The Fall of Saigon
On April 30, North Vietnamese army tanks crashed through the gates of the presidential palace in Saigon, emphatically punctuating the end of the nation’s three-decade civil war. Led by the charismatic Ho Chi Minh, the struggle had been launched at the end of World War II as a rebellion against French colonial rule. At first Ho’s rebel group, the Vietminh, had harbored no strong ideological leanings except an overwhelming thirst for independence. Ho even made serious overtures toward obtaining American support. When they failed, though, he turned to China and the Soviet Union, and the results bore out the proverb “Who would sup with the devil must have a long spoon.” What had been a fluid political situation soon froze in the deep chill of the Cold War, and the insurrection turned into a protracted conflict between the communist-backed North and the capitalist-backed South—a proxy fight of the sort that would plague the world for nearly half a century.
Back in January 1973 the war seemed to have ended with a Korea type of peace, as the Americans agreed to withdraw their forces and the communists ceased hostilities. But President Richard Nixon, who had built his career on unmasking Soviet spies, made the unaccountable mistake of treating communists as trustworthy—beguiled perhaps by his recent glad-handing in Moscow and Peking. The North Vietnamese treated the cease-fire as a mere time-out to let them regroup while the Americans left. After more than a year of sporadic fighting, the Northern army launched a massive offensive in December 1974, and the inexpert and demoralized Southern army instantly crumbled.
The communists had won the same way the colonists won our Revolutionary War and the Confederacy tried to win its struggle for independence: by outlasting an invader until apathy and public pressure forced a withdrawal. America’s intervention, begun with high hopes and near-unanimous public backing in 1965, had succeeded only in subjecting Vietnam to ten years of the misery of war as a prelude to the misery of communism—at the cost of fifty-eight thousand American lives.
Elsewhere in Southeast Asia the dominoes had already started to fall. Two weeks earlier Cambodia succumbed to the genocidal, Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge, who would kill off somewhere between one-sixth and one-half of their six million countrymen before the Soviet-backed Vietnamese expelled them in 1979 and installed their own government. In August Laos fell to communist control as well.
While Southeast Asians struggled to survive, Americans struggled to extract useful lessons from the country’s most divisive and humiliating debacle since the Civil War. On many university campuses the communist victory was attributed to the strong Vietnamese sense of nationalism. In this view the homegrown Northern government had greater popular legitimacy than the European-installed Southern one. Others diagnosed the cause as a failure of national will: Instead of hitting hard with everything it had, the United States had lost by pursuing the war halfheartedly. Almost as many Americans had died in three years in Korea, it was pointed out, as in eight years in Vietnam. (In the Korean War, America had also taken care not to lose the peace; U.S. troops remain in South Korea to this day.)
In the end, geography may have been the most important factor. Korea is a peninsula that can be defended along a single and relatively short frontier. Vietnam, by contrast, has hundreds of miles of border along which the communists could establish bases and transport supplies. Since the United States was not prepared politically or militarily to carry a full-scale war into neighboring countries, it was never able to root them out.
As sorted out by later American governments, the lessons of Vietnam amount to a set of rules for sending troops abroad: Be sure you can win quickly, secure public approval in advance, and use overwhelming force. Where these conditions cannot be satisfied, restrict your support to money and arms and let the locals fight it out. Ultimately, as Vietnam faded into memory, the Cold War was won not by America’s armed forces but by something that had looked equally battered in the mid-1970s: America’s economy, whose relentless pressure made the basic untenability of communism ever more apparent as time went by.