If you were to stop a Roman around the year 117 A.D. and ask about the future of the empire, he/she would probably boast that they were the greatest empire in the history of the world, and the Roman Empire would last forever. In 117 it would be hard to see it any other way. The Romans were on top of the world. Yet starting around the 200s, serious infighting began hurting their power from within. By the end of the 300s, they had spread themselves too thin, spent too much money, leaders were corrupt, and they began to lose battles to traditionally lesser foes. By the end of the 400s, Rome was no more.
While the high-water mark of the Roman Empire was 117, I am now wondering if the American high-water mark was 1945. In 116 the Romans had just conquered Parthia, marking their furthermost expansion. For the U.S., 1945 marked America’s greatest victory, but in some ways its last. In 1945 the U.S. completely defeated the “empires” of Germany, Japan, and Italy. Over the next 76 years, America engaged in four major wars. In two of the wars, Korea and the Gulf War, the U.S. repulsed a foreign invader from an ally’s country, but did not defeat the enemy itself. In both circumstances, the government claimed all out-defeat was never part of the plan. In the other two wars, Vietnam and now the War on Terror against Iraq and Afghanistan, America lost.
I am not commenting on whether we should have pulled out of Afghanistan. Each person should make their own decision, but I would like to give some historical perspective and maybe offer a thought. Historically speaking, it is not that we lost a war that is bothering some. It’s that we went 8-0 before 1945 and now have lost two conflicts within two generations.
It is also the way we exited both losses. I was too young to remember the fall of Saigon. I was not even a year old, but now, having taught this many times and showing numerous videos, the images are permanently ingrained in my mind. The day was April 28, 1975, and suddenly the North Vietnamese army was entering Saigon. They were at the airport making it impossible to land any American planes. The song “White Christmas” began playing over the radio, which was the signal for all Americans to pull out. News crews captured the thousands of Vietnamese surrounding the embassy, trying to get on board the helicopters that were pulling out Americans. Many of these had worked with the U.S. and knew their fate if they were left behind. The video shows American journalists climbing the gate and being pulled over while Marines were keeping the rest at bay. Helicopters were also landing on rooftops nearby and pulling out more Americans and some Vietnamese. Desperate, the ones left behind grabbed hold of the choppers as they took off, risking their lives but knowing they were dead either way. The helicopters flew everyone to ships waiting for them but also had to make rooms for the scores of people taking boats to the ships for safe passage. Even the South Vietnamese army was flying its own helicopters over to the ships. The naval crews had to push choppers off the runways into the ocean to make room. It was not a good look for America.
Even though Secretary of State Antony Blinken said there is no comparison, watching the scene unfold a few days ago In Afghanistan had to bring back images of Saigon for anyone who remembers it. The optic I will always remember is the image of someone falling from a plane after they had grabbed on during takeoff. As with the Vietnamese, the Afghans were desperate to leave, knowing those who had aided the Americans or had ever stood up or spoken out against the Taliban were likely to suffer a horrible fate.
Here is what history has taught us. The final scenes of Vietnam did not really hurt President Ford. Most Americans had already grown weary of the war and it had already been declared over. Pardoning Nixon and draft dodgers did much more to hurt Ford than the fall of Saigon and, even then, he only lost to Carter by two percentage points. Remember: Trump campaigned on pulling out of Afghanistan and it seems most Americans agreed it was time to leave, though not the way it happened.
The larger effect of Vietnam was that it scarred a generation and hurt the American government’s credibility with other nations and its own people. The term “credibility gap” was coined by journalists during the war for Americans distrusting their government for the first time. What the American people were being told about the Vietnam war and what they saw themselves was not adding up. On July 8, President Biden said, “The Taliban is not the south—the North Vietnamese army. They’re not—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 an embassy in the—of the United States from Afghanistan. It is not at all comparable.” Compare that statement to many statements of President Johnson, such as one from 1964, “We are not about to send American boys 9 or 10 thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.”
Twice now we have invaded a nation with the promise of freedom. Both times we have left people behind who believed us and worked with us for that goal. Again, I am not saying we should not have left. America spent twenty years in Afghanistan. I am just saying it will become harder for others in the future to believe us.
What I most fear is that America may have lost its place, I hope not. We are still a powerful nation, but so was Rome. It was not the battlefield that hurt Rome as much as what was going on back home. The battlefield losses were just representative of the larger problems. The same can possibly be said for us. Our soldiers did not lose this war, they performed their duties with courage and effectiveness. What is hurting us is back home. Everything, even war, becomes a political issue and it seems impossible to find common ground. Not to mention our leaders seem inept or corrupt, not sure what one is worse. Vietnam is a stain on our history, and the way we left Afghanistan puts the fall of Kabul right next to Saigon. Yet just as disconcerting as this failure was, like with Rome, the real failures are not on the battlefield but by the way our leaders are acting at home.
Dr. James Finck is a Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. To receive daily historical posts, follow Historically Speaking at Historicallyspeaking.blog or on Facebook.