History

What Does the Fall of Saigon Really Have to Teach Us About Afghanistan?

The comparisons may have less to do with history than with a right-wing fixation.

Vietnamese refugees stand on a runway as a U.S. helicopter hovers overhead with three people hanging from the back
Refugees north of Saigon in April 1975. Getty

The fall of Kabul, Afghanistan, to the Taliban has inevitably drawn comparisons to the 1975 “fall of Saigon”—so many that, on Sunday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the press, “This is not Saigon.” But Blinken’s efforts haven’t stopped the supposed historical parallels from coming, often from the right, which has quickly moved to cast the event as a failure of President Joe Biden and his administration.

But what, if anything, can the fall of Saigon really teach us, as the grim situation in Afghanistan unfolds? And why might the right be so invested in the comparison? Christian Appy is a historian who writes about the Vietnam War and American politics and culture and the author, most recently, of American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity. I called Appy on Monday to understand more about how the event of the fall of Saigon resonated in the United States in 1975, how its meaning changed in the intervening decades, and what the fall of Kabul may mean for our own politics in 2021. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Rebecca Onion: At the time of the fall of Saigon, how did Americans, watching from home, perceive the events as they unfolded?

Christian Appy: The final American troops left in early 1973, after the Paris Peace Accords. This “ended” the Vietnam War—which, of course, almost immediately began again, while falling off the front pages and out of the American consciousness. What people were paying attention to at home was really the unfolding Watergate scandal.

The fall of Saigon in the spring of 1975 brought the war in Vietnam really rushing back into American awareness. And though the media was full of scary and shocking images of people trying as best they could to leave the country, and of very chaotic and mismanaged evacuations, most Americans had resigned themselves to this outcome. There was no will to reenter the war, and that was true in Washington and Congress as well as in the population.

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I’d say the national mood on April 30, 1975, when the embassy fell, was a kind of resignation—a fatalism about the outcome. But also, I think, there was a pretty broad understanding, at the time, that America had been largely responsible for creating the conditions that led to this.

That’s one difference from this situation in Afghanistan. The endgame in Vietnam unfolded over many months, so the fall of Saigon came a long time after the troops left.

Yes, there was an interval of a little more than two years between the U.S. exit and the Communist victory. During that time, America was still supporting, with money and arms, the government of South Vietnam. In Afghanistan, of course, the government we’ve supported since 2001 is just collapsing with a speed I don’t think many people predicted.

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I keep seeing some people argue, about the supposedly perilous politics of this moment for Joe Biden, “Well, President Ford didn’t pay a political price for the fall of Saigon.” I wonder if you think that’s accurate.

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Well, presiding over that event—there was very little positive spin you could invent for the fall of Saigon. So it didn’t help him politically, but the much bigger cause for his defeat in the 1976 election was primarily the pardoning of his notorious predecessor. So I don’t think there was a huge political cost for him.

We’re now seeing a lot of reaction from military personnel who served in Afghanistan to the fall of Kabul. What did people who served in Vietnam say, upon seeing the fall of Saigon?

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Veterans were all over the map, politically, in the United States, in that period. Many of them were deeply saddened by it, for all kinds of reasons. Some were thinking, This end simply really proves that we risked our lives and lost friends and perhaps even killed people for a goal that clearly failed and may never even have been realistic. It’s a sense of disillusionment and betrayal, which was a word you heard a lot at that time, which was very much felt by veterans.

But I’d say that their sense of betrayal was much deeper than a sense that the United States had bugged out or abandoned this mission in South Vietnam. I would say that the bigger sense of betrayal was having sent them to this foreign war with this impossible mission to begin with.

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How did American memory of the events of the fall of Saigon change over the years?

At the time of the war itself, right up to and including the fall of Saigon, the overwhelming majority of Americans had come to the conclusion that the war was, at the very least, a horrible mistake. By the early 1970s, a majority of Americans had concluded that the war was immoral.

