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Monday, September 20, 2021

Explained: 46 years ago, another US exit and the fall of Saigon

When Saigon fell, TV and the next morning’s newspapers showed large groups of Americans, soldiers and civilians on the roof of the US Embassy, waiting to be rescued by military helicopters.

Written by Om Marathe | New Delhi |
Updated: August 20, 2021 10:16:34 am
Taliban fighters patrol inside the city of Kandahar province southwest, of Afghanistan, Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021. (AP Photo: Sidiqullah Khan)

On social media, the Taliban’s march to Kabul is being likened to the ‘fall of Saigon’ — a reference to 1975 when the capital of US-backed South Vietnam fell to Communist-ruled North Vietnam two years after the withdrawal of US military presence of 19 years.

Saigon’s capture on April 30, 1975 (it was later renamed Ho Chi Minh City) signalled the end of the Vietnam War, and the Communists consolidated their hold over the entire country in the next few months — just as security analysts fear the Taliban would do in Afghanistan in the near future.

What happened in the Vietnam War leading to the fall of Saigon?

The Vietnam War (1954-75) left 58,000 Americans and 2,50,000 Vietnamese dead, and ended with the US being thrown out of the country. From 1954, when North Vietnam’s General Vo Nguyen Giap defeated French colonial troops at Dien Bien Phu, the war raged for 21 years until Giap defeated the Americans and the South Vietnamese at Saigon.

When Saigon fell, TV and the next morning’s newspapers showed large groups of Americans, soldiers and civilians on the roof of the US Embassy, waiting to be rescued by military helicopters. As each US helicopter was overfilled and rose a few feet, dozens clung to its skids and jumped down on aircraft carriers before the helicopter could land.

That very day, four hours after a US helicopter evacuated the last of a dozen Americans, the National Liberation Front (the Communists) captured the city. Saigon surrendered unconditionally, ending 120 years of foreign occupation.

What position did India take?

Then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi congratulated the North on its victory.

The Indian Express reported at the time: “In a veiled criticism of the foreign policy attitudes associated with Dr Henry Kissinger, Indira Gandhi said that the balance of power model certainly did not provide an answer. The idea that four or five or six great powers interacting among themselves could preserve peace in the world was an extension of the ideas developed in Europe in the 19th century. The world has become extremely complex.”

Indira Gandhi’s statement reflected what had been India’s position on Vietnam since she had become Prime Minister nine years earlier. In 1966, when she went on a state visit to the US, she refused to tell President Lyndon Johnson that India “shared America’s agony over Vietnam” — as had been the wish of her top advisors. “All she was prepared to say to LBJ was: ‘India understands your agony’,” the late journalist Inder Malhotra wrote in a 2015 column in this paper.

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