When a comparison was made between the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan a year ago and a similar debacle in Vietnam 46 years earlier, President Biden and his administration recoiled.
The Afghan capital, Kabul, would not become another Saigon, Biden assured the American people. There would be no dramatic helicopter rescues from rooftops nor would the U.S. walk away and allow the Afghan government to collapse as the South Vietnamese regime did so quickly.
But latter-day versions of both did unfold in a matter of days as the United States withdrew from Afghanistan, ending its 20-year military and political involvement.
Vietnam and Afghanistan were America’s two longest wars. Yet despite a number of similarities, including mistakes made and disastrous denouements that spelled defeat for the U.S., each conflict had entirely different impacts on U.S. society, culture and politics.
The two wars started differently and for very different reasons. And they were fought differently — in different technological eras and, in particular, with very different armies.
More than a generation ago, the specter of Vietnam seemed to seep into numerous corners of U.S. daily life. It spawned a widespread, history-altering protest movement that in turn triggered a cascade of political shifts. It even left an indelible mark on film, television, song and other features of American culture.
Afghanistan did not have the same influence. Although significant political and humanitarian fallout came from the war in Afghanistan, Vietnam’s impacts were wider, deeper and broader.
“The sheer size and scale of the U.S. military deployment, the number of casualties and the backing of the enemy in Vietnam, were greater than anything we ever saw in Afghanistan,” said retired Vice Adm. Robert B. Murrett, a 34-year naval intelligence officer who deployed to the Pacific, Middle East and Balkans.
Murrett joined the Navy the year after the Vietnam War ended and recalled being surrounded by veterans of that conflict, including former prisoners of war, in deployments for decades that followed.
“Vietnam was very much on [policymakers’] minds” to this day, he said.
Americans could not ignore Vietnam. Demonstrations against the war filled U.S. streets. The handful of media outlets at the time were dominated by news of mounting casualties, and just about everyone watched Walter Cronkite on his nightly CBS broadcast.
And most important, it was bloody warfare in the jungle being waged by men (all men, at the time) drafted into service.
Nearly 60,000 Americans were killed in Vietnam, and about 3,000 in Afghanistan. At the war’s height, half a million U.S. troops were in Vietnam; the number in Afghanistan reached 100,000 for about a two-year period, but mostly remained far lower.
“With Vietnam, you could not ignore it if you were alive and culturally and politically aware,” said Abigail Hall, an economics professor at the University of Tampa who studies the intersection of war, terrorism and propaganda.
It was likely, she said, that almost everyone knew someone in Southeast Asia who was fighting — and probably unwillingly, since the choice then was fight or go to jail, unless a person was wealthy, connected or obtained a deferral for medical or other reasons. Even young men who were not drafted were often glued to the latest numbers appearing in draft lotteries.
This was not the case with Afghanistan because, as a result of Vietnam, enlisting in the military is now on a voluntary basis. Chances are most Americans, Hall said, “don’t have the same type of personal consequence in the Afghanistan war.”
“Today we have a professional military class that experiences all of the dislocation and tensions” involved in deploying to conflicts, said Bruce Schulman, a historian at Boston University and author of “The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics.”
To many, the reasons for going into Afghanistan probably seemed noble and clear. The United States had been attacked: On Sept. 11, 2001, planes hijacked and piloted by mostly Saudi militants working for the terror group Al Qaeda plunged into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon outside Washington, D.C., killing nearly 3,000 people. The deadliest attack on U.S. soil since Pearl Harbor was a visceral gut-punch to the U.S., a threat to America around which it was easy to rally patriotic support.
In Vietnam, the fight was against communism, in a distant land — a struggle most Americans at the time saw as important, but not necessarily one that would directly affect them. There was intense debate over the U.S. becoming involved in the Vietnam war, unlike for Afghanistan.
“The Afghanistan war was one America entered with a strong bipartisan consensus in favor. Not so, Vietnam,” said Daniel Serwer, who directs conflict and U.S. foreign policy programs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. In addition, he noted, “the protests against the war in Vietnam were partly fueled by racial issues, as the draft hit Blacks particularly hard and the civil rights movement immediately preceded.”
Unlike in the Vietnam era, during which Black men were disproportionately sent to the front lines, today’s racial justice movement has been spurred by police brutality and economic, social and other inequalities, not the war in Afghanistan. In the 1960s and ’70s, many veterans of the civil rights movement transitioned readily into the antiwar movement, said Michael Kazin, a historian at Georgetown University.
“It was a pivotal moment when [civil rights icon The Rev. Martin Luther] King turned against the war” in 1967, Kazin said. “It made the antiwar movement more multiracial.”
As the war in Vietnam reached into American households, the argument of “what are we doing there” grew intense, said Rajan Menon, a political scientist and specialist in global ethics at City University of New York and Columbia University.
“The same questions could have arisen with Afghanistan except that it happened in the shadow of 9/11,” he said, noting that the situation made it easier for leaders to argue that the U.S. had to fight the enemy overseas or it would be forced to fight at home.
“There was palatable weariness [with the war in Afghanistan], but it was not cataclysmic,” Menon added. “There was no Kent State.”
