America's Paradoxical Trinity: WWII and Vietnam
by Walter S. Zapotoczny
According to Carl von Clausewitz, the nineteenth century military philosopher,
war is always comprised of what he called a paradoxical trinity. In his book On
War, Clausewitz described this trinity as an interactive set of three
basic dominant tendencies that drive the events of war. He said the trinity is
composed of: "primordial violence, hatred, and hostility; its element of
subordination as an instrument of policy; and the play of chance and
probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam." Each of these
tendencies generally, but not exclusively, corresponds to one of three groups
in society. The first of these three tendencies correspond mainly to the
people; the second to the government; the third to the commander and his army.
Clausewitz writes that these tendencies are like three different codes of law,
deep-rooted in their subject, and yet variable in their relationship to one
another. He says the outcome of war is never determined by one tendency alone
but by the interaction between them, which is forever and unavoidably shifting.
Mark Handel, in his book Masters of War, writes that a more accurate
depiction of the varying relationship among these three tendencies is a simple
vector analysis, where the nature of war is the outcome or 'vector' of the
three dominant tendencies. This 'vector' defines the nature of war and the
spirit of the nation to fight and support the war. Clausewitz points out that
the three dominant tendencies rarely carry equal weight and their relative
intensity and relationships change according to the circumstances of each case.
The difference in the relationship of these tendencies to one another that
existed during World War II and that existed during the Vietnam War was
dramatically different. The nature of war as determined by those relationships
directly affected the national spirit during and following both wars. That
national spirit contributed to winning World War II, the loss of the Vietnam
War, and directly affected the relative social development of America and
America's foreign policy after each war.
World War I was over and America's industrial might was coming of age as the
United States was swiftly taking its place as the most powerful nation in the
world. As the 1920s roared along, the Four Horseman of Notre Dame were giving
Saturdays new meaning with their college football heroics. Jack Dempsey and
Gene Tunney were raising the spectacle of heavyweight boxing matches to new
heights of passion. Baseball was a daytime game and a true national pastime,
from the magical Yankee Stadium to the sandlots in rural America. Optimism was
widespread across the nation. Flappers were dancing the Charleston and F. Scott
Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby. However, President Calvin
Coolidge was a benign presence in the White House, content to let bankers,
industrialists, and speculators run the country as they saw fit. This soon led
to the stock market crash on 1929. The stock market struggled to recover from
the crash, but the damage was too great. Thirteen hundred banks closed.
Businesses were failing everywhere, sending four and a half million people into
the streets with no safety net. Optimism soon turned to despair for many.
Congress passed the disastrous Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, establishing barriers
to world trade and exacerbating an already raging global recession. At the same
time overseas, three men were plotting to change the world: Adolf Hitler in
Germany, Joseph Stalin in Russia, and Mao Zedong in China. In America, the New
York governor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was planning his campaign for the
1932 presidential election. A mass of homeless and unemployed men drifted
across the American landscape, looking for work or a handout wherever they
could find it.
Roosevelt took the oath of office as president promising a New Deal for the
beleaguered American people. He pushed through an Emergency Banking Act, a
Federal Emergency Relief Act, a National Industrial Recovery Act, and by 1935
set in motion the legislation that would become the Social Security System.
Many began to look to the government with trust and President Roosevelt became
popular. In his second term, Roosevelt tried to balance the continuing need for
extraordinary efforts to revive the economy with what he knew was the great
peril abroad. He created the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress
Administration putting many unemployed men to work building roads and parks.
The American people's confidence was building and their attitude toward
government increasingly supportive. At the beginning of 1940, it was clear to
most Americans that war would define their generation's coming of age. The role
of the government was beginning to take on more importance in the Clausewitz
On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Across America on that
Sunday afternoon, the stunning news from the radio electrified the nation and
changed the lives of all who heard it. Marriages were postponed or accelerated.
College was deferred. Plans of any kind for the future were calibrated against
the quickening pace of the march to war. American young men were enlisting in
the military by the hundreds of thousands. Farm kids from the Great Plains who
never expected to see the ocean in their lifetimes signed up for the Navy;
brothers followed brothers into the Marines; young daredevils who were
fascinated by the new frontiers of flight volunteered for pilot training.
