The lesson of 1975, 1989, and 2021

For the third time now I have witnessed from a distance a political cataclysm that has dominated world news reports for days, or weeks. In 1975 it was the fall of Saigon, marking the final victory of communist forces in Vietnam and ending a conflict that lasted three decades. In 1989 it was the collapse of the Soviet Union’s post-WWII “Iron Curtain,” including the destruction of the Berlin Wall and the overthrow of Ceaucescu in Romania, all of it recorded breathlessly by television cameras. And now, in 2021, we are watching the end of the American occupation, the collapse of the Afghan government, and the re-establishment of Taliban rule in Afghanistan after twenty years.

In all three cases, a dominant “super-power” attempted to exert its influence in foreign countries by propping up corrupt governments that lacked popular support. In all three cases, the attempts succeeded for decades, albeit at significant cost in lives and money. In all three cases, the super-power was eventually forced to withdraw, and local control was reasserted.

After 1975 there was a good deal of public handwringing in the United States. What were the “lessons of Vietnam”? In the end, the U.S. government learned only two lessons. They were both military lessons, and they were both wrong. Lesson 1: end military conscription, because an army of draftees was unreliable. Lesson 2: keep the press away from combat and strictly control their access to soldiers. 

The real “lesson of Vietnam” was political, not military, and it was also the lesson of the Soviet Union, and the lesson of Afghanistan: invading other countries, installing corrupt puppet regimes, and ignoring the will of the people is a costly blunder that always ends in defeat.

Since 1975, Vietnam has rebuilt its economy and established amicable relations with its former nemesis, the United States. Since 1989, the nations of Eastern Europe that were formerly under Soviet domination have managed their own affairs, with varying degrees of success. In Afghanistan, we can only hope that the worst fears of a second Taliban government will not be realized, and that the Afghan people will be able to create a national consensus that respects the wide variety of beliefs and values that they hold. 

And among the world’s super-powers, we can only hope that the simple and obvious lesson of 1975, 1989, and 2021 will finally be learned and put into practice.

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