James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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TWE Remembers: The Fall of Saigon

by James M. Lindsay
April 30, 2011

Reflected on the wall listing in the names of American soldiers who died in the Vietnam War, a veteran helps decorate the Christmas tree placed at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington on December 23, 2008. (Kevin Lamarque/courtesy Reuters)

On April 30, 1975, the last U.S. Marines left Saigon. By nightfall, North Vietnamese forces seized control of the city, and South Vietnam ceased to exist. Anyone who lived through America’s exit from Vietnam—or who has relived it by watching the History Channel—knows that it was chaotic, ugly, and humiliating.

The consensus at the time was that Vietnam had dealt a grievous blow to American foreign policy, one from which the country might not recover. Much of the argument for keeping troops in South Vietnam after the Tet Offensive in 1968 rested on a perceived need to protect America’s credibility. The assumption was that failure in Vietnam would cripple American foreign policy, not just in Asia but around the world.

The thing is, history went in a different direction. Within four years of the fall of Saigon, China was at war with Vietnam, and the Soviet Union had begun its calamitous occupation of Afghanistan. Ten years out it was “morning in America,” and the United States was the dominant power in Asia. Sixteen years out, the Soviet Union joined South Vietnam on the ash heap of history. We now have normal relations with the communist government of Vietnam. China buys the Treasury notes that help us run a trillion dollar deficit.

Vietnam, it turned out, hadn’t been a strategic or vital interest to the United States after all, even though policymakers and pundits had insisted otherwise for years. We wound down our presence in Vietnam grudgingly and slowly, and only after vehement protests at home that tore at our social fabric. When we did leave, however ignominiously, we found ourselves freed from a policy that had been economically, strategically, and politically draining. The global geopolitical reshuffling we feared turned out not to be so daunting after all. Indeed, we learned to use it to our advantage.

Nearly sixty thousand Americans died in Vietnam. Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese did as well. Cambodia became a killing field in a horrifying example of what people in my business euphemistically call “collateral damage.”

One of the last Americans to die in Vietnam was Corporal Charles McMahon. He was a Marine from Woburn, Massachusetts. It’s a blue-collar town not too far from the historic battlefields at Lexington and Concord. Charles was killed in a rocket attack on Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut airport, less than twenty-four hours before the city fell. He was twenty-one.

I sometimes wonder what might have been in store for Corporal McMahon and tens of thousands of others if the United States had taken Sen. George Aiken’s (R-Vt.) advice back in 1966 to “Declare victory and get out.” (Aiken actually said something else, but sometimes it’s what people remember you saying that matters more.)

History, of course, doesn’t allow for do-overs. But it does offer lessons. I would take three from Vietnam. The first is that if a policy isn’t working and it is economically, strategically, and politically draining, change course. And the sooner the better. Pretending that things are going to get better when you know they won’t isn’t strategy. It’s wishful thinking.

The second is that credibility in international relations is easier to recover than you think. Circumstances change, sometimes quickly, and countries care more about what you can do for them now than what you did to someone else before.

The third lesson is to be prepared for the future to defy your expectations. It seldom sticks to the script we write for it.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Jesse Griffin

    After an Army tour, and a Marine tour, the only thing I know about my time in RVN was that the United States LOST the war. When the war is not won, then its lost. I’ve had to live with that every day for the last thirty nine years. As terrible as that is, I’m happy for Vietnam now, and wish them the best.

  • Posted by Dave Howard

    Well in 1968, it was Cronkite who distorted the truth and turned public opinion against the war. When he stated that Tet was a defeat, and “the war is Lost”, he couldn’t have been more wrong. He must have known he was lying…

    The north and the VC suffered devastating losses. Tet was a last ditch chance to win and we inflicted enormous losses on them. In truth, as has come out recently, they were ready to sue for peace after the humiliating defeat that tet was for them.

    Now i understand thet everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but no one is entitled to their own facts. Truth is truth…

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