BOSTON — April 29th, 35 years ago, was a day of fear, sorrow, uncertainty in what would be the last day of the Republic of South Vietnam.
People milled through the streets, many wailing and in tears. Crowds surrounded the American Embassy as helicopters began the final and humiliating American evacuation after 35 years of effort — first supporting the French, and then on our own.
That day began for me with the sound of artillery rounds landing in the city shortly before dawn. My colleagues were gathering in the hallway of Saigon’s old Continental Hotel. One had a radio tuned to the U.S. embassy frequency, and there we would learn of the last Americans to die in the Vietnam War — two marines who were killed while guarding the airport.
The embassy was reporting that the airport would soon no longer be usable as it was being shelled, and so we made our way to the U.S. embassy to await the helicopters that would take us away to Navy ships in the South China Sea.
Hysterical Vietnamese whom we were leaving behind would press pathetic notes through the wire. “I am working for the Americans. Please tell Mr. Jacobson I am here,” read one. American marines, manning the wall, would step on the fingers of Vietnamese trying to climb over to safety.
And when the helicopters came, we rose above the city in a sudden rain. I could see panicked people trying to force their way aboard crowded boats in the Saigon River. Away to the northeast ammunition dumps were blowing up and fires raged in the distance.
We crossed the coast in the gathering dark. South Vietnamese army helicopters, like butterflies borne on an off-shore wind, landed briefly on the waiting ships before being tossed over the side to make room for more. All about us lay a flotilla of helplessly overcrowded boats. These were the first of the boat people who in the year to come would account for a great hemorrhaging of Vietnam’s population. On the following day North Vietnamese tanks would enter Saigon.
What was it all for? Henry Cabot Lodge, a former American ambassador to Saigon, later wrote: “Was the United States engaged in an imperialist adventure far from our own shores? Or were we defending a small nation, pledged to democratic government from naked aggression? Did limitations placed on our use of military force keep us from a swift and decisive victory? Or were we engaged in a war that could not be won even with the most sophisticated and lethal weapons? Were the Vietcong freedom fighters seeking to liberate their country from centuries of foreign domination? Or were they simply terrorists, willing to use any means to gain power?
“Did the ultimate collapse of South Vietnam signify a loss of will on the part of the American people? Or were we fighting the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time? ”
My answer to this last question would be yes.
It was the wrong war in the wrong place. It was always really more about nationalism than Communism. The domino theory, holding that a loss in Vietnam would mean a loss of all of Southeast Asia was wrong. The dominos didn’t fall, and the argument that our destruction of Vietnam gave time for other Asian nations to resist is bogus. Like those first British soldiers who fell at Concord Bridge in that April 200 years before, we had come 10,000 miles “and died to keep the past upon the throne.”
What did we learn from Vietnam? Not much, as it turned out. The “Powell Doctrine,” named after General Colin Powell, which said that we should only intervene abroad when we could deploy overwhelming force, have the American people behind us and have a clear exit strategy, was thrown over the side by the Bush administration when we invaded Iraq.
I used to wonder how, after such a comparatively short span of time, the United States could be making the same mistake in Iraq as it had in Indochina? But when I remembered that Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney had been in President Ford’s office when Saigon fell I realized that it was not a lapse of memory. Rumsfeld, Cheney and the neo-conservative had answered all of Lodge’s questions in the opposite of how I had answered them: Vietnam was the right war, but we had fought it wrong, and here with Iraq is a chance to do it right, they concluded.
Imperialist ventures, whether by us or the Europeans, were always dressed in idealistic clothes. Spain took South America’s gold in the guise of saving souls for Christianity. The French spoke of spreading civilization. The British spoke of the “White Man’s Burden.” And the Americans always talked about spreading democracy. But in the end it was always about forcing on other countries and societies what we wanted. Yes, we could find some locals whose interests coincided with ours, but that was always secondary.
I hope, and expect, that neither Iraq nor Afghanistan will end as badly as did the Republic of Saigon, in a great panic and a rush to the doors. But the effort to make over others in America’s image will seldom be accomplished by force, and usually ends in tears.