Single women poured into Washington to fill the exploding need for clerical
help as the political capital mobilized for war. Other women, their husbands or
boyfriends off to basic training, learned to drive trucks or handle welding
torches. The old rules of gender and expectation changed radically with what
was now expected of this generation. The scope of the national involvement was
reflected in the numbers. By 1944, twelve million Americans were in uniform.
War production represented 44 percent of the Gross National Product; there were
almost nineteen million more workers than there had been five years earlier,
and 35 percent of them were women. People's passions were aroused by the attack
on Pearl Harbor and the trinity equation was beginning to change.
During the Second World War, the various outlets of popular culture behaved
almost entirely as if they were the creatures of the government, it is hardly
surprising to find that they spoke with one voice. Together with skepticism,
irony, and doubt, an early casualty was a wide variety of views about current
events. Radio, popular music, films, and magazines conveyed the same optimistic
messages about the war. During the war, the average listener spent four and a
half hours a day attending to what came out of the speaker, and when something
especially significant was expected, one sat in front of the radio and looked
at it intently. What came from it was thoroughly censored, and it was puritan,
uncorrupted, and decisively optimistic.
World War II saw newspapers and radio reign supreme in war coverage, and not
coincidentally, it was one of the most popular wars in American history. Even
when the home front was battle weary, there was a consensus in the country that
people were fighting for a common goal. That goal was to aid American allies in
Europe and defend their interests in the Pacific arena. The government,
acknowledging strong isolationist feelings in the country, tried to emphasize
the importance of the war's aims. "In 1941, the United States went to war under
the banner of 'the people's war.' The Roosevelt government's rhetoric and
imagery invoked a democratic inclusiveness in contrast to the Axis' exclusivity
and domination. The byword for the war effort became 'unity'." World War II was
a war of consensus building. One factor aiding this effort was certainly the
end of the Great Depression, which the county was suffering under when it
entered the war. Another was a constant stream of war propaganda designed to
keep public opinion high and morale good.
In the midst of administrative efforts to create unity, the press was no
exception. The main pipelines of information for the American public were
newspapers and radio. Radio in particular came into its own during the war.
World War II was to be radio's hour of greatness in the light of history.
Edward R. Morrow, broadcasting from London, told an American public the story
of the war and tried to paint the picture with words.
Newspaper reports, which had to pass censors, were typically dispatched from
the front like this one, "This is it! D-Day and What Followed" by New York
Herald Tribune correspondent Joseph Driscoll. He emphasized the
bravery of the troops. He marveled at the courage of his fellow Americans. I
saw boys wounded and lying around for hours without even a moan out of them'.
Even when newspaper reports tried to tell of the carnage and human loss in the
war, thanks to censorship by the Office of War Information, they lacked the
pictures to do so.
Both radio and newspapers were mediums, which did not have the same power
television images, did in creating dissention among the public. Radio did have
some similarities to television. It was a medium that made a more personal
connection with its audience because it literally spoke to them and it was a
means of relatively instant communication. Yet, the disembodied radio voice
speaking to the audience had to emphasize the story aspect of the news and did
not have television's power to hit the public with the visual reality of war's
Television was not a player in the second world war. In the middle of the war,
1942, there were only 8,000 television receivers in the nation. But people
recognized the power of images to turn public opinion. Part of the reason for
the war's continuing strength on the home front was the Office of War
Information's ability to suppress pictures of the American dead for the first
two years of the war. In these popular collections of photographs, no matter
how severely wounded, Allied troops are never shown suffering what was termed,
in the Vietnam War, traumatic amputation. Everyone has all his limbs, his hands
and feet and digits, not to mention expressions of courage and cheer. When they
finally released more explicit pictures, it was a calculated effort to bolster
support for the war because the public was war weary. They needed to maintain a
desire to fight. Print and radio reports in World War II, while of course not
all positive, were denied the impact that images would have given them. Without
uncensored, visceral images, they centered around a more detached narrative.
The relationship of Clausewitz's dominant tendencies was roughly equal. The
government acted with reason and purpose, its political aims clear. General
Eisenhower in Europe and General Douglas MacArthur in the Pacific became the
icons of their time and became the symbols of the military leadership of the
war along with the political leadership of Franklin Roosevelt. The exploits of
General Patton and Admiral Nimitz captured on newsreels, which prefaced every
movie, and were followed passionately by a curious population. President
Roosevelt's "fire-side chats" offered reassurance to the news-hungry nation and
re-assured people that their sacrifices were worth it. The nation was immersed
in the war effort at every level.
