Last month, President Joe Biden announced that America’s “military mission in Afghanistan will conclude on August 31st.” In the time since the July 8 statement, a Taliban offensive has overrun city after city across the country. On Sunday, the militant group entered the Afghan capital of Kabul, and several countries, including the United States, began to evacuate their embassies. As reports emerged that the Taliban had seized the presidential palace, Afghan president Ashraf Ghani fled the country.
“We, of course, are saddened indeed by the events. … But these events, tragic as they are, portend neither the end of the world nor of America’s leadership in the world,” said the U.S. president.
But that president wasn’t Biden. It was Gerald Ford on April 23, 1975, as North Vietnamese forces rolled toward Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam.
A two-decade American effort to turn South Vietnam into a noncommunist bulwark in Southeast Asia had failed. A million-man army long advised, financed, trained, and equipped by the United States was crumbling as South Vietnamese soldiers fled the front lines. They stripped off their uniforms and attempted to disappear into the civilian population.
“We can and we should help others to help themselves,” said Ford. “But the fate of responsible men and women everywhere, in the final decision, rests in their own hands, not in ours.”
Last month, Biden echoed the same sentiments, putting the fate of Afghanistan squarely on the shoulders of the Afghan government and military. It is, he said, “the right and the responsibility of the Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country.”
While the United States and its allies had propped up the Afghan government for the better part of two decades and had spent at least $83 billion to build, advise, train, and equip its faltering armed forces, Biden seemingly washed his and the rest of the U.S.’s hands of further responsibility. “We provided our Afghan partners with all the tools — let me emphasize: all the tools, training, and equipment of any modern military. We provided advanced weaponry,” he said.
The case was the same in South Vietnam. The United States had provided billions in high-tech weapons, but it hardly mattered as North Vietnamese forces rolled toward Saigon. The U.S.-backed “puppet troops,” as they were called by the North, melted away.
A week after Ford made his speech, South Vietnam ceased to exist. The United States’s military efforts in neighboring Cambodia and Laos fared no better. “Some tend to feel that if we do not succeed in everything everywhere, then we have succeeded in nothing anywhere. I reject categorically such polarized thinking,” Ford told the crowd at Tulane University. “America’s future depends upon Americans — especially your generation, which is now equipping itself to assume the challenges of the future, to help write the agenda for America.”
That new agenda could have included a complete reevaluation of U.S. foreign policy and a rejection of the ruinous national security strategy and reckless foreign interventions that led to America’s embarrassing defeats in Southeast Asia. Ford had demanded that “we accept the responsibilities of leadership as a good neighbor to all peoples and the enemy of none.” But in a few short years, the United States began a massive effort to saddle the Soviet Union with its own Vietnam War. It was one of the most aggressive campaigns ever mounted by the CIA, aiding guerrillas in Afghanistan and setting the stage for 9/11, the forever wars, and today’s Afghan collapse.
The years since have been typified by U.S. military interventions that yielded little, like the ruinous 1983 deployment of U.S. Marines to Beirut, the 1986 bombing of Libya, and, more recently, military setbacks, stalemates, and defeats from Iraq to Burkina Faso, Somalia to Libya, Mali to, again, Afghanistan. Victories, such as they are, have been confined to efforts in places like Grenada and Panama.
As he concluded his July 8 speech, Biden, like Ford before him, attempted to turn the page. “We have to defeat Covid-19 at home and around the world … [and] take concerted action to fight existential threats of climate change,” he asserted. The rapid rise in Covid-19 infections and deaths in the United States, paired with the devastating report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, suggests that meeting these challenges may be far more difficult than those the U.S. faced and failed in Afghanistan.
Taking questions from the press in July, Biden was asked if he saw “any parallels between this withdrawal and what happened in Vietnam.”
“None whatsoever. Zero,” he replied.
He was, in some way, right. The Afghan collapse was far more precipitous than that of the South Vietnamese armed forces. But Biden ignores the clear parallels between that past moment of defeat and the current one at his own peril and that of the United States as a whole. Ford’s 1975 speech was loaded with absurd rhetoric about the future, lacking any real attempt at redefining American foreign policy. Without a true reevaluation this time around, the U.S. risks falling into well-worn patterns that may, one day, make the military debacles in Southeast and Southwest Asia look terribly small.