Forty years ago today, the United States lost its first war. And for the vast numbers of Americans who were deeply affected by the Vietnam debacle – including the military personnel who served there, the families of the nearly 60,000 American soldiers who died in Southeast Asia, and the citizens who lost faith in their country because of the events that unfolded – the conflict will remain a defining point in their lives.
For the United States itself, the war resulted in something America had never experienced before: clear defeat. It caused a wave of second-guessing about America’s role in the world, splitting the country between hawks and doves, dividing individual families and the nation itself into angry camps over what went wrong and how much the country had lost its way.
The fall of Saigon, along with the sudden desperation of thousands of Vietnamese attempting to flee the city and, more broadly, the sad history of U.S. involvement in Indo-China, are being commemorated this week in a variety of ways, including television specials on PBS and the Smithsonian Channel. In an essay for ABC News, former Associated Press war correspondent Peter Arnett writes, "The mad scrambles to go anywhere but Vietnam [during the fall of Saigon] remain today an ignominious coda to the already bleak history of America's last years in Vietnam."
The defeat ended America's innocence about its role in the world and shattered the once-cherished belief that the United States always did the right thing internationally. As a practical matter, the defeat undermined for years America's belief in its own power and damaged the credibility of the presidency as many citizens felt misled by Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon.
And the "Vietnam syndrome" – the reluctance to get the U.S. militarily involved abroad in a sustained way because such an intervention might bog America down in another costly, lengthy, futile war – lasted a long time. Politicians of every stripe said their goal in foreign policy was to avoid "another Vietnam." Americans understood this to mean a bad war, badly planned, badly executed and badly explained, that exemplified Murphy's Law, in which everything that could go wrong, did go wrong.
The wounds of Vietnam ran deep. The war became synonymous with a quagmire, an intervention that was escalated massively by Johnson and Nixon, but that seemed an endless waste of blood and money for the United States and the Vietnamese.
The takeover of South Vietnam by the communist North was completed on April 30, 1975, two years after the United States signed a peace treaty with Hanoi and pulled out its combat troops after a decade-long struggle. This gave the responsibility for the war to the South Vietnamese. But they failed, and the endgame was marked by humiliation when American forces attempted to evacuate thousands of South Vietnamese who feared for their lives. Mobs of would-be escapees clamored to climb aboard helicopters on the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon (the former capital of South Vietnam, now called Ho Chi Minh City). Many were airlifted to safety on U.S. aircraft carriers offshore. But many were left waiting for a rescue that never came as the airlift was called off during the final North Vietnamese push to take over the city. It was a chaotic, apocalyptic finale, captured on film, and it represented to many how far the United States had fallen from the zenith of its power and prestige when the war began.
As usual with America's tangled history in Vietnam, this final evacuation was marked by a mix of altruism and pragmatism, nobility and self interest, bravery and botched logistics. Then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told filmmaker Rory Kennedy, in "Last Days in Vietnam," that President Gerald Ford "had two major concerns. The first was to save as many people as we could. He cared for the human beings involved....The second was the honor of America – that we would not be seen at the final agony of South Vietnam as having stabbed it in the back." But the airlift started too late and ended too soon.
In his book "The Wrong War: Why We Lost in Vietnam," Jeffrey Record, a former civilian adviser in the Mekong Delta, wrote that there were many causes for the American defeat: a lack of understanding that this was not just a fight against communists but also a struggle against true-believing Vietnamese nationalists who wanted to repel outside invaders; underestimating the will and fighting ability of the North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong allies in the south; believing falsely that the United States had the will and military might to win, and wrongly concluding that the South Vietnamese would fight and govern effectively over the long term.
Days before the final agony, President Ford asked Congress for $722 million in emergency military aid for the government of South Vietnam, to help keep the North Vietnamese at bay and facilitate evacuations. The war-weary Congress said no. This reflected public opinion that the war was not winnable.
Many took to heart the words of Sen. Wayne Morse, D-Ore., in denouncing the Gulf of Tonkin resolution which had been used by President Johnson to justify a huge escalation of the fighting, largely based on faulty and incomplete information and poor judgment. "Watch out for the development of government secrecy and executive supremacy," Morse said. Many believe it is a lesson that still applies today.