There are surprisingly few recollections under way today of the final ignominious chapter of our Vietnam agony, when the U.S. was chased out of Saigon. I wonder if there isn’t a larger subtext here. We not only seem to be re-running the 1960s at home right now (Ferguson, Baltimore, etc), but we seem to be trying to re-run 1970s foreign policy too, with American retreat leading to chaos, instability, and increasing the threat of new wars.
Maybe a few people recall how wrong the left was about what they predicted would take place after the U.S. finally bugged out of southeast Asia. (We didn’t just bug out; we also cut off aid to our friends and allies in the region, degrading their own chances for self-defense and survival.) Let’s recall what leading liberals had to say at the time, especially about Cambodia. Anthony Lewis wrote in the New York Times: “What future possibility could be more terrible that the reality of what is happening in Cambodia now?” It was, Lewis wrote a few weeks later, only our “cultural arrogance” that led us to believe that “our way of life must prevail.” New York Times reporter David Andelman wrote that the vast majority of Cambodians “do not voice any concern about such issues as the shape of a peace or possible postwar reprisals,” while another Times reporter, Sydney Schanberg, wrote that “it is difficult to imagine how their lives could be anything but better with the Americans gone.” Sen. Alan Cranston said that “the ‘bloodbath’ that some people fear after the fighting stops if the [Khmer Rouge] insurgents take over is only conjecture.” The Los Angeles Times said the aid cutoff was “for the good of the suffering Cambodians themselves.” Columnist Joseph Kraft asked, “Does it really matter whether Cambodia goes Communist?” And after South Vietnam followed Cambodia’s fall, the New York Times carried a news story, datelined Phnom Penh, with the headline: “Indochina Without Americans: For Most, a Better Life.”
And we shouldn’t forget the Academy Awards ceremony in 1975, when the producer of the winner of the Oscar for best documentary, the pro-Hanoi agitprop film “Hearts and Minds,” said “Isn’t it ironic that we are here at a time just before Vietnam is about to be liberated?” (“Hearts and Minds” includes Daniel Ellsberg remarking, “We aren’t on the wrong side; we are the wrong side.”) Then he proceeded to read to the audience a telegram of congratulations from the Vietcong. Susan Sontag exulted: “One can only be glad about the victory of the DRV [North Vietnam] and the PRG [Viet Cong]. . . It would have been disheartening if America had its way with Indochina.”
Here a shout out should be given to the notable exception of William Shawcross, a fierce critic of American policy in Vietnam who later expressed second thoughts about the attitude of the antiwar left toward Indochina. Shawcross wrote in 1994:
“[T]hose of us who opposed the American war in Indochina should be extremely humble in the face of the appalling aftermath: a form of genocide in Cambodia and horrific tyranny in both Vietnam and Laos. Looking back on my own coverage for The Sunday Times of the South Vietnamese war effort of 1970-75, I think I concentrated too easily on the corruption and incompetence of the South Vietnamese and their American allies, was too ignorant of the inhuman Hanoi regime, and far too willing to believe that a victory by the Communists would provide a better future. But after the Communist victory came the refugees to Thailand and the floods of boat people desperately seeking to escape the Cambodian killing fields and the Vietnamese gulags. Their eloquent testimony should have put paid to all illusions.”
It is also ironic that Vietnam today has become completely pro-capitalist, even though it is still a one-party state that still calls itself “Communist,” though their economic policies are probably to the right of New York City. No wonder the left isn’t making much of this anniversary.
The lesson of our retreat from Vietnam was not lost on the larger world in the 1970s. Syria’s dictator Hafez Assad said to Henry Kissinger, “You sold out Vietnam and Cambodia. Why should we not suppose you will also sell out Israel?” I wonder what lesson the world’s despots take from Obama’s bearing and actions today? Actually we don’t need to wonder at all.
P.S. Mackubin T. Owens (a Vietnam vet) offers some additional and very useful reflection at the NY Times “Room for Debate” page today.