Over the past week, as Taliban fighters shattered the brittle façade of Afghanistan’s armed forces, many commentators noted the unnerving similarity to 1975, when television viewers shuddered at images of frantic embassy personnel and their South Vietnamese allies climbing a ladder leading from the roof of the American embassy in Saigon to awaiting helicopters, while in the background, the steady rumble of enemy tanks grew heavier.
It was an undignified end to a long and costly war, and it was President Gerald Ford’s poor luck that it happened on his watch. Commenting on the almost simultaneous fall of Cambodia and South Vietnam to communist forces, Henry Kissinger remarked, “The good news is the war is over. The bad news is that we lost.”
This weekend’s chaotic scenes from Kabul, where thousands of America’s Afghan allies flooded airport runways in a desperate attempt to flee the country, seemed like nothing short of “Saigon on Steroids” — or “Joe Biden’s Saigon Moment.” And in many ways, it was. Not unlike Ford, President Joe Biden inherited a dilemma not of his making: the need to disentangle the country from a decade-long (in this case, decades-long) war, long after most American combat troops had already left the country. In the case of both South Vietnam and Afghanistan, the U.S. spent untold fortune propping up client governments rife with corruption and, despite massive investments in weaponry, equipment and training, military organizations incapable of fighting.
There are useful reminders in this obvious historic parallel — about the difficulty of nation building, the limits of western-style democracy and the hubris of foreign conquerors seeking to impose their values on a different culture. But the lessons only go so far.
Afghanistan is not Vietnam, and it is not at all clear that Biden will suffer the same political consequences as Ford. The Vietnam War was a sharply polarizing event that defined politics in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It pierced the victory culture that had defined the U.S. since World War II. Not so the war in Afghanistan.
Moreover, while the exit from Saigon was hardly the defining blow in his political career, it likely contributed to a mounting belief that Ford was ill-suited to the Oval Office and that he had lost control of the levers. Overseeing a stagnant economy and spiraling inflation, the accidental president seemed ill-equipped for the moment at hand.
Whether Kabul will prove Biden’s Saigon remains to be seen. Despite the similarities, the two events occurred against a vastly different backdrop.
Much in the same way that America has steadily drawn down its ground forces in Afghanistan, such that only 2,500 service members remained in country when Biden announced his intention to end the country’s longest war, by 1975, very few Americans remained in South Vietnam. The shift began with Richard Nixon, who upon assuming the presidency in 1969 initiated a policy of “Vietnamization,” which entailed a shift in combat responsibility from the American armed forces to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN).
Under Nixon, American troop levels declined steadily, from over half a million in late 1968, to 475,000 in late 1969, to 334,600 by the close of 1970, 156,800 by the end of 1971, and a mere 24,200 in late 1972. By 1970, weekly U.S. combat deaths fell from their high of over 300 to 35. At the same time, the Nixon administration helped build up ARVN, increasing its troop levels from 850,000 to over one million soldiers, providing it with over a million M-16 rifles, 12,000 M-60 machine guns, and 40,000 M-79 grenade launchers, and an endless supply of planes, helicopters and tanks.
By the early 1970s, South Vietnamese military academies were training 100,000 cadets each year, while under American prodding — and with American money — the civilian government in Saigon undertook an extensive program to repair bridges and roads, build new hospitals and increase agricultural output. Taken in sum, these measures helped the government in Saigon double the portion of the South Vietnamese countryside that it controlled.
Despite these achievements, Vietnamization was never as successful as its architects hoped. ARVN’s forces were always larger on paper than in reality due to the prevalence of “ghosting,” a process by which officers kept dead, wounded and deserted soldiers on their rosters and pocketed their pay. At the same time, corruption continued to run rampant in the civilian government, thus undermining President Nguyen Van Thieu’s hold on the countryside. Le Duc Tho, North Vietnam’s chief negotiator, rhetorically asked Henry Kissinger how, if America could not drive the Communists out of South Vietnam with over a half million well-trained combat troops, it would “succeed when you let your puppet troops do the fighting?” Le Duc Tho was fundamentally correct, though insofar as Vietnamization helped prop up Thieu’s government long enough to accommodate a massive American troop withdrawal, Vietnamization brought limited success.
