August is the Cruelest Month: Tokyo, Saigon, Afghanistan

In this long column, I want to talk about the recent Olympics in Tokyo – the “good.”
Then I want to address Afghanistan – the “bad & the ugly” – to complete the movie title. 


The 1960s saw Japan back – back from the brink of total destruction, back from the defeat in World War II. The 1950s and ’60s was a times of economic “miracles” – German, Japanese, and French – after all. But Japan’s seemed the most pronounced with a country the size of Montana building an economy that ranked second in the world in GDP behind only the US by 1960, and which stayed that way until barely a decade ago when China took this spot.

After the war, Japan’s growth rates were incredible – between 10 and 13 percent annually. She wrote a constitution with American guidance, built bullet trains that zipped between her four main islands, inaugurated a new stock exchange, and for the world, started companies that made and exported products with such well-known names as Panasonic, Honda, Toyota, Sony, Yamaha, Mitsubishi, and Canon.

The Tokyo summer games were one of four that graced our 1960s period in fact. The others were Rome in 1960, Mexico City in 1968, and Munich in 1972. Perhaps Rome was a signal of comeback similar to Japan’s. Still the Japanese one was the most conspicuous for its accomplishment to the number 2 world economic power in record time – an ancient land with a new start.

Records were broken in 1964 – as they always are. And the United States did well in swimming, track and field – particularly excelling events of pole vault and shot-put. Still the stand out may have been the young man named Jim Ryun from Kansas who set the world record in the mile run with a super-human 3:59, thought only possible by a horse.  He was a junior in high school!

The 2021 was an emergence of a different sort – from a recession Japan had suffered since the early 1990s. There was a challenge as well.  Whereas in 1964 it was the Cold War, in 2021 it was a pesky virus. Japan was also in a different position in Asia now – in the shadow of a rising China, which was not a factor in the ’64.

Well in 2021, we saw Tokyo shrine again in the Olympic spotlight and the Tokyo Games we all just saw on our televisions signaled the spirit of resolve and friendship to host a set of games, even under adverse circumstances of a pandemic.

Now, in contrast to the 1960s where Japan was emerging after the war – in 2021, Tokyo was trying to emerge from a long time of national recession begun in the early 1990s. In 2021, she was also in a different position in Asia than in 1964. Japan was now in the shadow of a rising China which was not a factor in the 1960s since China was burning in the destructive fires of the Great Leap Forward just passed, and the Cultural Revolution yet to fully express itself.

The 2021 Games in Tokyo were full of achievement and drama. But they seem to stretch out across the decades with Japan saying: “Hey, we’re still here, world! We know big China gets a lot of attention but we’re Japan, we still matter and can serve as a good place for achievers.” And the 2021 Games came off pretty well, I’d say – from riflery to gymnastics to volley ball to track – with the Americans doing quite well; better than in 1964 for medals in fact.

In 1964, the US won the gold medal count, but came in second in overall medals. This went to the Soviet Union.  Remember the USSR ?
Well, in the 2021 Olympiad, we swept golds AND the overall medal count. And our rival this time was not the Soviet Union of course (not even Russia), but China.  In both ’64 and 2021, the #3 slot for golds was the proud host country of Japan.  Pretty good I’d say !!


As ceremonies closed a happy Olympics, headlines appeared of a grimmer story unfolding in Afghanistan, headlines that also connect vividly to our era.

News from Afghanistan illustrate why the 1960s do not customarily stop in 1969, though of course technically they do.

The 1960s Project stretches a decade into an era that goes to the middle 1970s because the spirit of the age doesn’t exhaust itself until the scandals of Watergate with President Nixon in 1974. But also, for us now, the spirit of the 1960s doesn’t end until the war in Southeast Asia does – which means the evacuation of the city of Saigon, South Vietnam, forty-six years ago in 1975. Which is key to what is happening today in the Middle East.

These two events – Watergate & Saigon – brought the era to a close – really. How we know that Vietnam stamped itself into the memories of Americans is how we’re reacting to Afghanistan, and comparing the terrible events happening there today – right now – to the events of Vietnam decades ago.

Americans have had an almost instinctive reaction to Afghanistan in past weeks as “another Saigon, another 1975, another American defeat.” Though separated by distance and time, nevertheless they are profoundly frustrating and disturbing, for they appear all so avoidable and unnecessary.


The connections are worth talking about. And a little history wouldn’t hurt I’d say. History you may not know. . .

In January 1973 we signed peace accords in Paris that ended the United States’ active participation in the Vietnam War. They were negotiated on the American side by Henry Kissinger who is still alive in Washington DC. These accords were a landmark, and a victory for the Nixon administration, and indeed set the stage for peace, but NOT for a united Vietnam. No, they set the stage for a peaceful country split in two – communist in the north; free in the south.

This split arrangement was not conjured out of wishful thinking  or thin air.  No, there were at least two examples you know of this kind of thing: where a free part of a country faced an unfree part.

