Analysis

Is Biden Haunted by Vietnam? Should He Be?

The president said this withdrawal will be nothing like what happened in 1975, but there are some striking parallels.

By , a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy.
The CIA helps Vietnamese evacuees.
A CIA employee helps Vietnamese evacuees onto a helicopter from the top of 22 Gia Long Street, a half mile from the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, on April 29, 1975. Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

When U.S. President Joe Biden was asked at a news conference on Thursday whether there was any comparison between his withdrawal from Afghanistan and the United States’ humiliating retreat from Vietnam a half century ago, his response was unequivocal: “None whatsoever. Zero.”

The president went on to say that in the early 1970s, as the Vietnam War was grinding to a close, North Vietnam’s forces were far more powerful than the Taliban are today. “They’re not remotely comparable in terms of capability,” he said. “There’s going to be no circumstance when you’re going to see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States from Afghanistan.”

When U.S. President Joe Biden was asked at a news conference on Thursday whether there was any comparison between his withdrawal from Afghanistan and the United States’ humiliating retreat from Vietnam a half century ago, his response was unequivocal: “None whatsoever. Zero.”

The president went on to say that in the early 1970s, as the Vietnam War was grinding to a close, North Vietnam’s forces were far more powerful than the Taliban are today. “They’re not remotely comparable in terms of capability,” he said. “There’s going to be no circumstance when you’re going to see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States from Afghanistan.”

The U.S.-supported Afghan security forces, he added, are 300,000 people strong and are “as well-equipped as any army in the world.” And with an air force against “something like 75,000 Taliban,” he added, “it is not inevitable” that the Afghan government will collapse as the South Vietnamese government did.

Biden is well-steeped in the history of the Vietnam War. As a young senator in 1975, he voted against any aid for the collapsing South Vietnamese government. But in contrast to the swift unraveling of South Vietnam, many experts expect a drawn-out civil war in Afghanistan, one that will likely not be conclusive for at least several years. Even if the Taliban do effectively take over the country, the president is no doubt hoping that by then, the war will have retreated from the headlines and he will have won reelection in 2024.

Still, has Biden been too quick to dismiss the comparison to Vietnam? Despite being better equipped than the Taliban, the demoralized Afghan national forces have given up large tracts of the country in the nearly three months since Biden announced his withdrawal decision. And if the bloodshed in Afghanistan intensifies after the final U.S. withdrawal on Aug. 31—as nearly every observer expects—“Biden’s Vietnam” could easily become a catchphrase ahead of 2024 or even during the 2022 midterms as Republicans look for weak spots in the president’s armor. 

Even today, many conservative commentators believe the United States’ precipitous withdrawal from Vietnam caused the country to lose its first war ever, and it’s that attack line that could come to haunt Biden. At a House Armed Services Committee hearing in May, Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat, said the Afghan withdrawal bore “some eerie resemblances” to Vietnam. “It seems the American game is to cut its losses and leave and hope for the best—not our problem,” he said.

Biden strenuously disagreed on Thursday, saying he reassured Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at their White House summit late last month that the United States would provide substantial aid and “over-the-horizon” military capability (meaning force not originating from within Afghanistan, most likely drones and other types of air strikes). “I want to make clear what I made clear to Ghani: that we are not going to just walk away and not sustain their ability to maintain that force. We are,” Biden said.

Some long-time Biden aides said he was never overly bothered by his Vietnam vote in 1975. “I don’t recall Biden ever referring back to Vietnam (at least with me) in discussing Afghanistan,” Jonah Blank, who was Biden’s Afghanistan advisor when the Delaware Democrat was chairperson of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote in an email. “The focus was always on counterterrorism, and what could be done to create an environment where Afghanistan was able to be self-sufficient in security, and the government could assume responsibility for [counterterrorism] tasks on its own. Vietnam wasn’t really his framing for this.” Another long-time Senate aide, Michael Haltzel, agreed. “Both on domestic and foreign-policy votes, especially when traveling, he would sometimes talk about votes he might have done differently. I really don’t remember him bringing that one up,” Haltzel said.