Nixon’s second tactic was “linkage,” an attempt to leverage Moscow into convincing its ally and client state, North Vietnam, to accept some of America’s key negotiating positions. Just as Vietnam had become an albatross around America’s neck, the Soviets’ burden of supporting Cuba created a mutual incentive for a Cold War détente. Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet leader, was also interested in securing liberalized trade agreements that would allow him to purchase American grain to counterbalance his country’s sluggish agricultural output, American-made chemicals and automobile parts to prop up the laggard Soviet manufacturing sector, and American-made consumer goods, which were heavily in demand but otherwise off limits to citizens of the U.S.S.R.
If Nixon could somehow “link” trade and arms control agreements with Soviet cooperation in Vietnam, both sides stood to benefit. The problem, however, was that Moscow enjoyed limited influence with the North Vietnamese government, which skillfully played its Soviet and Chinese patrons against each other throughout the late 1960s and 1970s. Even if the Soviets wanted to be helpful — and on occasion, they did — they had few cards to play. Especially after American troops began withdrawing from Vietnam, Hanoi had little interest in negotiating a more generous settlement with the United States. It was only a matter of time before domestic opposition to the war forced the American government to pull out entirely, and in their war of attrition, the North Vietnamese had plenty of time.
Nixon also plied a third strategy — escalation. Trading on his reputation as a doctrinaire cold warrior, he hoped to scare the North Vietnamese into making concessions at the negotiating table. “I’m the one man in this country who can do it,” the president once told his chief aide. “They’ll believe any threat of force that Nixon makes because it’s Nixon.” Walking along a foggy beach, Nixon told his chief of staff, “I call it the Madman Theory. … I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that, ‘for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about Communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry — and he has his hand on the nuclear button’ — and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.”
Banking on the president’s reputation as a madman with access to America’s nuclear codes, Nixon undertook four years of intense peace talks with representatives of Ho Chi Minh’s government, time and again employing savage aerial bombings to attempt to beat North Vietnamese negotiators into accepting a mutual withdrawal of forces from South Vietnam and a timetable for new elections. It was a hard balance for Nixon to strike. Vietnamization bought him peace on the home front, but it also gave Hanoi less cause to negotiate anything but an all-out victory.
The outcome of this dual track was the Paris Peace Accords, signed in January 1973. The United States and Hanoi agreed to a timed U.S. withdrawal, the return of American POWs, and the establishment of a tripartite electoral commission in the south, comprised of the Provisional Revolutionary Government (the shadow government created by the NLF in 1969), Thieu’s government in Saigon and neutralists who were not aligned with either faction. As critics would rightly point out, these terms, along with the promise that North Vietnamese troops could remain in South Vietnam following an American withdrawal, were nearly identical to the deal that Nixon and Kissinger could have accepted four years earlier.
In theory, the U.S. bought time during which it could stabilize its ally in Saigon. But that’s not how events played out. By early 1975, the South Vietnamese government was on the verge of collapse. The peace agreement of January 1973 had not ended the war so much as it had ended American participation in the ground fight. The accords left 150,000 North Vietnamese troops below the border separating the two countries and accorded official political recognition to the Provisional Revolutionary Government, the shadow communist government in South Vietnam. Though the United States Congress cut off funding in 1973 for future air operations in Vietnam, and then sharply reduced U.S. military aid to Saigon the next year, thanks to years of American largesse the South Vietnamese armed forces were exceptionally well equipped. But this fact did not slow the Communist advance. In late 1974, the North Vietnamese seized Phuoc Long, just north of Saigon, and buoyed by the weakness of ARVN’s defenses and the failure of the United States to provide its allies with air support, launched a massive offensive the following spring on the Central Highlands. Stunned by the onslaught, the South Vietnamese government ordered a hasty withdrawal which resulted in the destruction or capture of a large portion of its Army.
