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From Saigon to Kabul : Biden’s response to Vietnam echoes in his views of Afghanistan withdrawal

By Annie Linskey

Authorized U.S. military and civilian personnel rush to board a Marine helicopter during the evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, April 29, 1975. (Neal Ulevich/AP)

Two weeks before Saigon fell in April 1975, a 32-year-old Joe Biden was among the senators summoned to the White House for a top-secret briefing on the crisis in Vietnam.

Though just a freshman, Biden gave the president a clear message: The situation in Vietnam was hopeless, and the United States should leave as quickly as possible, according to a column by Rowland Evans and Robert Novak at the time that described Biden’s interactions with then-President Gerald Ford.

Other senators who supported Biden at the time were taken aback by their young colleague’s “didactic performance,” the columnists wrote.

Nearly half a century later, Biden’s attitude toward the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan has been strikingly similar — even as events echo the frantic evacuation of Americans and those who helped them in South Vietnam.

Just as the Viet Cong captured city after city with momentum that surprised American war planners, Kabul came under siege this weekend after lightning-fast advances by insurgent Taliban fighters.

A U.S. Chinook helicopter flies over the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021. (Rahmat Gul/AP)

Images on Sunday of helicopters shuttling officials from the former U.S. Embassy complex to the city’s main airport recalled the panicked evacuation of Americans from Saigon and the long lines of Vietnamese hoping to find a way out.

Today’s questions about the fate of U.S. citizens, military and locals who have supported the effort as the U.S.-backed government collapses were also key issues in the final days before the fall of Saigon.

And Biden’s response has been remarkably consistent.

Then, as now, Biden was unmoved by arguments made by the military that more time and money could change the on-the-ground dynamics or at least delay the outcome. Then, as now, he has questioned the utility of continuing a conflict that he deems to be lost. And then, as now, he was willing to increase U.S. aid only as a way to provide security for a withdrawal.

On the other hand, Biden’s overall approach to military intervention has swung widely over the course of his long career in Washington. Biden didn’t support the first U.S. conflict with Iraq but did support the second one, only to later say he regretted that vote. He at times called for more troops in Afghanistan but later argued against adding them.

A decade ago, Biden suggested that a withdrawal from Afghanistan that left allies feeling betrayed was a reasonable outcome, drawing a comparison to the end of Vietnam.

In a private conversation with Richard Holbrooke, who was President Barack Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Biden argued that the United States does not have an obligation to Afghans who trusted the United States, according to “Our Man,” a biography of Holbrooke by George Packer.

President Biden boards Marine One at Fort McNair before departing for Wilmington, Del., in Washington, U.S., August 12, 2021. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

“We don’t have to worry about that,” Biden told Holbrooke, according to the book. “We did it in Vietnam. Nixon and Kissinger got away with it,” he said, referring to President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, who was secretary of state to Nixon and Ford.

In the same conversation, Biden also reportedly pushed back on the argument that America had a moral obligation to women in Afghanistan.

“I am not sending my boy back there to risk his life on behalf of women’s rights!” Biden said, according the book’s account. “It just won’t work — that’s not what they’re there for.”

Biden took a similarly realpolitik view of Southeast Asia.

“I may be the most immoral son of a gun in this room,” Biden said at a Democratic caucus in early 1975 as he argued against aid to Cambodia, according to the Wilmington Morning News. “I’m getting sick and tired of hearing about morality, our moral obligation. There’s a point where you are incapable of meeting moral obligations that exist worldwide.”

In early 1975, Biden had initially agreed to go on a congressional fact-finding mission to South Vietnam.

The trip’s organizers wanted to make a case that additional U.S. aid would be helpful, and Biden was criticized by some conservative pundits for being too set in his views.

Biden, they complained, was clear that he wanted U.S. military aid ended no matter what he might see on the ground. They noted that he had said of the trip that he “can’t imagine what could change my mind, unless it were proof of Communist reprisals against South Vietnamese after a military collapse.” He quickly added: “I question that I would even then.” (The trip was canceled after a number of lawmakers begged off, according to news reports.)

Three weeks before the fall of Saigon, top Ford administration officials pleaded with Biden and other senators for more U.S. military aid, according to newspaper accounts.

In a closed-door briefing, top officials at the State and Defense departments told Biden and other senators on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the South Vietnamese army had “a chance” to defend Saigon and the Mekong Delta area with more U.S. military aid, the newspaper accounts said.

“I am convinced there is absolutely no chance,” Biden told reporters after the briefing, according to an article in the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

But Biden was willing to spend tax dollars on a narrowly tailored effort to extract Americans.

Days before Saigon fell, the Senate approved a measure authorizing Ford to use tens of millions of dollars to aid with an evacuation.

“It is merely a ransom,” Biden said, joining with other senators who opposed military aid to Vietnam but backed the emergency funding out of a worry that some of the South Vietnamese would be angry about being deserted by their ally and would need to be “bought off” to allow Americans to safely depart, according to news accounts at the time.

When Saigon did fall, Biden was reflective and struck a tone of hope.

“We now seem to be finally out of Vietnam,” Biden said to the Seattle Daily Times. “It seems to me we’ve learned an important lesson about careless military involvement abroad.”

Alice Crites contributed to this report.

(Sources : washingtonpost.com)


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