A transcript of an April 14, 1975, meeting with U.S. President Gerald Ford and other senators in the Oval Office shows Biden, then a 32-year-old freshman senator, was resistant to any continued involvement in Vietnam, and he didn’t even want to approve money that would help get the United States’ former South Vietnamese allies out of the country. “I am not sure I can vote for an amount to put American troops in for one to six months to get the Vietnamese out,” he said. “I will vote for any amount for getting the Americans out. I don’t want it mixed with getting the Vietnamese out.” On April 25, 1975, Biden voted to oppose the Vietnam Contingency Act of 1975, which would have sent emergency relief funds to South Vietnam to be used partly for evacuation. (A month later, however, Biden did vote in favor of a non-binding resolution “expressing the sense of the Senate to welcome to the U.S. the latest refugees from South Vietnam and Cambodia,” and he later supported resettlement in the United States.)

Conservatives have criticized Biden for his voting record on Vietnam. In his 2018 book When the Center Held: Gerald Ford and the Rescue of the American Presidency, Donald Rumsfeld—who, in April 1975, was Ford’s White House chief of staff—singled out Biden as one of the senators who prevented the president from fulfilling his “moral responsibility to help refugees fleeing persecution.”

Former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, interviewed on NPR in 2014, also called Biden’s Vietnam vote a breach of trust, saying it was one reason why he wrote in his autobiography, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, that Biden had “been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”

“The vice president, when he was a senator—a very new senator—voted against the aid package for South Vietnam, and that was part of the deal when we pulled out of South Vietnam to try and help them survive,” Gates said

This time, however, Biden supports helping the United States’ Afghan allies leave the country if they want. The United States, he said, will work to “physically relocate thousands of Afghans and their families before the U.S. military mission concludes so that, if they choose, they can wait safely outside of Afghanistan while their U.S. visas are being processed. … There is a home for you in the United States if you so choose, and we will stand with you just as you stood with us.” (This is far from a done deal: Although Biden announced on Thursday the United States would begin evacuation flights for Afghan special visa applicants as soon as this month, the U.S. Defense Department is still working to identify host countries for 18,000 translators and their families, who still face yearslong backlogs.)

Biden added that “the likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.” 

Other observers, such as former Pakistani Ambassador to the U.S. Husain Haqqani, agree that resistance to the Taliban inside Afghanistan remains much stronger than the residual force that existed against the North Vietnamese communists a half century ago. “The Taliban took over only after the Soviet Union collapsed and stopped sending funds to the Kabul government. And the Northern Alliance fought the Taliban for many years. … There is a demographic reality of about 40-to-45 percent non-Pashtun groups who do not like the Taliban.” In Afghanistan, Pashtun ethnic communities maintain a large plurality, but other parts of the country—in particular the Tajiks that made up the Northern Alliance in the north—continue to oppose them. As Biden said Thursday, “Never has Afghanistan been a united country, not in all of its history.” 

Even so, former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker, among other critics of the Biden withdrawal plan, said by leaving so precipitously, the United States is surrendering most of its useful intelligence about the country—the same country that hosted al Qaeda before 9/11. Biden’s own CIA director, William Burns, testified in April that the United States’ ability to act against extremist threats that arise in Afghanistan will decline significantly when U.S. forces leave. “When the time comes for the U.S. military to withdraw, the U.S. government’s ability to collect and act on threats will diminish. That’s simply a fact,” Burns said.

Crocker and other critics also believe Biden’s framework deal with the Taliban bears uncomfortable similarities to what the Nixon administration did in sidelining the South Vietnamese government in the Paris Peace Accords with North Vietnam. Just as former U.S. President Richard Nixon did with the Saigon government, the Americans negotiated solely with the enemy in Afghanistan and gave little but lip service to the Afghan government. (In a private letter in 1972, Nixon warned then-South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu that his refusal to sign the negotiated peace agreement with the north would make continued U.S. support for South Vietnam impossible. That blunt sentiment was echoed in a letter U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken sent to Ghani in March laying out conditions he needed to follow and insisting Ghani share power with the Taliban in a “new, inclusive” government.)

Crocker said what the Trump administration began and what Biden endorsed is a betrayal of the democratically elected—if somewhat discredited—Afghan government Washington once supported as the country’s legitimate authority. “Biden out-trumped Trump,” Crocker said in an interview. “I will bet you that’s the last time President Ghani will see President Biden.”

“You don’t want to carry the Vietnam comparison too far,” Crocker added. “I don’t expect there’s going to be an immediate and total collapse. The Afghan security forces have shown an amazing tenacity in spite of awful casualties. … But there’s no way I can see this proceeding without a whole lot of bloodshed.”

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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