“They were careless people.” Thus did F. Scott Fitzgerald memorably describe Tom and Daisy Buchanan in “The Great Gatsby.” “They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness,” letting others “clean up the mess they had made.”
Nearly a half-century ago, after smashing up things and creatures in South Vietnam, the United States engaged in a comparable retreat. It does so again today in Afghanistan.
President Joe Biden promises that “there’s going to be no circumstance for you to see people being lifted off the roof” of the US embassy in Kabul. Maybe not. But the similarities between the debacle that culminated atop the US embassy in Saigon in 1975 and the one unfolding before our very eyes demand thoughtful attention.
In life, walking away from the mess you’ve made makes a recurrence more likely. Acknowledging the mess makes learning at least a possibility. Americans learned next to nothing from Vietnam. Might we do better this time?
Recall that a mere five years after the fall of Saigon, Americans elected a president who declared that the Vietnam War had been a “noble cause.” For the United States and for the South Vietnamese, the American war in Vietnam had actually been an unmitigated catastrophe. Ronald Reagan gave his fellow citizens permission to pretend otherwise. And so, shielded by our money and indulging in our own vast carelessness, we did.
Apart from a somber memorial on the National Mall in Washington, the substantive legacy of Vietnam reduced to two items, one temporary and one enduring. For a brief interval after the fall of Saigon, the United States hesitated to intervene abroad. This was the so-called Vietnam Syndrome. With more lasting effect, Vietnam prompted Americans to abandon their traditional reliance on citizen-soldiers in favor of an all-volunteer force of dutiful professionals.
Once the Cold War ended, with elites developing a pronounced appetite for putting American military might to work, the Vietnam Syndrome became an impediment. The all-volunteer force provided a readily available means for satisfying that appetite.
As a consequence, once Ronald Reagan left office, military supremacy and military activism became signatures of American statecraft. Panama, Kuwait, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, plus the sundry nations targeted for US airstrikes: Even before 9/11, the list of places that the United States invaded or attacked was becoming a long one. Once the United States embarked upon its misguided global war on terror, the list became longer still.
Consigned to the role of spectators rather than participants, ordinary citizens happily played along. Or at the least, few found any reason to object. To the extent that the Vietnam-era antiwar movement survived, it did so on life support.
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Andrew J. Bacevich is the President of the Quincy Institute. He is Professor Emeritus of International Relations and History at Boston University. He graduated from West Point and Princeton, served in the army, became an academic, and is now a writer. He is the author, co-author, or editor of more than a dozen books.