The real Saigon analogy | Foreign Affairs
As the Taliban swept through Afghanistan last week, the events in Kabul immediately evoked vivid memories of another US military withdrawal precipitated half a century earlier. Videos of Afghan civilians hanging from military planes revealed footage of evacuees climbing aboard helicopters in Saigon as the city fell to the North Vietnamese military in 1975.
While caveats abound, there are indeed compelling similarities between 2021 and 1975. In each case, after years of bloody fighting, the United States has trusted a negotiated deal, only to see its ally of choice. dissolve in front of a motivated and well-equipped enemy. . Washington then rushed to extract a legion of local bureaucrats, interpreters and others who had served the United States, saving some but leaving many behind.
Just as they did in 1975, for that matter, American politicians and analysts described the fall of Kabul as a catastrophic setback for American interests in the world. “Terrorists and major competitors like China see a superpower’s embarrassment crumble,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, said after Taliban capture of Afghan capital . Journalist Robin Wright went further, saying the takeover was not only an “epic defeat” for the United States but also “a bookend for the era of American world power.”
If the US failure in Vietnam is any guide, however, such drastic predictions of the decline of US power are misplaced. Although Washington suffered its fair share of setbacks after the fall of Saigon, the collapse of South Vietnam did little to damage the long-term credibility of the United States. There is good reason to believe that the same could be true today.
STILL THE ALREADY SEEN
As the North Vietnamese armies moved closer to Saigon in April 1975, senior American officials openly worried about a global collapse in American credibility. Since taking office in 1969, President Richard Nixon had consistently cited Washington’s global reputation as the primary reason for avoiding defeat in Vietnam or, if defeat was inevitable, for delaying it until the United States did not. ‘appear more responsible. âThe United States cannot pursue a policy of selective reliability,â Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said in March 1975, while urging Congress to allocate more funds to support the government aligned with the United States to Saigon. “We cannot abandon friends in one part of the world without endangering the safety of friends everywhere.”
Outside of the administration, experts and journalists have helped legitimize Kissinger’s argument. A drum of comments worried about the decline in confidence in US leadership and the weakening of US alliances as the country lost this Time magazine called his “aura of competence”. Ten years after the North Vietnamese victory, such concerns still seemed justified, at least to some Americans. “Few people dispute that credibility has been lost,” Leslie H. Gelb, journalist and former government official, wrote in a 1985 article. New York Times article on American politics over the past decade.
But were Gelb and Kissinger right? Has the United States suffered serious geopolitical setbacks because of Vietnam? The answer is neither simple nor straightforward. Evidence from the Soviet archives leaves no doubt that the Moscow rulers saw the US defeat in Southeast Asia as a golden opportunity to exercise their advantage during the Cold War. Moscow assumed that Washington, badly divided internally, would offer little resistance. Strong Soviet support for its allies in Angola and the Horn of Africa in the years following 1975 is a testament to this growing sense of confidence. Moreover, throughout the developing world, anti-American groups, including the African National Congress, the Palestine Liberation Organization, and the Nicaraguan Sandinista movement, have drawn inspiration from the North Vietnamese success, believing that they could accomplish something similar.
Just as they did in 1975, American politicians and analysts described the fall of Kabul as a catastrophic setback for American interests.
The most catastrophic predictions of America’s decline, however, have turned out to be inaccurate. Washington certainly suffered setbacks, but they were mostly found in weak, politically chaotic states that had little ability to seriously harm American interests. In fact, Moscow’s most striking advance in the years following the fall of Saigon, the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, led to a brutal quagmire that in fact served long-term American interests.
Washington’s ability to weather the post-Vietnamese storm was not accidental. America’s success stemmed in part from the determined efforts of American policymakers in the late 1960s and early 1970s to consolidate the country’s global position. In Brazil, Chile, Indonesia, and elsewhere, that meant supporting the overthrow of governments that Washington saw as unreliable. Elsewhere, including Iran and South Africa, American policy – formalized as the Nixon Doctrine in 1969 – has helped reestablish ties with anti-Communist governments that the United States once viewed as passive. Many rank among the worst perpetrators of human rights violations in the world. However, as the situation in Vietnam worsened, these regimes called on a stability-minded US government above all else.