He was alluding to one of the several emblematic horrors of the Vietnam era, when the Ohio National Guard in 1970 opened fire on a student antiwar protest at Kent State University, killing four and wounding nine others. They were protesting the war as it expanded with the U.S. invasion of Cambodia.
Vietnam ended the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson when he decided not to run for reelection in 1968 amid growing antiwar sentiment that would have likely led to his loss. The war at first helped Richard Nixon but ultimately was partly responsible for his demise. Aggressive bombing in North Vietnam shored up his right-wing base ahead of his landslide victory over then-South Dakota Sen. George McGovern in 1972, but his paranoia over the antiwar movement led to break-ins along with other criminal or unethical activities that mushroomed into the Watergate scandal. He was forced to resign in 1974.
It remains unclear how much of an impact the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan will have on Biden politically. Other issues, such as the economy and abortion rights, may hold greater weight with voters in coming elections.
Biden, like former President Trump before him, opposed continuing the war in Afghanistan, a position he held as vice president to President Obama, as well.
“He had a real bee in his bonnet about Afghanistan,” said a senior military official who participated in Oval Office meetings during the Obama administration. He asked for anonymity to discuss internal conversations. “He felt like Obama was getting jammed.”
Schulman, the Boston University historian, said Afghanistan may be seen as a more pivotal event in the long term if the current decade is ultimately regarded as marking an end to the dominant role the U.S. has enjoyed on the world stage. Increasingly, traditional allies are less likely to consider Washington a reliable partner, he noted, a continuing trend that accelerated during the Trump presidency.
As Afghanistan never became the stuff of massive, passionate antiwar demonstrations — even the concurrent war in Iraq was arguably far more unpopular — nor has it been immortalized in film and music the way the conflict in Vietnam was.
Academy Award-winning films “The Deer Hunter” with Robert De Niro and a very young Meryl Streep, and “Coming Home,” both released in 1978, along with “Apocalypse Now” (1979) and “Platoon” (1986), portrayed Vietnam in nuanced and often critical tones to wide audiences.
Neil Young even sang about Kent State in 1970’s “Ohio.”
Less attention has been given to Afghanistan, although in fairness, most of the Vietnam portrayals came after the war ended. There was, for example, the 2007 film “Lions for Lambs” directed by Robert Redford and starring an older Streep. But there are fewer feature films about the war in Afghanistan, and none that have entered the popular consciousness and generated the same amount of national conversation and reflection as did the movies about Vietnam.
Hall said it is a sign of the friendly relationship between Hollywood and the Pentagon, which she argues has gotten closer. For more than a century, studios have on occasion worked with the Defense Department in making movies, with filmmakers getting access to military equipment or locales and the armed forces brass allowed to review scripts.
Another reason may be that journalists, who often write the first draft of history as well as movie scripts, were given remarkable access to the battlefield in Vietnam, but severely restricted in later U.S. wars.
Despite the sharp differences in impact that the two wars had, there are enough echoes of Vietnam in Afghanistan to underscore lessons learned — or not learned — and mistakes made.
In both cases, U.S. political and military architects and executors of the war effort seemed to ignore or underestimate the depth of corruption of their local partner governments and armed forces. And in both Afghanistan and Vietnam, there was a persistent need to report positive results to political and public audiences back home, diplomats and other officials involved in the processes said.
“I do think that that there was this tendency to always, you know, show progress,” retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who served as one of Trump’s national security advisors, testified at a congressional hearing about Afghanistan in October. “This is not a new phenomenon,” he added, saying he had seen it in Vietnam, too.
“There was a reluctance to deal with it from Washington because Washington, again, had created their delusion, right, their illusion of Afghanistan, what they wanted Afghanistan to be,” McMaster said. “And that was because they were prioritizing just getting the hell out.”
At the same hearing, Richard Armitage, a Vietnam veteran who served as deputy secretary of State in the George W. Bush administration, also reported on a similar thread in the two conflicts that played into the U.S. defeat and collapse of the military it sought to leave behind.
“Great strides were made [in Afghanistan], but how about the one stride that was never made, and we could not prevail without it,” he said. “At the end of the day, I personally … [was] not surprised at the speed with which things failed. Because Afghan soldiers just felt that their corrupt government was not worth the sacrifice of their lives.
“I saw it before in Vietnam, the exact same thing.”
Shawn McHale, an expert on Vietnam, colonialism and war at George Washington University, said another mistake made in Southeast Asia and repeated in Afghanistan was a failure to adequately assess the chances of success before launching troops, and to take into consideration cultural, tribal and other local dynamics.
“The U.S. thinks too much on the military and not a more broad, catholic approach,” McHale said. “There is great institutional pressure in the Army to do things as they did in the past.”
And those failings are costly, he said: Billions of dollars were wasted on missions in both theaters that were not properly planned. Afghanistan cost more than $2 trillion, according to the Pentagon.
Critics of the war also point to a fundamental flaw in Washington’s goals.
“The big takeaway … is that you cannot export democracy at gunpoint,” Hall said. “In both Afghanistan and Vietnam, the U.S. was intervening in a civil conflict where one side was against U.S. interests. We still haven’t figured out how to do top-down regime change, or nation building — whatever you want to call it. You can’t. Not in the 1960s, not in 2022.”