Lessons from the Fall of Saigon

The 37th anniversary of the fall of Saigon today is a good time to review the utility of American security promises -- including those purchased with American blood -- to countries fighting ideologically based insurgencies.

There were 540,000 Americans in Vietnam at the peak of the U.S. part of the war in January 1969.  Precisely four years later, in January 1973, the Paris Peace Accords were signed, and the U.S. promised continuing support to South Vietnam, where nearly 2.6 million Americans had served and more than 58,000 had died.  Eight months later, Congress voted to halt all combat operations, and by December, only 50 American military personnel were left in the South.  President Nixon resigned in July 1974, and two weeks later Congress reduced aid to South Vietnam by one third.  In late December, the North attacked positions in the South.  In January 1975, the cross-border invasion began.  The North Vietnamese military expected the war to take two years.  On 21 January, President Ford told a press conference the U.S. was unwilling to re-enter the war.  Three months and nine days later, Saigon fell.

Phuoc Long in January; An Loc, Ban Me Thuot, Quang Tri, Tam Ky, Hue, Chu Lai, and Danang in March; Qui Nhon, Tuy Hoa and Nha Trang on April 1; Xuan Loc held out almost two weeks; Saigon was encircled on the 27th, and three days later, the war was over.  For the South Vietnamese, there was much more horror to come as they fell into the clutches of people who despised their beliefs and their way of life -- into the clutches of violent ideological communists.  An estimated 1 million people were imprisoned without formal charges, 165,000 died in "re-education camps," and 2 million impoverished and miserable people fled the country.

Fast-forward.

Nearly 1.5 million Americans served in Iraq from 2003-2011; more than 4,200 were killed and 33,000 wounded.  As a result of the failure of the Obama administration to reach a deal with the Iraqi government, all U.S. troops (except trainers and the Marine Embassy guards) were withdrawn at the end of 2011.  The president said, "The tide of war is receding," and indeed it was for Americans, but not for Iraqis.  Violence in the country has been up, and political accommodation among the parties has declined.  American influence is close to nil[1], while that of Iran has increased, along with the stature of Muqtada Sadr -- a violent ideological Islamist.

To avoid a similar situation in Afghanistan following the departure of U.S. troops announced for 2014, Americans and Afghans have been working on a 10-year "Partnership Agreement" to sustain American involvement.  If we make it to the end -- a really big "if," considering -- the U.S. will have been in Afghanistan for 23 years.  The Russians were there for 10 -- and they called it "Russia's Vietnam."

The U.S. has already agreed to turn control of American prisons and leadership of night raids on houses over to the Afghans.  Sources close to the current discussion say it will cover training for Afghan security forces, equipment, and political support.  There remain issues of where the Americans will be based and what they will be permitted to do and not do, not to mention the issue of funding[2].  All of which looks more like a decade-long American commitment to shore up the Afghan government than an actual partnership (which would imply some benefit to the United States). 

The draft agreement is openly spoken of as a measure to ensure that the Taliban -- a violent ideological Islamist organization -- doesn't think the American withdrawal will presage the end of the American commitment.  Maybe the analogy the Afghans should be using is not Iraq, but Vietnam.

Shoshana Bryen is senior director of The Jewish Policy Center.  She was previously senior director for security policy at JINSA and author of JINSA Reports from 1995-2011.

 


[1] Witness Iraq's political support for Syria's Bashar Assad and the stream of support for the Syrian across the border, positions aligned with Iran in opposition to the U.S.

 

[2] Karzai says Afghanistan needs a commitment of $6 billion/year, of which Afghanistan will provide $500 million.  The Americans indicate that it will be less.

The 37th anniversary of the fall of Saigon today is a good time to review the utility of American security promises -- including those purchased with American blood -- to countries fighting ideologically based insurgencies.

There were 540,000 Americans in Vietnam at the peak of the U.S. part of the war in January 1969.  Precisely four years later, in January 1973, the Paris Peace Accords were signed, and the U.S. promised continuing support to South Vietnam, where nearly 2.6 million Americans had served and more than 58,000 had died.  Eight months later, Congress voted to halt all combat operations, and by December, only 50 American military personnel were left in the South.  President Nixon resigned in July 1974, and two weeks later Congress reduced aid to South Vietnam by one third.  In late December, the North attacked positions in the South.  In January 1975, the cross-border invasion began.  The North Vietnamese military expected the war to take two years.  On 21 January, President Ford told a press conference the U.S. was unwilling to re-enter the war.  Three months and nine days later, Saigon fell.

Phuoc Long in January; An Loc, Ban Me Thuot, Quang Tri, Tam Ky, Hue, Chu Lai, and Danang in March; Qui Nhon, Tuy Hoa and Nha Trang on April 1; Xuan Loc held out almost two weeks; Saigon was encircled on the 27th, and three days later, the war was over.  For the South Vietnamese, there was much more horror to come as they fell into the clutches of people who despised their beliefs and their way of life -- into the clutches of violent ideological communists.  An estimated 1 million people were imprisoned without formal charges, 165,000 died in "re-education camps," and 2 million impoverished and miserable people fled the country.

Fast-forward.

Nearly 1.5 million Americans served in Iraq from 2003-2011; more than 4,200 were killed and 33,000 wounded.  As a result of the failure of the Obama administration to reach a deal with the Iraqi government, all U.S. troops (except trainers and the Marine Embassy guards) were withdrawn at the end of 2011.  The president said, "The tide of war is receding," and indeed it was for Americans, but not for Iraqis.  Violence in the country has been up, and political accommodation among the parties has declined.  American influence is close to nil[1], while that of Iran has increased, along with the stature of Muqtada Sadr -- a violent ideological Islamist.

To avoid a similar situation in Afghanistan following the departure of U.S. troops announced for 2014, Americans and Afghans have been working on a 10-year "Partnership Agreement" to sustain American involvement.  If we make it to the end -- a really big "if," considering -- the U.S. will have been in Afghanistan for 23 years.  The Russians were there for 10 -- and they called it "Russia's Vietnam."

The U.S. has already agreed to turn control of American prisons and leadership of night raids on houses over to the Afghans.  Sources close to the current discussion say it will cover training for Afghan security forces, equipment, and political support.  There remain issues of where the Americans will be based and what they will be permitted to do and not do, not to mention the issue of funding[2].  All of which looks more like a decade-long American commitment to shore up the Afghan government than an actual partnership (which would imply some benefit to the United States). 

The draft agreement is openly spoken of as a measure to ensure that the Taliban -- a violent ideological Islamist organization -- doesn't think the American withdrawal will presage the end of the American commitment.  Maybe the analogy the Afghans should be using is not Iraq, but Vietnam.

Shoshana Bryen is senior director of The Jewish Policy Center.  She was previously senior director for security policy at JINSA and author of JINSA Reports from 1995-2011.

 


[1] Witness Iraq's political support for Syria's Bashar Assad and the stream of support for the Syrian across the border, positions aligned with Iran in opposition to the U.S.

 

[2] Karzai says Afghanistan needs a commitment of $6 billion/year, of which Afghanistan will provide $500 million.  The Americans indicate that it will be less.