Just War Part 15: Vietnam & Desert Storm

The World Wars veered us away from traditional Just War doctrine by rewriting its jus in bello (how a war is fought justly). Vietnam, on the other hand, stretched its jus ad bellum (just reason to war). Many Americans voiced moral concerns with the war in Vietnam. Henry Kissinger wrote…

“For too many a war to resist aggression had turned into a symbol of fundamental American evil.”(1)

Kissinger spent hours with student protestors unsuccessfully attempting to persuade them that the war in Vietnam was necessary and just. He lamented in an autobiography that the U.S. government was unable to offer a moral justification for the war that was widely accepted by the American population.

The U.S. government learned its lesson well. When kicking off Operation Desert Storm, president George H. Bush and military leaders made their case for the war to the public by consistently using language from the Just War tradition. At press conferences descriptions of bombing raids and other military maneuvers always stressed that only military targets were being attacked and that every effort was being made to avoid injury to “non-combatants.” It sounded to some military analysts as if “briefers had been reading just-war theory.”(2)

This time, the military, not the public, controlled the discourse about the war by deluging the American people with a constant stream of information about the war. And, unlike Lyndon Johnson, Bush made sure he had popular support for military action before ordering it.

The jus ad bellum for both wars were similar but the American population’s perception of each war’s just-ness could not have been more different.


  • 1. Henry Kissinger, White House Years (Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown and Company, 1979)
  • 2. “How Do You Tell A Victorious War From A Just One?” New York Times, 17 March 1991, SEc. 4.4