Ethics of the War Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The question of when a powerful nation should intervene militarily in the affairs of a small country is not susceptible to a simple answer. Failure to intervene can mean that a small country will be subjected to tyranny, anarchy, or even genocide. Yet a military intervention that is bloody and inconclusive can also wreak havoc on a small country; furthermore, sending troops into a combat situation abroad means that some people will be killed or wounded. The unsuccessful end of the costly and controversial American intervention in Vietnam by no means ensured that policymakers would be spared similar dilemmas in the future.

The morality of U.S. participation in the Vietnam War was questioned by many at the time it occurred and has been questioned ever since. The war’s greatest legacy has arguably come in the form of its effects upon U.S. foreign policy, U.S. self-perception, and the world’s perception of the United States. It was as a direct result of the Vietnam War that both the moral purity of U.S. interests and the invincibility of the U.S. military came to be questioned on a significant scale, both at home and abroad.

The question of when a powerful nation should intervene militarily in the affairs of a small country is not susceptible to a simple answer. Failure to intervene can mean that a small country will be subjected to tyranny, anarchy, or even genocide. Yet a military intervention that is bloody and inconclusive can also wreak havoc on a small country; furthermore, sending troops into a combat situation abroad means that some people will be killed or wounded. The unsuccessful end of the costly and controversial American intervention in Vietnam by no means ensured that policymakers would be spared similar dilemmas in the future.

The United States had been involved in the affairs of Vietnam ever since that country was divided, in 1954, into a communist North and an anti-communist South. As long as the American military mission in South Vietnam was small-scale, it aroused little opposition in the United States. Between 1965 and 1968, however, the number of American combat troops in Vietnam rose from 50,000 to 500,000; the casualties suffered by the troops and the monthly draft calls soared; and the loud debate at home reached an unprecedented level.

Religious Opposition to the War and the Just War Tradition

Although at least one theologian, R. Paul Ramsey, did support the American military intervention in Vietnam, members of the clergy and theologians were conspicuous in the movement against such intervention. In 1966, the organization Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam was formed. Vocal opponents of the American war effort included the Protestant theologian Robert McAfee Brown; Yale University’s Protestant chaplain, William Sloane Coffin; and two Roman Catholic priests, Daniel Berrigan and Philip Berrigan.

The just war tradition was first elaborated by the theologians of Christian Europe during the late Middle Ages. After centuries of indifference by peoples and governments, this tradition was revived by the Nuremberg Trials of 1946, which followed the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II.

The just war tradition sets forth six criteria for determining whether a particular war is just. The war must be waged for a just cause; it must be waged as a last resort; the intent behind the war must be right; there must be a reasonable hope of success; the war must be waged by a legitimate, duly constituted authority; and the harm inflicted by the war must not be disproportionate to the good that one hopes to achieve. During the Vietnam War, America’s clergy, theologians, and laypersons questioned whether American military intervention in Vietnam met all or even most of these criteria for a just war.

Opposition to the War

The U.S. Constitution, while making the president commander in chief of the armed forces, gives Congress the right to declare war. Yet the massive war effort in Vietnam, dissenters pointed out, had come about through presidential orders alone. The first substantial increase in troop levels in Vietnam had been announced on July 28, 1965, at a little-publicized presidential news conference. The dissenters did not have an airtight case, however: The Korean War (1950–1953) had also started without a congressional declaration.

The official justification for the war, given by presidents Lyndon Baines Johnson and Richard M. Nixon, was that the American military was in South Vietnam to repel aggression launched from communist North Vietnam. Defenders of the war viewed the conflict through an ideological lens, as an assault by international communism against those who loved freedom. The moral and material support that the world’s major communist states, China and the Soviet Union, gave to North Vietnam was cited as evidence for this interpretation.

The opponents of the war, by contrast, stressed the facts that both sides of the conflict were ethnic Vietnamese and that Vietnam had been a single country until 1954. Dissenters viewed the United States as meddling in another country’s civil war and thus committing aggression itself, rather than nobly defending a victim of unprovoked aggression; hence, the war did not meet the “just cause” criterion.

The dissenters’ localized view of the Vietnam War led them to scorn the notion that defeating the communists in South Vietnam was necessary to protect the United States itself. The dissenters saw the Vietnamese communists as nationalist defenders of Vietnamese independence, not as the Southeast Asian arm of a worldwide conspiracy against American democracy. Hence, the war, dissenters believed, did not meet the “last resort” criterion.

Concerned about the Johnson administration’s continued escalation of the war, the Senate held hearings on the war in March, 1968, and subjected Secretary of State Dean Rusk (right foreground) to a two-day cross-examination on live television. (Library of Congress)

War Crimes

Until the early 1970’s, the spearhead of the communist assault on the South Vietnamese government was not the North Vietnamese Army, but the so-called National Liberation Front, or Viet Cong. The Viet Cong, drawn from communist sympathizers in the South, were not regular troops in uniform; instead, they were guerrillas who wore peasant clothing and blended in with the villagers after conducting hit-and-run raids against American or South Vietnamese troops.

It was nearly impossible for American troops to fight such an enemy without hurting some innocent civilians. The American military attacked villages from which sniper fire had come (one officer declared that he had had to destroy a village in order to save it) and decreed whole areas to be free-fire zones, where anybody who moved was assumed to be the enemy. The chemical Agent Orange was used to defoliate certain areas, in order to deprive the Viet Cong of food. Napalm, a burning jelly, was dropped on centers of enemy fire; inevitably, some children were hurt. In the My Lai massacre of March, 1968 (made public in 1969), all the people in a village were killed by American troops under the command of Lieutenant William Calley.

Such suffering led all dissenters to question whether the war met the “proportionality” criterion; some dissenters even condemned the war as genocidal. Defenders of the war effort pointed out that the Viet Cong also committed atrocities and that the perpetrators of My Lai were finally subjected to American military justice.

The Debate After the War’s End

In April, 1975, the North Vietnamese, having signed a peace agreement with the United States in January, 1973, overran and conquered South Vietnam. As a result, the United States admitted, by airlift, a wave of refugees. Contrary to the fears of earlier American administrations, the loss of South Vietnam did not lead to a communist advance to Hawaii or even to the fall of all of eastern Asia; the only other Asian countries to become communist were Vietnam’s neighbors, Laos and Cambodia. By 1979, however, the repressiveness of the communist regime led to another massive flight of refugees, this time by boat; ironically, at least a few of the new refugees were former Viet Cong. The results of defeat started a new debate in America.

In 1978, historian Guenter Lewy published a history of the Vietnam War, defending American intervention in that conflict; in 1982, magazine editor Norman Podhoretz did the same thing. Both looked back on the Vietnam War as a noble effort to defend a free people against communism; so also did the president of the United States during the 1980’s, Ronald Reagan. Political philosopher Michael Walzer, in Just and Unjust Wars (1977), condemned the means used in the Vietnam War without thoroughly discussing the issue of the war’s rationale. In 1985, former president Richard M. Nixon published No More Vietnams defending his administration’s Vietnam policy. Podhoretz’s view, that post-1975 communist repression provided a retrospective justification for the American war effort of 1965 to 1973, never won a great following among academics or the general public. By the end of the 1980’s, as the Cold War ended, the question of the morality of the war was still controversial among historians and journalists.

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