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opinion | H.D.S. Greenway

The unlearned lessons of Vietnam

A US helicopter is boarded in 1975 in a scene from “Last Days of Vietnam.”Bettmann/Corbis / AP Images/Corbis / AP Images

FEAR IS contagious. Forty years ago, and half a world away, a great panic the likes of which I have never seen before or since took over the country where I lived: Vietnam. The American-equipped and American-trained army was simply melting away before the less well-equipped but better motivated North Vietnamese onslaught sweeping south. Some South Vietnamese soldiers stood and fought, but most just dissolved without fighting back.

When the final American evacuation of Saigon came on April 29, after 30 years of the United States backing first the French colonialists and then the Republic of South Vietnam, fear raced through the city like an Ebola outbreak. Thousands of terrified Vietnamese came to the American embassy, pleading and crying to be let in. Marines beat back those who tried to scale the walls.


As our helicopter rose from the embassy compound in the gathering dusk, I could see more panic below in the rain-washed streets of Saigon, with people milling about or trying to force their way on to boats on the waterfront — anything to get away.

Out in the South China Sea, an American fleet was waiting for us. Vietnamese helicopters, like butterflies borne on an offshore wind, landed briefly and were thrown overboard to make room for more. All about us, hopelessly overfilled boats packed with fleeing Vietnamese drifted like flotsam and jetsam after a gigantic shipwreck.

Last summer I remembered that collapse as a similarly equipped and American-trained army in Iraq melted away before a better motivated and far more brutal foe.

There are threads linking the Vietnam disaster with our more recent military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ten years ago I went to see General Martin Dempsey in Baghdad. Dempsey is now chairman of the joint chiefs, but back then he was in charge of training the Iraqi army. He and his staff told me it was comparatively easy to train an army to fight. But only the Iraqis themselves could instill motivation. No amount of foreigner advisers could do that.


Five years ago I went to see the Russian ambassador to Afghanistan. As a younger man he had been in Kabul during the Russian occupation. “You are making the same mistakes as we did,” he told me. “We really thought we were coming to help the Afghans,” to save them from Islamic extremism. The Russians thought that an Afghan, if given a choice, would want to be a communist. And some did. You Americans, he said, think that an Afghan would want to be an American. And some do. But the purple ink on an Afghan’s finger, to show he had voted, was not going to be the answer to 1,000 years of ethnic and tribal rivalry.

Another thread connecting all three conflicts is our desire to mold societies into our image, too often by military force. The Spanish said they wanted to save souls for the Catholic faith when they conquered other lands. The British and French had their civilizing missions. The Russians had communism. For Americans, it has been promotion of democracy. But as Henry Kissinger wrote about American values in the Iraq context: “To seek to achieve them by military occupation in a part of the world where they had no historical roots . . . proved beyond what the American public would support and what Iraqi society could accommodate.”


The unlearned lessons of Vietnam are that, in the post-colonial age, military intervention and occupation is hard to maintain both at home and abroad. If intervention is deemed necessary, better to go about it as did George H.W. Bush in the first Gulf War. Go in quickly. Get the job done, and leave. You can help, support, and arm foreign clients, but in the end it is their fight, not yours. Be aware that military interventions have unintended consequences and can do more harm than good. Export American values by example, not by bayonets. And better not to think about nation-building unless you are prepared to extend blood and treasure for 30 years, and even then it might not work.

H.D.S. Greenway is a former editorial page editor of the Globe.


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