Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


MAY 2018

Fifty years ago, in 1968, the United States was in deep crisis.

In April, a prominent civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, was assassinated in Tennessee. Two months later, a well-known candidate for president, Robert F. Kennedy, was killed by a gunman in California.

In August that year the Democratic National Convention in Chicago was brought to an impasse by massive rioting in nearby streets, which Chicago police finally quelled with brutal tactics. The Illinois National Guard was put on alert. Anti-Vietnam War demonstrations challenged police in cities across the country.

Impact of Vietnam

By early 1968 the war in Vietnam included over 500,000 American forces. It was seen as a failure by the American public after the impact of the Vietcong's destructive Tet offensive, which caused massive damage in cities across South Vietnam. In Saigon, the insurgents penetrated the U.S. embassy building. President Lyndon Johnson in March announced a de-escalation of the war and declared that he would not be a candidate for president in November elections.

His decision stunned America's Asian allies who viewed it as U.S. weakness and would be exploited by Soviet and Chinese leaders. The European allies, who earlier had worried that U.S. intervention in Vietnam was a diversion from the major Soviet threat to Europe, viewed the president's decision on de-escalation with relief. But they were also concerned that domestic turmoil in the U.S., sparked by Dr. King's assassination, could cause Americans to turn inward and forsake the stabilizing world role that it had followed during the previous twenty years.

Nixon's troubled tenure

In this dangerous environment, the presidential election in November 1968 became pivotal, for both domestic and foreign policy. Republican Richard Nixon, who had been vice president under President Eisenhower in the 1950s, emerged as winner over the current vice president, Hubert Humphrey. The country waited anxiously to see how Nixon would deal with the Vietnam War while reassuring European allies  that America would not return to 1930s isolationism.

Today, we look back with mixed feelings about the tragedies of 1968: We ask why the country permitted the war in Vietnam to turn into a major failure in U.S. foreign policy. President Nixon is given credit for his successful efforts to extract all military personnel from what seemed in 1968 to be a complete disaster. He was immensely helped by his successful "opening to China," which he and his advisor, Henry Kissinger, arranged in 1972.

Nixon was roundly criticized by opponents for taking four years to withdraw the troops, instead of getting them out in a year. But he avoided a debacle by ordering a gradual drawdown that was completed in April 1973. Two years later, however, North Vietnam used its large army to invade the south and forced the U.S. embassy in Saigon into a humiliating evacuation.

Lessons learned

Fifty years after 1968, what lessons should we draw from the experience?

First, presidents and Congress must avoid being drawn into civil wars in distant places, underestimating the tenacity of local forces to resist the foreigner. U.S. interventions in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, both wars of choice, were not without strategic merit; and Congress supported both decisions. But problems arose when President George W. Bush sought to remake Iraq and Afghanistan along democratic lines and expended many American lives and much treasure attempting to build democracy in countries that had never known it.

A second lesson:  America should refrain from  using combat forces in distant areas unless vital U.S. interests are at stake. Today in Northeast Asia, a strong case is made that preventing North Korea becoming a nuclear power is a vital U.S. interest for protecting allies, Japan and South Korea, and American territory. Syria is a different matter, because intervening in its civil war is not a vital interest, even though it is a humanitarian outrage.

America's military and foreign policy leaders seem to have learned important lessons from experiences in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The Trump administration's caution on Syria reflects its reluctance to take on yet another problem in the Middle East.

File last modified on Sunday, 27-MAY-2018 08:30 PM EST

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