Accentuating the positive was the tone through out the war. It was especially
true in the early spring of 1945, when everyone's morale needed a special
boost. The war had been going on for months, even years longer than expected.
By that time, almost everyone had a relative killed, wounded, or knew someone
who had. Raising and sustaining morale became all-important, and morale itself
developed into one of the unique obsessions of the Allies in the Second World
War. On the Allied front manufacturers of beer, chewing gum, and tobacco moved
their products by arguing their indispensability to high morale. Letters home
from soldiers and sailors were largely written to sustain the morale of the
folks at home, to hint as little as possible at the real, worrisome
circumstance of the writer. Many letters written to soldiers were cheerful and
provided memories of home. The war required the enemy to be totally evil and
the allies to be totally good, all of them. The opposition between this black
and white was clear and uncomplicated, untroubled by subtlety or nuance, let
alone irony or skepticism. The war served a generation of Americans as a myth,
which enshrined their essential purity. In the absence of doubt, and with the
positive enjoying constant emphasis, the view easily developed that Americans
were by nature, by instinct really, morally wonderful.
The United States dominated global affairs in the years immediately after World
War II. Victorious in that great struggle, its homeland undamaged from the
ravages of war, the nation was confident of its mission at home and abroad.
U.S. leaders wanted to maintain the democratic structure they had defended at
tremendous cost and to share the benefits of prosperity as widely as possible.
For them, as for publisher Henry Luce of Time magazine, this was the "American
Century." For 20 years, most Americans remained sure of this confident
approach. They accepted the need for a strong stance against the Soviet Union
in the Cold War that unfolded after 1945. The ex-GIs had seen enough war and
wanted peace. They had learned in their youth that the way to prevent war was
to deter through military strength, and to reject isolationism for full
involvement in the world. Therefore, they supported NATO, the United Nations,
and the Department of Defense. They endorsed the growth of government authority
and accepted the outlines of the welfare state, first formulated during the New
Deal. They enjoyed the postwar prosperity that created new levels of affluence
in the United States. As the Cold War unfolded in the decade and a half after
World War II, the United States experienced phenomenal economic growth. The war
brought the return of prosperity, and in the postwar period, the United States
consolidated its position as the world's richest country. Increasingly
Americans now considered themselves part of the middle class. The national
spirit created by the very nature of World War II influenced the conduct of the
war and the post-war period. America's confidence continued until Clausewitz's
dominant tendencies shifted and changed the nature of war in Indochina.
Indochina was still another Cold War battlefield. France had controlled Vietnam
since the middle of the 19th century, only to be supplanted by Japan during the
Second World War. Meanwhile, Ho Chi Minh, a Vietnamese communist, sought to
liberate his nation from colonial rule and took the American War for
Independence as his model. After the Allies defeated the Japanese in 1945, they
still had to deal with Ho Chi Minh. France, hoping to regain great-power
status, insisted on returning to Vietnam. Ho refused to back down, and the war
for liberation continued. The United States, eager to maintain French support
for the policy of containment in Europe, provided France with economic aid that
freed resources for the struggle in Vietnam. Even that assistance could not
prevent French defeat in 1954. At an international conference in Geneva,
Vietnam was divided, with Ho in power in the North and Ngo Dinh Diem, a Roman
Catholic anti-communist in a largely Buddhist population, heading the
government in the South. Elections were to be held two years later to unify the
Persuaded that the fall of Vietnam could lead to the fall of Burma, Thailand,
and Indonesia, President Eisenhower backed Diem's refusal to hold elections in
1956 and began to increase economic and military aid. President Kennedy
increased assistance, and sent small numbers of military advisors, but still
the struggle between North and South continued. Diem's unpopularity culminated
in his overthrow and death in 1963. The situation was more unstable than ever
before. Guerrillas in the South, known as Viet Cong, challenged the South
Vietnamese government, sometimes covertly, sometimes through the National
Liberation Front, their political arm. Aided by North Vietnam, they gained
ground, especially among the peasants in the countryside. Determined to halt
communist advances in South Vietnam, President Johnson made the Vietnam War his
own. After a North Vietnamese naval attack on two American destroyers, Johnson
won from Congress on August 7, 1964, passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution,
which allowed the president to "take all necessary measures to repel any armed
attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further
aggression." After his re-election in November 1964, he embarked on a policy of
escalation. From 25,000 troops at the start of 1965, the number of soldiers,
both volunteers and draftees, rose to 500,000 by 1968. A massive bombing
campaign wrought havoc in both North and South Vietnam.
