A tale of two US-Australia military disasters: Saigon and Kabul

August 27, 2021
Scaling the US Embassy wall in Saigon in 1975 and desperation at the Kabul airport in August.

On April 30, 1975, Vietnamese liberation forces entered Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, and occupied the presidential palace. It signalled the end of 30 years of bitter struggle by the Vietnamese people to rid their country of imperialist domination.

This formed part of a report I wrote for a special edition of Direct Action (DA), a socialist newspaper, that year. It marked the fall of Saigon and the final collapse of the United States-backed puppet regime in South Vietnam.

The May 2 DA front cover was: “Saigon liberated! A victory for all humanity.” I remember DA staff worked all night to prepare that special edition to send to the printer the following day.

Rallies were organised across Australia and around the world to celebrate the historic milestone: it was a victory not only for the Vietnamese people, but for the mass, international anti-war movement of the time.

As the Taliban moved into Kabul on August 15, the corporate media focussed on the similarity of the dramatic evacuation scenes at the US embassy in Saigon in 1975 and the Kabul airport.

However, the contrasts are also striking.

As I wrote in DA in 1975: “The rushed evacuation of the last US military and civilian personnel from Saigon meant the total victory of the liberation armies and was one of the most decisive and far-reaching defeats for the mighty US war machine in history.”

The Sydney Morning Herald of May 1, 1975, described the liberation forces moving into the capital like this: “Laughing, cheering communist troops entered the presidential palace, shouting ‘Hello comrade’ to bystanders and newsmen ... Traffic continued in the centre of the capital. People stopped to ask if they could move around freely and were waved on with a smile and a ‘Yes’ from the Viet Cong soldiers.”

The evidence showed that the people of Saigon overwhelmingly welcomed the liberation forces.

Even the Australian newspaper of May 1, 1975, reported: “People ran into the streets and cheered as dozens of tanks flying Viet Cong flags and loaded with communist troops started to rumble into Saigon. The Viet Cong soldiers grinned and waved to the crowds.”

The ABC's PM program on April 30, 1975, reported “an air of extraordinary friendliness. The population is strongly favorable to the occupation.”

Contrast this with the scenes of panic and violence outside Kabul airport. Widespread fear has gripped people as the reactionary Taliban again seized control. 

However, the dramatic events in Saigon and Kabul do both represent a massive defeat for US imperialism and its allies, including Australia.

Vietnamese people overwhelmingly supported the National Liberation Front for South Vietnam (NLF) and the North Vietnamese troops who had been fighting against colonialism for decades. These armed forces, headed by Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese Communist Party leadership in Hanoi, defeated the French colonialists and later the US and its allies.

The war changed the course of world history.

By contrast, the seeds of the current disaster in Afghanistan were sown by the US in the late 1970s and 1980s when it made alliances with extremist regimes in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to arm the Islamist fanatics, the predecessors of the Taliban.

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York, then-US President George Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and PM John Howard invaded Afghanistan in 2001. The false pretext was that the West had to destroy Al Qaeda, and a 20-year nightmare for the Afghan people began.

It is instructive to note that the undemocratic and corrupt regimes installed by the US in Vietnam and Afghanistan both lacked mass bases, as revealed dramatically during their final days.

As we saw, the puppet government of former president Ashraf Ghani disintegrated almost overnight with the US whisking him away to the United Arab Emirates.

The Australian’s report on the final days of the South Vietnamese regime April 25, 1975, noted “the disastrous collapse of South Vietnamese resistance amid almost incredible scenes of treachery, greed and brutality”.

“[There is a] … total breakdown of military and civilian authority in the Republic of Vietnam, running battles among fleeing soldiers and with civilians, an absolute paralysis of will on the part of then-President Nguyen Van Thieu, the large-scale treachery of the ruling Vietnamese elite and the presumed fate of 7.4 tonnes of gold worth about $30 million, as well as additional millions in hard currency reserves.”

Reports of the dissolution of the US-backed Afghan regime show former government and military officials handing over control to Taliban forces, and making their own private deals. As to the extent of the puppet regime’s corruption, the full story has yet to emerge.

The fall of Saigon was symbolic of one people determined to forge their own destiny in the world. North and South Vietnam are now united as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, despite some elements of capitalism re-emerging.  

What will happen in Afghanistan now that the US and its imperialist allies have been decisively expelled?

For two centuries, Afghanistan has been known as the “graveyard of empires” since British colonial forces suffered two bloody defeats during the 19th century.

While progressives should welcome the forced withdrawal of the US, Australian and other imperialist invaders, we need to step up solidarity with the Afghan people. This means campaigning for Australia to accept all those Afghan refugees who are forced to flee their country in the face of Taliban oppression.

It also means supporting the rights of the great majority who do not, and cannot, leave. This includes ensuring that Australia does not join any more such imperial wars in the name of fighting “terror”.

The clear lesson of Saigon in 1975 and Kabul in 2021 is that imperialist invasion and domination lead to disaster. In the latter case, it has led to the reinstallation of the tyrants the invaders purportedly went in to dislodge.

Despite their differences, Vietnam and Afghanistan show the US’ inglorious defeat. This needs to inspire progressive people to commit to work against any future US-led wars and invasions.

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