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Why War Anniversaries Matter (or Don’t)

Andrew Preston teaches American history at Cambridge University, where he is a fellow of Clare College and the editor of The Historical Journal. He is the author of The War Council: McGeorge Bundy, the NSC, and Vietnam (2006) and Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy (2012). He is a coeditor most recently of Faithful Republic: Religion and Politics in the Twentieth-Century United States (2015). He is currently editing the second volume of the forthcoming Cambridge History of the Vietnam War and writing a history of the idea of national security in the United States. He is also an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.

For observers of American foreign relations, 2015 is a good year to take stock. For some reason, major anniversaries keep rolling past.

Last week, on May 8, people in Britain, Russia, the United States, and across Europe celebrated the 70th anniversary of VE Day. Though World War II had another few months to go before it finally ended in East Asia and the Pacific, the defeat of Nazi Germany marked a significant turning point in world history. Fascism and genocide had not been eradicated forever, of course, but the Allied victory in Europe meant that it would be not be the dominant international force, politically, economically, or culturally.

To replace the Nazi empire in Europe and North Africa, the Allies sought to establish a new world order that would forestall a third world war. The United States, supported by Britain and many other allies, founded an international system based on the principles of state-managed capitalism and liberal democracy. The United Nations was the political keystone to this new system, while a regulatory order founded on the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (which later morphed into the World Trade Organization), and the Bretton Woods monetary system of fixed exchange rates provided its economic foundations. This international system, which the political scientist John Gerard Ruggie famously termed “embedded liberalism,” enshrined the welfare state at home and contained communism abroad. And one thing above all else held it together: American power—political, economic, cultural, and especially military.

The problem was that the ally that sacrificed the most in defeating the Nazis wanted nothing to do with a new world order created in America’s image. The Soviet Union instead wanted a buffer zone of pliant communist states in eastern Europe, based on closed command economies and under the thumb of the Red Army. As brutal as the Soviet empire was, this wish was understandable; Russia had suffered three major wars since 1812 at the hands of western invaders.

At the end of World War II, there was little room for compromise. Both the United States and the Soviet Union had tried to avoid entering the war, and both had been dragged in by surprise attacks in 1941. After teaming up to defeat Germany and Japan, both the Americans and the Soviets saw their own systems as the only key to avoid being dragged into another future world war. And they saw their systems as fundamentally incompatible, indeed mutually exclusive. The main difference between them was that while the Soviets envisioned their security as regional, the Americans perceived theirs as global.

Over the course of the resulting Cold War, the American system prevailed. It lives today, certainly worse for wear after several wars in the Middle East and with the rise of China, but the basis of international order retains the foundations that Washington laid in 1945. It had its critics and opponents, of course, and they remain today as well—witness the strangely separate celebrations of VE Day in Washington and Moscow, where former allies against Nazi Germany couldn’t summon the will to mark the occasion together.

The strongest challenge to the American international system occurred during the Cold War, and it brings us to the second anniversary that the world recently observed: the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War on April 30, 1975. The war had little to do with two of America’s habitual international objectives: the promotion of democracy and the spread of capitalism. It was instead a contest over another signal American value, self-determination, which became a national security threat to many Americans when communism became a dominant nationalist ideology in Vietnam.

In the United States, commentaries on the fall of Saigon have centered mainly on the extent to which America had been humiliated internationally. Contemporary observers have dwelt on the war as an American defeat—little heed has been paid to the appalling, unnecessary destruction meted out on Vietnam itself.

Over the past month, most observers have assumed that April 1975 retains its significance as a major turning point in world history. Yet it pales in comparison to May 1945, when Americans and their Canadian and European allies founded a world order that has endured for seven decades. The Vietnam War, it turns out in hindsight, was a momentous turning point in the domestic histories of the United States, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, but probably not in world history. Of course, the war contributed to other major historical phenomena, such as the formation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which provided a platform for the spectacular economic growth of the Asian tiger economies, and the rapprochement between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. But for better or worse, the basic trajectory of the American Century was surprisingly unaltered by the debacle in Vietnam. Instead of marking a turning point in American decline, or a crisis in liberal democratic capitalism, the fall of Saigon represented one last moment of glory for communist internationalism.

If the Vietnam War had a lasting international impact, it was on the way the United States managed and enforced order in its world system, particularly the costs it was willing to bear. No longer would U.S. officials send Americans to die for that cause in large numbers. Richard Nixon first signaled this new era of American warfare with his eponymous “doctrine” of June 1969, which declared that the United States would help its allies resist communism but would no longer do the fighting for them. Over the next four years, his policy of Vietnamization aimed to put doctrine into practice by reversing the Americanization of the war that Lyndon Johnson had overseen in the spring and summer of 1965.

Since then, U.S. military strategy has been predicated on the use of American air power, either on its own (through aerial bombing and targeted drone strikes) or in tandem with local ground forces. With two exceptions, both times involving the invasion of Iraq, this has been the dominant pattern of the American way of war, from Nixon’s bombing operations against North Vietnamese forces in 1971–1972 to George W. Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 to Barack Obama’s operations against Libya in 2011 and Islamic State in 2014–2015. (When U.S. forces were deployed without air power or local allies on the ground, as in Grenada in 1983 and Panama in 1989, it was against an vastly inferior enemy, for a very short time, and with a very specific purpose.) This brings us to yet another anniversary, later this summer, which marked the maturation of this new way of warfare but which will likely go unnoticed: the U.S.-led NATO bombing campaign, supplemented by a Croatian ground offensive, against the Bosnian Serbs in August and September of 1995.

Over time, the fall of Saigon will fade from the historical memory of people who don’t live in Vietnam or the United States. While the 70th anniversary of VE Day commanded global attention, it is doubtful that the end of the Vietnam War will draw a similar audience in 2045. Among Vietnamese and Americans, the war’s significance will endure for the changes it wrought to their societies. But its global impact, mostly indirect and often imperceptible, will probably pass unremarked.