Fighting the Vietnam Syndrome: The Construction of a Conservative Veterans Politics, 1966-1984

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In a 1980 campaign speech to veterans, Ronald Reagan declared that the United States suffered from a "Vietnam syndrome." The war in Vietnam, Reagan said, had harmed American political life and made the public wary of the aggressive foreign policies Reagan believed were necessary to win the Cold War. I argue that five presidential administrations developed a veterans politics meant to counteract the Vietnam syndrome. Their efforts drove a slow expansion of federal programs for veterans, assistance often more symbolic than substantive. Policymakers worked with a conservative cohort of vets to formulate what they termed an image of "healthy masculinity" for veterans by creating programs intended to redefine citizenship and masculinity. These initiatives reflected veterans' and policymakers' understandings of the impact of the Vietnam War on American politics and foreign relations. This politics of symbolism culminated in Reagan's efforts to fight the Vietnam syndrome and garner support for his agenda of Cold War re-militarization by glorifying the war and its veterans. The efforts of presidents as ideologically divergent as Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan to use veterans benefits to achieve their political ends reveal remarkable continuities in the exercise of executive power. After Vietnam, politicians and observers in the media conflated debates over veterans benefits with efforts to delineate the war's meaning and to construct memories of it. Conservative veterans in turn used this trend to build their political and cultural capital. They embraced and expanded narratives that insisted those returning from Vietnam were ignored or mistreated, reinforcing the notion that Vietnam was a unique war and that extraordinary measures would be required to move beyond it. Efforts to eradicate the "Vietnam syndrome" through the creation of veterans programs ironically ensured the continued centrality of the Vietnam War in American political culture.

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  • 10/01/2018
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