One of the darkest days in American history:
Forty years later, the images remain searing: Throngs of desperate South Vietnamese civilians trying to scale the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, hoping somehow to squeeze aboard one of the helicopters evacuating U.S. personnel and their associates in the face of an onslaught by North Vietnamese forces.
[. . .]
By late afternoon, perhaps 10,000 desperate Vietnamese had converged on the embassy, many of them fearful of retaliation by the North Vietnamese for their cooperation with the U.S. during the long war.
There were other designated pickup points in Saigon besides the embassy, but helicopters did not reach them all, leaving behind some of the most vulnerable Vietnamese, many of them CIA workers.
"Dishonorable" is the word that comes to mind. We made a set of promises to the Vietnamese people, which carried with them an obligation, which we callously tossed asied. "Oops. Sorry. We were just kidding. Didn't really mean it. You're on your own now." And to the friends and relatives of the 58,000 Americans whose lives we tossed away: Get over yourselves, OK?
All of us who went through the Vietnam era took away lessons that govern how we see the world to this day. The lesson I took away, for better or for worse, is that the leaders of this country should never start anything they don't intend to finish. They should never, ever put soldiers in harm's way and then fool around with the war instead of trying to win it as quickly as possible.
That's why, leading up to the war in Iraq, our editorial page had about a half-dozen editorials arguing that President Bush had not made the case to go to war and why, once the war was engaged, our editorials turned to urging its quick resolution, not by withdrawing but by actually trying to win it. Go to war as the last resort. Once you go there, stay until the job is done.
The problem is that war does always not neatly begin and end within the same president's term. By the time Nixon came along, Americans were tired of the war, and he promised to get us out, and he did, whatever the cost. Same thing with Obama and Iraq. We keep making the same mistake over and over again. I honestly don't know why we have any allies left since we have clearly shown the world we do not honor the obligations we take on.
World keeps on turning, though, doesn't it?
So I guess we won that war after all. According to the Pew Global Poll, 95% of people in Vietnam agree that most people are better off under capitalism, even if there is inequality.
By contrast, only 70% of Americans believe the same thing. (America is out-performed by such other less developed countries as Nigeria, China, Turkey, Malaysia, the Philippines and India). Maybe, quipped an Internet commenter, the Vietnamese should send us some advisers.
But there are some lessons to be learned here, one of which is that history plays out slowly. (Though it's probably a myth, Chinese premier Zhou Enlai supposedly once said about the French Revolution, it's "too early to say" how it has turned out.) Had you asked people in 1974 about support for capitalism in Vietnam 40 years later, few would have predicted that 95% of Vietnamese would support capitalism today. The lower level of support in America might have surprised some folks, too, though maybe not.
As a final word, I've admired few acts the way I admired John McCain's trip to Vietnam, looking to the future instead of dwelling on the past with bitterness. Don't think he would have been a good president, but embracing (metaphorically) the people who had imprisoned and tortured him showed a lot more class than people gave him credit for.