In the spring of 1975, as North Vietnamese forces approached Saigon, it began to dawn on President Gerald Ford that the government of South Vietnam was likely to collapse. Though it would be slow to act, Ford’s administration finally appealed to Congress for $300 million in emergency funds it intended to put to use evacuating remaining Americans and as many as 175,000 South Vietnamese. Opposition to the plan was strongest among Senate Democrats, as was made plain by a speech given by one young lawmaker on April 23, barely a week before North Vietnamese forces captured the presidential palace in Saigon: “I do not believe the United States has an obligation, moral or otherwise, to evacuate foreign nationals . . . The United States has no obligation to evacuate one, or 100,001, South Vietnamese.”
The senator in question was, of course, Joe Biden — whose opposition would ultimately fail to prevent the evacuation of roughly 135,000 Vietnamese. Biden’s statement nonetheless articulated a sentiment that was clearly common in parts of America’s political class at the time. With the country’s cherished imperial honor diminished by defeat, many lawmakers evidently favored pushing the issue from their minds over even limited efforts at humanitarian relief.
While the administration Biden now leads has quite aggressively rejected comparisons to the fall of Saigon, there are inarguably parallels between the situation today and that of the mid-1970s. Once again, the steadfast determination of American elites to play global policeman has ended in failure and catastrophe. And, yet again, the prolonged deployment of America’s terrifying military might has left a trail of death, destruction, and human chaos in its wake. Amid the ludicrous blame game now playing out in the media over who exactly is responsible for the country’s defeat, there remains a basic truth that cannot be elided: namely, that the United States has a moral obligation to offer shelter to as many Afghans as possible — the political atmosphere be damned.
The reasons are so obvious they should hardly need stating. We cannot know how the country would presently look if NATO’s post-9/11 invasion had never taken place. What we do know is that the current state of affairs comes on the heels of twenty years of American-led policy, and that countless Afghans are now in urgent need of asylum. Over 2 million have reportedly fled the country. In 2020, some 44,000 had already requested asylum in Europe. Earlier this summer, a bipartisan letter to the White House suggested that as many as 18,000 Afghans had applied for visas — a figure that is almost certainly higher today.
As the New Republic’s Matt Ford recently detailed, the current process for application is almost cartoonishly arduous — effectively involving some fourteen different steps and requiring a series of filings and interviews that would be complicated to complete even outside of Afghanistan. To even have a chance of qualifying, applicants must provide documentation from a US-backed employer, meaning that those in need of shelter who lack such a connection will be automatically excluded. The fact is, America’s obligations go far beyond those who’ve aided its military and contractor forces. As an occupying power, its own human rights record has been so poor that even the relatively Washington-friendly Human Rights Watch criticized it as early as 2004.
As a first-term senator in the mid-1970s, Joe Biden cynically insisted that America had no obligation, moral or otherwise, to the countless people whose lives had been threatened and thrown into chaos in the wake of its defeat. That sentiment is as callous and wrong today as it was in 1975.