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Tonkin Gulf Resolution | NICHOLAS BURNS

Learn, but don’t overlearn, Vietnam’s lessons

President Obama arrived at West Point for a commencement ceremony.REUTERS/file

A half century after the Gulf of Tonkin resolution catapulted the United States head first into the tragedy of Vietnam, three lessons stand out.

First, the memory of over 58,000 American soldiers lost in that long, tortuous war compels our presidents to set the bar very high when contemplating the use of force. Vietnam tore a gaping hole in every American city and town over the sacrifice of young men sent to fight Communism in Indochina.

Second, presidents can too often see the military as a quick fix for complex international problems. Vietnam should remind us there is always the alternative of diplomacy. While negotiating with enemies to prevent war is not always possible, presidents should think diplomacy first and resort to war only when there is truly no other choice.


But, third, we can also misinterpret or overlearn the lessons of bitter wars such as Vietnam and Iraq. We become so convinced by the error of the last war that we are incapable of confronting new threats when they inevitably arise. The “Vietnam syndrome” cast a pall over American foreign policy for two decades. It made us an uncertain and hesitant power, robbing us of the self-confidence needed by the most powerful country in the world.

We may be suffering something similar today, following the bloody and divisive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Are we pulling back too much on the throttle of global leadership and succumbing to a new isolation from the world’s ills? The Gulf of Tonkin disaster reminds us to be wary of rushing to war. But, the world also needs a strong and purposeful America, ready to meet new challenges 50 years later.

Nicholas Burns is a professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Follow him on Twitter @rnicholasburns.