Fall of Kabul: The Day Reagan’s America Died

Much has been made of the similarities between what we’ve witnessed in Kabul, Afghanistan and the fall of Saigon in 1975.  These comparisons are entirely appropriate, to be sure. Like the South Vietnamese in 1975, any Afghans who placed their trust in the ally-ship and promises of the United States very likely await torture and death at the hands of the murderous scourge which had been held at bay by American resolve and military might.  It is only the absolute certainty of such a horrific fate that led South Vietnamese would-be refugees to cling to boats and helicopters as the Americans evacuated, just as Afghans clung for dear life to departing American airplanes.

The similarities are obvious.  What may not be so obvious to some, though, is the contrast between the America that I’ve known all my life and what the events in Kabul signify that America has become.

My America was different than my parents’ America, you see. 

My father left home at a young age to fight the communists, in defense of South Vietnam.  His treatment by his countrymen upon his return was the most shameful violation of the public trust imaginable, and that internal stain upon our national soul was rivaled only by the global stain of our complete abandonment of the promises made to our allies in South Vietnam.

In the Carter years leading up to 1980, America was in a state of economic stagnation and social malaise, while American credibility and its resolve to protect its national interests in the face of the communist threat on the global stage was little more than a punchline to an old joke in the eyes of our many enemies abroad.

That changed with the election of Ronald Reagan. 

On Nov. 4, 1979, militant Iranian "students" attacked and seized the American embassy in Tehran.  For the next 444 days, 52 Americans were held hostage by the denizens of Ayatollah Khomeini.  President Carter ordered a disastrous rescue mission in which eight Americans were killed without having made any rescues, and diplomatic efforts were equally fruitless.

Then, just over a month after my birth on Nov. 4, 1980, Ronald Reagan carried 44 states to become president.  Minutes after his inauguration on Jan. 20, 1981, the American hostages were released.

The progressive left has created all sorts of fanciful tales to dispute the significance of this moment in Reagan’s legacy.  For example, Mark Bowden writes in Guests of the Ayatollah that Iran negotiated the release with Carter but waited to release the prisoners until Reagan was inaugurated to make Carter look weak because Carter had become the personification of America.  This is nothing more than really bad and unconvincing storytelling.  Why would the Ayatollah want to make the meaningless Carter look bad, after all, at the cost of making his newest adversary in Reagan look strong by comparison?

Stupid theories like Bowden’s aside, the world knew what to take from that moment in history, and was reminded of it many times over in the ensuing decades.  Reagan’s election was a turning point for the country.  America under Reagan would not be the weak, inept, self-loathing shell of itself that had capitulated to the communists and squandered its victory in Vietnam. 

This was a new America.  A strong America.  An America that made good on promises to its allies in defense of freedom and against the forces of tyranny -- and one that desired peace, but understood that only a strong America could secure peace.

It was this vision of “peace through strength” that Americans voted for.  In the summer of 1980, Reagan told his countrymen that “[w]e know only too well that war comes not when the forces of freedom are strong, but when they are weak,” he said.  “It is then when tyrants are tempted.”

It was that America which brought down the Berlin Wall and Soviet communism, and it was that doctrine that persisted for a long time thereafter. 

And it was that America and that doctrine which unceremoniously gasped its last breath in Kabul in 2021.

Undoubtedly, my take on American history before Reagan will be a bit different than someone who lived through it.  But what seems clear enough in the record of history is that the Soviets and Middle Eastern dictators knew that Reagan’s America was a marked change from the America that had abandoned Saigon to the communists.

This week, thousands of Taliban, ISIS, and al Qaida prisoners have been freed to plot murderous jihad attacks against the West, and the Taliban will undoubtedly cozy up to communist China, which seeks to advance its Belt and Road Initiative.  The humanitarian casualties in the wake of the Taliban takeover will undoubtedly be severe and appalling, but it’s important to understand that the mission in Afghanistan was never strictly humanitarian or about “nation-building,” contrary to popular opinion and some particularly awful political messaging by Republicans in recent years.  It was about the geopolitical value of Afghanistan as a matter of national security interest, ensuring not only that Afghanistan would not be a safe haven for terrorists who would attack America and its allies in the West as they did on 9/11, but that there would be maintenance of a friendly government there rather than the fascist tyranny of the hostile Taliban.

The comparison between Saigon and Kabul will continue because it’s apt.  America has indeed abandoned Afghanistan to the Taliban as it once abandoned South Vietnam, and with it, Joe Biden has similarly abandoned American diplomatic and military credibility on the world stage, making us and our allies much weaker. 

It doesn’t matter if you believe that or not.  What matters is how our enemies see things, and their perception is reality.  As the Global Times correctly asserts, the Taiwanese would be wise to heed the lesson in Afghanistan:

The geopolitical value of Afghanistan is no less than that of Taiwan island… Once a cross-Straits war breaks out while the mainland [China] seizes the island with forces, the US would have to have a much greater determination than it had for Afghanistan, Syria, and Vietnam if it wants to interfere.

Within one day of Kabul’s fall to the Taliban, our allies in Taiwan, the Chinese communists, and the rest of the world know well that the America that once sought “peace through strength” is dead and gone, now only a memory -- a shadow of its former self that’s as frail and feeble as its current president.

“When the forces of freedom are weak,” Reagan warned, “tyrants are tempted.”  The question is not whether tyrants will be tempted, but the extent to which they are willing to go to exploit the weakness that they now undoubtedly sense. 

Image: Official photo / Pixabay / Pixabay License

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