Americans did not see the victorious images of the World War II successes or
grand battleships and great armies; instead, they saw burning victims,
screaming children, violent explosions, and the overall great losses of
American forces and carnage of the Vietnamese civilians. They did not just read
about them, they saw them every night on their television screens in their
living rooms. Americans began to realize this was a war that was being lost at
the expense of great casualties. Images from the fronts dominated the public
perception of the war. With grisly battles shown on television, Americans began
to protest their country's involvement in the war. A shift in the trinity
equation was occurring. The passion of the people was taking precedence over
the professional military and over the government's policies. The trinity
equation was beginning to change. The nature of war was changing and along with
it the spirit of the nation. Such foreign policy specialists as George Kennan
found fault with U.S. policies. Others argued that the U.S. had no strategy for
ending the war. Americans watched, as the massive military campaign seemed to
have no effect on the course of the war. Public dissatisfaction with U.S.
policy, especially among the young, pressured Johnson to begin negotiating for
Anti-war sentiment in 1968 led Johnson to renounce any intention of seeking
another term. At the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Illinois,
protesters fought street battles with police. The chaos in the Democratic
Party, especially after the murder of Robert Kennedy in June; white opposition
to the civil rights measures of the 1960s; and the third-party candidacy of
Alabama Governor George Wallace helped elect Republican Richard Nixon, who ran
on a plan to extricate the United States from the war and to increase "law and
order" at home.
While slowly withdrawing American troops, Nixon ordered some of the most
fearful bombing in the war. He also invaded Cambodia in 1970 to cut off North
Vietnamese supply lines, which passed through there to South Vietnam. This led
to another round of protests and demonstrations, as students in many
universities took to the streets. In one such demonstration, at Kent State
University in Ohio, National Guard troops who had been called in to restore
order panicked and killed four students. A cease-fire, negotiated for the
United States by Nixon's national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, was
finally signed in 1973. Although American troops departed, the war lingered on
into the spring of 1975, when North Vietnam consolidated its control over the
entire country. The war led many young Americans to question the actions of
their own nation and the values it sought to uphold.
The postwar war began the instant that peace was proclaimed. The United States
had difficulty arranging with the North Vietnamese and Vietcong the return of
its 587 prisoners of war, at one point threatening to delay further troop
withdrawals in the absence of cooperation. By the end of March 1973, the POWs
had been released, returning home to receive the only heroes' welcome of the
war, and all U.S. troops had been withdrawn.
The effects of the war have been more in the realm of affecting the national
spirit than in tangible effects. Among a people accustomed to celebrating peace
with ticker-tape parades, the end of the war left a deep residue of
frustration, anger, and disillusionment. Veterans of the war came home to
indifference, at best, and to acquisitions of being 'baby-killers' and being
spit on, at worst. Many veterans had difficulty re-adapting to society and
turned to alcohol or drugs.
Americans generally agreed that the war had been a senseless tragedy and a dark
moment in the nation's history. Resentment and disillusionment smoldered
beneath the surface, provoking a sharp reaction against nearly three decades of
crisis diplomacy and global intervention. Even before the war had ended, the
traumatic experience of Vietnam, combined with the apparent improvement of
relations with the Soviet Union and China and a growing preoccupation with
domestic problems, provided a drastic reordering of national priorities. The
trinity equation had shifted further from the government. From the late 1940s
to the 1960s, foreign policy had consistently headed its list of national
concerns, but by the mid-1970s, it ranked well down the list. The Vietnam
experience also provided strong opposition to military intervention abroad,
even in defense of America's oldest and staunchest allies. Polls taken shortly
before the fall of Saigon indicated that only 36 percent of American people
felt is was important for the United States to make and keep commitments to
other nations, and only 34 percent expressed willingness to send troops should
the Russians attempt to take over West Berlin. A majority of Americans endorsed
military intervention only in the defense of Canada.
