Editor’s Note: Hao-Nhien Vu is a former managing editor of Nguoi Viet, a Vietnamese-language newspaper. He is a professor of mathematics at Coastline College in Orange County, California. The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
The year was 1987. I was walking out of my apartment, just off the campus of Purdue University in Indiana, when I found an older gentleman – probably the same age I am now – trying to fix his car. I asked if I could help.
His accented English was understandable; my car repair skills were bad. I only knew to jump-start, and when that didn’t work, we gave up.
He then asked where I was from. Vietnam, I said. He stood up straight, tapped his chest twice, and said, “Afghanistan!”
He added, “We have the same problem!” I lighted up and said, “Yes. Same problem.”
Since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, many comparisons have been made between the fall of Kabul in 2021 and the fall of Saigon in 1975. But the parallels run deeper than just the images of people desperately trying to flee their countries. The tide of refugees from Afghanistan cries out for the same generous welcome the US gave to those who fled Vietnam 46 years ago.
What the gentleman meant by “same problem” at the time, of course, was communism.
The Afghans solved their problem by valiantly fighting the Soviet Union forces that invaded their country, and the Vietnamese benefited from the eventual dissolution of the USSR. Little to none of the economic reform that made Vietnam’s economy a vibrant one would likely have happened had the Soviet Union still been around.
The old man’s prescient words are haunting me now. Afghanistan and Vietnam have “the same problem” again. I used to think Afghanistan deserved to be invaded because they were harboring Osama bin Laden. But as I watched city upon city fall to the same bin Laden-harboring Taliban, my heart broke.
The chaotic scenes at Kabul Airport have indeed been very reminiscent of Saigon in 1975.
In the aftermath of that evacuation, what President Gerald Ford did was nothing short of Moses-like: Let the people in!
Ford could have said, “Interpreters only.” Or, “Remain in Southeast Asia.” But he never did.
All Vietnamese who had reached an American ship, helicopter, plane, or base, were admitted. They all got gathered in Guam and once the paperwork was done sent off to destinations throughout the US.
Much of the American public didn’t like that. The US was suffering from double-digit inflation and unemployment, and GDP growth was negative, so critics asked: Why bring in more people? According to The New York Times, the White House reported 2,809 telegrams and letters in opposition, and a minority, 2,451, in support. But the President went ahead anyway. The Justice Department, led by Attorney General Edward Levi, granted a waiver on immigration restrictions to the whole lot. More than 130,000 people – my aunt, uncle and cousin among them.
This time in Afghanistan, we have 34,500 Special Immigration Visa (SIV) slots, and only for people who have worked with the US forces. Guess what? The International Rescue Commission estimates that over 300,000 Afghans have been affiliated with the US mission. What will happen to those who are still trying to get to the US, or even just to get out of Afghanistan?
We haven’t even looked ahead to what could happen when tyranny sets in. The Taliban have already proved what they are capable of. The Vietnamese communists had been no better. After the war ended, they stamped their authority in a brutal way.
There was a continuing flood of Vietnamese people to camps in neighboring countries. US presidents of both parties helped. Between 1978 and 1982, under Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, some 280,500 Vietnamese refugees were admitted from the camps.
That’s how my brother made it to America after seven repeated attempts, six nights and five days at sea in a little boat, and more than four months in the camp.
President Carter instituted an additional method, called the Orderly Departure Program (ODP) to receive Vietnamese refugees directly from Vietnam, in part to alleviate pressure on the region’s refugee camps. That was how, seven years after communism took over Vietnam, I and my parents joined the rest of the family here. We considered ourselves lucky, because we were refugees with luggage.
President Reagan’s State Department began negotiations with the Vietnamese for the release of all “re-education” camp prisoners on the promise of taking them all in, negotiations that would be concluded under President George H.W. Bush. Some 200,000 came through ODP, including much of my extended family, landing at airports and beaming with hope for a new future after decades of oppression.
These were not people who had worked for the US. They had worked for, and fought for, the sovereign nation of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), which the US backed in the war against North Vietnam. But no matter. That was a distinction without a difference. We knew the value of allies.
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The hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese who were admitted to the US have, in the years since, formed a thriving group of Vietnamese Americans who have spurred the economic growth of many areas in the country.
Should we do the same for the people of Afghanistan? Yes. They have been our allies. Even among those who didn’t work for the US, many worked and fought alongside us, and all will suffer under the Taliban – women, girls, soldiers, educators, doctors, activists.
Can we do it? Yes. As trying as our current moment is, the US is economically and socially stronger now than it was in the 1970s.
The question is: Will we do it?