Remembering the Fall of Saigon: The Saddest Day

If America had honored its commitments, South Vietnam might not have fallen.

Operation Frequent Wind, the helicopter evacuation of Saigon, South Vietnam, April 1975

Today, 37 years ago, Saigon, the capital city of South Vietnam, fell to North Vietnamese forces, making the end of the Vietnam War and the beginning of a reunification period of the Southeast Asian country into a communist state.

Despite American pledges of military assistance in case the North violated the terms of the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, the United States stood by as North Vietnamese tanks rolled into the streets of Saigon.

Among the most enduring images of the termination of the war are helicopters evacuating Americans and South Vietnamese to navy ships deployed in the South China Sea. 7,000 people were airlifted to safety in the final days of April 1975. Millions more remained to live under a communist despotism that has only in recent years begun to open up.

In the popular imagination, scenes of Operation Frequent Wind came to symbolize the uselessness of the Vietnam War. Certainly, having left behind nearly 60,000 lives in Vietnam, the fall of Saigon signaled American defeat in Indochina.

Except, as Miguel Nunes Silva wrote at the Atlantic Sentinel last year, “it was not a military defeat by any standard.”

Every single major conventional military operation launched by the North was crushed by American and South Vietnamese forces. Vietnam was not better off economically with Hanoi’s victory — quite the opposite. The war cannot even be said to have brought stability to the region since communist Vietnam would go on to fight wars with China and Cambodia.

Although it borders on a modern Dolchstoßlegende, it can reasonably be argued that with American support, South Vietnam could have remained free. The pullout of American forces and financial support plunged the South Vietnamese economy and leadership in turmoil. If the North assumed that the United States would have returned to Vietnam in the event of renewed aggression, it may not have launched the Spring Offensive which culminated in its 1975 victory.

Instead, the Congress in Washington explicitly ruled out further military action in June 1973, paving the way for the communists to crush a demoralized South.

Fast forward 37 years and a senior State Department official tells the National Journal, “The war on terror is over.” Obama bin Laden is dead, “people who once might have gone into Al Qaeda see an opportunity for a legitimate Islamism” in the sort of popular uprisings that swept the Muslim Brotherhood to power in Egypt. Yet nearly every day, Americans die in Afghanistan.

As in 1973, a majority of Americans is tired of the war. There is an attempt at “Afghanization” in the training of local security forces and negotiations with the enemy which could very well result in the emergence of an autonomous, Pashtun majority province in the south and eastern border region — only to have the Taliban storming the gates of Kabul as soon as Western military forces have left.

As was the case in South Vietnam, the Afghanistan that was liberated will again succumb to the barbarism of an ideology that is antithetical to individual liberty. The Taliban will resurge, emboldened by their victory over the decadent and “infidel” West. The region will be further destabilized.

India and Pakistan are already picking sides. New Delhi will cling to its alliance with the civilian government in Kabul as long as is possible, if only to keep the Pakistanis preoccupied. The military and intelligence services in Islamabad, by contrast, are revisiting their friendship with the Islamist insurgents. Iran’s sense of insecurity will increase if Sunni extremists return to power next door. Central Asian republics could be further weakened.

It is quite appropriate to ask why American troops are still operating in Afghanistan. But the argument that is made to justify a full military retreat in 2014 notwithstanding, the “war on terror” in Afghanistan ended years ago. The vast majority of suspected Al Qaeda members was eliminated in the months after the October invasion. Americans have since been nation building, that is, fighting a native insurgency while erecting institutions to foster stability in the country and a sense of nationhood among the Afghan people.

That may not be in America’s interests; it may not even be possible but suspending the effort after ten years begs the question — why did nearly 3,000 coalition forces have to die?

A full withdrawal in 2014, leaving behind no American or international army presence and signaling an unwillingness on the part of the United States to reengage militarily if the Taliban threaten to return to power, would repeat the mistake of 1973 and foreshadow an inevitable fall of Kabul which we will one day remember just as sadly as we remember the fall of Saigon today.