The relationship of Clausewitz's dominant tendencies changed dramatically from
that of World War II. The passion of the people took a greater precedence over
military leadership while the role of political leadership remained about the
same as during World War II. The political leadership was unable to rally the
people in support of the war and the national spirit was greatly affected. On
the political level, American failure in Vietnam brought important changes in
the conduct of the nation's diplomacy, weakening all of those Cold War
assumptions that had crystallized in the late 1940s, and guided American
leaders through the late 1960s. The controversy over the war contributed to a
softening of the policy of containment and accelerated a reaction against two
decades of crisis diplomacy and intervention. Weary of the costs and burdens of
the Cold War, Americans became skeptical about the use of force as an
instrument of foreign policy and acquired a new sense of American power abroad.
For many, the presumption that American foreign policy was premised on a moral
foundation was undermined. Americans had felt they could go almost any place
and do almost anything after Word War II. Vietnam tested America's will to
reshape the world in its own image and the claim of its citizens to be a
special people. The battle between the war's supporters and those who demanded
immediate withdrawal divided the nation. Many analysts claim that this debate
produced the greatest fissure since the Civil War. The Vietnam War had a
profound impact on a once-proud U.S. military establishment, calling into
question its conviction, born of its decisive role in two world wars, that it
was invincible; challenging, as perhaps nothing before in its history, its
faith that the massive application of force was the solution to military
By the mid-1980s, Americans began to discuss the war. If they were willing to
talk about Vietnam, Americans remained confused and divided about its
implications for U.S. foreign policy. The war had produced indifference and a
tendency toward withdrawal. Bitter memories of the war remained on the
consciousness of Americans. Ten years after the end of the war, a majority of
Americans still believed that intervention in Vietnam had been a mistake.
Throughout the history of the United States, war has been the primary impetus
behind growth and development. It has been a source of American nationalism and
encouraged political and social change. The relationship of Clausewitz's three
dominant tendencies of war created a vector roughly equal between the people,
the military, and the government during World War II. The nature by which World
War II was prosecuted had created a national spirit of confidence that enabled
America to grow, prosper, and promote foreign policy engagement. The American
men and women who grew up in the Great Depression and who came of age in World
War II devoted their adult years to the building of modern America. The
unpopularity of the Vietnam War and the inability of the government to rally
the people to support the war lead to the war being fought differently than
World War II. The relationship of Clausewitz's three dominant tendencies of war
during Vietnam created a vector that was closer to the passion of the people
and further away from the military and the government than during World War II.
The national spirit created during the Vietnam War caused Americans to question
government and retreat from a policy of engagement in foreign policy. The
comparison of World War II and of the Vietnam War clearly shows that the
relationships between the basic dominant tendencies in Clausewitz paradoxical
trinity, creates the collective national spirit during wartime and for some
Show Footnotes and
Ambrose, Stephen E. Citizen Soldiers, New York: Touchstone Press,
Brokaw, Tom. The Greatest Generation, New York: Random House, 1998.
Brokaw, Tom. The Greatest Generation Speaks, New York: Random House,
Clausewitz, Carl von. On War (Edited and Translated by Michael Howard
& Peter Paret), Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989.
From Revolution to Reconstruction. An Outline of American History. Chapter 12,
The War in Vietnam. ( http://odur.let.rug.nl/~usa/H/1994/ch12_p5.htm,
Fussell, Paul. Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War, New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Handel, Michael I. Masters of War: Classical Strategic Thought, Great
Britain: Frank Cass Publishers, 2001.
Herring, George C., America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam,
1950-1975, New York: McGraw-Hill Humanities/Social
Lane, Katie. World War II to Vietnam. Images of War in the Media,
http://www.kean.edu /~ggluck/ world_war_ii_to_vietnam2.htm, 1998.
Neu, Charles E. After Vietnam: Legacies of a Lost War, Baltimore: The
John Hopkins University Press, 2000.
Porter, Bruce D. War and the Rise of the State, New York: The Free
Copyright © 2007 Walter S. Zapotoczny
Written by Walter S. Zapotoczny. If you have questions or comments on this
article, please contact Walter Zapotoczny at:
To read more from the author, go to his web site at http://www.wzaponline.com.
About the Author:
Walter lives in Pennsylvania. He is pursuing his masters degree in history and
writes articles for numerous publications. He is currently writing an historical
fiction novel about the Einsatzgruppen (a task force of mobile killing units
that operated in German-occupied territories during World War II).
Published online: 02/10/2007.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.