A CIA employee helps Vietnamese evacuees onto an Air America helicopter from the top of 22 Gia Long Street, a half mile from the U.S. Embassy.

A CIA employee helps Vietnamese evacuees onto an Air America helicopter from the top of 22 Gia Long Street, a half mile from the U.S. Embassy. Getty Images / Bettmann

What Comes Next? A Lesson from Saigon

Rather than marking the eclipse of American power, withdrawal from Vietnam coincided with its spectacular increase.

An iconic photograph from the waning days of the Vietnam war now seems likely to be recreated in Kabul. In it, an Air America helicopter lands on the roof of a U.S. Central Intelligence Agency building across town from the U.S. Embassy. A CIA officer guides a long line of Vietnamese up a ladder and into the chopper, their last hope of escape from the North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong allies as they tighten their grip on what will soon be rechristened Ho Chi Minh City.

For many, this image epitomizes the United States’ ignominious defeat after almost a decade of deep political and military engagement in Southeast Asia. Not only did Americans and a few of their local allies escape at the eleventh hour, literally hanging from the skids of Hueys, but our precipitous exit supposedly undermined our credibility with our other allies and emboldened our Communist adversaries to turn up the heat on the Cold War around the world.

Rather than marking the eclipse of American power, withdrawal from Vietnam in fact coincided with its spectacular increase. Within another decade of the fall of Saigon the United States was on the verge of winning the Cold War without firing a shot and would go on to assume such a preponderant position in global politics that comparisons to the Pax Britannica of the 19th century or even the Roman Empire at its height seemed reasonable. Defeat in Vietnam did not end the American Century but further extended it into the new millennium.

What explains this? The Cold War was not won or lost in the rice paddies of Vietnam or the jungles of Africa; rather the key to victory was the successful defense of the most developed areas of the world. During the Cold War, the global balance of power between the Communist East and the capitalist West hinged upon three vital areas of the world. These included the economic powerhouses of Western Europe and Northeast Asia along with the Persian Gulf, home to one of the largest global reserves of oil which fueled and lubricated those economies.

The more than 500,000 troops the United States deployed in Southeast Asia contributed nothing to defending these vital regions; indeed, their presence there undermined our efforts to defend them. The Cold War was instead won by the U.S. forces deployed with NATO to defend Western Europe, the Rapid Defense Force assembled to protect the Gulf, and by U.S. forces garrisoning South Korea and Japan.

Another key to prevailing in the Cold War was our successful effort to splinter the Communist bloc. President Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger regarded withdrawal from Vietnam as an integral part of their larger strategy to exploit fissures among our Cold War adversaries. 

Ironically, we went into Vietnam thinking that by doing so we were containing Communist Chinese expansion in Southeast Asia. In fact, China was far more concerned about its growing geopolitical rivalry with Soviet Russia than with dominating Vietnam. America did more to shatter the Communist monolith by exiting Vietnam than it did in escalating our involvement there.  

Today, the United States faces the emergence of China as a peer competitor, the reemergence of a rump Russia as a regional nuisance, while dealing with strategic aggravation from Tehran and Pyongyang. Whether these new challenges mark the end of Pax Americana is debatable; what is clear is that our exit from Afghanistan, far from hobbling us in dealing with competitors, will, like our withdrawal from South Vietnam, better position us to deal with those issues that really affect our national security.

To be sure, a post-U.S. Afghanistan will be a mess: Twenty years of American nation-building efforts there have come to naught. The Afghan government, like the feckless South Vietnamese regime before it, has proven all but incapable of defending itself against its domestic adversaries. The Taliban, in contrast, is on a roll, having seized a slew of provincial capitals—and even Kabul itself, all while the U.S.-trained Afghan security forces collapse. A return to life under the Taliban’s medieval theocracy will be terrible, especially for women and religious minorities.  

While we can deplore this, and give refuge to those Afghans who fought alongside us, we cannot stay there forever. The one remaining threat we face is that the Taliban might once again provide safe haven for international terrorists. However, ensuring they do not does not require a continuing U.S. military presence. Indeed, conceding the bankruptcy of our efforts in Afghanistan will better set us up for strategic solvency elsewhere around the world. That is the real, if painful, lesson of the ugly game in Vietnam for the collapse of our efforts in Afghanistan.

Michael C. Desch is the Packey J. Dee Professor of International Affairs and Director of the Notre Dame International Security Center.