The Paris Peace Accords, which was formally signed on January 27th of the year 1973, generated political controversy inside of the United States.

The Vietnam stab-in-the-back myth asserts that the United States' defeat during the Vietnam War was caused by various American groups, such as civilian policymakers, the media, antiwar protesters, the United States Congress, or political liberals.[1][2][3]

Used primarily by right-wing war hawks, the name "stab-in-the-back" is analogous to the German stab-in-the-back myth, which claims that internal forces caused the German defeat during World War I. Unlike the German myth, the American variant nearly always lacks an anti-Semitic aspect.[4] Jeffrey Kimball wrote that the United States' defeat "produced a powerful myth of betrayal that was analogous to the archetypal Dolchstoßlegende of post-World War I Germany."[1]

The myth was a "stronger version of the argument that antiwar protest encouraged the enemy, suggested that the antiwar movement might in the end commit the ultimate act of treachery, causing the loss of an otherwise winnable war."[5]


Similar accusations have been made throughout American history. During the War of 1812, the War Hawks accused supporters of the Federalist Party in New England of "near-treasonous activity" for the US failure to conquer Canada. Right-wing commentators also claimed that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had "sold out" Poland and the Republic of China by the Yalta Agreement and blamed President Harry S. Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson for American failures during the Korean War. Casualties mounted slowly during the Vietnam War after the 1965 deployment of combat troops and in 1968 surpassed those of the Korean War.[1]


During the war, hearings were held in the US Senate regarding the progress of the war. At hearings of the Senate Preparedness Investigating Subcommittee (SPIS), generals testified that the failure of the war in 1967 had been caused by excessive civilian restraint on target selection during the bombing of North Vietnam, and the subcommittee agreed. Joseph A. Fry contends that the Joint Chiefs of Staff and SPIS, by blaming the media and antiwar protesters for misrepresenting the war, cultivated the stab-in-the-back myth.[6]

Although much of the American public had never supported the war, General William Westmoreland blamed the American media for turning the country against the war after the 1968 Tet Offensive. That narrative was followed by later writers such as Guenter Lewy and Norman Podhoretz. One study estimated that until the offensive, American pundits had supported their government's war policy four to one but afterward switched to being two to one against it. Many history textbooks state that the offensive was followed by public opinion turning against the war, and some accounts mention media coverage.[7] Another element of the myth relates to the 1973 Paris Peace Accords in which the stab-in-the-back interpretation holds that obstruction in the US Congress prevented the United States from enforcing the accords. According to Lien-Hang T. Nguyen, that interpretation of the accords has "more or less been rejected by most scholars in the field," but it remains alive in popular discourse.[8]

In 1978 and 1979, Nixon and Kissinger respectively published best-selling memoirs that were based on access to still-classified documents, which suppressed the decent interval theory and "prop[ped] up the Dolchstoßlegende," according to the historian Ken Hughes.[9]

In 1982, Harry G. Summers Jr. wrote that the idea that internal forces caused the defeat in Vietnam was "one of the more simplistic explanations for our failure... this evasion is rare among Army officers. A stab-in-the-back syndrome never developed after Vietnam."[10] However, the historian Ben Buley has written that Summers' book is actually one of the most significant exponents of the myth, in a subtle form in which the military is criticized, but the primary responsibility for the defeat lies with civilian policymakers.[10]

In his 1998 book, The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam, Jerry Lembcke compared the stab-in-the-back myth with the myth that returning veterans were spat upon by and insulted by antiwar protesters (no spitting incident has ever been proven). According to Lembcke, the stab-in-the-back myth was more popular during the war, and the spitting myth gained prominence only in the 1980s.[11] In his 2001 book The Culture of Defeat: On National Trauma, Mourning, and Recovery, Wolfgang Schivelbusch denied the existence of a Vietnam stab-in-the-back myth comparable to the German one. Although he wrote that some US rhetoric was "quite similar to that voiced by right-wing Germans during the Weimar Republic," he argued that the Vietnam War "did not entail national collapse... was not followed by a humiliation like that of the Versailles Treaty... [and] did not polarize the nation or lead to civil war." Professor Jeffrey Kimball responded that Schivelbusch "was incorrect on virtually every count."[1] Kimball writes that the stab-in-the-back charge was resurrected in the 2004 United States presidential election in which the candidate John Kerry was criticized for opposing the war after his return from Vietnam.[1]

