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Even in modern times, a disproportionate number of homeless people are Vietnam vets. Obviously, the Vietnam War had an impact on American history. However, the end of the Vietnam War had an ever greater impact on the American psychology.
The Vietnam War was the last open conflict against communism that the United States waged. While the war was theoretically between North Korea and South Korea, it was actually about communist-controlled China, with support from Russia, fighting against the United States and France, over possession of the southern portion of Vietnam. Ideology was strong on both sides. While the Vietnamese may not have strongly embraced the ideals of communism, had they been presented in a vacuum, but many of them were eager to shed the vestiges of colonialism. The French, on the other hand, were not so eager to abandon their interests in Vietnam, making the area a perfect staging area for the coming struggle. The first American soldier died in Vietnam in 1945, though it is believed he was killed because the Vietnamese thought he was a Frenchman (PBS, 2009). In 1975, America evacuated its troops, as Saigon fell to the communists (PBS, 2009). In other words, American troops were dying in Vietnam for a 30-year period.
The end of the war demonstrated that Americans were tired of engaging in actual fighting against communist forces. Though communism would remain a specter for many Americans, the end of the war allowed Americans to concentrate on healing the divisions created by the war. Veterans, many of whom had been drafted, were treated horribly when they returned from the war. It was not until 25 years later that the tide really began to change for veterans. At a Veteran's Day parade in Chicago in 1986, Vietnam vets began receiving some respect. "What was supposed to be a small parade ended up with about 200,000 participating veterans and family members proudly marching down the streets of Chicago, to the adulation, not the protests, of an estimated 500,000 spectators" (Anderson, 2010).
Because it took 25 years for Americans, as a group, to begin treating Vietnam veterans with dignity, it should come as no surprise that the end of Vietnam also brought about the end of open warfare with communist forces. The United States would continue to engage in military altercations with communists, but these altercations would be through puppet forces. For example, in the 1980s, the Americans would provide funding to the mujahedeen in Afghanistan, where Russia was trying to expand communism. This would lead, at least indirectly, to the rise of extremist Muslim terrorism, a topic that will be revisited in the discussion of the 1990s. However, on the surface, Americans were through engaging in outright battles with the communists.
And the Wall Came Tumbling Down
The end of open hostilities with communists did not end the perceived threat of communism. Instead, a communist victory in Saigon strengthened communism as a worldwide ideology and exacerbated the threat of communism in America. Whether Russia ever had any intention of actually trying to invade the Unites States was beside the point; millions of Americans grew up with the belief that the U.S. was under the threat of constant attack. Moreover, in the 1980s, when both Russia and the United States were increasing their nuclear capabilities and, at times, seemed on the verge of world annihilation, it seemed that the ideological battle between communism and the free market economy was going to, quite literally, result in the end of the world.
Then, in 1989, something miraculous happened. As communism had spread into Germany, the Russians had literally erected a wall between East Germany and West Germany. This wall was both a symbolic and literal barrier, separating the democracies of the West from the large communist empire of the East. Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, two strong statesman, had been working together to end the Cold War throughout much of the 1980s, and, Reagan challenged Gorbachev to tear down the wall. On November 9, 1989, Gorbachev did just that; he opened up the gate between East and West Germany. To describe the importance to America, to the world, is impossible if one did not witness the historic event:
At the stroke of midnight on Nov. 9, a date that not only Germans would remember, thousands who had gathered on both sides of the Wall let out a roar and started going through it, as well as up and over. West Berliners pulled East Berliners to the top of the barrier along which in years past many an East German had been shot while trying to escape; at times the Wall almost disappeared beneath waves of humanity. They tooted trumpets and danced on the top. They brought out hammers and chisels and whacked away at the hated symbol of imprisonment, knocking loose chunks of concrete and waving them triumphantly before television cameras. They spilled out into the streets of West Berlin for a champagne-spraying, horn-honking bash that continued well past dawn, into the following day and then another dawn (Church, 1989).
Why was the tumbling of a wall in Germany of such critical importance to Americans? During the Cold War there were two superpowers: the United States and Russia. While other countries were major players on the international scene, the reality is that no other country had the might of either of these superpowers. When the Berlin wall fell, it symbolized the fall of the Soviet Union. Therefore, the U.S., which became the only country with "the capacity to project dominating power and influence anywhere in the world, and sometimes, in more than one region of the globe at a time" became the world's only superpower (Miller, 2006).
Sleeping with the Enemy
Becoming the world's only superpower was not necessarily the most advantageous thing for America, especially in regard to foreign relations. Being the sole big dog has made America a prime target for hatred and dislike by other countries and groups of people within countries. The September 11 terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon revealed to many Americans the level of hatred and distrust that much of the world had for American ideology. However, while the terrorist attacks may have revealed the underlying anti-American sentiment, they did not cause it. Instead, the root of Osama Bin Laden's anger with the United States can be traced back to the 1990s, the end of the Cold War, and the U.S. retreat from Afghanistan.
As stated above, when Vietnam ended, Americans were very reluctant to be seen as engaged in any type of physical dispute over communism. They applauded both Reagan's saber rattling and his diplomacy with Russia, grateful that he seemed able to keep them out of any type of dispute with Russia. Even when it became clear that the U.S. was involved in secret military engagements, such as the Iran-Contra affair, the American public seemed content to allow leaders to make controversial military decisions, as long as those decisions remained private.
One such decision was the U.S. funding and training of Afghan citizens to right against Russia's encroachment of the Afghan border. However, this funding was secretive, with some confusion among the people about who was supporting the Afghan natives, what type of support was being provided, and what steps would be taken after victory over the Russians. Shortly after the Berlin Wall fell, the U.S. lost interest in Afghanistan, leaving an armed force, which it had helped train and create, in a country with little infrastructure. "By the end of 1993, in Afghanistan itself there were no roads, no schools, just a destroyed country -- and the United States was washing its hands of any responsibility. It was in this vacuum that the Taliban and Osama bin Laden would emerge as the dominant players" (Crile, 2003).
Obviously, Bin Laden is known, today, as the head of Al Qaeda and is the mastermind of the September 11 terrorist attacks. However, he was a most-wanted fugitive even before that time. Osama, a.k.a. Usama "is wanted in connection with the August 7, 1998, bombings of the United States Embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya. These attacks killed over 200 people. In addition, Bin Laden is a suspect in other terrorist attacks throughout the world" (FBI, 2010). These terrorist attacks have helped change the nature and fabric of American society. While they resulted in fewer deaths than a major natural disaster and than any war in which America has officially engaged, they led to tremendous social change. Both the current war in Afghanistan and the current war in Iraq are responses to the terrorist attacks. Americans have suspended habeas corpus and other constitutional protections for suspected terrorists. Many Americans support race-based profiling of suspected criminals. Moreover, much of America has become vocally anti-Muslim, though the terrorist attacks are no more inspired by…[continue]
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