By David Ignatius
Wednesday, January 3, 2007
One day in the Gerald Ford presidency that hasn't received much attention in the past week's memorials is April 30, 1975. That was the day the last American helicopter pulled away from the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, leaving behind many thousands of South Vietnamese who had worked with the United States.
Those wrenching final images of the Vietnam War are relevant now as we think about what lies ahead in Iraq. However long the United States stays in Iraq and whatever success it achieves there, we should agree we have a moral responsibility to the Iraqis who risked their lives and families to be America's allies.
How America leaves Iraq will be as important as how it entered. That's why I found the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton report valuable -- because they focused on an orderly process of transition from U.S. military occupation to Iraqi sovereignty, with the assistance of Iraq's neighbors. President Bush seems about to embark on a riskier course of a "surge" in American troops to achieve something that looks like military victory. But if that "double-down" bet fails, I fear we will eventually witness a repetition of April 30, 1975 -- without the orderly process envisioned by Baker-Hamilton.
America's ragged withdrawal from Vietnam was chronicled by Frank Snepp, a CIA analyst in Saigon at the time. In his 1977 book, "Decent Interval," Snepp wrote that the CIA station in Saigon was able to evacuate only about 537 of its 1,900 "indigenous employees" in April 1975. The agency also abandoned 400 members of the CIA-trained Special Police Branch; 400 members of the Central Intelligence Organization of South Vietnam; hundreds of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong defectors; and nearly 30,000 Vietnamese who had been trained as operatives in the CIA's Phoenix program. These people were, in practical terms, left to die.
In the pell-mell American withdrawal, wrote Snepp, "We committed the unpardonable mistake of failing to ensure the destruction of the personnel files and intelligence dossiers we had helped the government assemble." He concluded: "It is not too much to say that in terms of squandered lives, blown secrets, and the betrayal of agents, friends and collaborators, our handling of the evacuation was an institutional disgrace."
Thomas Polgar, the Saigon station chief, sent a final bleak cable to headquarters: "It has been a long and hard fight and we have lost. This experience, unique in the history of the United States, does not signal necessarily the demise of the United States as a world power. The severity of the defeat and the circumstances of it, however, would seem to call for a reassessment of the policies of niggardly half-measures which have characterized much of our participation here."
Vietnam and America did indeed survive this trauma -- to the point that three decades later, Vietnam is a prosperous and friendly nation visited by American presidents. A big reason why is that after the chaotic withdrawal, America worked to keep faith with people who had been its allies. The brutal policies of the North Vietnamese created waves of refugees who became known as "boat people." Many thousands of them made their way to the United States, and their children and grandchildren are among our nation's great success stories.
One of the great tragedies of the Iraq war has been America's inability to protect its friends in Iraq or to offer them a haven when they were forced to flee the country. The New York Times reported this week that 1.8 million Iraqis are living outside the country, with tens of thousands more fleeing each month. But until recently, the Bush administration had planned to resettle just 500 Iraqis in the United States in 2007. The Times quoted Kirk W. Johnson, a former U.S. aid worker in Fallujah: "We're not even meeting our basic obligation to the Iraqis who've been imperiled because they worked for the U.S. government."
The Vietnamese who came to America after April 1975 provided a backbone for investment and political change in their home country. Their superpower ally failed on the battlefield, but the Vietnamese who believed in free markets and modern values ended up as the winners.
I want to believe that will happen eventually in Iraq, as well. But one of the worst effects of the war is that it is destroying the educated middle class of Iraq -- driving doctors, teachers and business people into desperate exile. When Iraq comes back together some day, will these educated Iraqis be America's friends, or will they despise us?
Whatever we do in Iraq in coming months, it should include a bipartisan commitment to keep faith with the people who risked everything for a new Iraq -- by making room for them in America, if necessary. We need a surge of compassion more than a surge of U.S. troops.
The writer co-hosts, with Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria, PostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues athttp://blog.washingtonpost.com/postglobal. His e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org.