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No one who lived through it in 40 years ago, and was following the news even sporadically (far from everyone in the dazed and confused mid-1970s!), will ever forget the TV footage of U.S. military helicopters evacuating the last Americans and at least some of their local allies from Saigon in a humiliating denouement to the Vietnam War.

Even for many Americans who had lost much of their faith in the country’s virtues (all too easy in that stagflationary aftermath of the turbulent 1960s and the Watergate scandals), and who had watched disaster in Southeast Asia unfold slowly for years, this final act was surely harrowing emotionally. After all, however ugly Americans might have become to however many foreign populations, anything smacking of lasting military defeat had never been experienced in U.S. history.

The simple uncertainty of life without Vietnam-related news at least in the backdrop must have been unnerving as well, even if not consciously. Those who had actively or passively defined themselves as opponents, supporters, or bewildered spectators of the war faced even greater questions. Four decades later, it’s anything but clear if many of them have been answered among Baby Boomers and their surviving elders.

Failure in Vietnam shook up the nation’s leadership classes and foreign policy establishment, too. But what’s most striking four decades later is how few fundamental challenges to the policy status quo have emerged in these circles. The public is clearly more skeptical of foreign intervention and international engagement, although televised Middle East horrors in particular have interrupted that trend for the time being.

In addition, throughout the post-Vietnam decades, a handful of analysts has cogently explained how the Indochina debacle stemmed directly from the foreign policy strategies pursued by the United States since Pearl Harbor, and how this approach would undermine prosperity as well as needlessly court risk. (I’ve made my own small contributions, on this blog and elsewhere.  If you’re interested in others, I wholeheartedly recommend Googling – and reading! – the following “realists” in particular: Earl C. Ravenal, Robert W. Tucker, David C. Calleo, and Christopher Layne. For powerful indictments of U.S. interventionism on an issue-by-issue basis, see the many writings of Ted Galen Carpenter.)

But as I’ve argued, the left, right, and centrist wings of the foreign policy mainstream clung determinedly to an ideology called internationalism.  It’s characterized by the bizarre conviction that a geopolitically secure continental power with an immense potential for economic self-sufficiency can not be acceptably safe or prosperous unless literally every corner of the world becomes safe and prosperous, too. As a result, liberals, moderates, and conservatives alike defined American vital interests in breathtakingly sweeping terms, differing only on which combination or ratio of tactics (mainly the “hard power” versus “soft power” debate) were likeliest to pacify, stabilize, and enrich the entire planet.

In the process, all these leaders and analysts have neglected opportunities to reduce the country’s vulnerabilities to disrupted supplies of foreign goods, like energy, and to terrorist attack. Indeed, in defiance of the defining feature of economics itself, all have assumed that all the material resources to pursue this limitless agenda would somehow always be available, or could be created as needed.

That’s why, in the forty years since the fall of Saigon, American leaders from all over the political spectrum have:

>obsessed over fighting leftist forces in miniscule El Salvador and Nicaragua;

>fought two wars in Iraq, largely to protect the flow of Persian Gulf oil;

>permitted the worst attack on American territory in 70 years to take place;

>allowed the nation’s armed forces to become dangerously dependent on imports from a prospective Chinese adversary;

>kept the nation locked into defending allies against nuclear-armed adversaries increasingly able to retaliate powerfully against the United States;  

>remained committed to a futile policy of safeguarding U.S. energy and anti-terror interests by fostering stability and reform in a Middle East so thoroughly dysfunctional that it’s very state structure is falling apart;

>become addicted to preserving the semblance of growth and well-being by falling ever deeper into debt even though this blueprint triggered one financial calamity less than a decade ago;  and

>devoted oceans of rhetoric, and real and digital ink, to sliming any genuine dissenters as ostrich-headed isolationists, xenophobes, appeasers, or all of the above.  

As a result, all the commentary I’ve read that’s been occasioned by 40th anniversary of Saigon’s fall has missed the main point. The most important lesson Vietnam is that American leaders have learned no important lessons at all.