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



Three costly wars in Central and East Asia since 1950 raise two questions about U.S. foreign policy: Why did we go to war in Korea (1950), Vietnam (1965), and Afghanistan (2001)? What did we learn about America's emerging role in maintaining world peace?


The major mistake made by President George W. Bush was not the invasion in 2001 to get rid of al-Qaeda, a successful operation. But his administration's decision to use the occupation of Afghanistan to build a democratic government, in a country that had no experience with free elections or interest in human rights. That effort has largely failed. The financial cost was over a trillion dollars and battle casualties were nearly 2,000 dead and 20,000 wounded. Although casualties were smaller than in Korea and Vietnam: the public's frustration with the war was very clear.

We had two successful, but smaller wars in Kuwait and Bosnia in the 1990s. But the legacy of failures in Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan caused Presidents Obama, Trump, and Biden, to tread carefully before committing military forces abroad.


In mid-June 1950, North Korean troops, supported by arms from the Soviet Union, invaded South Korea with the intention of uniting the country under Communist rule. After WW II, America occupied South Korea as well as Japan and the Soviet Union had responsibility for North Korea. President Harry Truman decided that America would use force to stop North Korea's "blatant threat to peace" and gave General Douglas MacArthur, commander in Japan, instructions to roll back the invasion. The problem was the serious lack of US forces in Asia to accomplish that.

Truman didn't ask Congress for a declaration of war; he based his decision on the U.N. Charter which called for collective action to deal with a breach of peace. MacArthur got more troops from the U.S. and by September he defeated North Korean forces and restored the original border.

Had Truman stopped there, he would have been acclaimed for restoring the border. But MacArthur persuaded him to use the victorious forces to invade North Korea and unify the country under a non-Communist government. That was a huge mistake.

When U.S. forces approached the Yalu River border, Beijing sent thousands of troops into North Korea and drove the Americans back into South Korea. Truman relieved MacArthur and sent more troops to South Korea. A truce signed in May 1953 restored the previous border, but the cost in American lives was 34,000 dead and 103,000 wounded. No peace treaty was reached and the U.S. is legally still at war with North Korea.


President Lyndon Johnson inherited a small war in South Vietnam from John Kennedy and needed to decide whether to escalate U.S. military intervention or negotiate a way out of a civil war. Military leaders favored increasing pressure on Hanoi to stop Communist infiltration of the south, The phrase "domino effect" was the handle advocates used to argue that if Vietnam fell to Communism, all of Southeast Asia would come under Hanoi's domination.

Johnson concluded that he needed congressional authorization to fight a wider war. Following a naval encounter off North Vietnam's coast, Congress gave him the Tonkin Gulf Resolution permitting the use force to repel Communism in Southeast Asia. He thought that faced with American power, principally air power, Hanoi would agree to a settlement. That was a major mistake, similar to Truman's in 1950.

Military leaders convinced the president that air power would not stop the Communists and that a large ground force was required. In July 1965, Johnson sent 200,000 troops to South Vietnam, again expecting that Hanoi would decide it could not win. Hanoi refused to negotiate on U.S. terms and Johnson then escalated further. By early 1968, half a million American forces were in Vietnam. Then things changed: North Vietnam's Tet offensive and a new secretary of defense persuaded Johnson to deescalate the war and negotiate.

It was left to Richard Nixon to withdraw US forces in "an honorable manner." All troops were our by May 1973, but U.S. diplomatic personnel had to be airlifted out in 1975 when Hanoi used its own troops to invade the south and take Saigon. The war cost 58,000 American dead and over 74,000 wounded. Unlike in Korea, the U.S. was thrown completely out of Vietnam, a major disaster.

What have we learned? In my view, two clear lessons. The country realized the high price it paid in lives and financial support for three wars we could not win. And many learned that we should not elect presidents and members of Congress who get carried away with the dream of America as hegemonic world power.

File last modified on Saturday, 31-JUL-2021 11:25 AM EST

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