation.

French Indochina

Vietnam is a nation that once was part of a colonial protectorate, French Indochina.  The French occupation of Indochina, interrupted by World War II, resumed after that war, but was resisted by Vietnamese fighters.  The French were defeated and withdrew from Indochina in 1954.  The new nation of Vietnam was divided into North and South.

The Domino Theory

The United States stepped in to support South Vietnam and try to prevent a communist takeover.  This was in line with what President Eisenhower called the Domino Theory; communism had to be stopped.  The Kennedy administration, too, increased the level of American involvement in Vietnam, even while the South Vietnamese government became dangerously unstable.


In the mid-1960s the American involvement in Vietnam escalated, as President Johnson sought to apply American military might and achieve victory.  This was unsuccessful, and it prompted serious protests and disillusionment at home, eventually causing the failure not only of the war effort but also of the Johnson presidency.


The Nixon administration sought to disengage from the fighting in Vietnam through the policy of Vietnamization. At the same time, peace talks in Paris eventually produced an agreement whereby American troops were withdrawn. Unfortunately, at home, college protest violence culminated with the Kent State shootings. Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital, fell to communist forces in 1975.

After Vietnam

The Vietnam War wreaked severe damage on America—economic problems, disillusionment, loss of confidence, loss of the sense of mission.  It also prompted big changes in the conduct of American diplomacy.

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“What Sort of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear”

This is Newt Gingrich's favorite chapter. Oddly enough, I think it also could have been a favorite of student radicals during the era of the Viet Nam War.


·         What sort of despotism is likely to occur in a democracy?

·         How may citizens in a democracy prevent, or at least moderate, such despotism?


Visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.


Here's a good political map of what was French Indochina and now is Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

Film Review

Apocalypse Now

Born on the Fourth of July

The Green Berets

The Deer Hunter

Good Morning, Vietnam

The Graduate


Fitzgerald, Fire in the Lake

Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest

Webb, Fields of Fire

Moore & Galloway, We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young

Oberdorfer, Tet