On April 10, 1999, former US President Gerald Ford, then 85, led a solemn ceremony at the museum named after him in Michigan.
The objective was unusual: to inaugurate the exhibition with a metal staircase.
“For many, she was the exit from a nightmare, a doorway to something incomparably better. For others, it will always be the emblem of a military defeat, “said Ford, president between 1974 and 1977.
The staircase is the protagonist of one of the most famous photos from the Vietnam War, which shows a line of people trying to flee by helicopter from the American Embassy in Saigon City, now Ho Chi Minh City, in April 1975.
The steps led to the roof of the building, from where Americans and a few allied Vietnamese were rescued in the final hours before Communist troops from the north arrived in the city.
The humiliation on Americans, crystallized in the image, helped define Ford as a weak president and buried any re-election chance he might have next year, when he loses to Democrat Jimmy Carter.
“The passage of time has not assuaged the pain of these, the saddest days of my public life,” Ford said, with evident melancholy, during this ceremony at the museum, seven years before his death in 2006, in the age of 93.
The circumstances of the fall of Saigon have drawn comparisons in recent days with a further humiliation inflicted on Americans after the Taliban takeover of Kabul, Afghanistan, by the Taliban.
This time around, the iconic images involve planes rather than helicopters. First, the crowd surrounding a huge freighter getting ready to take off from the Afghan capital, with people literally hanging from the fuselage.
Then black dots falling from the plane in mid-flight – scenes that brought back uncomfortable memories of people jumping from burning Twin Towers after the September 11, 2001 bombing, sponsored by the same group that has now sent the United States flee Afghanistan.
Finally, the scene of hundreds of Afghans crammed inside an American military plane heading for Qatar, fleeing the fundamentalist Islamist group.
“Making the connection between the Kabul and Saigon Falls is inevitable. The similarities are obvious, even if they are not entirely comparable, ”explains historian Jan K. Herman of the American Naval Institute, author of“ The Lucky Few ”on the flight of Americans after the fall of Saigon.
“What matters is that people now look at the footage from Afghanistan and say, ‘I think I saw this somewhere.’ Yes, they saw him in Vietnam. “
According to Herman, in some ways the US withdrawal from Vietnam in the 1970s was a bit more organized, or less chaotic, than the stampede on Afghan soil this week.
The main reason, for the historian, is the fact that the former army of South Vietnam fought vigorously against the Communists, unlike the Afghan army. “In Vietnam, the army has not melted down as we see it now.”
In both cases, says the historian, the American authorities faced a dilemma, because anticipating the exit could generate a situation of panic and favor the advance of the enemy.
There was also a lot of disappointment. In Vietnam, the United States insisted until the last moment that the war could be won, despite the advances of the enemy. Situation opposite to that of Afghanistan, where they simply left the country.
Planning for the Saigon evacuation began quietly in early March 1975, about two months before the fateful day of the city’s fall. Several civilians have been gradually withdrawn on flights to neighboring countries.
The final phase of the operation, called Frequent Wind, was only launched on the eve of the arrival of the Communists. It resulted in the evacuation of 7,000 people, most of them taken by helicopter to US Navy ships anchored off the coast of the country.
The last group left the U.S. Embassy just hours before the city was taken on April 30, 1975, in the chapter that officially ended the Vietnam War.
In the United States, many attempted to lessen the impact of defeat by trying to present the operation in the following years as a final act of heroism and bravery, against the backdrop of military defeat.
As Ford noted at the 1999 ceremony: “No one can doubt the idealism of these brave helicopter pilots, who flew nonstop missions for 18 hours, dodging relentless gunfire. elite to land on the embassy terrace. They are the real heroes “.
This new appearance did not prevent the Saigon flight from being seen as a historic failure, and a clear symbol of a war lost by a weak president.
For historian Herman, the same could happen to Joe Biden in the future. The Democrat will be criticized for two reasons: first, for not foreseeing the possibility that the advance of the Taliban will be so rapid. “At the very least, the intelligence available to the United States was quite deficient,” says the historian.
Plus, he said, no one seems to have bothered to dwell on the past. “If anyone had studied what happened in Vietnam in 1975, they would have made contingency plans for a scenario in which the capital would fall much faster than imagined.”