With the help of these partners, the United States managed to take the lead in many areas during the fall of Saigon. Ironically, Southeast Asia is a vivid example of this geopolitical turnaround. The disaster in Vietnam unfolded against the backdrop of American gains elsewhere. By the end of the war, American client regimes ruled Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. These governments have worked closely with Washington to avoid the dreaded “domino effect” by ensuring that communism remains confined to Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
The US defeat in Vietnam did not embolden China either, as many feared at the time. Nixon’s famous opening to the Communist government in Beijing significantly reduced tensions between the two powers, ensuring that a North Vietnamese victory would not lead to Chinese regional domination. And contrary to the dire warnings of the time, the traditional US partners barely turned away from Washington after 1975. US alliances survived the collapse of South Vietnam without defections or even significant flirtations with neutralism. Much of this success stemmed from the continued confidence in the reliability and military might of the United States. Kissinger and others worried about American credibility had failed to see how the end of American involvement in Vietnam could pave the way for the United States to refocus on more important issues, including arms control. , superpower relations and the health of US alliances, revitalize Washington’s reputation for diplomatic ingenuity.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
The United States today inhabits a very different world from the one that existed in 1975, making comparisons with Vietnam problematic at best. The country has regularly recalibrated its global ambitions since its war in Iraq took a turn for the worse over 15 years ago, and countries have plenty of reason to doubt the credibility of the United States beyond the defeat of Washington in Afghanistan. The inaction of the United States in the face of Russian provocations in Ukraine and President Donald Trump’s hostility to NATO, among other factors, have done little to inspire confidence.
Yet there is also good reason to believe that warnings about a crisis of confidence in Washington’s global role are just as exaggerated today as they were after the fall of Saigon. Despite the tragic events in Central Asia, the United States still possesses unparalleled economic, military, political and cultural influence.
The rise of China and Russia, meanwhile, seems more likely to fuel a growing affinity for the United States than a decrease in Washington’s influence, as states jump on the bandwagon. against the threatening behavior of two authoritarian giants. As they did in the 1970s, Americans risk overstating the importance of a geopolitical setback, however ugly, and losing sight of the magnetic pull of their economic and political model to worldwide. Indeed, American soft power will be all the more convincing without the baggage of the so-called eternal wars which make the United States a blundering giant rather than an enlightened purveyor of world progress.
If the failure of the United States in Vietnam is any guide, the dramatic predictions of the decline of American power are misplaced.
In Southwest Asia and the Middle East, of course, there is reason to fear a resurgence of threats from emboldened terrorist groups. But just like in the late 1970s, the United States also has an opportunity to shift the new balance of power in its favor. The successes of North Vietnam have motivated Washington to organize a friendly regional order in much of Southeast Asia and to neutralize Chinese hostility. Over time, moreover, a unified Vietnam has deteriorated into an economic hopelessness and a regional outcast. The slow collapse of its sole boss, the Soviet Union, ultimately forced Hanoi to seek rapprochement with the West and join the international community. It’s not hard to imagine a similar process unfolding in Afghanistan, where the Taliban are dependent on a single shaky boss – Pakistan – against enormous international pressure.
While the challenges to American interests in Afghanistan’s neighborhood are serious, the overlap of American, Chinese, Indian and Pakistani interests offers at least a silver lining. None of these states has an interest in seeing Afghanistan reappear as a sponsoring state of terrorism. To exploit this confluence, Washington would do well to abandon any hope that Afghanistan will one day become the flourishing democracy that once ignited the imagination of the United States and should instead focus on exploiting the personal interests of regional powers.
The main obstacle to such an effort is American domestic politics, where the fall of Kabul unleashed a torrent of partisan hyperbole. This overheated environment leaves little room for serious consideration of the historical experience of the United States, beyond the easy and simplistic analogy with the Vietnam War. The challenge facing Washington’s efforts to reaffirm its global position does not come from foreign leaders suddenly beset by doubts about the reliability of the United States, but from much closer to home.