The United States is reeling from the catastrophic collapse of its policy in Afghanistan. Although commentators and administration officials try to put a happy face on the disaster, the fact is that allies, partners, and potential adversaries are wondering about the solidity of U.S. commitments.
In 1975 the Ford administration found itself in a similar situation after the fall of Saigon. Events provided an opportunity for them to show that U.S. foreign policy still had teeth when Cambodia’s newly installed communist government seized a U.S. cargo ship, the SS Mayaguez. In response, the U.S. hit the Cambodian military hard.
Although the operation to recapture the ship was a fiasco, the political point was made: the United States had not left the world stage and would back up its words with military power.
We’ve seen this movie before. April 1975 saw the collapse of the South Vietnamese government, on which the United States had led lavished blood, treasure, and political support. As with the recent collapse in Afghanistan, it began slowly. The South Vietnamese government made some withdrawals in the Central Highlands, but the retreat rapidly escalated as defeatism permeated a military already weakened by the withdrawal of U.S. support.
On April 30, there was a chaotic evacuation of Saigon, the U.S. having waited too long to begin pulling people out. Terrified South Vietnamese, many of whom rightly feared communist retaliation for their cooperation with the United States, headed out to the Navy ships offshore in any aircraft that could fly or boat that could sail. Every jarring image that has come out of Kabul in the last week had a counterpart in South Vietnam. (Full disclosure: I had a front-row seat on this operation as a young Marine lieutenant in the evacuation forces.)
Not only had South Vietnam fallen but also the U.S.-backed regimes in Cambodia and Laos. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union increasingly challenged the United States, not only in Europe, but globally. The U.S. global position seemed to be crumbling.
The Mayaguez incident. In this turbulent atmosphere, the recently victorious communist regime in Cambodia seized a U.S. freighter, the SS Mayaguez, that the Cambodians claimed had sailed too close to one of their islands. The Cambodians forced the ship to anchor in its waters and took the crew hostage.
The United States assembled an ad hoc task force to rescue the crew and the ship. A naval task force sailed from Subic Bay in the Philippines, though it would arrive too late. U.S. airstrikes sank several gunboats and hit a Cambodian naval base on the mainland. Marines from Okinawa flew to Thailand, where they boarded Air Force heavy helicopters for transportation to the target, Koh-Tang island, about 34 miles off the Cambodian coast. The landing was a disaster, with several helicopters shot down, and Marines scattered around the island. Eventually, the landing force was extracted under heavy fire. Meanwhile, other Marines had seized the ship, and the Cambodians released the crew.
Militarily, the operation was a fiasco with heavy casualties and many damaged aircraft. Politically, however, that did not matter because the actions made a crucial point: The United States was not paralyzed; it had a lot of military power which it was willing to use; and nations attack us at their peril.
As President Ford noted in his memoirs, “As long as I was president, the US would not abandon its commitments overseas. We could not permit our setbacks to become a license for others to fish in troubled waters. Rhetoric alone, I knew, would not persuade anyone that America would stand firm. It would have to see proof of our resolve.”
Although the new communist regimes in Southeast Asia would wreak terrible suffering on their people, they left the United States and its allies alone.
A precedent for the Biden administration. As in 1975, U.S. allies worry about whether the U.S. is a declining power, and adversaries hope that it is. The Chinese are positively gloating over the U.S. and allied misfortune. The Biden administration should therefore take note of this minor bit of political-military history. Though it should not go looking for fights, an opportunity will certainly arise in the volatile Middle East. Perhaps the Taliban will act against foreign nationals still in Afghanistan. Perhaps radical Islamists, now with a safe haven in Afghanistan, will launch some action outside Afghanistan. Perhaps an emboldened Iran will make more attacks on shipping in the Persian Gulf.
Whatever the provocation, the Biden administration should not hesitate to whack the offender and whack them hard. This is not the time for hesitation or diplomatic handwringing. It is a time to shore up the global system by demonstrating that the collapse in Afghanistan stopped in Afghanistan.