Joe Biden’s Vietnam, Then and Now

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George W. Bush

and

Joe Biden

are contemporaries, born just four years apart. They both came of age during the Vietnam War. But as commanders in chief, the two would draw very different conclusions from Vietnam. These differences were most recently underscored by Mr. Biden’s decision to conclude the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan and bring the troops home.

Mr. Bush, who has mostly steered clear of politics since leaving office, publicly called Mr. Biden’s move “a mistake.” Though he didn’t invoke Vietnam, he did wonder aloud about the consequences for Afghan women and the friends America would be leaving behind. “They’re just going to be left behind to be slaughtered by these very brutal people, and it breaks my heart.”

 President Biden betrays no such qualms.

“The Taliban is not the North Vietnamese Army,” he says. “There’s going to be no circumstance where you’ll see people being lifted off the roof of an Embassy of the United States from Afghanistan.”

Mr. Biden’s words about embassy rooftops bring back memories of a similar reference from Mr. Bush back when I served as his chief speechwriter, a time (pre-surge) when many had written Iraq off as hopeless and wanted our troops out at almost any cost. But where Mr. Biden meant these words as reassurance, Mr. Bush expressed them as resolve. “Billy,” he told me, “we are not going to abandon the people of Iraq the way we abandoned the people of Vietnam, from the rooftop of an embassy.”

In the summer of 2007 he expanded on his thinking in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars about the blossoming of prosperity and democracy in Asia midwifed by the postwar U.S. presence in the region. Vietnam, he noted, was a sad exception. “One unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America’s withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like ‘boat people,’ ‘re-education camps,’ and ‘killing fields.’ ”

What Mr. Bush understood is that when that last U.S. helicopter took off from Saigon, we didn’t just leave behind people counting on us. We left behind a good chunk of American confidence and credibility—and a strategically weaker United States.

None of the Vietnam parallels are comforting for what we are seeing today. Just as the Nixon administration excluded our South Vietnamese allies from the 1973 peace deal that preceded Saigon’s collapse, the Trump administration excluded the Afghan government from its talks with the Taliban that led to last year’s withdrawal agreement. Just as Nixon assured South Vietnamese President

Nguyen van Thieu

—in writing—that the U.S. would “take swift and severe retaliatory action” and “respond with full force” if North Vietnam violated the Paris cease-fire accords, President Biden says “our support for the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces will endure.”

The Taliban and al Qaeda are keenly aware of Vietnam, and have often invoked it to suggest victory would ultimately be theirs because Americans do not have the stomach for the long haul. A Taliban statement from 2013 summed up the U.S. this way: “They want to flee from Afghanistan just as they turned tail and ran from Vietnam.”

The irony of bugging out now is that the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan is modest—down to roughly 2,500 troops. Compare this with Germany, where we have nearly 34,500 troops eight decades after defeating Hitler and three decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Another 80,000 are split between Japan and South Korea.

Back in 1972, North Vietnam launched an offensive into the South that was obliterated by U.S. air power. But in 1973 Congress passed an amendment prohibiting further use of U.S. military force in South Vietnam. So when Hanoi launched a new spring offensive in 1975, there was nothing to stop it—and on April 30 the Communist flag was raised over Saigon’s presidential palace.

Now we have deprived those fighting the Taliban of the same advantage the South Vietnamese had once enjoyed: U.S. air support. Does anyone remember what happened the last time America decided it doesn’t really matter what goes on in the back hills of Afghanistan?

Given that Mr. Bush is almost as unpopular on the Republican right as he is on the Democratic left these days, President Biden will not likely lose any sleep over his criticism. He might even welcome it as a political plus, accentuating his position as the president ending what he calls “the forever war.”

So 20 years after one Vietnam-generation president took us into Afghanistan, another is taking us out. It’s not the first time for Mr. Biden. Those who remember the fall of Saigon will recall that a young Sen. Biden voted in 1975 to deny the last bit of aid sought by President

Gerald Ford

for the increasingly desperate government of South Vietnam, which found out the hard way the assurances they had been given meant nothing. Today Mr. Biden boasts to the world that “America is back.” But to vulnerable Afghans facing down the Taliban, America is gone.

Write to mcgurn@wsj.com.

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