Saigon Didn't End U.S. "Credibility." Neither Will KabulRoundup
tags: foreign policy, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Henry Kissinger
MARK ATWOOD LAWRENCE is an Associate Professor at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of The End of Ambition: The United States and the Third World in the Vietnam Era.
As the Taliban swept across Afghanistan last week, events in Kabul immediately evoked vivid memories of another hasty U.S. military withdrawal half a century earlier. Videos of Afghan civilians clinging to military aircraft summoned images of evacuees clambering aboard helicopters in Saigon as the city fell to the North Vietnamese army in 1975.
Although caveats abound, there are indeed compelling similarities between 2021 and 1975. In each case, after years of bloody fighting, the United States put its faith in a negotiated agreement, only to see its chosen ally dissolve before a motivated and well-equipped enemy. Washington then scrambled to extract a legion of local bureaucrats, interpreters, and others who had served the United States, saving some but leaving many others behind.
Just as they did in 1975, moreover, U.S. politicians and analysts have described Kabul’s fall as a catastrophic setback for U.S. interests around the world. “Terrorists and major competitors like China are watching the embarrassment of a superpower laid low,” declared Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, the day after the Taliban captured Afghanistan’s capital. The journalist Robin Wright went further, asserting that the takeover was not only an “epic defeat” for the United States but also “a bookend for the era of U.S. global power.”
If the United States’ failure in Vietnam is any guide, however, such dramatic forecasts about the decline of U.S. power are misplaced. Although Washington suffered its fair share of setbacks after Saigon fell, South Vietnam’s collapse did little to damage U.S. credibility in the long term. There’s good reason to believe the same might be true today.
DÉJÀ VU ALL OVER AGAIN
As North Vietnamese armies closed in on Saigon in April 1975, top U.S. officials worried openly about a global collapse of American credibility. Since taking office in 1969, President Richard Nixon had consistently invoked Washington’s global reputation as the main reason to avoid defeat in Vietnam or, if defeat was inevitable, to delay it until the United States would no longer appear responsible. “The United States cannot pursue a policy of selective reliability,” Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said in March 1975 while urging Congress to allocate more funds to prop up the U.S.-aligned government in Saigon. “We cannot abandon friends in one part of the world without jeopardizing the security of friends everywhere.”
Outside the administration, pundits and journalists helped legitimize Kissinger’s argument. A drumbeat of commentary fretted over declining confidence in U.S. leadership and weakened U.S. alliances as the country lost what Time magazine called its “aura of competence.” Ten years after the North Vietnamese victory, such worries still seemed justified—at least to some Americans. “Few dispute that credibility was lost,” wrote Leslie H. Gelb, a journalist and former government official, in a 1985 New York Times feature surveying U.S. policy over the intervening decade.
But were Gelb and Kissinger correct? Did the United States suffer any serious geopolitical setbacks as a result of Vietnam? The answer is neither simple nor straightforward. Evidence from Soviet archives leaves little doubt that leaders in Moscow saw the U.S. defeat in Southeast Asia as a golden opportunity to press their advantage in the Cold War. Moscow assumed that Washington, badly divided at home, would offer little resistance. Robust Soviet support for its allies in Angola and the Horn of Africa in the years after 1975 attests to this surging sense of confidence. Throughout the developing world, moreover, anti-American groups, including the African National Congress, the Palestine Liberation Organization, and the Nicaraguan Sandinista movement, drew inspiration from the North Vietnamese success, believing they might be able to accomplish something similar.
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