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Democrats and the Killing Fields

The Wall Street Journal
May 1, 2008

Most people have never heard of Operation Frequent Wind, which ended on April 30, 1975, 33 years ago. But every American has seen pictures of it: the Marine helicopters evacuating the last U.S. personnel from the embassy in Saigon, hours before communist tanks rolled into the city. Thousands of desperate Vietnamese gathered at the embassy gate and begged to be taken with them. Others committed suicide.

Those scenes are a chilling reminder of what happens when a great power decides to cut and run. Two of the three presidential candidates are proposing to do just that in Iraq. We need to remember what happened the last time we gave up on an unpopular foreign policy, not only in humanitarian terms but in terms of American power and prestige.

Actually, the U.S. had won the war in Vietnam on the battlefield, just as the surge has done today in Iraq. Over Easter 1972, South Vietnamese forces, backed by U.S. airpower, crushed the last communist offensive, killing nearly 100,000 North Vietnamese troops.

The North was forced to sign peace accords in Paris recognizing the Republic of South Vietnam. The last 2,500 U.S. support troops went home. What they left was a fragile but sustainable peace, and an elected government in Saigon that was growing stronger every month.

But with 160,000 North Vietnamese soldiers still in South Vietnam, keeping the South free was going to require continued U.S. help, especially air support and military equipment if the North ever attacked again.

Democrats and American public opinion, however, had had enough. Much like Iraq today, the vast majority of South Vietnam had been pacified. Its government was taking on difficult but essential political changes, including land reform. The Democratic-controlled Congress, however, did not want to hear about success. They assumed failure in Vietnam would complete their rout of the hated Richard Nixon, who was already out of office thanks to Watergate, and position them for victory in the 1976 presidential election.

Meanwhile, the American public had been conditioned by the media to see Vietnam as a failed policy, and taught that America had gotten itself in the middle of a "civil war" which the Vietnamese had to sort out themselves. Once the last American troops left Vietnam, public opinion would never tolerate re-entry into a war widely seen as a blunder and endless quagmire.

In early 1975 the communists launched a massive attack. President Gerald Ford asked for $1 billion in supplemental funds to help the South Vietnamese, and Congress refused. They had already pulled the plug on the U.S.-supported government of Lon Nol in Cambodia. Ford had no choice but to order the evacuation of remaining U.S. personnel.

After nearly two decades of devastating war and 58,000 American combat deaths, the U.S. left Southeast Asia. As the last helicopter lifted off from Saigon, the New York Times's Sydney Schanberg wrote an article with the title, "Indochina Without Americans: For Most, a Better Life." And the Times's columnist Anthony Lewis asked, "what future could possibly be more terrible than the reality" of a war that had cost so much in lives and treasure?

With the North Vietnamese Communists and the Khmer Rouge taking over, the world was about to find out.

At least 65,000 Vietnamese were murdered or shot after "liberation" – the equivalent in terms of Vietnam's population at the time, of killing three-quarters of a million people in today's U.S. The new communist regime ordered somewhere between one- third to one-half of South Vietnam's population to pass through its "re-education" camps, where perhaps as many as 250,000 died of disease, starvation, or were worked to death (the last inmates were not released until 1986).

That number does not include the thousands of "boat people" who tried to flee the totalitarian nightmare of communist Vietnam, and perished at sea.

Cambodia's fate was even worse. At least one and a half million innocent Cambodians were butchered or starved to death in the Khmer Rouge's killing fields and re-education camps, put to death by a fanatical regime that believed that anyone who wore eyeglasses must have "bourgeois intellectual tendencies" and be shot.

The scale of moral collapse and suffering went beyond Indochina. The pullout had a ripple effect on U.S. power and prestige, just as the proponents of the so-called "domino theory" had warned. American foreign policy, crippled by remorse and self-doubt, stood helplessly as others rushed into the power vacuum.

Marxist-Leninist regimes emerged not only in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, but in Ethiopia and Guinea Bissau (1974), Madagascar, Cape Verde, Mozambique, and Angola (1975), Afghanistan (1978), and Grenada and Nicaragua (1979). Soviet troops were welcomed in Fidel Castro's Cuba for the first time since the 1962 missile crisis. Cuban troops traveled freely to Africa to prop up Marxist regimes there.

In 1979 the Ayatollah Khomeini was able to establish his brutal theocratic rule over Iran, confident that America, having learned "the lessons of Vietnam," would never intervene.

The judgment of history, as Raymond Aron once remarked, is without pity. History will judge how America and its leaders handle global responsibility in Iraq and the Middle East in the next decade.

As Winston Churchill said of the appeasement of Hitler at Munich, in 1975 Americans were "weighed in the balance and found wanting." We have a responsibility to the Iraqis – and to the memory of those we left behind – not to let that happen again.

Mr. Herman is the author, most recently, of "Gandhi and Churchill: The Epic Rivalry That Destroyed An Empire and Forged Our Age," just published by Bantam.

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