When Communist troops captured Hue and Danang weeks later, the Ford administration submitted an emergency request to Congress for $722 million in military aid, including an additional 440 tanks, 740 artillery pieces and 100,000 rifles. The response from Capitol Hill was chilly. “Is there any basis for your request except to maintain an appearance … when we know the end is inevitable,” Rep. Jamie Whitten, a hawkish Democrat from Mississippi, asked General Frederick Weyand. Senator Jacob Javits of New York, a liberal Republican who served on the Foreign Relations Committee, was even more pointed in his refusal to appropriate additional funds. “I will give you large sums for evacuation,” he told the president, “but not one nickel for military aid.”
Most of Ford’s advisers privately understood that Saigon’s fall was imminent. David Hume Kennerly, an irreverent young photographer who had covered Vietnam for Time Magazine before accepting a position as Ford’s White House photographer, offered the kind of candid assessment that made him one of Ford’s favorite staff members. “Cambodia is gone,” he said, “and I don’t care what the generals tell you; they’re bullshitting you if they say that Vietnam has got more than three or four weeks left. There’s no question about it. It’s just not gonna last.” The president also conveyed that same message on April 24 when he told a student audience at Tulane University, “America can regain the sense of pride that existed before Vietnam. But it cannot be achieved by re-fighting a war that is finished as far as America is concerned.”
North Vietnamese troops overran Saigon on April 30, just two and a half weeks after Ford asked for more money. Had Congress approved the funds on the spot, Saigon would still have been unable to hold off the enemy’s advance. At worst, Congress sent a signal to the North Vietnamese that Americans would no longer inveigh on behalf of their South Vietnamese allies. By April 30, as helicopters and C-130 transport planes began evacuating American military and civilian personnel from central Saigon, there was nothing left in the world, short of a new commitment of American air power and ground troops, that could have stopped the North Vietnamese offensive.
Americans who came of age in the decades immediately following World War II had been raised on a diet of popular culture that extolled their country’s victory culture. It began with the platoon films of the World War II era, like Guadalcanal (1943), in which the Japanese enemy must be “blasted from the earth that hides them.
If the subject matter changed after World War II, the tone and tenor remained the same. By 1958, one-quarter of all adult television programming fell under the “Western” category, with Native Americans replacing Nazis and Japanese kamikaze pilots as the enemy; the frontier replacing the beaches of Normandy and the Philippines as the staging ground for war and conquest; and steely-eyed sheriffs and stone-cold gunman standing in for the American serviceman. Children growing up in the era of Eisenhower and Elvis played with Lionel trains adorned with cruise missiles atop their flatbed rail cars. “In patches of weeds and clouds of imagination,” young baby boomers like Tim O’Brien “learned to play army games. We bought dented relics of our fathers; history, rusted canteens and olive-scented, scarred helmet liners. Then we were our fathers, taking on the Japs and Krauts along the shores of Lake Okabona.”
In 1964, the Hasbro toy company introduced G.I. Joe, a “fighting man from head to toe on the land, on the sea, in the air.” Arriving just as many voters began to express buyer’s remorse with the Vietnam War, G.I. Joe soon underwent an extreme makeover. Like many soldiers in the waning days of the American ground war, he now sported long hair and a beard. His new insignia—A for Adventure—“looked just a bit like a peace sign,” one critic noted. In 1976, Hasbro “furloughed” Joe indefinitely. He remained out of production until the early 1980s.
