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BIG IDEA: The United States first became involved in the Vietnam War because of Cold War fears about the spread of communism. Over time it became harder and harder to exit the conflict and eventually it led to major civil unrest at home as a youth-driven anti-war movement grew. America had to exit the conflict without winning.

The United States initially became involved in Vietnam because of Cold War fears about the spread of communism. Most American leaders saw Vietnam as another Korea. That is, the United States would have to fight to prevent Vietnam from falling to communists or else neighboring countries such as Cambodia, Laos, or even the Philippines might fall to communists as well. This was the Domino Theory.

Although American advisors had been in South Vietnam for years, Americans did not become heavily involved in fighting until 1964 when Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and gave President Johnson authority to carry out combat operations.

Vietnam turned out to be more complicated than Korea. The Vietnamese were fighting a war for independence and American soldiers were often viewed as foreigners to be expelled rather than as protectors. Furthermore, Ngo Dinh Diem, the leader of non-communist South Vietnam was an unpopular leader for a variety of reasons, whereas Ho Chi Minh, the communist leader of North Vietnam was beloved.

To make matters worse, the Americans faced an enemy that used guerilla warfare. Unable to adapt, the Americans ended up doing significant harm to the civilian population, further alienating potential allies.

As the war dragged on through the later 1960s and into the 1970s, Americans began to doubt the rationale for fighting the war and a vocal anti-war movement emerged, especially on college campuses. Violent clashes between protesters and police focused attention on the divide between the people and political and military leaders.

Eventually, President Nixon adopted a strategy of Vietnamization in which American forces left and responsibility was transferred to the South Vietnamese army.  In reality, this was a dignified way to surrender.  In 1975, Vietnam fell to the communists as the last Americans left.  

Americans who lived through that time continue to struggle with difficult memories of conflicts on the battlefield and at home.


BIG IDEA: The 1970s was a period when Americans lost faith and trust in their leaders. Politicians were exposed as liars. The economy failed and leaders were not able to repair the damage, and the celebrated American industrial economy started to crumble.

The 1970s were a time when some of America’s most important leaders failed. In the case of the Pentagon Papers, reporters revealed that the Presidents of the 1950s and 1960s had lied to the American people about their real reasons for fighting the war in Vietnam, and about how the war was progressing.

President Nixon was forced to resign in 1974 when it became clear that he had abused his authority in an attempt to hide crimes committed by his supporters. The Watergate Scandal, named after the Watergate Hotel and Office Complex, along with the Pentagon Papers, marked a change in America. After the early 1970s, many fewer Americans trust presidents and other powerful leaders.

In the later decade, President Carter faced his own challenges. Although he was not corrupt like Nixon, he was unable to solve significant problems. Most embarrassingly, revolutionaries in Iran held 52 Americans hostage. Carter could not negotiate their release and a military rescue mission failed.

A meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant showed Americans that its top scientists, engineers and business leaders were also imperfect.


BIG IDEA: Beginning in the 1970s, American manufacturing started to move overseas as businesses looked for ways to lower production costs. Although globalization has been good for many, it has not been good for all Americans and has major critics.

The 1970s are remembered as a decade of difficult economic times. The United States abandoned the Bretton Woods system of international monetary policy and the gold standard.

An oil embargo forced Americans to pay higher prices for gasoline and other goods. A combination of high unemployment, low growth and high inflation ensued. Called stagflation, American political and financial leaders were unable to turn things around.

Imported cars that were more fuel-efficient made a significant impact on the American automobile industry and imported products became familiar sights on store shelves.

Global trade was increasing and in response, some Americans looked to their government for protection. These anti-globalists oppose trade for a variety of reasons and have sometimes mobilized huge rallies and during the Trump presidency, found some success in changing trade policy.

Globalization has hurt some Americans, especially in the Rust Belt of the Northeast and Midwest where manufacturing dried up and workers lost their jobs. On the other hand, globalization has resulted in lower prices and a higher overall standard of living.