George H.W. Bush Proclaims a Cure for the Vietnam Syndrome | 1 March 1991
Meetings of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) are not typically sites for major pronouncements regarding U.S. foreign relations. Yet on March 1, 1991, speaking before an audience of private sector stakeholders and conservative-leaning legislators, President George H.W. Bush connected the U.S.’s political and military failures in the Vietnam War, which had ended in 1975, with its more successful objectives in the Persian Gulf War (Operation Desert Storm) of early 1991. President Bush’s ALEC address exuded euphoria about the U.S’s overwhelming victory over Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s vaunted army. Surrounded by ALEC leadership and Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, the President spoke of his gratitude for the soldiers and military leadership that made the swift victory of the coalition forces possible. He closed by proclaiming, “It’s a proud day for America. And, by God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.” The term “Vietnam syndrome” was shorthand for the perception that the U.S’s failure in Vietnam had hampered its abilities to meet military challenges elsewhere in the world. But with Bush’s clean bill of health, pronounced amid laughter and applause, the Persian Gulf War turned into a celebration of renewed American military power.
In August 1990, tens of thousands of Iraqi troops stormed across their southern border and invaded neighboring Kuwait. Within two days, Hussein’s army overran the outnumbered Kuwaiti defense forces and replaced the ruling monarchy with a pro-Iraqi puppet government. As a response to Iraq’s invasion, the Bush White House speculated that war with Iraq could be a defining moment for the United States in the post-Cold War era. According to reporter Arnold Isaacs, National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft believed that since the United States’ defeat in the Vietnam War, a “paralysis” had crippled American national security policymakers and U.S. troops would only be sent into harm’s way under the most idealized conditions.
To garner public and congressional support for U.S. entry into the Iraqi-Kuwaiti conflict, the administration repeatedly stressed that war in Iraq would not be a repeat of the Vietnam War. Winning the new war and exorcising the demons from the last one quickly became the predominant goals as the administration narrowed its range of options. Personifying this thinking was then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Colin Powell, who remarked that, “The stain of Vietnam would be removed by a rapid victor, and American forces would exit swiftly. Anything else was a potential snare.”
Bush invoked the Vietnam syndrome at the ALEC meeting to contrast his arguments for war against the most divisive conflict in recent American history. “Syndrome” implied a disease plaguing the United States, one that severely limited the actions of the country to confront threats around the world. His image of an illness cast the United States as the victim of the Vietnam War instead of an aggressor. It furthermore overlooked the pattern of armed U.S. interventions in Lebanon, Grenada, and Libya. Throughout the 1980s, the U.S. military relied heavily on covert operations in Nicaragua, Angola, and Soviet-occupied Afghanistan. War waging did not disappear after Vietnam—it merely became more subtle in practice. The “Vietnam Syndrome” was convenient shorthand for Bush that simplified and leveraged to moralize his own arguments in 1991.
Complicating matters were the different meanings of “Vietnam Syndrome” in the 1970s and 1980s —which Bush neglected to acknowledge in his speech to ALEC. For neoconservatives, it indicated that totalitarian regimes did not have to be confronted anymore, a reversal of the 1930s-era Munich policy. Former president Richard Nixon, in his book, No More Vietnams, asserted that the Vietnam syndrome meant his failure to declare a full-scale war against North Vietnam. For some in the U.S. military, the Vietnam syndrome demanded clear and decisive results in future conflicts and potentially ambiguous outcomes might spell trouble for U.S. war planners. Hawkish military leaders, such as future vice presidential candidate Vice Admiral James Stockdale, characterized the Vietnam syndrome as the military’s worry that unprepared civilian leaders might insert themselves in military matters and forfeit otherwise winnable victories after soldiers made the ultimate sacrifice.
After the U.S. Congress authorized the use of military force with Iraq, albeit with narrow passage in the U.S. Senate, Operation Desert Storm commenced on January 17, 1991. For the next five weeks, aerial and naval bombardments weakened Iraqi resolve and Hussein’s control of Kuwait slipped through his fingers. On February 24, a U.S.-led ground invasion of nearly a million soldiers initiated a retreat of Hussein’s troops.
Two days into the ground campaign, Iraqi troops fled Kuwait as fast as possible, torching over seven hundred oil wells as part of Hussein’s scorched-earth withdrawal. Coalition troops advanced quickly through Iraqi territories and soon approached, Baghdad, the national capital. On February 28, President Bush declared a ceasefire. When President Bush spoke before ALEC members on March 1, he not only declared that Kuwait had been liberated, but a demon exorcised: the Vietnam Syndrome. A day after the ALEC address, a radio address enhanced the metaphor further. Bush proclaimed that, “The specter of Vietnam has been buried forever in the desert sands of the Arabian Peninsula.” For the president, victory over Iraq brought deliverance to the U.S. military—it was no longer held back by its failures in the Vietnam War.
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