In 2004, Charles Krauthammer wrote in The New Republic that the broadcaster Walter Cronkite had caused the US to be defeated: "Once said to be lost, it was." In 2017, David Mikics wrote that "the Vietnam stab-in-the-back argument is now largely dead."[4]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e Kimball, Jeffrey (2008). "The Enduring Paradigm of the 'Lost Cause': Defeat in Vietnam, the Stab-in-the-Back Legend, and the Construction of a Myth". In Macleod, Jenny (ed.). Defeat and Memory: Cultural Histories of Military Defeat in the Modern Era. Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 233–250. ISBN 978-0-230-51740-0.
  2. ^ Kimball, Jeffrey P. (April 1988). "The Stab-in-the-Back Legend and the Vietnam War". Armed Forces & Society. 14 (3): 433–458. doi:10.1177/0095327X8801400306. S2CID 145066387.
  3. ^ Gawthorpe, Andrew (2020). "Ken Burns, the Vietnam War, and the purpose of history". Journal of Strategic Studies. 43 (1): 154–169. doi:10.1080/01402390.2019.1631974. hdl:1887/138556. Moyar's critique shows that a line of argument that Jeffrey Kimball long ago called the 'stab-in-the-back legend' remains alive and well. The stab-in-the-back legend displays classic characteristics of what psychologists call in-group/out-group bias, in which every action by an in-group is rationalized and justified whereas every action by an out-group is criticized and seen as inspired by perverse motives. Through this pattern of thought, the 'stab-in-the-back' interpretation externalizes blame for U.S. defeat entirely to civilian policymakers. A virtuous and effective military had its hands tied by villainous civilians who, pandering to base political instincts, betrayed the soldiers (and eventually South Vietnam) by failing to allow them to do what was needed to win.
  4. ^ a b Mikics, David (9 November 2017). "The Jews Who Stabbed Germany in the Back". Tablet Magazine. Retrieved 5 August 2020.
  5. ^ Strassfeld, Robert (2004). "'Lose in Vietnam, Bring Our Boys Home'". North Carolina Law Review. 82: 1916. Finally, the Administration suggested a stab-in-the-back theory of the war. This stronger version of the argument that antiwar protest encouraged the enemy, suggested that the antiwar movement might in the end commit the ultimate act of treachery, causing the loss of an otherwise winnable war.
  6. ^ Fry, Joseph A. (2006). Debating Vietnam: Fulbright, Stennis, and Their Senate Hearings. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. pp. 14, 57, 74, 109. ISBN 978-0-7425-7642-1.
  7. ^ Leahey, Christopher (2015). Whitewashing War: Historical Myth, Corporate Textbooks, and Possibilities for Democratic Education. Teachers College Press. pp. 78–79. ISBN 978-0-8077-7168-6.
  8. ^ Nguyen, Lien-Hang T. (2008). "COLD WAR CONTRADICTIONSToward an International History of the Second Indochina War, 1969–1973". In Bradley, Mark Philip; Young, Marilyn B. (eds.). Making Sense of the Vietnam Wars: Local, National, and Transnational Perspectives. Oxford University Press, USA. pp. 222–223. ISBN 978-0-19-992416-5.
  9. ^ Hughes, Ken (2015). Fatal Politics: The Nixon Tapes, the Vietnam War, and the Casualties of Reelection. University of Virginia Press. p. 126. ISBN 978-0-8139-3803-5.
  10. ^ a b Buley, Ben (2007). The New American Way of War: Military Culture and the Political Utility of Force. Routledge. p. 100. ISBN 978-1-134-08641-2.
  11. ^ Lembcke, Jerry (1998). The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam. NYU Press. p. 128. ISBN 978-0-8147-5147-3.