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For a Humiliated Superpower, Vietnam Shows a Path Back


Jun 18, 2012
Viet Nam
After Saigon 1975, the U.S. retooled the military, waged economic war on the Soviets, spearheaded global democracy and, eventually, won the Cold War.
Hal Brands
18 August 2021, 12:30 CEST
Things have been worse.

Things have been worse.
Suorce: APA/Getty Images

There are many questions to ask about how a 20-year war culminated in a tragic fiasco. Why did the Afghan military collapse with such astounding speed? What were the root causes of America’s failure? But the most important question looks forward: How does a global superpower recover from such a humiliating defeat?

It’s not the first time the U.S. has faced the issue. When the last helicopter departed Saigon in 1975, the U.S. left behind a similar humanitarian catastrophe and confronted similar questions about the global impact of a devastating setback. Then, America pivoted from defeat in Vietnam to victory in the Cold War a decade and a half later — a turnaround that U.S. officials might learn from today.

The parallels are not exact. The consequences of defeat were worse in Vietnam because the cost of America’s intervention there, in lives as well as domestic division, were an order of magnitude greater. The context was also different: The fall of Saigon came closer to the end than the beginning of the great-power rivalry of the day.

But other elements of Vietnam are eerily resonant: the rapid crumbling of a friendly regime, the resulting doubts about U.S. credibility and competence, and above all, the imperative of bouncing back.

The first lesson of that period is that American resurgence didn’t happen quickly: For a half-decade, Washington seemed to be in retreat almost everywhere. The Soviets took the opportunity to more aggressively support communist proxies in Angola, Ethiopia and elsewhere in the developing world. It worried America’s allies: Countries throughout Southeast Asia wondered, sometimes publicly, whether Washington’s protection was worth much anymore.

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It also demoralized America itself. During the late 1970s, the U.S. was a dazed, uncertain superpower, consumed by self-doubt. President Jimmy Carter captured the mood early in his presidency: “The Vietnamese war produced a profound moral crisis, sapping worldwide faith in our own policy and our system of life, a crisis of confidence made even more grave by the covert pessimism of some of our leaders.”

Second, recovering from Vietnam required looking beyond it. Even before the fall, President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger realized that the U.S. could compensate for setbacks in one theater with advances in others. The breakthroughs they achieved, such as the diplomatic opening to China and the initiation of detente with the Soviet Union, didn’t save South Vietnam. But they did cushion the global impact of defeat, and the opening to China helped position the U.S. for eventual success in the Cold War.

Third, failure can sometimes create unexpected opportunities. The U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam hastened a civil war within the communist world, by removing the sole remaining source of unity — opposition to the American presence. More important, the ideological exuberance that took hold in Moscow in the late 1970s eventually proved to be the Kremlin’s undoing. The Soviets racked up new, expensive commitments in Angola, Central America and Afghanistan, while their aggressive expansion finally snapped the U.S. out of its post-Vietnam daze.
But the U.S. recovery didn’t happen automatically. The most important lesson is that it took a concerted effort to revive American power.

The U.S. surged to victory in the 1980s because it invested in a retooled military that featured the nation’s technological advantages as well as aggressive new strategies for halting and punishing Soviet aggression. It undertook, especially in Afghanistan and Nicaragua, covert interventions that punished Soviet overextension by funding well-motivated insurgents that were rebelling against communist regimes. And it launched, under President Ronald Reagan’s administration, a multipronged campaign to regain momentum in the Cold War. The U.S. waged economic warfare on the Soviet Union, delegitimized it in international forums, and otherwise forced Moscow on the defensive.

Not least, the administration helped rebuild the country’s self-confidence. Whereas Carter had sometimes argued that Vietnam was a sort of punishment for America’s “inordinate fear of Communism,” Reagan highlighted the moral asymmetry between East and West and called the Soviet bloc to account for its political abuses and economic failings. Following Carter’s lead, Reagan also argued that the U.S. should put its power at the service of a democratic revolution that was starting to sweep the globe.

History won’t repeat itself precisely, but this experience is still relevant. The Pentagon is already revising its assessments of how quickly terrorist networks will reconstitute themselves in Afghanistan. American foes such as China are taunting U.S. friends that they will be the next to be abandoned. Some of those friends are surely worrying about the steadiness of American leadership. In Afghanistan as in Vietnam, Washington can’t quickly escape the mess left behind.

It can, however, keep the larger picture in mind. Defeat can have ironic effects: It could threaten China with greater instability on its Western frontier and further inflame the Islamist militancy that is threatening its Belt and Road projects in Pakistan and Central Asia. Or it could give Chinese President Xi Jinping the confidence he needs to persist in the all-purpose abrasiveness and arrogance that are slowly but surely leading to China’s containment.


Feb 24, 2021
United States
At that time, the United States did not live on borrowing. There's nothing wrong with it internally.
It's different now.

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