Forty six years ago, on April 28, 1975 to be precise, then US President Gerald Ford was in a meeting with his energy team when his deputy national security adviser came in and passed him a note. It warned that Saigon (the capital of the then nation called South Vietnam) was falling, and faster than expected. Congress and the Pentagon had been pressuring him for weeks to move faster on evacuating Americans and their South Vietnamese allies, and now time was running out.
Back in the day there was no saturation television coverage we now enjoy courtesy of CNN, Sky, BBC, and al Jazeera and others, but as a teenager I still vividly remember following what was happening half a world away in Southeast Asia courtesy of the Nigerian Television (NTV).
And so nightly during the news, the NTV regaled us with events unfolding on the peninsula known as Indochina where the mighty United States military was taking on the rag-tag army of communist North Vietnam in support of the capitalist south. Incidentally, ‘Uncle Sam’ was not part of the initial protagonists as the conflict on the peninsula took root during an independence movement against French colonial rule and evolved into a Cold War confrontation. The Vietnam War (1955-1975) was fought between communist North Vietnam, backed by the Soviet Union and China, and South Vietnam, supported by the United States.
However, from just providing money, supplies and military advisers to help the South Vietnamese government, the US was to up the ante in March 1965 when President Lyndon B. Johnson launched a three-year campaign of sustained bombing of targets in North Vietnam and the Ho Chi Minh Trail in ‘Operation Rolling Thunder’.
The same month, U.S. Marines landed on beaches near Da Nang, South Vietnam as the first American combat troops to physically enter the Vietnam fray. Of course with American jingoism riding high President Johnson had overwhelming support especially as it was considered to be the duty of ‘Uncle Sam’ to take on and defeat communism anywhere in the world. Besides being the mightiest army in the world, whose decision to join the Second World War in December 1941 played a major part in defeating the Axis Allies of Germany, Italy and Japan; and so not many Americans ever believed that their nation would not do so again.
Unfortunately they severely underrated the resolve and determination of the Vietnamese and from a threeyear campaign the mighty US became bogged down in a protracted war that dragged on endlessly. Although cable television was still some time away the nightly newsreels on US networks showing a continuous stream of body bags of young American soldiers being loaded on troop ships to be brought home for burial and the failure of the ‘GIs’ to make any significant gains gradually swung the mood of many Americans against the war. Thus by January 1973, the United States and North Vietnam concluded a final peace agreement, ending open hostilities between the two nations.
However, war between North and South Vietnam continued, until April 30, 1975, when DRV forces captured Saigon, leading to the indelible images of the chaotic scenes beamed around the world. By the time the US finally left, their Asian misadventure had cost them the lives of an estimated 58,220 soldiers, while the estimated cost of the war in Vietnam which spanned the John F. Kennedy, Johnson, and Richard Nixon administrations was $176 billion a truly staggering amount back then.
In retrospect, historians have pointed out that one of the major reasons for the failure of ‘Uncle Sam’ to triumph was the brutal tactics used by US troops, which often drove more Vietnamese civilians to support the Vietcong. For instance in 1968 American soldiers, searching for Vietcong guerrillas, raided the village of My Lai, killing around 300 civilians, including children.
Such antics meant that the locals saw the communists as savours and the Americans as occupiers! History we are all told often has a way of repeating its self and events last weekend in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan once again reinforced this saying as the world once again witnessed chaotic evacuation scenes involving supposedly the globe’s eminent military power. Just like Saigon, helicopters began landing at the U.S. Embassy Sunday, and smoke rose from the embassy’s roof as diplomats destroyed documents to keep them from falling into the Taliban’s hands. Acutely aware that this was what was bound to happen, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken insisted: “This is manifestly not Saigon.” The Washington Post recalls: “In 1975, Ford met with his National Security Council in the Roosevelt Room. Though his predecessor, Richard M. Nixon, had pulled American troops out of the war two years earlier, diplomats, intelligence officers and a small number of service members remained. Some were at the Defence Attaché Office at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, some were at the U.S. Embassy in the city centre and some were still in their homes.
Plus, thousands of South Vietnamese who had helped the United States were begging for help getting out.” But the scenes of chaos and desperation at the Kabul airport Monday made those comparisons inevitable. At least five people were killed, and U.S. forces suspended air operations. In a speech Monday afternoon, President Biden defended the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, invoking the memory of Gerald Ford and the fall of Saigon, when he was a freshman senator at the time. “I made a commitment to the brave men and women who serve this nation that I wasn’t going to ask them to continue to risk their lives in a military action that should’ve ended long ago,” Biden said.
“Our leader did that in Vietnam when I got here as a young man. I will not do it in Afghanistan.” Expectedly his action elicited mixed reactions with the man he replaced in the White House, Donald Trump, and who incidentally signed the withdrawal agreement with the Taliban without extracting any concrete guarantees of what would happen when the American troops left, slammed Biden as bungling the withdrawal. But like Biden rightly pointed out after spending 20 years and more than $2 trillion and with the loss of 2,448 service men and with more than 20, 000 others injured was he to remain there forever? Besides the mood of the nation is broadly behind his decision and so as the US withdraws from its longest ever conflict, they leave behind the status quo that took them into war in the first case – the Taliban in charge of Afghanistan the spiritual home of Al Qaeda, the group blamed for the September 11, 2001 attacks on America which left almost 3,000 people dead!