The abrupt U.S. defeat in the Afghan war has invited parallels with the fall of Saigon in 1975. That event, too, included televised images of panicked crowds desperately seeking to flee the country, victorious tyrants luxuriating in the presidential palace, and American-made military hardware scooped up by a bitter adversary.
As vice president, Joe Biden offered his own predicted parallel. If the U.S. left Afghanistan and its government fell, there would be no political price to pay. “We don’t have to worry about that,” Biden reportedly told diplomat Richard Holbrooke. “We did it in Vietnam. Nixon and Kissinger got away with it.”
Biden’s chronology was a bit off. The U.S. withdrew military forces from South Vietnam in 1973 under Nixon, but our ally did not fall until April 1975 under Gerald Ford. Nevertheless, now that the Afghan collapse has occurred under his watch, Biden’s contention bears examination, on both ends.
Thus far, in the (very) short term, Biden’s prediction that a U.S. president withdrawing from Afghanistan would not suffer politically has not been borne out. To the contrary, the Afghan catastrophe has been criticized vigorously by members of both parties. Public opinion polls show that roughly two-thirds of respondents disapprove of how Biden handled the withdrawal. Most concerning for the president, his overall job approval rating has plummeted, falling below 50% and putting him “underwater” in late August for the first time in his presidency. As of Sept. 23, Biden’s approval rating according to RealClearPolitics polling average was 46%, his disapproval 50%. It is not easy to disentangle Afghanistan from ongoing COVID problems or the chaos along the Texas border as a source for Biden’s declining popularity, but it clearly played a major role.
What about Biden’s interpretation of Vietnam? In the short run, he was essentially correct. Gerald Ford did not suffer politically when South Vietnam fell. The best evidence comes from Gallup surveys. A week and a half before the collapse, Ford’s approval rating stood at 39%. It was at 40% a few days after the government fell. In the next 11 Gallup surveys through the end of 1975, Ford’s approval rating averaged 46% and never fell below its mid-April level.
Six factors help explain the difference between the short-term public reaction to Biden’s defeat and Ford’s:
- Ford’s defeat wasn’t really Ford’s defeat. It was the Democratic Congress that cut off aid to South Vietnam just as the North Vietnamese Army was launching a major military offensive, despite a plea by Ford to a joint session of Congress. (As a senator, Joe Biden played a part in that, too.) Biden, however, has undiluted responsibility for handing Afghanistan back to the Taliban.
- The fall of South Vietnam came two years after the withdrawal of American forces. Some Nixon critics argue that he only meant for the 1973 peace agreement to buy a “decent interval” before a South Vietnamese collapse; Nixon himself said that he believed that South Vietnamese independence could be maintained indefinitely as long as U.S. supplies and air support continued. Either way, the picture of a U.S. ally losing a war two years after American forces leave is less jarring than that of a U.S. ally losing a war as American troops themselves are chased from the country.
- Vietnam cost the lives of 58,220 U.S. service members, compared to roughly 6,300 Americans (more than half of them Pentagon “contractors”) killed in 20 years of fighting in Afghanistan. Americans were sick of Vietnam and had no appetite for providing even the indirect assistance that might have been necessary to stave off a North Vietnamese victory. While polls showed that most Americans preferred to leave Afghanistan, the predominant attitude of Americans toward the Afghan war in 2021 was arguably apathy, not antipathy. From a political standpoint, public opinion made the war in Vietnam untenable. By contrast, Biden’s choice in Afghanistan was an unforced error.
- Although the North Vietnamese regime was imperialistic and Stalinist in character, it had never attacked the U.S. homeland. For their part, the Taliban were partners in the worst terrorist act ever on American soil, a fact sunk further into public consciousness by the proximity of their reconquest of Afghanistan to the 20th anniversary of 9/11. Americans may have wanted to end the war with the Taliban. They didn’t want to lose it.
- Ford was able to regain some scrap of national honor when he ordered U.S. Marines to liberate the Mayaguez, an American merchant ship that had been pirated by the Khmer Rouge in the immediate aftermath of their takeover in Cambodia. Biden undoubtedly hoped that he would accomplish the same sort of recovery with drone strikes against ISIS terrorists in the aftermath of the deadly suicide bombing at the Kabul airport in the final days of the evacuation. However, the first strike was unimpressive (the Pentagon never even released the name of the target) and the second turned out to be a horrifying disaster that took the lives of an innocent aid worker and seven children.
