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The longer a country’s history, the more anniversaries it has to mark. The longer and further an empire declines, the more those anniversaries may become occasions for sad reflection, recrimination, or a troublesome resentment that some memories won’t go away.

So it is with the fall of Saigon forty years ago. People said at the time that was the first war the United States lost. No one thought at the time that the world’s preeminent power would not win again. Even the Persian Gulf war, that glorious expulsion of Saddam from Kuwait, turned to disaster just eleven years later when we decided we had better return to finish the job. Over-ambitious, thick-headed imperialists in Washington decided they did not want to put one in the win column after all.

Memories of the sixties and early seventies, including Vietnam, formed my generation, just as memories of the Depression and World War II formed the generation before that. April 29, 1975, the day Saigon fell, marked the end of a true upheaval in American political culture, a period that began with the murder of President Kennedy twelve years before. Historians a century from now will see a direct line between the two events: the nation’s first coup, and the end of its first futile military campaign.

The chaotic scene at the U.S. embassy in Saigon on April 29, 1975.

The chaotic scene at the U.S. embassy in Saigon on April 29, 1975.

I did not serve in Vietnam. The army stopped drafting people in large numbers just as I turned eighteen late in 1972. Six years later, in 1978, I reported for duty aboard the USS KIRK (FF-1087), a ship I learned later was closely involved in the evacuation of Americans and others from Saigon. Jan Herman wrote a book, The Lucky Few, about KIRK’s operations during Frequent Wind, to help evacuate people who would be executed or imprisoned if they stayed in the country.

I wish I could say something definitive about the Vietnam war on this anniversary of defeat, but the conflict was far too complex for that kind of observation. We all want to say, sagely, “Don’t get involved in a war you can’t win.” That’s a good lesson, but no one, especially not leaders who lack judgment and foresight, ever plans to lose a war. Leaders who do understand warfare well enough to be extremely wary of it, often cannot prevail against leaders who call for war, then blame their successors for subsequent defeats.

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