Private Eyes in the Sky
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As the Taliban swept across Afghanistan last week, events in Kabul immediately evoked vivid memories of another hasty U.S. military withdrawal half a century earlier. Videos of Afghan civilians clinging to military aircraft summoned images of evacuees clambering aboard helicopters in Saigon as the city fell to the North Vietnamese army in 1975.
Although caveats abound, there are indeed compelling similarities between 2021 and 1975. In each case, after years of bloody fighting, the United States put its faith in a negotiated agreement, only to see its chosen ally dissolve before a motivated and well-equipped enemy. Washington then scrambled to extract a legion of local bureaucrats, interpreters, and others who had served the United States, saving some but leaving many others behind.
Just as they did in 1975, moreover, U.S. politicians and analysts have described Kabul’s fall as a catastrophic setback for U.S. interests around the world. “Terrorists and major competitors like China are watching the embarrassment of a superpower laid low,” declared Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, the day after the Taliban captured Afghanistan’s capital. The journalist Robin Wright went further, asserting that the takeover was not only an “epic defeat” for the United States but also “a bookend for the era of U.S. global power.”
If the United States’ failure in Vietnam is any guide, however, such dramatic forecasts about the decline of U.S. power are misplaced. Although Washington suffered its fair share of setbacks after Saigon fell, South Vietnam’s collapse did little to damage U.S. credibility in the long term. There’s good reason to believe the same might be true today.
As North Vietnamese armies closed in on Saigon in April 1975, top U.S. officials worried openly about a global collapse of American credibility. Since taking office in 1969, President Richard Nixon had consistently invoked Washington’s global reputation as the main reason to avoid defeat in Vietnam or, if defeat was inevitable, to delay it until the United States would no longer appear responsible. “The United States cannot pursue a policy of selective reliability,” Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said in March 1975 while urging Congress to allocate more funds to prop up the U.S.-aligned government in Saigon. “We cannot abandon friends in one part of the world without jeopardizing the security of friends everywhere.”
Outside the administration, pundits and journalists helped legitimize Kissinger’s argument. A drumbeat of commentary fretted over declining confidence in U.S. leadership and weakened U.S. alliances as the country lost what Time magazine called its “aura of competence.” Ten years after the North Vietnamese victory, such worries still seemed justified—at least to some Americans. “Few dispute that credibility was lost,” wrote Leslie H. Gelb, a journalist and former government official, in a 1985 New York Times feature surveying U.S. policy over the intervening decade.
But were Gelb and Kissinger correct? Did the United States suffer any serious geopolitical setbacks as a result of Vietnam? The answer is neither simple nor straightforward. Evidence from Soviet archives leaves little doubt that leaders in Moscow saw the U.S. defeat in Southeast Asia as a golden opportunity to press their advantage in the Cold War. Moscow assumed that Washington, badly divided at home, would offer little resistance. Robust Soviet support for its allies in Angola and the Horn of Africa in the years after 1975 attests to this surging sense of confidence. Throughout the developing world, moreover, anti-American groups, including the African National Congress, the Palestine Liberation Organization, and the Nicaraguan Sandinista movement, drew inspiration from the North Vietnamese success, believing they might be able to accomplish something similar.
Just as they did in 1975, U.S. politicians and analysts have described Kabul’s fall as a catastrophic setback for U.S. interests.
The most catastrophic predictions of U.S. decline, however, proved incorrect. Washington certainly suffered setbacks, but they were mostly in weak and politically chaotic states that had little capacity to seriously harm U.S. interests. In fact, Moscow’s most striking advance in the years after the fall of Saigon, the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, led to a brutal quagmire that actually served long-term U.S. interests.
Washington’s ability to weather the post-Vietnam storm was not accidental. American success flowed partially from U.S. policymakers’ determined efforts in the late 1960s and early 1970s to shore up the country’s global position. In Brazil, Chile, Indonesia, and elsewhere, that meant supporting the overthrow of governments that Washington considered unreliable. Elsewhere, including in Iran and South Africa, U.S. policy—formalized as the so-called Nixon Doctrine in 1969—favored rekindling ties to anticommunist governments that the United States had once considered liabilities. Many ranked among the world’s worst human rights abusers. As the situation in Vietnam worsened, however, these regimes appealed to a U.S. government preoccupied with stability above all else.