- Biden’s evacuation of Afghanistan, rushing to meet a self-imposed Aug. 31 deadline, left behind hundreds of Americans and thousands of Afghan allies who are now in deadly peril. Many have reached safety, but some remain. Moreover, the pictures of Afghans clinging desperately to an American airplane as it took off (several falling to their deaths) will be seared into the American memory for a long time. The impression of an administration coldly leaving Americans to fend for themselves behind enemy lines will undoubtedly linger as well, with no clear analogue in Vietnam (leaving aside controversial claims about American MIAs).
Looking at the long term, however, Ford’s upward-trending job approval ratings in the months following the collapse of South Vietnam do not capture the eventual political effect that may have contributed to his defeat in 1976 and to the subsequent transformation of American politics at the beginning of the next decade.
Above all, the fall of Saigon set into motion an international Soviet juggernaut that was only halted with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. In less than five years, from April 1975 to December 1979, 10 countries fell into the Soviet orbit – South Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, South Yemen, Grenada, Nicaragua, and Afghanistan. In 1975, Indochina was the first course; Angola was on the menu next, in November. These successful “wars of national liberation,” as the Soviets styled them, were made possible by vast infusions of Soviet arms and advisers (and in Angola, Cuban troops), unopposed by a demoralized United States. Communist advances, coupled with the widespread atrocities and refugees that invariably accompanied those advances, fueled Reagan’s rise.
When Reagan entered the Republican primaries against Ford in 1976, his candidacy was in no small part a reaction against the Nixon/Ford/Kissinger policy of “détente,” or relaxation of tensions with the USSR. Reagan criticized détente as a one-way street combining U.S. concessions with Soviet aggression. “All I can see is what other nations the world over see: collapse of the American will and retreat of American power,” Reagan said in a Florida speech early in the 1976 primary season. Though Reagan rarely discussed the national humiliation in Vietnam openly, it was never far from the surface of his analysis. (In 1980, just five years after the fall of Saigon, Reagan went further, calling the Vietnam War a “noble cause.”)
Reagan did not win the GOP nomination in 1976, but he fought Ford all the way to the Republican convention in Kansas City, falling short by only 117 delegates out of 2,258. In the general election, Jimmy Carter beat Ford by a slim electoral margin, while also narrowly winning the nationally aggregated popular vote by 50% to 48%. It remains an open question how much of Ford’s defeat was owed to the political damage inflicted by Reagan’s primary challenge. And, of course, it was Reagan who ultimately inherited leadership of the Republican Party and the presidency four years later.
The collapse of South Vietnam showed that a president could suffer little short-term damage in approval polls after a defeat but that such events could nevertheless generate diffuse long-term vulnerabilities for him. President Biden hopes that the reverse is also true – that the political damage traceable to the U.S. defeat in Afghanistan, though serious, will be short-lived. And it may be. Voters have a notoriously short attention span.
But there are many reasons to believe that it could also get worse. Just as the North Vietnamese victory set in motion a series of events that ultimately undermined Ford, there are half a dozen scenarios that could drive even higher the political cost to Biden of abandoning Afghanistan to the Taliban. News could dribble out, for example, of vicious reprisals by the Taliban against America’s Afghan allies, or of more general human rights abuses. These stories have already begun appearing. Unvetted Afghan refugees brought into the United States could prove a danger. Weapons left behind by U.S. forces could be used in some dramatic fashion against U.S. interests. (A few years after the fall of South Vietnam, captured M-16 rifles were showing up in the hands of communist guerrillas in El Salvador.)
Terrorist organizations including al-Qaeda and ISIS-K could more clearly demonstrate that they are firmly established in Afghanistan, presenting new threats to the U.S. and its allies. One or more of those groups could launch bloody terror attacks against Americans abroad or even the U.S. homeland. That has, after all, happened before. Not least, a state adversary of the United States, say China or Russia, could decide that Biden’s weakness, evidenced in Afghanistan, makes this an opportune moment to make a lightning strike against Taiwan, Ukraine, or the Baltic States.
What will be Biden’s Angola? If he is lucky, he will not have one, but he has very little control over any of these scenarios. Like all U.S. presidents, he is at the mercy of events.