On a hot and humid day half a century ago — March 30, 1973, Saigon time — the last American combat troops departed from Vietnam aboard a silver Air Force C-141 transport jet bound for Clark Field in the Philippines and then home. The American war that began when President John F. Kennedy first sent American advisers to Vietnam 12 years before was over. I remember piles of helmets, combat boots, fatigues, and other military paraphernalia that the departing GIs were leaving behind on the airstrip.
North Vietnamese Lieutenant Colonel Bui Tin, in Saigon as part of the official North Vietnamese delegation as proscribed by the Paris Peace Accords, was on hand at the airport to see the Americans off. He had a small, bamboo scroll depicting a Hanoi pagoda and a pack of Ho Chi Minh playing cards to give the last American soldier to board the plane. A sheepish master sergeant from Minnesota, red cheeked from embarrassment, accepted the gifts.
It had been a day of speechmaking and ceremony. US Army General Frederick Weyand, the last of America’s generals to command troops in Vietnam, had stood at attention in the parking lot of the American military command that he was officially shutting down while a recording of “The Star-Spangled Banner” blared from a loudspeaker. The general said America had accomplished its mission “to prevent an all-out attempt by an aggressor to impose its will.”
None of us could know on that day that two years and one month later the tanks of that same North Vietnamese “aggressor,” now considering themselves liberators, would role into Saigon to impose their will.
On that March day, an ugly scene, more rich in symbolism than the official speeches, took place when hundreds of Vietnamese broke into the commissary before the last Americans had departed and looted the place, carrying out tables, chairs, anything that wasn’t bolted to the floor, leaving a gorgeous omelet of eggs, flour, mustard, ketchup, and melting ice cream on the floor.
Seventeen years before the departure of the last American troops, on a similarly hot spring day, the last of the French Expeditionary Force had departed Vietnam as well. Similar ceremonies and speeches were made, and the commanding general, Pierre Jacquot, had departed down the Saigon River to the South China Sea aboard a French ocean liner, bound for home.
France had fought in Vietnam to preserve its empire. America fought in Vietnam to save it from communism, but what the Americans never really understood was that the Cold War against communism and Soviet power, so important to America and its allies, was not uppermost in the minds of Vietnamese, nor in the minds of millions of others around the world. For most of the world, the struggle against colonialism was the dominant struggle of the last half of the 20th century, not communism.
The Russians were to learn this in February 1989, when General Boris Gromov led the last of the Russian troops across the Friendship Bridge out of Afghanistan and back into the Soviet Union after nine years of struggle. “In spite of our sacrifices and losses, we have totally fulfilled our internationalist duty,” he said. The regime he left behind lasted longer than the regime America left behind in Saigon, but in due course it, too, fell and with it the internationalists duty of the Soviets, and then the Soviet Union itself.
America’s even longer effort in Afghanistan collapsed in ignominy before we could get the last of our soldiers home.
The anti-colonial struggle, which so marked the last century, continues on today in Ukraine with no end in sight.
H.D.S. Greenway is a former editorial page editor of the Globe and author of “Foreign Correspondent: A Memoir” and “Loaded with Dynamite: Unintended Consequences of Woodrow Wilson’s Idealism.”