The similarity of the page-one images is haunting: the fat, Chinook helicopter lifting diplomats and escapees above the vast United States compound in Kabul this morning, August 16, 2021; and the famous, April 28, 1975, photo of Vietnamese evacuees clambering up a spindly ladder to an Air America helicopter atop an apartment building a short distance from the U.S. Embassy in Saigon.
The two experiences are different, of course, but both images symbolize the climatic end to a costly, misguided American adventure abroad. Both raise the same troubling question: “Will we ever learn?”
Lord knows we have been warned, first by Rudyard Kipling about Afghanistan, “the graveyard of empires,” and in 1968, by Prince Norodom Sihanouk, then the leader of Cambodia, talking about the folly of the U.S. effort to prop up the crumbling government of South Vietnam.
In an interview I conducted with Sihanouk in Phnom Penh and published in The New York Times on November 17, 1968, the Prince forecast: “You will be forced to take your troops and leave Vietnam. You cannot block the majority will. You cannot stop the reunification and yes, the communization of Vietnam. The majority of the people want to be with Ho Chi Minh and there is nothing you can do about it. You would be wise to withdraw and let the Vietnamese settle their own problems themselves.” It took seven more years, billions of U.S. dollars and countless American and Vietnamese lives before the American effort collapsed, but every word Sihanouk said that day in 1968 proved true.
This account is included in my forthcoming memoir, “Four Wars, Five Presidents, A Reporter’s Journey from Jerusalem to Saigon to the White House,” to be published by Rowman and Littlefield on Oct. 15, 2021. The link to pre-order the book follows: