It is often said that more can be learned through failure than through success and in the history of the United States the war in Vietnam is one of America's most famous failures; therefore it is reasonable to assume that the nation learned some valuable lessons from the failure in Vietnam. Even while the war was being waged, there was a debate raging about the war, and as soon as the United States pulled its forces out of the country, the debate turned to the lessons that could be learned from America's failure. In the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists' February 1970 issue, Walter Goldstein placed the blame on the systemic failures in the political system that allowed "a mis-application of military might." (Goldstein 1970) The systemic failures in the political system that Goldstein was referring to was the inability of one branch of government, the Congress, to restrict the inappropriate use of military power by another branch of government, the President. In other words, politics was one of the major problems. But Goldstein did not lay all the blame on internal American political bickering between branches of the U.S. government, he also discussed other aspects of the failure of the United States to gain victory in Vietnam, primarily the military as well as other political failures. For instance, the failure to have realizable goals, or maintaining the support of the American people through debate and dialogue, or realizing that the approach to war must contain military, diplomatic, and humanitarian aspects are all areas where the United States failed in Vietnam. In the more than 40 years since the publication of Goldstein's article time has proven Walter Goldstein correct in his assumptions about the war and the recent American military ventures into Afghanistan and Iraq have been undertaken with a completely different procedural outlook.
Many claim that it was the inability of Congress to maintain the "checks and balances" instilled into the Constitution that was at the core of the problem with Vietnam. But this did not mean that Congress was opposed to the war, in fact it was Congress, in 1964, that passed the "Southeast Asia Resolution (more commonly known as the Tonkin Gulf Resolution), which on its face gave the president broad powers…" (Ely, 1993, p. 13) Many credit this legislation as the official start of the war as it allowed the President "to take all necessary measures to repeal any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent any further aggression." ("Tonkin Gulf Resolution") The resolution presented the President with virtually unlimited power to resolve the crisis that was then raging in Vietnam. Later presidents used this resolution as the legal basis of their authority to wage the war until it was repealed by Congress in 1971.
But in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the Congress undertook to limit the President's ability to engage United States military forces without its direct approval. In 1973, Congress passed the "War Powers Resolution," which created "a set of procedures for both the President and Congress to follow in situations where the introduction of U.S. forces abroad could lead to their involvement in armed conflict." ("War Powers") The "War Powers Resolution" set limits on the ability of the President to commit U.S. troops by stating clearly that the president may only do so if there was a declaration of war, or some other specific authorization from Congress, or when there was an emergency caused by an attack on the United States. Next, it required the President to consult with Congress before committing any military forces, and regularly consult with Congress during their deployment. The resolution also provided that any forces committed by the President must be removed within 60 days unless Congress approved further military action, and that authorization from Congress could be rescinded at any time. But because it was a resolution and not a bill, it did not require presidential approval, and thus has been the subject of controversy within the legal community as to whether or not the resolution is entirely constitutional.
One of the main criticisms of the American political and military leadership during Vietnam was that they failed to learn the lessons of history, particularly the history of Vietnam. The people of Vietnam have resisted foreign rulers for centuries, and they saw the United States' involvement in their country as just another foreign ruler trying to exert domination. The Chinese, Japanese, and French had all failed to subdue this country and its people giving the Vietnamese a strong national identity and resolve to remain independent. When the Americans became involved, they underestimated the Vietnamese will and determination, as well as their capabilities. They also applied their own values to the enemy, for instance, American generals commonly thought that they could "bleed the North Vietnamese dry" through a constant onslaught of firepower. But the Americans did not realize that the North Vietnamese "were prepared to accept limitless casualties to attain their objective." (Mariney, 1989) In other words, the Americans were concerned about large numbers of casualties and believe that the Vietnamese did also, so the American strategy was based on numbers of enemy killed. American generals wrongly believed that the more enemy soldiers they killed, the closer the enemy was to surrendering. They did not have a realistic understanding of the enemy's motivations, historical context, and perspective, and thus did not formulate an effective strategy.
American military strategists now make it a point to "know their enemy," and maintain as clear and objective view of them as possible. For instance, in the "War on Terror" which began with the attack on the World Trade Center in September of 2011, understanding the enemy became more important than ever. The motivations, capabilities, perspective, and historical context had to be taken into account before engaging the enemy in Afghanistan, or later in Iraq. While many attempted to join the two wars together as one large one, they had to be treated as two separate conflicts, with two completely different set of circumstances. What may have worked in Afghanistan, did not always work in Iraq, and, by learning the lessons of Vietnam, the military maintained an objective view of both enemies and formulated strategies based on the different situations.
The United States was deeply divided over the war in Vietnam, and much of the public not only refused to support the war, but outright opposed it. Some say that the lack of public support for the war was what caused the United States to eventually withdraw in defeat. However, it was the military themselves who continually provided the public with overly optimistic reports which led the American people to believe that the war was being won. And when the war simply continued to drag on, the American people lost faith with the military leadership and their ability to actually win the war. When the assessments of the military failed to be achieved in reality, the American people's support began wane, and without public support a democracy cannot wage war. The streets of America were filled with anti-war demonstrations, protests, and civil disobedience. And the enemy, who was not hampered by the constraints of democracy and freedom, were prepared to continue the war indefinitely, stoking the fires of the American anti-war movement. Because American leaders did not understand the relationship between maintaining public support for the war and the military's ability to prosecute the war, public opinion for military operations has become a major factor for both politicians and military officers. After failing to maintain the public's confidence in the military and civilian leadership during the Vietnam war, some have developed a set of factors that are inexplicably linked to the public's support for military operations. First of all, the American people must believe that the stakes are important. Whether the stakes are national interests, security, moral or humanitarian interests, Americans must feel that the war is important enough. Secondly, Americans need to feel that the prospects for a "successful outcome in the operation" are high. (Larson and Savych, 2005, p. xviii) The more likely Americans feel the outcome will be successful, the more likely they are to support it. Thirdly, Americans must feel that the expected casualties will be light. Studies have demonstrated that those who expect relatively few casualties during a military operation are more likely to support that operation. And finally, politics plays a role in support or opposition for military actions, and as a result, there must be bipartisan support in government in order for Americans to fully support the operation. If one party is in opposition to a military operation, then it is likely that the supporters of that party will also be opposed to the operation. In all military operations since the end of Vietnam, Unites States officials have tried to maintain the public's support, and as Americans discovered in Iraq, unless both political parties support the war, the American people will be divided.