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But by the time that Reagan became president in the early 1980s, the political shift to the right had created a story about the Vietnam War that focused American attention on the idea that the war was a noble cause—could have been won, should have been won. And that a victory didn’t happen because we didn’t try hard enough, we quote-unquote denied our soldiers permission to win. Many Americans were wanting to restore a sense of national pride, prestige, and patriotism.

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That was the time of the sort of creation of an image of Vietnam veterans as the key symbol of the war. Many parts of the culture were encouraging Americans to pay attention to and honor Vietnam veterans—part of the larger sort of project to make the experience of Vietnam into an American tragedy, rather than pay attention to the damage and wreckage that the United States had brought to Vietnam. So, for example, by the 1980s, if you asked Americans how many Vietnamese died in the war, there were a couple of polls where people would guess something like 100,000 or so, when in fact it was something like 3 million Vietnamese casualties to our 58,000 Americans.

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You mention the Reagan shift, and I think one reason we’re seeing so many mentions of the “fall of Saigon” on social media and in some of the press now is that it has, since the time it happened, become a touchstone for the right interested in pinpointing America’s “decline.” Now the same may be happening with Kabul. But there are so many differences between the two historical eras we’re comparing that it’s hard for me to say how Americans will remember the “fall of Kabul.” Major differences involve our respective media ecosystems, the numbers of soldiers involved in each war, the fact that Vietnam had soldiers who were drafted and Afghanistan did not. What other differences do you see? And how do you think the memory of this event will develop?

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Well, as for Republicans blaming Biden, of course we need to point out that Trump came to power promising to end the war in Afghanistan, and as late as last February sent officials to negotiate with the Taliban, just before the pandemic shutdown. He promised the U.S. would leave Afghanistan by May 1, 2020. The military talked him out of doing that so fully and decisively, but he had made a commitment to it. And in the campaign in the fall 2020, he claimed that Biden was going to continue the war, and he was going to end it.

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According to one poll, in July, 73 percent of Americans wanted out of Afghanistan. That was similar in the 1970s as well, in Vietnam. Republicans as well as Democrats were disillusioned with the war, and as I said, only in the years later did Reagan attack the Democrats for having failed to succeed there.

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But as you say, another major difference between then and now is that now, in the 21st century, we have relied on a tiny cohort of Americans to do the fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, because of the all-volunteer force and troops being required to do multiple tours in these war zones. That makes it possible for the vast majority of Americans to go about life as if there were no wars going on.

That was not possible during the Vietnam War. Of course, there were some oblivious Americans, but to a really stunning degree, ordinary Americans were consumed by that war as it was unfolding. There was the draft, and the possibility that every able-bodied young American might end up in that war. Though the draft was radically skewed to advantage the privileged and well connected, to keep them from having as much of a chance of fighting, it was nevertheless hanging over a whole generation, that possibility.

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But even more than the draft, I would say Americans were deeply consumed by the war itself. And incredibly shocked that it seemed not only to be failing, but to be contrary in its conduct to the ideals that had been used to justify intervention. I think in the 21st century, Americans are much more cynical, and less shockable about the possibility that Americans could be engaged in wars that don’t live up to their advertising. There hasn’t been much public support for either of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since about 2005. But there’s also a lot of skepticism about the possibility for ordinary citizens to make foreign policy more accountable to the public.

This feels like a real inflection point, when it comes to public opinion on foreign policy. I have no idea how things will go.

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We can hope that this will lead to more public engagement and critical thinking about American foreign policy. I’ve been struck by, over the past year, the contrast between the deep—and I think healthy—scrutiny that large portions of the public have given to issues of systemic racism, which is a phrase that’s really entered the common vernacular language in this last year. But then, at the same time, it hasn’t really led to a large public discussion of American imperialism and American foreign policy.

I do fear that if the narrative is focused only on the vision of civilians fleeing a scary and repressive new government, which is already on the record from the 1990s as having a horrible history of brutality and repression—if that’s our only focus, if our attention isn’t on the longer history of our involvement there, and what that has done to the country, then I don’t think we really have the kinds of critical tools to think deeply about what our priorities should be going forward.

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