Forty-four years ago today a photographer snapped one of the most iconic — and saddest — photos in this holy land’s long history.
It was on this date in 1975 that America lost its first war. The evacuation of the US embassy in Saigon played out as the advancing armies of North Vietnam and the Viet Cong poured into the city. North and South Vietnam would be unified under a communist government and Saigon would be renamed Ho Chi Minh City.
More than 50,000 United States soldiers died in the war — which, BTW, technically was not a war at all but a “police action.” Lots of references like to call it an “undeclared war.” Estimates of civilian dead range from 625,000 to 2,000,000. The total number of military deaths on both sides has been estimated between 334,000 and 392,000. Some 1,340,000 combatants from the US, South Vietnam, and North Vietnam were wounded. Overall, anywhere from 1.3 million to 4.2 million people lost their lives in the battle for Vietnam and the associated civil wars in Cambodia and Laos.
None of the millions killed or injured would give a shit that it was an undeclared war. They’re just as dead as if the war had been official.
Four presidents gave us Vietnam. Dwight Eisenhower authorized the granting of billions of US dollars to the French for that country’s obviously doomed fight against a grass roots insurgency in the 1950s. Once the French got wise and high-tailed it out of Southeast Asia, the Eisenhower administration began showering a corrupt and unpopular South Vietnamese rump government with American dough. John F. Kennedy, early on in his term, sent “military advisors” to South Vietnam. Lyndon Baines Johnson used the excuse of two probably false and possibly staged attacks on US warships in the Gulf of Tonkin to plunge this country into an 11-year-long bloody quagmire. Richard M. Nixon and his consigliere, Henry Kissinger, ordered the dropping of millions of tons of bombs on the North, threatened to use nuclear weapons, and considered bombing North Vietnamese dikes which would have caused massive flooding killing millions more civilians.
The quagmire ended the day this photo was taken:
That line of people climbing the ladder up to the Marine helicopter? The last American civilians and many South Vietnamese citizens desperate to get out of the fallen capital.
The United States in the immediate aftermath of World War II was seen around the world as a beacon for democracy and a bulwark against tyranny. A mere 20 years later the United States of America had pissed away that reputation and whatever goodwill remained among the nations of this planet. It had become, instead, a crushing empire.
In case you were wondering, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, or Cộng hòa xã hội chủ nghĩa Việt Nam, the nightmare four presidents said would result if we didn’t send our young soldiers off to die there, is now a good friend of the United States, a valued trading partner, the manufacturer of much of our nation’s consumer goods, and a popular tourist destination for Americans.
As Edwin Starr sang in a 1970 pop hit: War / What is it good for? / Absolutely nothin’.