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The Meaning of the Vietnam War Previous Next
Digital History ID 3456


For today's students, the Vietnam War is almost as remote as World War I was for the soldiers who fought it. Now that the United States and Vietnam have normalized relations, it is especially difficult for many young people to understand why the war continues to evoke deeply felt emotions. Thus, it is especially important for students to learn about a war whose consequences strongly influence attitudes and policies even today.

The Vietnam War was the longest war in American history and the most unpopular American war of the 20th century. It resulted in nearly 60,000 American deaths and an estimated 2 million Vietnamese deaths. It was the first war to come into American living rooms nightly, and the only conflict that ended in defeat for American arms. The war caused turmoil on the home front, as anti-war protests became a feature of American life. Americans divided into two camps--pro-war hawks and anti-war doves.

The questions raised by the Vietnam War have not faded with time. Even today, many Americans still ask:

Whether the American effort in Vietnam was a sin, a blunder, or a necessary war; or whether it was a noble cause, or an idealistic, if failed, effort to protect the South Vietnamese from totalitarian government;

Whether the military was derelict in its duty when it promised to win the war; or whether arrogant civilians ordered the military into battle with one hand tied and no clear goals;

Whether the American experience in Vietnam should stand as a warning against state building projects in violent settings; or whether it taught Americans to perform peacemaking operations and carry out state building correctly;

Whether the United States’ involvement in Vietnam meant it was obligated to continue to protect the South Vietnamese.

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