Vietnam shook Americans’ faith in victory culture. A country that had clawed its way out of the Great Depression and defeated fascism in Europe and Asia was now less sure of its own invincibility. The unruly end of the war also overlapped with the end of the post-war economic boom. When Ford took office, GNP was dropping at an annual rate of 4.2 percent, price inflation rose to 16.8 percent, unemployment rates soared as high as 8.9 percent and mortgage rates hovered at a prohibitively high level of about 10 percent. Persistent stagflation — the unusual combination of economic stagnation amid fast-rising prices — contributed to a popular sense that the unelected president was out of his depth.
Even before the fall of Saigon, Americans harbored deep uncertainty about Ford. 1974 Time ran a cover story entitled, “In Quest of Leadership,” noting that if an alien arrived from outer space and issued the stock line, “take me to your leader,” Americans would be unclear about what to do. Living in what U.S. News and World Report called an “age of nonheroes,” entertainers declared open season on the new president. That fall National Lampoon featured a caricature of Ford on its cover, his hand gripping an ice cream cone that had clearly missed his mouth and hit his forehead. The next year, after the former All-Star football player and lifelong downhill skier slipped on the tarmac while debarking Air Force One at Salzburg, Austria, the weekly comedy sketch show Saturday Night Live began lambasting him regularly for his alleged clumsiness. As the president later noted, “every time I stumbled or bumped my head or fell in the snow, reporters zeroed in on that to the exclusion of almost everything else … even more damaging was the fact that Johnny Carson and Chevy Chase used my ‘missteps’ for their jokes. Their antics — and I’ll admit that I laughed at them myself—helped create the public perception of me as a stumbler. And that wasn’t funny.”
While the fall of Saigon did not figure prominently in the 1976 presidential election — polling showed that 43 percent and 33 percent of voters cared about inflation and unemployment, respectively, but only 7 percent worried about “international problems” and “foreign relations” — it certainly did not help rehabilitate Ford’s reputation as a president who had lost control of events.
It’s tempting to imagine that Biden might meet with the same fate as Ford. Like Ford, he oversaw a messy drawdown of a long war. Unlike Ford (and Nixon), he did not enjoy the same ability to pursue a campaign of “linkage” or buy time through aerial assaults.
Americans today are concerned about the economy, concerned about inflation, concerned about the pandemic, wary of government leaders and institutions. In that sense, it feels on the surface like 1975.
Yet many economists believe that we will soon round the corner on pandemic-related shocks to labor and supply chains. Americans are evenly split as to whether the war in Afghanistan was a mistake, and a healthy majority supports the decision to leave the country.
These questions are always more complicated than they appear at first blush. To be sure, support for the exit plummeted over the weekend. But it remains to be seen whether that constitutes a temporary blip or a long-term trend.
In the case of Vietnam, in 1975, voters overwhelmingly opposed Ford’s request for more aid for the government in Saigon and generally approved of the planned exit from South Vietnam. The way that the U.S. left the country created a brutal wave of coverage. It likely contributed to Ford’s image as a bungler. But voters did not punish him specifically for the unruly scene at the embassy.
Fast forward to today. The unraveling of Iraq and rise of ISIS long ago shook what proved a fleeting popular faith in Americans’ ability to reshape an entire region through military force and nation building Voters may not approve of Biden’s handling of the exit from Afghanistan, but it is unlikely to shake faith in America’s invincibility or its providential mission in the world, as that faith has been lacking for many years. In short, today’s context is vastly different from that which Ford faced.
The United States in the 1970s was a country coming to grips with its limits and vulnerabilities. Its mighty economy no longer hummed. Pax Americana had proved a myth. A paper-thin culture of consensus gave way to divisions over race, gender, ethnicity and sex. In so fraught an environment, the fall of Saigon symbolized a national humbling that many people struggled to accept or reconcile, even as they approved of America’s exit from Vietnam.
Today, we are more aware of our outer edges and weaknesses. With the Delta variant on the rise, and school season upon us, it remains to be seen whether America’s disorderly exit from Kabul will stop Biden’s presidency in its tracks or simply recede down another memory hole. We are not quite as innocent as we were in 1975.
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