With the help of these partners, the United States managed to seize the initiative in many regions by the time Saigon fell. Ironically, Southeast Asia serves as a striking example of this geopolitical turnaround. The disaster in Vietnam played out against a backdrop of American gains elsewhere. By the end of the war, U.S. client regimes ruled Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. These governments cooperated closely with Washington to head off the feared “domino effect”—ensuring that communism remained confined to Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.
Nor did the U.S. defeat in Vietnam embolden China, as many at the time feared. Nixon’s famous opening to the communist government in Beijing significantly reduced tensions between the two powers, ensuring that a North Vietnamese victory would not lead to Chinese regional dominance. And contrary to dire warnings at the time, the United States’ traditional partners hardly turned away from Washington after 1975. U.S. alliances survived South Vietnam’s collapse with no defections or even any meaningful flirtations with neutralism. Much of this success flowed from persistent confidence in U.S. reliability and military power. Kissinger and others who agonized over American credibility had failed to see how the end of U.S. involvement in Vietnam might open the way for the United States to refocus on more important matters—including arms control, superpower relations, and the health of American alliances—revitalizing Washington’s reputation for diplomatic ingenuity.
The United States inhabits a very different world today from that which existed in 1975, making comparisons with Vietnam problematic at best. The country has been fitfully recalibrating its global ambitions since its war in Iraq turned bad more than 15 years ago, and countries have many reasons to doubt U.S. credibility beyond Washington’s defeat in Afghanistan. U.S. inaction in the face of Russian provocation in Ukraine and President Donald Trump’s hostility toward NATO, among other factors, have done little to inspire trust.
Yet there is also good reason to believe that warnings about a crisis in confidence in Washington’s global role are just as overblown today as they were after the fall of Saigon. Despite tragic events in Central Asia, the United States still possesses unrivaled economic, military, political, and cultural influence.
Rising Chinese and Russian power, meanwhile, seems more likely to fuel an increasing affinity for the United States than a diminution of Washington’s influence, as states bandwagon against threatening behavior by two authoritarian giants. Just as they did in the 1970s, Americans risk exaggerating the importance of a geopolitical setback, however ugly it may be, and losing sight of the magnetic pull that their economic and political model exerts around the world. Indeed, U.S. soft power will be all the more compelling without the baggage of the so-called forever wars that cast the United States as a blundering giant rather than an enlightened purveyor of global progress.
If the United States’ failure in Vietnam is any guide, dramatic forecasts about the decline of U.S. power are misplaced.
In Southwest Asia and the Middle East, of course, there is reason to fear resurgent threats from emboldened terrorist groups. But just as in the late 1970s, the United States also has an opportunity to shift the new balance of power in its favor. North Vietnam’s successes motivated Washington to organize a friendly regional order in much of Southeast Asia and neutralize Chinese hostility. Over time, moreover, a unified Vietnam deteriorated into an economic basket case and regional pariah. The slow collapse of its lone patron, the Soviet Union, eventually forced Hanoi to seek rapprochement with the West and rejoin the international community. It is not hard to imagine a similar process playing out in Afghanistan, where the Taliban depend on a single wobbly patron—Pakistan—against enormous international pressure.
Although challenges to U.S. interests in Afghanistan’s neighborhood are serious, overlapping U.S., Chinese, Indian, and Pakistani interests provide at least a glimmer of hope. None of these states has an interest in seeing Afghanistan reemerge as a state sponsor of terrorism. To exploit this confluence, Washington would do well to abandon any hope that Afghanistan will someday become the flourishing democracy that once fired U.S. imaginations and should instead focus on harnessing the self-interest of regional powers.
The main obstacle to such an effort is U.S. domestic politics, where Kabul’s fall unleashed a torrent of partisan hyperbole. This superheated environment leaves little room for serious consideration of the United States’ historical experience, beyond the easy and oversimplified analogy to the Vietnam War. The challenge facing Washington’s effort to reassert its global position comes not from foreign leaders suddenly beset by doubts about U.S. reliability but from much closer to home.