Perhaps the best known example is what happened in Germany in 1945 by agreement of the Allied Powers in WWII. A western self-governing democratic part of the country was split off from the communist eastern part directed by the Soviet Union. A second example of this split idea was the Korean Peninsula divided along the 38th line of latitude in 1953 at the close of the Korean War. We know the story:

A democratic South Korea emerges as an Asian Tiger – a powerhouse around the world with brand names like Hyundai, Samsung, and LG; and shares the peninsula with North Korea which is not only not free, it’s the closest the world has today of a country living in the Stone Age.

So a split Vietnam was not wishful thinking, but an idea that worked in other countries. So why didn’t this work in Vietnam?  This is where Saigon and the evacuation comes in, why’s it’s remembered; why it’s connected to Afghanistan. It all starts with the 1973 Paris Peace Accords.

Well the peace agreement didn’t just happen automatically after signing.  Its provisions needed support, resources, manpower, time, and money.  This was where the trouble began.

The year after the peace was signed, the scandals of the Watergate Hotel break-in rocked the nation. That same year, 1974, was also an election year. And the Democrats won big majorities in the Congress. So when Gerald Ford, who took over for the resigning Nixon,  went to Congress his first year – 1975 – there was trouble. Opposition.

It had to do with getting support for the Paris Peace Accords we mentioned. In a dramatic speech, the new President practically begged members for resources for South Vietnam to prevent the roof caving in on the capital city of Saigon and on South Vietnam in general – now being infiltrated from the communist north.

Several Democrats, many of whom were elected on an antiwar platform, actually walked out during the President’s address; and  Democrats as a party refused to support the treaty and the South Vietnamese.

With support for the treaty gone, Saigon fell.

In fact, two weeks after Ford’s speech and pleading for emergency aid, the United States mounted a military operation code-named “Operation Frequent Wind” for Saigon’s evacuation April 29/30, 1975 – with those famous rooftop photographs we know.

As the communist forces closed in on the south, and the city of Saigon – including the American embassy – sortie after helicopter sortie flew Americans and Vietnamese to aircraft carriers waiting offshore round the clock for two days straight – then to safety in the states. After we left Vietnam for good, the communists set up reeducation camps and suppressed opposition with such force that to use the word “genocide” would not be inaccurate. Stateside, though, our successful, if harrowing evacuation of Saigon began the big Vietnamese diaspora that brought so many wonderful people to America to become citizens today in cities like Los Angeles and Houston.

FAST FORWARD TO TODAY – to AFGHANISTAN . . . and its capital city Kabul now.

August ’21

The scene is again harried – even more so – than in the Vietnam case. Now instead of communist North Vietnamese, we have Taliban. Many will study the withdrawal of the United States after 20 years of war, and the talking heads will comment.

But one surface difference between Kabul and Saigon one notices right away is that Congress in 1975 knew things would collapse without support, yet members were willing to allow it to happen, almost joyous at the fact. Unlike in Afghanistan today, Americans in Vietnam had time to react, time to plan and leave in the two years between the signing of the peace in 1973 and total collapse in 1975. And except diplomatic personnel, most did leave. “Frequent Wind” was specifically mounted in Vietnam to rescue the remnant loyal Vietnamese who felt endangered for staying with the communists coming, and for our last diplomatic and consular people.

By stark contrast, no conscientiousness to exit intelligently from Afghanistan appeared to be in place as the Taliban advanced almost without opposition to control the capital Kabul and the rest of the country. Thousands of Americas were (and apparently still are) trapped by hostile forces. And shockingly, the Afghans are actually being given priority over Americans to escape the country.

Interestingly, both Vietnam/Saigon and Afghanistan/Kabul appear with Democrats at the helm of political power in Washington. This is not a partisan statement, you understand. I’m simply describing as a historian the make-up of those in decision making positions – as a matter of record.

In April 1975, it was Democrats in Congress. Now in Afghanistan, interestingly, it is a Democratic president who appears to be presiding over the terrible debacle of no planning in Afghanistan now; and perhaps to their credit, his Democrats colleagues who dominate both Houses of Congress in 2021 appear surprised and displeased.

The results to the world are similar though – sometimes called the “optics” – the public face. It is an American dilemma – not a partisan one, Republican-Democrat one.



It’s the optics of defeat: 1960s era Saigon and 2021 Kabul.

Interestingly, Joe Biden overlaps both events. He is the president now, and was a junior Senator from Delaware in 1975. He seems to make the link more vivid between a 1960s era, that may seem remote and irrelevant to many, and the events unfolding in Afghanistan as you read this column now.

The 1960s and today’s Afghanistan are linked powerfully together in the person and office of the president; and in the lessons of history, and for the destiny of a great nation, the United States.

So wow: The month of August started us off with Tokyo stretching grandly across the years in sport – 1964 and 2021 – with American athletes bringing home golden victory for all the world to see.

And wow also: Just after the Olympics closed at the start of August, we saw insufferable events unfolding in Afghanistan, and going the other way – DOWN – for the US. And for all the world to see.  A cruel month of whiplashes, up’s and down’s.

And the 1960s era acts as a kind of a cord to bind these disparate events of Tokyo-Saigon-Kabul together, or at least get the conversation rolling.

Interesting I think.  I hope you think so too.

Until next month (and a lighter topic),

August 30, 2021

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