The Taliban’s advance in Afghanistan, the Kabul regime’s seeming inability to resist, and USA determination to step away unsettlingly recall 1974-1975 as Indochina fell. There as in Afghanistan, America was exhausted and no longer interested after 20 years of costly engagement. Can a regime or a nation be saved if its own people collectively lack the will to resist? Presumably the consequences in Afghanistan will be tragic as in Indochina.
Earlier this week I recalled to young people my own boyhood memories of that era starting with the anniversary of Nixon’s 1974 resignation, which was Sunday, and which helped accelerate the fall of Indochina. I told them it’s hard to reconstruct for anyone not then alive the sense of doom that plagued the 1970s. Watergate, the first time a scandal brought down a president, not only destroyed Nixon but deconstructed the presidency as a venerated institution. It helped make destroying presidents a cherished blood sport. Watergate, with the Vietnam War, eviscerated confidence in American government and other once trusted institutions. The weakened presidency helped ensure that America could not even try to save South Vietnam and the rest of Indochina as North Vietnam not unexpectedly violated the peace accord.
America’s loss in Indochina, accompanied by falling military expenditures and aversion to foreign military interventions, left multiple power vacuums often filled by the Soviet Union and its proxies, especially in Africa, where Marxist-Leninist regimes solidified in Angola, Mozambique, and Ethiopia, backed by East Bloc advisors and sometimes Cuban troops. It was a bleak era for democracy overall. Latin America was almost entirely governed by military dictatorships. General Pinochet overthrew President Allende in 1973 amid fears Allende was Sovietizing Chile. Indira Gandhi instituted martial law in the world’s largest democracy. Portugal, Spain and Greece were dictatorships until the mid-1970s. Turkey had a military coup. South Korea, the Philippines and Taiwan remained dictatorships, as was Indonesia.
The 1973 war launched by Egypt aimed to destroy the Mideast’s only democracy, and ignited an Arab oil embargo against America and the West for America’s aid to Israel. That embargo created an energy crisis, including gas lines, inflation and a recession that helped to ensure Nixon’s ultimate demise, and with him, Indochina. Years of increasing Soviet military expenditures were lifting it to military parity with America and, at least in Europe, perhaps superiority, which unsettled West Germany and other NATO countries. Terrorism, some of it from domestic Marxists, others from the Mideast, assailed those countries. The Shah’s fall in 1979 replaced a key U.S. Mideast ally with an ardent revolutionary foe in Iran that radicalized wider Islam. It also ignited a second energy crisis, gas lines, a recession, and helped end Jimmy Carter’s presidency. The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan seemed to confirm America’s ongoing decline and the USSR’s continued ascent.
Except that invasion proved to be the very opposite, enmeshing the Soviets in an unwinnable and unpopular war unleashing domestic and international forces that would remarkably dissolve the Soviet Union within a little over a decade. It contributed to China’s ongoing de facto anti-Soviet alliance with America, which had begun with Nixon’s 1972 trip to China. In 1978, a Polish pope was elected, igniting Polish nationalism and subversive forces throughout eastern Europe that would end over 40 years of Soviet control. Economic despair and fears of Soviet adventurism helped elect Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, with free market policies that, after initial recessions and unpopularity, unleashed unprecedented economic growth. Accompanied by Anglo-American rearmament and new technologically superior weapons initiatives, like anti-missile defense, American and Western economic resurgence in the 1980s also contributed mightily to Soviet demise. By the early 1990s, the U.S. was the world’s only super power and free market liberal democracy was seen as the default global model. Rightist and leftist dictatorships fell in Latin America and Asia, replaced by pro-Western elected regimes.
Few if any during the 1970s imagined that a horrible decade of economic doldrums, terrorism, and strategic defeats was germinating the triumph and renewal of democratic Western Civilization. The Soviet Union and the Cold War had seemed permanent. But nothing is permanent except the cupidity of fallen humanity and the sovereignty of a merciful Providence. It’s too often forgotten that both defeats and victories are temporary. The 1990s era of global peace and prosperity fueled a new smug confidence about the ascendancy of liberal democracy and Western ethical standards. History had supposedly ended.
Of course, history never ends, except when Christ returns. Soviet defeat in Afghanistan, so central to the USSR’s demise, enabled the eventual rise of the Taliban, of 9-11, of the Taliban’s seeming defeat, 20 years of war, and now the impending seeming re-conquest by the Taliban, amid U.S. withdrawal akin to Indochina in the 1970s. Is America prematurely abandoning faithful allies once again? Does this defeat signal another 1970s-like decade of strategic setbacks for democracies amid advances for authoritarianisms? Must America now manage its inevitable decline, as many assumed over 40 years ago? Is China now the inevitable ascendant power, as the Soviets were once widely assumed to be? Or are the seeds of demise for China’s dictatorship even now germinating through events unseen? And are America’s defeats only temporary skirmishes in a longer upward trajectory that will leave us ensconced with global predominance for the rest of this century?
These questions have no predetermined answers. In an earthly sense, nations set their own destinies, from Afghanistan to the United States. They reap the consequences of their own choices. Yet those often poor choices are mediated by a merciful Providence, who blesses more than He curses. This week’s headlines warn of calamity by climate apocalypse. In the 1970s global disaster was similarly anticipated by some through overpopulation and mass starvation. Today much of the world potentially faces plunging populations. Who can confidently foretell the future? With dread and hope we can only recall King Nebuchadnezzar’s exclamation from the Book of Daniel:
His dominion is an eternal dominion;
his kingdom endures from generation to generation.
All the peoples of the earth
are regarded as nothing.
He does as he pleases
with the powers of heaven
and the peoples of the earth.
No one can hold back his hand
or say to him: “What have you done?