Vietnam then, Afghanistan now: Tense Kabul evacuation rekindles memories of another US retreat

The Taliban's inexorable advance on Kabul and US efforts to evacuate its embassy staff from the Afghanistan capital have revived memorie...

The Taliban's inexorable advance on Kabul and US efforts to evacuate its embassy staff from the Afghanistan capital have revived memories of the fall of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) and America's hasty withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975.

A photo that immortalised America's humiliation in Vietnam — it showed evacuees boarding a helicopter on the roof of a building — spread fast on social networks as the Taliban closed in on Kabul and the US bolstered its troop deployment there to oversee the evacuation of its personnel. Finally, on Sunday, the Taliban entered Kabul even as the US continued its rescue mission.

The Vietnam operation, dubbed Operation Frequent Wind, saw more than 7,000 Vietnamese civilians evacuated from Saigon on 29 and 30 April 1975 by helicopter.

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But before we get to that, let's have a brief look at the Vietnam War:

The Vietnam War, which occurred in the shadow of the rapidly intensifying Cold War, saw the communist government of North Vietnam take on South Vietnam and its ally, the United States. President John F Kennedy had already provided aid to South Vietnam, but would not commit to military intervention. Then, Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. Two years later, when South Vietnam was on shaky political ground, Kennedy's successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, made the fateful call to send troops into battle in Vietnam.

The intervention that began in July 1950 with a small military assistance and advisory group had grown to more than half a million soldiers at the height of the war in 1968. The Vietnam War continued into the presidency of Richard Nixon, who began a phased withdrawal of the 550,000 American troops from Vietnam in 1969 -- which culminated four years later on 27 January, 1973, in the signing of the Paris peace agreement between the US and North Vietnam in the ballroom of the former Majestic Hotel in Paris.

Under its terms, North Vietnam released 591 American prisoners of war and the US withdrew its last 23,000 troops.

The Fall of Saigon

A little more than two years after the signing of the Paris agreement, in March 1975, the House of Representatives rejected President Gerald Ford’s $300 million supplementary military aid bill for South Vietnam. The South Vietnamese army and government began falling apart. A ranking South Vietnamese general conceded no amount of US aid could have saved the dispirited and panicky forces.

North Vietnamese troops routed Saigon’s forces up and down the country. President Nguyen Van Thieu fled South Vietnam on 21 April, 1975. In a bitter, tearful farewell address, Thieu said the US had broken a pledge to intervene if North Vietnam violated the 1973 agreement, and had ″led the South Vietnamese people to death.″

North Vietnamese forces surrounded Saigon, and on Tuesday, 29 April, 1975, rained rockets and artillery shells relentlessly onto Tan Son Nhut Air Base. Marine corporals Charles McMahon Jr., 21, of Woburn, Mass., and Darwin Judge, 19, of Marshalltown, Iowa, stood guard when the first rounds hit.and were the last Americans to die in Vietnam.

The attack forced a panic-stricken evacuation of the US Embassy and the remaining Americans.

The New York Times' banner headline read: "US WITHDRAWING AMERICANS FROM SAIGON BY HELICOPTER UNDER MARINE PROTECTION; VIETCONG ATTACK ON AIRPORT FORCES MOVE

Operation Frequent Wind

As the state department website recounts, approximately 5,000 Americans including diplomats were still working in the US embassy in Saigon.

It was US Ambassador Graham Martin who ordered the evacuation of Saigon. The Armed Forces Radio began playing “White Christmas” on repeat to signal to Americans that the evacuation had begun.

Now, sea lanes were blocked and planes could not land in Saigon, leaving only one option for an evacuation: a helicopter airlift.

After the defence attaché compound was attacked, the US embassy became the sole departure point for helicopters. The original plans called to only evacuate Americans, but Ambassador Martin insisted on evacuating South Vietnamese government officials and the embassy’s local staff.

Meanwhile, 10,000 South Vietnamese waited at the embassy gates, hoping to make it onto a helicopter.

From 29 to 30 April, helicopters landed at 10-minute intervals in the embassy, including landing on the embassy roof. With some pilots flying for 19 hours straight, over 7,000 people were evacuated, including 5,500 Vietnamese, in less than 24 hours.

On Wednesday, 30 April, 1975, US Marines fired a red smoke grenade to guide a CH-46 helicopter to a landing on the roof of the embassy. Eleven Marines, the rear guard, scrambled aboard and were airborne within four minutes. They were the last Americans out. A few hours later, South Vietnam surrendered unconditionally.

The Americans were gone.

 

Saigon is now called Ho Chi Minh City and 30 April is a public holiday called “Reunification Day” in Vietnam.

Ironically, President Joe Biden in July, when asked about any parallels between Afghanistan and what happened in Saigon, said: “None whatsoever. Zero. What you had is — you had entire brigades breaking through the gates of our embassy — six, if I’m not mistaken.”

Biden continued: “The Taliban is not the North Vietnamese army. They’re not remotely comparable in terms of capability. There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of [the US] embassy from Afghanistan.”

'That is how the Vietnam War ended for me today'

Peter Arnett, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1966 for his coverage of the Vietnam War for The Associated Press and later gained fame as a correspondent for CNN, in his memoir, Saigon Has Fallen, describes the end of the day thus: "I start punching a telex tape and it winds to the floor as I write. I feed the tape into the transmitter and it chugs its way through the machine. “In 13 years of covering the Vietnam War I never dreamed it would end as it did at noon today. I thought it might end with a political deal like in Laos. Even an Armageddon-type battle with the city left in ruins. But a total surrender followed a short two hours later with a cordial meeting in the AP office in Saigon with an armed and battle-garbed North Vietnamese officer with his aide—and over a warm Coke and stale pound cake at that? That is how the Vietnam War ended for me today.”

“The tape stops running. I punch a few keys but the machine just coughs a couple of times. I try the key again, no response. The AP wire from Saigon to New York is down—and out. The new authorities have finally pulled the plug.”

“I call out to Esper, “That’s it, George. It’s over.””

With input from agencies

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