The Atlantic

How the Vietnam War Broke the American Presidency

The war opened the credibility gap. What we’ve learned since has only widened it.
Source: WG600; Photos: Associated Press; Bettman Archive; Corbis; Fred W. McDarrah; Getty; Horst Faas; Kevin Schafer; Michael Ochs; PhotoQuest

On April 30, 1975, when the last helicopter lifted off the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, the Vietnam War, the most consequential event in American history since World War II, ended in failure. More than 58,000 Americans and as many as 3 million Vietnamese had died in the conflict. America’s illusions of invincibility had been shattered, its moral confidence shaken. The war undermined the country’s faith in its most respected institutions, particularly the military and the presidency. The military eventually recovered. The presidency never has.

It did not happen all at once, this radical diminution of trust. Over more than a decade, the accumulated weight of critical reporting about the war, the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, and the declassification of military and intelligence reports tarnished the office. Nor did the process stop when that last chopper took off. New evidence of hypocrisy has continued to appear, an acidic on the image of the presidency. The three men who are most responsible for the war, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard Nixon, each made the fateful decision to record their deliberations about it.

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