In 1975, following the fall of Saigon, the sociologist Daniel Bell declared "The End of American Exceptionalism." He argued that the "American Century … foundered on the shoals of Vietnam." Bell concluded: "Today, the belief in American exceptionalism has vanished with the end of empire, the weakening of power, the loss of faith in the nation's future." The chastening experience of Vietnam had made Americans realize that "We are a nation like all other nations."
Americans invariably refer to the Vietnam War as a tragedy or a national trauma. Vietnam divided opinion in the country as no other event had since the Civil War. It contributed to the breakdown in the Cold War foreign policy consensus. It diverted resources from domestic reform programs and caused high levels of inflation and national debt. It created an atmosphere of distrust and even hostility between the public and the government. The United States had failed to achieve its objectives in Vietnam. For the first time in the nation's history, the United States had lost a war. Americans could not help but feel that all the lives and resources expended in Vietnam had been wasted. The United States was supposed to be an exceptional nation, above the corrupt immorality of the rest of the world. Yet in Vietnam its leaders had conducted a war whose legitimacy was questionable and whose objectives were often unclear and increasingly unattainable. The nation's leaders were accused of employing inhumane forms of warfare and of persistently lying to the American people about how the war was progressing and what was being done to bring about a victory. This sense that the American people could no longer trust their leaders was further compounded by the events and revelations surrounding the Watergate affair. The United States seemed to have shown itself to be just as fallible and unexceptional as any other nation in history. The experience of Vietnam raised serious doubts among Americans about the traditional belief that the United States is an exceptional nation.
Yet there was evidence to suggest that the idea of the United States as an exceptional nation would survive the defeat in Vietnam. As in previous times of domestic disagreement over foreign policy content and direction, advocates on both sides of the Vietnam issue utilized the rhetoric of exceptionalism in their arguments. President Johnson and others used the language of exceptionalism to justify American intervention. Meanwhile, the opposition of many of the war's protesters stemmed from a belief that the United States was conducting itself in ways that were inconsistent with the values and principles upon which the nation was founded. That did not necessarily mean that those opponents rejected such values. On the contrary, many believed they must oppose the war in order for those values to be reaffirmed. Like the anti-imperialists of 1898, those who opposed the Vietnam War often did so in terms that were consistent with the belief in American exceptionalism. Although the belief in exceptionalism was certainly shaken by the events surrounding Vietnam, the continued use of its rhetoric during the war indicated that the belief would survive this latest "trauma" or "time of trial" in American history.