Vietnam Syndrome - Reagan's Speech To The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW)

Reagan's Speech To The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW)

In the speech in which he coined the term "Vietnam syndrome", President Reagan alleged that the Soviet Union was outspending the US in the global arms race, and warned that America's global power was decreasing, while the Soviet Union was becoming more powerful. He accused the Carter administration of being "totally oblivious" to the Soviet threat.

Alluding to the Paris Peace Accords (signed by the Nixon administration) as an undesirable example of compromise that needed to be avoided in the future, Reagan claimed that Carter's policies of Détente were endangering the continuation of US military superiority in the Cold War. Instead, Reagan argued, US policy should and could combine a commitment to protecting freedom and human rights with securing US global dominance and US access to resources such as oil and minerals through military might and diplomacy:

One wonders why the Carter Administration fails to see any threatening pattern in the Soviet presence, by way of Cuban proxies, in so much of Africa, which is the source of minerals absolutely essential to the industrialized democracies of Japan, Western Europe, and the U.S. We are self-sufficient in only 5 of the 27 minerals important to us industrially and strategically, and so the security of our resource life line is essential. Then there is the Soviet, Cuban and East German presence in Ethiopia, South Yemen, and now the invasion and subjugation of Afghanistan. This last step moves them within striking distance of the oil-rich Persian Gulf. And is it just coincidence that Cuban and Soviet-trained terrorists are bringing civil war to Central American countries in close proximity to the rich oil fields of Venezuela and Mexico? Clearly, world peace must be our number one priority. It is the first task of statecraft to preserve peace so that brave men need not die in battle. But it must not be peace at any price; it must not be a peace of humiliation and gradual surrender. Nor can it be the kind of peace imposed on Czechoslovakia by Soviet tanks just 12 years ago this month. And certainly it isn’t the peace that came to Southeast Asia after the Paris Peace accords were signed. Peace must be such that freedom can flourish and justice prevail. Tens of thousands of boat people have shown us there is no freedom in the so-called peace in Vietnam. The hill people of Laos know poison gas, not justice, and in Cambodia there is only the peace of the grave for at least one-third of the population slaughtered by the Communists.

Reagan also suggested that Americans could have defeated the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese Army, alleging that the American public had turned against the war due to the influence of North Vietnamese propaganda, and implying that the soldiers had been let down by Johnson and Nixon administration officials who had been "afraid to let them win" the war in Vietnam.

Reagan equated the "Vietnam syndrome" not only with a reluctance on the part of the American public to support US military interventions but also with feelings of guilt about the devastation brought about due to the Vietnam War and with feelings of doubt over the morality of America's intentions and actions during the war. Reagan, however, argued that America had fought for "a noble cause", blaming the war in Vietnam exclusively on North Vietnam's aggression:

For too long, we have lived with the “Vietnam Syndrome.” Much of that syndrome has been created by the North Vietnamese aggressors who now threaten the peaceful people of Thailand. Over and over they told us for nearly 10 years that we were the aggressors bent on imperialistic conquests. They had a plan. It was to win in the field of propaganda here in America what they could not win on the field of battle in Vietnam. As the years dragged on, we were told that peace would come if we would simply stop interfering and go home. It is time we recognized that ours was, in truth, a noble cause. A small country newly free from colonial rule sought our help in establishing self-rule and the means of self-defense against a totalitarian neighbor bent on conquest. We dishonor the memory of 50,000 young Americans who died in that cause when we give way to feelings of guilt as if we were doing something shameful, and we have been shabby in our treatment of those who returned. They fought as well and as bravely as any Americans have ever fought in any war. They deserve our gratitude, our respect, and our continuing concern. There is a lesson for all of us in Vietnam. If we are forced to fight, we must have the means and the determination to prevail or we will not have what it takes to secure the peace. And while we are at it, let us tell those who fought in that war that we will never again ask young men to fight and possibly die in a war our government is afraid to let them win.

Reagan's speech thus expressed the main tenets of the conservative and reactionary polemic that ensued in the late 1970s.

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