Afghanistan’s unfolding tragedy summons memories of Vietnam 1975
Though separated by nearly half a century, the parallels between 1975 and today are eerie. In the White House, then as now, the new president in office for less than a year — his predecessor an impeached and hugely controversial figure — is widely viewed as a decent and affable man, but many, even within his own party, fear that he is not fully up to the job and overmatched by cascading events, foreign and domestic, and the swirling passions of his deeply polarized countrymen who are unable or unwilling to heed his urgent calls for unity and healing.
The veterans who returned from the lost war in Vietnam were greeted not by parades or honors but frequently by mockery or contempt, and those who dared to wear their uniforms in public risked being spat upon by angry members of the now triumphant leftist, anti-war movement — many of whom artfully avoided the draft by going to college or Canada, thereby laying the foundation of the class war that now is so toxically embedded in our national culture.
The soldiers now returning from the lost war in Afghanistan face a different, more ominous kind of disrespect: the newly woke Pentagon leadership has resolved to put aside the problematic war on foreign terrorism and focus on a new war against “domestic terrorism.” The Secretary of Defense has been clear that high priority must be given to weeding out white supremacists and other extremists currently in uniform, and all service members will undergo new training programs aimed at giving soldiers a better understanding of American history (e.g., why 1619 is more important than 1776).
The enduring image from 1975 of America’s last hours in Vietnam is that of people streaming onto a rooftop in Saigon, desperate to board one of the helicopters lifting evacuees away, thus punctuating the folly of that misbegotten war. Also, memorable were the “boat people” who seized anything that would float and launched into a turbulent South China Sea — many to drown — in order to flee their lost homeland. Even less lucky were the countless thousands herded into “re-education camps” to face unspeakable cruelties as punishment for their association with the Americans who, in the end, abandoned them in one of the more ignoble chapters in our nation’s history.
Now a not wholly dissimilar tragedy has begun to unfold in Afghanistan in the days since
President Biden announced that all American soldiers, except a few hundred Marines remaining to defend our embassy and the nearby airport, would evacuate the country by the end of August. In his July 8 news conference, the president hopefully touted the capacity of the 300,000-man Afghan army to stand alone in defense of their country — but at the very hour he was speaking members of that force were abandoning their posts on the Iranian border and many others were surrendering their weapons to the surging forces of the Taliban who are overrunning ever increasing portions of the country.
President Biden further stated that remaining in this “chaotic” country was “simply not an option,” but left unexplained why it took nearly 20 years to discover this long-evident reality. He also expressed a great concern for the thousands of Afghans who bravely assisted American forces and now face the prospect of savage retribution at the hands of Taliban fanatics. The administration said last week it is preparing to evacuate the Afghan interpreters.
The English historian Paul Kennedy stated that it would be difficult to exaggerate the impact of the long Vietnam war “upon the national psyche of the American people.” Much as World War I affected Europeans, the effect of Vietnam was seen, he asserts, “overwhelmingly, at the personal and psychological levels; more broadly, they were interpreted as a crisis in American civilization.”
In 1975, the vicissitudes of history placed great burdens upon the shoulders of President Ford, and today comparable challenges devolve upon President Biden. Once again, the United States is shown to be much more adept at entering distant wars than exiting them. In the aftermath of Vietnam, America fortuitously manifested that extraordinary resilience that has characterized much of our history, and in less than a decade we had calmed, if not extinguished, our internal divisions and regained a confidence and national equilibrium that would endure for more than a generation. Whether America has the capacity to repeat that herculean national labor only time will tell.
William Moloney is a Fellow in Conservative Thought at Colorado Christian University’s Centennial Institute who studied at Oxford and the University of London and received his Doctorate from Harvard University. He is a former Colorado Commissioner of Education.