Forty Years Later: What We Lost in Vietnam

Last week marked 40 years since the United States withdrew all its forces and personnel from Vietnam.

The iconic images from that fateful time are of a heroic, massive evacuation of U.S. forces and Vietnamese civilians. One of the most memorable photos is of a long line of Vietnamese civilians evacuated by a U.S. helicopter from the rooftop of the American embassy in Saigon. The images from those last chaotic days are of heroism against a backdrop of retreat, failure and capitulation, a doomed mission that cost more than 58,000 American lives.

Contrast those images of retreat with the memorable images of World War II: Marines raising the flag on Mount Suribachi in Iwo Jima; GIs wading, under heavy enemy fire, to the shores of Normandy on D-Day; the Japanese surrender on the deck of the battleship USS Missouri. What the photos share in common are the themes of advance and loyalty.

The policies of the American government during World War II and its aftermath were consistent with the expectations of its allies. America kept its commitments with its allies for the long haul. It liberated France at a tremendous cost of U.S. lives. When General Douglas MacArthur declared “I shall return,” he meant it, ultimately returning and liberating the Philippines from brutal Japanese occupation. Following the war, when President Truman formulated the doctrine bearing his name that warned the Soviet Union not to embark on any more adventurism in Europe, the Kremlin took heed. Our allies took comfort in our assurances, and our enemies thought twice about waging any aggression that would rouse the ire of the U.S.

When we left Vietnam, we also left behind our reputation as a dependable ally willing to make any sacrifice to honor our commitments. To be sure, it was a war that had lost the support of the American people. Popular opinion was clearly against shedding any more blood to prop up the Saigon government. But Vietnam was a watershed event in that it was the first time in U.S. history that we didn’t live up to the commitments guaranteed to an ally. We didn’t lose; we just left.

The price of quitting in Vietnam and leaving the South Vietnamese to the mercy of the vicious North Vietnamese regime had terrible repercussions. The North Vietnamese communist government shipped an estimated 1 to 2.5 million South Vietnamese to concentration camps to be “reeducated.” Hundreds of thousands died from disease, starvation, torture and execution. Tens of thousands more died while trying to flee on boats that were not seaworthy enough to make it to the shores of nations that would provide refuge. As American forces pulled out of the region, communist forces under the genocidal Pol Pot took over Cambodia, killing more than one million civilians. Those who protested and rioted about American involvement in Vietnam seemed to have no issue with the massacre of the South Vietnamese at the hands of the Hanoi government.

American credibility was severely tarnished, and it wasn’t long before regimes began to take advantage of the lack of American will to fight for its own interests and that of its allies. Only a few years after the U.S. withdrawal, Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan; radical Islamists overthrew a pro-American government in Iran; the communist Sandinistas seized power in Nicaragua and began to foment unrest in other nations in South America; Cuba sent thousands of troops to support anti-American forces in Angola. The vacuum created by the American withdrawal from world affairs was quickly filled by regimes bent on curbing democracy.

Ronald Reagan coined the term “Vietnam Syndrome” to describe the post-Vietnam era of lack of backbone and of leadership to project American supremacy. It’s been 40 years since the humiliation of Vietnam, but its impact is still felt today. It has shown that we can’t be trusted, and it also has set a precedent for Congress and the president to sacrifice principles for the sake of short-term public-opinion polls.

The syndrome is one of the reasons why our allies in Eastern Europe don’t have confidence that we will stem the tide of renewed Soviet adventurism in Europe. It’s why China and North Korea have assumed aggressive stances against American allies in Asia. It’s part of why nations in the Middle East are starting to talk about developing their own nuclear arsenal because they don’t have confidence that the U.S. will have the will to confront Iran in its pursuit of a nuclear weapon.

Forty years ago, Americans walked away from their commitments to an ally. While historians will continue to debate whether there were any viable alternatives, it was a move that made the world a more dangerous place 40 years later.