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Call it journalistic pessimism. This spring, even before President Biden announced the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Afghanistan, I began to think about how Kabul might compare with Saigon just before it fell in 1975. Were there clear differences? Important similarities? Maybe even lessons to be learned?
I began digging through The New York Times’s archives, reading all the dispatches out of Saigon starting shortly after all U.S. combat units left South Vietnam in 1973.
It’s a period of history Americans rarely think about. When talking Vietnam, we tend to think less about the period after the big American ground combat offensives, which wound down after October 1971, than we do about the last helicopters lifting away from the roof of the American embassy in 1975.
But what happened in the years between was strikingly similar to what is happening now in Afghanistan: The United States signed a deal with the enemy that cleared the path to pull out American forces but purposefully left its local ally out of the negotiations and allowed enemy troops to retain their weapons and their territory.
Richard Nixon framed the pullout as a win, saying the United States had achieved its strategic goals. In the host country, people were both eager to get rid of the Americans and fearful of what their absence might bring. As U.S. investment dried up, the local economy sputtered and the South Vietnamese government could not support the vast, expensive military that years of American aid had built. Critical supplies started to dwindle and, as they did, so did morale.
“Last year the South Vietnamese Army still held the initiative in much of the country and was still taking territory from the Communists,” one Times correspondent wrote in December 1974. “Now the tables are turned. The stretched South Vietnamese forces, tired and short of ammunition and gasoline as a result of Congressional cuts in aid, are anxiously awaiting new blows from the Communists, who seem to have plenty of ammunition.”
Sounds a lot like the Afghan security forces and the Taliban today.
In South Vietnam, district capitals started falling, then larger regional cities. In the United States, military leaders pressed for America to renew support, but Congress, weary of a decade of war, was in no mood.
I knew I wanted to retell this overlooked part of our history, but how?
Not too long ago, I read Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel “The Sympathizer,” which brought to life the rich and overwhelmingly ignored diaspora of Vietnamese military veterans who fought alongside the Americans, then fled to places like Los Angeles and Houston when the Communists took over. They had lived the American pullout firsthand and experienced the support drying up in real terms on things like fuel, boots and bullets. And most of them had lived in America for decades, so they might have both the view of an outsider and a citizen.
I wasn’t sure if any of these veterans would want to speak to me, or would have much to say, but I started looking for a go-between who could build a bridge of trust. I found it in a young American Army veteran of Vietnamese parents who had served in Afghanistan. His name was Hugh Pham.
Captain Pham was kind enough to connect me with a tiny museum dedicated to the lost Republic of South Vietnam, tucked in an unimposing strip mall in suburban Westminster, Calif.
Other Southern Californians fittingly call Westminster “Little Saigon.” Vietnamese families are the largest demographic group. The yellow and red flag of their republic still flies from many local rooftops, and every spring the city officially marks the fall of Saigon, which residents call “Black April.”
In June, I set aside a few days and went to meet with veterans at the museum. We talked for hours about their years of training alongside Americans and their unshakable beliefs that they would defeat the Communist invaders. Each described the fall of the country as a natural disaster — as if the ground they were sure was solid suddenly gave way.
Some of the men worried that they were seeing history repeat itself in Afghanistan. They talked about the hardship that came after the collapse: throngs of refugees scrambling to boats, and years spent in harsh re-education camps for those who didn’t get out.
Was the war in Afghanistan worth fighting? Most of the men weren’t sure. They didn’t have confidence that the government now in place could really run the country, or that continued American involvement would ever lead to peace.
But they were all clear on one thing: The United States had a duty to help the Afghans who worked with them, and to make sure they could escape if the fall came.
This article first appeared in the At War newsletter. Sign up here to receive it.