So much media attention has been devoted this month to the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War and the ensuing assassination of President Lincoln that it’s easy to forget the final days of another war, one that didn’t end with the stars and stripes flying high. I’m speaking of course, about the Vietnam War, which ended quite ignominiously forty years ago this April 30th.
The image was heartbreaking—soldiers and Marines crowding together atop the final American outpost in a country that wouldn’t exist the moment they lifted off. Historian Dominic Sandbrook summed up the mood: “For the Americans who fled Saigon in those desperate hours, there were no words to describe the grief and shame they felt that morning. In two weeks, they had supervised the evacuation of six thousand Americans and more than more than fifty thousand Vietnamese: a heroic effort under any circumstances but one that fell short of an honorable exit. ‘The rest of our lives, we will be haunted by how we betrayed those people,’ one diplomat said on the USS Okinawa. ‘It made me cry when I got here. There were lots of people who were crying when they got here.’”
One of those final few to leave was US Army Captain Stuart Herrington, a patriot and career military officer who would go on to be a brilliant spy catcher in the 1980s. He had been tasked with organizing an evacuation of Vietnamese civilians and had even arranged for Vietnamese firemen to be on hand in case the helicopter crashed. Those firemen were almost certainly slaughtered. “They listened to us, and believed us,” he said. “They waited confidently in those rows, believing their friends would not let them down.”
But we did let them down and perhaps it had to be that way. By the early 1970s, nearly everyone had soured on the war. They weren’t all communist sympathizers. Most were just regular people who didn’t want to see the boy next door get drafted and killed. The war almost seemed unwinnable. Almost.
Just two years prior, Henry Kissinger had negotiated the Paris Peace Accords which essentially solidified everything that the United States had been fighting for. North Vietnam agreed to accept South Vietnam’s existence while the United States promised to return if Hanoi did not honor the deal. It was an agreement both sides were destined to break.
While brave military men cried and those loyal to the Republic of Vietnam were killed or deported to “reeducation camps,” the mood here at home was starkly different. Among certain segments of the population it could only be described as elation.
On May 11th fifty thousand jubilant revelers staged a celebration in New York’s Central Park. One reporter described it as a “joyous all-day carnival of songs and speeches in the perfect sunshine.” One person in attendance told a reporter: “There’s a lot of lumps in a lot of throats. It’s unbelievable. Today is the first day I finally realize the war is over.”
“Over” was such a strange word. For Americans, the war had already been over for two years, when the last combat troops left Vietnam. But that was not enough for the most strident activists who would not rest until the country we had bled so much to protect was washed away like a sand castle on the beach. Not surprisingly, Congresswoman Bella Abzug, who belonged to at least one communist front group, delivered a rousing speech that day. She had been instrumental in cutting off aid to our flailing ally and opposing any effort to enforce the terms of the treaty. It would not be an overstatement to call her Hanoi’s best friend.
But for the South Vietnamese the war wasn’t really over even on April 30th. Their war had just begun, as they were murdered, tortured, and sent to the regime’s 150 “reeducation camps” to be indoctrinated in the virtues of Marxism-Leninism. Some people didn’t emerge from those camps for seventeen years, and 165,000 never left at all. But even then it wasn’t over. In present day Vietnam, those who resisted communist rule are segregated into ghettoes and officially discriminated against, as are their descendants, for the “crime” of having been puppets of the “imperialist” Americans. As if the victors had been anything other than puppets of China and the Soviet Union.
A reasonable person would be able to forgive the revelers if they had been merely marking the end of an acrimonious war that had inflicted so much pain on their generation. They were probably ignorant of the bloodbath on the other side of the world and, in their defense, the American press didn’t spill much ink reporting it. But the imaginary end of hostilities is not what made that day so sweet for them. America had been humbled, even humiliated, and they threw a party.
They perceived their country as a bully on the world stage and no one frets when a bully gets his nose bloodied because it teaches him a lesson. For a while it seemed that we had really learned that lesson, as “Vietnam Syndrome,” a phrase coined shortly after the war, caused us to shy away from conflict. No longer would we oppose the expansion of communism anywhere it reared its ugly head, as President Truman had outlined in the doctrine that bears his name.
The much maligned “Domino Theory” was at least partially vindicated when neighboring Cambodia and Laos fell to communism. In Cambodia, the victorious Khmer Rouge murdered about a quarter of the population. Noam Chomsky, the world’s most (in)famous intellectual and idol of the Far Left, denied the existence of any such massacre before denying that he’d denied it.
Even today those who opposed the war snicker at the Domino Theory because only two other countries toppled. Yes, “only” two. A few more dominoes could be found if we looked a little farther afield. During and immediately after the Vietnam War eight additional countries fell to communism: South Yemen, Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Grenada, Nicaragua, and Afghanistan. The free world was thrown back on its heels and the Soviets seized the momentum.
None of which seemed to bother the Left. Nor were they bothered that our military limped out of Vietnam rife with indiscipline, drug abuse, and racial conflict, problems which persisted into the 1980s. While Americans had once considered soldiering to be a noble profession, in the aftermath of Vietnam many people saw servicemen and veterans as pitiful creatures, and those were the generous ones. Others considered them lowlifes and deranged would-be killers waiting to snap.
Didn’t any of this nag at their consciences? Not a bit. A “Mission Accomplished” banner might as well have hung in Central Park that day. A weaker America coupled with a global red wave was what they had always wanted.
And they got it.