US Marines in Vietnam (Photo by David Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

August 19, 2021   5 mins

Antony Blinken, US Secretary of State, was very clear about the fall of Kabul: “This is manifestly not Saigon.

Really? It seems to me that the similarities between Vietnam in 1975 and Afghanistan in 2021 are unmistakable. Indeed, they were openly debated in the floor of the House of Commons, in yesterday’s debate. As Iain Duncan Smith put it: “the parallels [are] shocking, but also very true… this is a shame on all of us.”

In Vietnam, America found itself fighting in hostile terrain against a fanatical foe. Every strategy and tactic failed: counter-insurgency, troop surges, novel weaponry. Propping up a corrupt, unpopular government, the Americans came to realise that defeat was inevitable — and so they negotiated with the enemy and withdrew their troops. From that point, the fall of the capital was only a matter of time — though less time than anticipated. When the final collapse happened, it’s speed took the world by surprise.

Given this precedent, it is astonishing that the Americans didn’t see what might happen in Afghanistan — but they were blind to it. Back in July, Mystic Blinken made this prediction: “We are staying, the embassy is staying, our programs are staying. If there is a significant deterioration in security… I don’t think it’s going to be something that happens from a Friday to a Monday.” He was exactly wrong — the Afghan government collapsed in one weekend.

In Kabul, we didn’t just get helicopters lifting off from the embassy roof, but also troop transports taking off from the airport with people clinging desperately to the sides. Tragically, those who held on longest tumbled to their deaths. And thus 20 years after the the Falling Man of 9/11, we had the falling men of Kabul — the horrific bookends of a disastrous foreign policy. 

Except, the story doesn’t end there. The knock-on effects will be felt for years, not least by those left behind. As for America, one can foresee a contemporary version of the “Vietnam syndrome” —  a crippling loss of national confidence. Globally, the enemies of the West will be emboldened, just as they were in the 1970s. Now, as then, the sense of doom is palpable.

But before we succumb to despair, its worth remembering the most salient fact of the post-Saigon era — which is that we survived. To paraphrase a song of the era, the West did not crumble. America did not lay down and die. The 1970s may have been a decade of defeat — but we can also see the retreat from Vietnam as a prelude to the 1980s and victory in the Cold War. 

Believe it or not, there are positive lessons that can be learned from this period.

Let’s begin with what didn’t happen after the Fall of Saigon. According to the Cold War “domino theory“, allowing the loss of one country to the communists would mean that neighbouring countries would soon follow. But that didn’t happen in South East Asia. Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia — the components of what had been French Indo-China — were all lost in the same year. But that was as far as it went. 

The remaining dominoes — Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines — didn’t topple. Instead, the communist powers turned on one another — the Russian-Chinese split intensified, China invaded Vietnam and Vietnam invaded Cambodia. 

Most of this was predicted by the CIA as early as 1967 — in a secret memo presented by its then director Richard Helms. As Mark Atwood Lawrence — a historian of the Vietnam War and director of the LBJ Presidential Library points out — it was clear both that Vietnam would fall to the communists and that the communist threat could be contained. 

We should have accepted the inevitable in Afghanistan too — because that’s also been obvious for years. We’ve known with absolute certainty that the former Afghan government was wholly dependent on the Americans — and wholly incapable of taking the lead against the Taliban. They should have been cut loose a decade ago. 

Of course, the argument against doing so was the same as it was in Vietnam — which is that abandoning allies, however unreliable, undermines confidence in Western resolve. But that only makes sense if one assumes that our resources are limitless. Quite clearly, they are not — and thus need to be deployed where they can make the biggest difference. 

Indeed, it is precisely because our resolve is so important that we should never test it where it can’t be sustained. Beyond the borders of the West that means fighting in support of local allies, but never in their place. We can help, but they must lead. A coalition of the willing is of no use unless it is also able. 

Yes, that’s not always obvious from the outset. Situations can deteriorate, especially when our allies lose credibility with their own people. Which is why we must be ready to withdraw and do so without hesitation. 

While we naturally associate retreat with defeat, many of the most successful leaders in history were those who mastered reverse gear. From the Russian evacuation of Moscow in 1812 to miracle of Dunkirk in 1940, going backwards is sometimes the only way forward. Or to quote General Oliver P Smith — who commanded the US 1st Marine Division during the Korean War — “we’re not retreating, we’re just advancing in a different direction”.

The principle applies at a territorial scale too.

When great powers withdraw from unwinnable situations that doesn’t always mean the beginning of the end. Often it’s the opposite. Just think about our own history. Time and again the English (or British) have withdrawn from territories — for instance the Danelaw in the dark ages, Aquitaine in the Middle Ages and America in the 18th century, only to rise again stronger than before. 

Another example is the Roman Empire in the third century, which by 270 AD was on the brink of collapse. But then along came the Emperor Aurelian. Realising that the situation on the Danube frontier was hopeless he ordered the entire province of Dacia to be abandoned. A tough call, but in withdrawing the legions to defensible borders he saved the Empire and earned himself the title of “Restorer of the World”. 

I doubt that anyone will be calling Joe Biden Restitutor Orbis anytime soon, but if he wants to restore his reputation — and save the West — then he too must redeploy the resources at his command.

In today’s world, the boundaries of the West aren’t just defined by geographical territory, but by financial, technological and other networks that span the globe. And it is here that our defences need repairing. 

While we’ve spent twenty years and two trillion dollars fighting unwinnable wars far from home, we’ve opened our own gates to the influence of hostile foreign powers. We’ve sold out our workers to profit from cheap labour overseas. We’ve flogged off our land to foreign investors while our young people struggle to own homes. We’re building sensitive infrastructure, including nuclear power stations, with Chinese technology. And we’re building pipelines to increase our dependency on Russian fossil fuels. 

Writing for UnHerd this week, Paul Kingsnorth claimed that the West is suffering a civilisational crisis. Despite the tragedy unfolding in Afghanistan, he argues that we are not “short on ideas, arguments… or world-saving machines”, but that we are “very short on saints.” 

I agree about the saints, but not with the first part of his argument. If we can’t even build 5G networks without Chinese involvement then our civilisation is falling apart at the machine level too.

Doubtless this all stems from a deep spiritual malaise, but even the dead-souled technocrats who run our lives should be able to fix our broadband. This week the era of nation-building abroad came to an end. We would do well to replace it with an era of nation-building at home.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.