Channelling George Washington: Don't Let Afghanistan Turn Into Another South Vietnam





Mr. Fleming is a former president of the Society of American Historians. This is the latest in a series of articles, "Channelling George Washington."

“Here we go again.”       

The curt tone, the abrupt remark, got my attention.  “Go where, exactly?”  I asked.

“We’re on our way to another betrayal.”

“Betrayal of whom?”

“Our allies in Afghanistan.  On June 6, the 67th anniversary of D-Day, headlines blossomed in numerous newspapers, reporting the Obama administration had come up with two wonderful reasons why we can look forward to a “steeper pullout” from Afghanistan.”

“What are the reasons?”

“The death of Osama Bin Laden and the war’s rising costs.  How’s that for advanced military thinking?  By now it’s become obvious that bin Laden had dwindled to a sideline figure, with no power and very little influence over anyone or anything.  As for ending a war because it’s getting too expensive—this brainwave should be immediately added to the curriculum at West Point. I’m sure no one up there has ever heard of it!”

We’ve done this before?”

“It stirs painful memories of South Vietnam in 1975.  Our abandonment of that small nation remains the most disgraceful episode in American history.  But I have no desire to discuss that deplorable decision by a runaway Congress while a crippled president—Richard Nixon—watched helplessly.  Instead, I suggest we do something very different tonight.”

“What have you got in mind?”

“Let’s report what happened to the South Vietnamese after we abandoned them.  It’s a topic that has barely been mentioned in the American press.  By 1975, we had somehow convinced ourselves that these people were so corrupt and cowardly, they weren’t worth thinking about.  That’s utter nonsense, I should add.  We were in the grip of a Disease of the Public Mind.  The South Vietnamese were a very human mix of people, not much different from the Americans who encouraged them to resist Communist tyranny.  Some were brave, others not so brave.  Some were honest, others not, some were idealists, others realists.”

“What happened when we pulled out?”

“An estimated one million people were imprisoned without charges or trials.  165,000 people died in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam’s ‘re-education camps.’  Thousands were abused and tortured; their hands and legs were shackled in painful positions for months at a time; their skin was slashed by bamboo canes studded with thorns; poisonous chemicals were injected into their veins.  While they writhed under these tortures, their captors gloatingly told them stories of relatives who had already been killed. Meanwhile, other Communists were desecrating the graves of the dead.”

“Why did they do such a thing?”

“The Vietnamese have strong feelings of reverence for their dead. They were horrified when the Communists bulldozed dozens of military cemeteries and flung the corpses around like garbage. The Communist goal was total humiliation.”

“How long did this go on?”

“At least 150 “re-education prisons” were built after Saigon fell.  Some prisoners remained in captivity for as long as seventeen years.  Most terms ranged from three to ten years.  For a while one in every three South Vietnamese families had a relative in one of these prisons or camps.  Compare this to the way we treated Southerners after the Civil War. It’s the difference between savagery and civilization.”

“Who received the really long sentencesthe ones that were in prison for seventeen years?”

“They were high-ranking officers in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. The ones who fought hardest against the Communists received the longest terms.  Typical was Major General Le Minh Dao, who commanded the 18th Division.  His men fought brilliantly, inflicting heavy casualties on an entire NVA army corps, in the final battles in 1975.  Dao spent seventeen years behind bars.  The average term for all these soldiers was thirteen years.”

“Were some people publicly executed?”

“Colonel Ho Ngoc Can was one of the most decorated officers in the South Vietnamese army.  He and his men fought to the bitter end, surrendering only when they ran out of ammunition.  The Communists took him to the city of Can Tho and executed him on a soccer field, while thousands watched.  His last words were: ‘Long Live the Republic of South Vietnam!’”

“I’ve heard that some top commanders committed suicide.”

“Colonel Can considered it, but he was a Christian and felt his faith forbade it.  Four other generals followed the traditional Vietnamese view of a ‘quan tu’—a virtuous leader, who prefers death rather than surrender to the enemy.  There was also a Confucian tradition that ‘if a citadel is lost, the general must die with the citadel.’”

“Isn’t there a Vietnamese saying:  ‘general in lifetime, saint in death?’”

“Many of the Vietnamese who escaped to America believe this.  For many years they gathered on April 30, the day South Vietnam surrendered, to commemorate the memories of these men.”

“How many South Vietnamese refugees came to America?”

“About 130,000.  President Gerald Ford insisted that the honor of the United States required us to accept those who were fortunate enough to escape.  Not a few people in Congress and elsewhere objected.  Senator George McGovern declared he opposed letting any refugees settle in the United States.  “I think the Vietnamese are better off in Vietnam,” sniffed this deep thinker.  Senator Robert Byrd insisted that the interagency task force that handled the refugees’ reception should exclude ‘barmaids, prostitutes and criminals.’ The just-elected governor of California, Jerry Brown, tried to prevent planes carrying refugees from landing at Travis Air Force base near Sacramento.”

“The president resisted this pressure?”

“To President Ford’s everlasting credit, he did exactly that.  He visited the refugee camps that the task force had set up and told these dazed distraught people that they were now part of the United States.  He made sure they were rapidly moved to other states across the nation.  By the end of 1975, all the refugee camps were closed.  One man, Quang X Pham, recalls with deep emotion President Ford’s visit to Fort Chafee, Arkansas, where his family spent two months.  Pham became a Marine pilot who flew for his new country in the Persian Gulf War.”

“It’s nice to hear we did something right.”

“Gerry Ford is the only man who became president without getting elected.  But his conduct in those awful days in 1975 has the admiration of every president here in Elysium.”

“And you think something similar could happen in Afghanistan, if we pull out too soon?”

“The enemy we’re fighting, the Taliban, are the same sort of merciless fanatics we confronted in Vietnam.  I only hope and pray our country doesn’t incur another blot on its honor.”



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