The Worst US Foreign Policy Blunder – Vietnam or Iraq?


Inasmuch as the US is the world’s leading power, any major foreign policy mistakes it makes are felt globally. The US and Russia wisely did not go to war back in 1962 over Russian missiles in Cuba. Great choice! But Iraq and Vietnam were clearly huge foreign policy mistakes. Which was worse? This question is examined below.


What yardsticks can be used to measure the magnitude of the blunder? Certainly, the information used to launch the war is important as are strategies used in waging war. Beyond that, casualties, costs, and the extent to which objectives were realized should also be considered. The Vietnam War was limited to Vietnam and Cambodia. The Iraqi invasion has had “spread” effects that have to be considered.


When Mao came to power in China, he asked the US for recognition. He said he did not want to be dominated by the Soviet Union. Rather than recognizing Mao on a timely basis, the US delayed. Shortly thereafter, China, with the backing of the Soviet Union, entered the Korean War. Ho Chi Minh asked the US to recognize him. He said China has invaded Vietnam 11 times and US recognition would stem the tide. The US said no.


The US saw a Cold War domino effect taking place in Asia: Russia dominates China, China dominates Vietnam, and through these actions, Russia controls much of Asia. As just suggested, the US could have broken the domino effect had it recognized Mao and Ho Chi Minh. Incidents in the Tonkin Gulf were used to justify launching the war. It now appears the Tonkin incidents did not actually happen.[1] The war strategy was based on heavy bombing. The testimony from Vietnam officers following the war suggests that the bombing was having a devastating effect. And had the US continued it much longer, Ho Chi Minh would probably have been forced to surrender.


It is still not clear why the US went into Iraq. The excuse offered – that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction – was false and the top American leaders knew it. It is also apparent that the US had no plans for Iraq after the invasion.[2] The result was anarchy in Iraq. This led to the near-complete destabilization of the Middle East and the emergence of numerous radical groups including Al Qaeda and ISIL.


a. Vietnam

Out of the 2,594,000 US personnel who served in Vietnam, there were 58,220 Americans dead, 153,303 wounded and 1,643 missing.[3] That means it ranks 4th in casualties just below the Civil War and the two World Wars. In addition, more than 23,214 soldiers were completely disabled. Even when it already ended, the war continued to cost many American lives. Further, it is estimated that 70,000 to 300,000 Vietnam vets committed suicide.

While the US keeps accurate records of Americans dead and wounded, getting accurate data on soldier and citizen deaths of countries the US invades is problematic. R.J Rummel estimates the range of Vietnam casualties as somewhere between 1.5 million and 3.6 million.

b. Iraq and What Followed

As of October 1, 2015, there have been 2,382 U.S. military deaths in Afghanistan and 4,497 in Iraq.[4]

The Physicians for Social Responsibility, Physicians for Global Survival, and the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War recently completed a report – “Body Count: Casualty Figures after 10 Years of the ‘War on Terror”. They concluded that at least 1.3 million lives have been lost in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan alone since the onset of the war following September 11, 2001. The report goes on to say: “this is a conservative estimate, and the total number … could also be in excess of 2 million, whereas a figure below 1 million is extremely unlikely.”

The UN special envoy for Syria has estimated that 400,000 people have been killed throughout the past five years of civil war.[5]


In addition to casualties, any evaluation of the magnitude of the blunders should include how expensive they were.

a. Vietnam

The Department of Defense reports that the United States spent about $1 trillion in 2016 dollars on the Vietnam War effort.[6]

b. Iraq and Afghanistan

It appears that US wars are getting more expensive. There have been two in-depth studies of these war costs. The Watson Institute puts their costs at $4.4 trillion.[7]  The second study done by Harvard researcher Linda Bilmes argues the costs could grow to more than $6 trillion over the next four decades.[8]  Of course, costs continue to grow. The Department of Defense reports that in 2015, the US was spending at a $5.6 million daily rate in Iraq and at a $4.1 million daily rate in Syria.[9]


In this context, spread is defined as what resulted from the aggressive acts of the US. In the case of Vietnam, there was very little spread. The US invaded Vietnam – many deaths resulted – but the US got beaten and went home. In the case of the Iraq War, there has been tremendous spread and it continues. The invasion and lack of a plan post-invasion led to chaos and a vacuum that Al Qaeda and ISIL have filled.


The following table summarizes the casualties and US costs of the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan wars as reported above.

The heavy US bombings in Vietnam and Cambodia mean much higher casualties there than in the Middle East. But warfare is becoming more expensive. And already, the Middle East costs dwarf Vietnam costs. And while the Vietnam War was “tidy” as wars go, the Iraqi invasion opened a Pandora’s Box of instability with no end in sight. And because of this, I conclude the Iraq invasion was the largest foreign policy blunder in US history.

Post-Script – What If The US Had “Won”?

A friend asked what would have happened in the US had “won” both wars. Clearly, what is meant by “won” needs to be defined. Would winning have meant, as it did for Germany and Japan after WWII, an orderly transition back to democratic governance starting with US occupation and Marshall Plan aid? This is not likely.

A surrender by Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam would have threatened China (and Russia) with the probable result of China of invading Vietnam once again. And who knows where that would have led.

In Iraq, the US, at least initially, won in the sense of occupying the country and getting rid of Hussein. Any hopes of an orderly transition ended when the US ordered the disbanding of the Iraqi military leading to a large unemployed contingent of men with guns on the streets. Even if this gigantic blunder had not been made, it is highly unlikely the US occupation could ever have led to an orderly transition to peace. The removal of Hussein’s dictatorship broke the balance of power between Shiite and Sunni regimes in the Middle East.

A Final Thought

 Whenever I write about the US at war, I am reminded of The following quote from Robert Borosage:

“The country finds itself constantly at war. New presidents inherit the wars of their predecessors. They are faced not with deciding to go to war, but whether to accept defeat in one already in progress….And slowly, the great power declines from the inside out. The wars are costly, running up national debts. Vital investments are put off. Schools decline. Sewers leak. For a long time, circuses distract from the spreading ruin….Other societies become productive centers, capturing the new industries. Some begin providing better education for their citizens, better support for their citizens. Their taxes, not drained by the cost of wars past and present, can be devoted to what we used to call ‘domestic improvements.’

This is a very rich country…. But even wealthy countries must choose. We can afford to police the world – to sustain 800 bases across the globe, to station troops in Korea, in Japan, in Bosnia, in Europe, fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, sustain fleets to police the seas….South Waziristan, Yemen, Somalia, Kosovo, the Taiwan straits, the North Korean border, the seven seas – we can do this. But the result is that we are continually at war. And the wars cost – in money, in lives, in attention. And inevitably, domestic priorities, as well as emerging security threats that have no military answers, get ignored. A rich country, Adam Smith wrote, has a lot of ruin in it. We seem intent on testing the limits of that proposition.”  

[1] See Robert McNamara, “The Fog of War”, a PBS documentary.

[2] See Charles Ferguson’s documentary “No End in Sight.”

[3] US National Archives







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