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My Minute of News: Why the fall of Kabul feels so much like the fall of Saigon

Aug 16, 2021, 12:23 PM
fall of saigon helicopter photo...
A CIA employee helps Vietnamese evacuees escape Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War, as a helicopter perches atop an apartment building near the US Embassy on April 29, 1975. (Photo: Hubert Van Es/Bettmann Archive)
(Photo: Hubert Van Es/Bettmann Archive)

This is an editorial piece. An editorial, like a news article, is based on fact but also shares opinions. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and are not associated with our newsroom. 

I can’t help but picture another iconic photo as I learn more about the chaotic US evacuation from Kabul, Afghanistan — a photo captured during the fall of Saigon in April of 1975. 

If you’re under 50, you might not understand why Saigon is seared into a generation’s memory. But actually what we recall is one powerful photograph — a single image that captured the futility and humiliation of that US evacuation. (Most of us remember it as the last helicopter involved in the airlift — that’s not true, but I’ll get to that in a minute.) 

The photo that encapsulated the fall of Saigon

It was April 1975. America cut a peace deal with the communists and our troops came home. But the enemy kept fighting, and the South Vietnamese surrendered their country after 58,000 US troops laid down their lives. 

As the enemy closed in on the US Embassy in Saigon, President Gerald Ford went on TV. Armed Forces Radio played White Christmas, a signal that it was time to evacuate. 

It was chaos. 

FILE - In this April 29, 1975, file photo the helicopter zone at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, Vietnam, showing last minute evacuation of authorized personnel and civilians. With U.S. and NATO forces under a Sept. 11, 2021, deadline to leave Afghanistan, many are recalling that desperate, hasty exodus as they urge the Biden administration to evacuate thousands of Afghans who worked as interpreters or otherwise helped U.S. military operations there in the past two decades. (AP Photo, File) U.S. Marines disembark from a CH-53 "Jolly Green Giant" to restore order and restrain crowds at the gates of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon during the final evacuation on April 29, 1975. (AP Photo/Frances Starner) U.S. Marines debark as evacuees load the CH-53 helicopter, known as the Jolly Green Giant, at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, Vietnam, late afternoon on April 29, 1975.  The Marines are initiating the final stage of evacuation by air after a communist victory in the Vietnam War.  (AP Photo/Frances Starner) Americans and Vietnamese run for a U.S. Marine helicopter in Saigon during the evacuation of the city, April 29, 1975. (AP Photo) FILE - In this April 29, 1975 file photo, people try to scale the 14-foot wall of the U.S. embassy in Saigon, trying to reach evacuation helicopters, as the last of the Americans depart from Vietnam. (AP Photo/Neal Ulevich, File) FILE - In this April 29, 1975 file photo, South Vietnamese civilians scale the 14-foot wall of the U.S. embassy in Saigon, trying to reach evacuation helicopters as the last Americans depart from Vietnam. (AP Photo/File) South Vietnamese civilians try to scale the high U.S. Embassy wall in desperate attempts to get abroad on the evacuation flights in Saigon, Vietnam, April 30, 1975.  (AP Photo/Neal Ulevich) FILE - In this April 23, 1975 photo provided by the Department of Defense, Vietnamese refugees crowd aboard the Military Sealift Command ship Pioneer Contender to be evacuated to areas further south. (Department of Defense via AP, File) A CIA employee helps Vietnamese evacuees escape Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War, as a helicopter perches atop an apartment building near the US Embassy on April 29, 1975. (Photo: Hubert Van Es/Bettmann Archive) Associated Press wirecopy story by Peter Arnett and George Esper on the fall of Saigon, April 29, 1975 (page 1 of 3). (AP Photo/Corporate Archives) Associated Press wirecopy story by Peter Arnett and George Esper on the fall of Saigon, April 29, 1975 (page 2 of 3). (AP Photo/Corporate Archives) Associated Press wirecopy story by Peter Arnett and George Esper on the fall of Saigon, April 29, 1975 (page 3 of 3). (AP Photo/Corporate Archives)

Desperate Vietnamese tried to scale the embassy walls and get out of the country. Military pilots choppered in and out, over and over, some of them staying in the air about 19 hours. 

One photo in particular stands out. An Air America chopper perches on the tiny roof of an apartment building just about a block from the embassy. Blades spinning, evacuees crowded a rickety wooden staircase or ladder, so desperate and so urgent the mission, that the ladder bowed under their weight as they scrambled to get up, get on and get out. 

And as they ran up that ladder and the helicopter readied for takeoff, a photographer snapped the shutter. 

Most of us know that photo as the last helicopter. Actually, it wasn’t. But when you see the photo, you understand how we might believe that. It says so much, without saying a single thing. 

The picture is burned into America’s memory. America’s history. 

And Sunday in Kabul, we added another dark page to the history book.

“My Minute of News” airs weekdays 3 to 7 p.m. during Jeff Caplan’s Afternoon News on KSL NewsRadio. 

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My Minute of News: Why the fall of Kabul feels so much like the fall of Saigon