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U.S. Evacuations In Afghanistan Evoke Memories Of Saigon's Fall

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The evacuation of Americans and others from Kabul this week has elicited comparisons to the fall of Saigon in Vietnam. And it's not too hard to see why.

Here's sound from NPR on April 29, 1975, the day before South Vietnam fell fully into communist hands.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: More than 80 helicopters carried Americans and Vietnamese from the besieged American Embassy and Tan Son Nhat Airport, where the fleeing evacuees dodged bullets from bitter Vietnamese left behind - left clamoring, clawing and begging for a flight to safety on U.S. aircraft carriers off the Vietnam coast.

INSKEEP: Now, the wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan were fought for different reasons. But there is a resonance here. And for some who experienced the events of 46 years ago, this week's news brings up old emotions.

NPR's John Ruwitch reports.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: When the curtain fell on South Vietnam, it fell quickly. The embassy was evacuated in a rush. Airlifts took thousands of Vietnamese who'd worked with the U.S. out of the country. And the rest were left to fend for themselves.

Do Hoang Duyet was 17 years old at the time and about to finish 11th grade.

DO HOANG DUYET: I remember my mom told us, everybody, pack a very small pack - just very basic stuff - in case we got to run, we run.

RUWITCH: On April 29, they did just that. With the city in chaos, Duyet's uncle sent a car that brought them to a naval base near Saigon. They crowded onto a South Vietnamese warship with other families. And that night, under gunfire, they cast off, leaving their homeland behind.

DUYET: It's always there in your mind. It leaves a - you know, the event leaves a scar on your soul.

RUWITCH: To Duyet and others I spoke with in a part of California known as Little Saigon, it feels like history's repeating itself half a world away.

DUYET: I look at the news, and I look at the title. And I told myself, here we go again. And I say, you know, too depressing. I'm not going to read it.

RUWITCH: Dinh Quang Anh Thai also had a visceral reaction to images out of Kabul. He was a 21-year-old student activist when South Vietnam collapsed. He didn't flee right away. And it cost him. He spent years in and out of jail before escaping on a boat in the mid-1980s.

DINH QUANG ANH THAI: Very sad, very depressed - and I cannot, you know, hold my tear when I saw the Afghan people, you know, run at the Kabul International Airport.

RUWITCH: As with Kabul, the capital Saigon was the last major city to fall in South Vietnam.

Ngo Minh Triet worked for the government in the city of Danang, on the central coast. And when that city fell a month before Saigon, he fled by sea.

NGO MINH TRIET: You have people so desperate to get out of the city that they just start swimming. My boat is so full, so I couldn't get any more people. But I saw people desperately tried to swim. And you cannot swim just out to the ocean, right?

RUWITCH: At the time and in the years since, Triet says, while he hasn't felt anger toward the Americans...

TRIET: I feel, like, bitter - bitter, yeah - very bitter because in Vietnamese culture, we value loyalty, right? And we promise something, we got to do it.

RUWITCH: For Do Hoang Duyet, bitterness about abandonment gave way to a different understanding of what happened to South Vietnam.

DUYET: Why do you expect another country, another government to fight the war for you? Do you expect Americans going to be there for 50 years, for 100 years? It doesn't make sense.

RUWITCH: When Saigon fell, Tuan Hoang was in elementary school in Vietnam. He now studies Vietnamese refugees as an associate professor at Pepperdine University. Even though the U.S. has left Afghanistan, he says, there are still things it can do to help.

TUAN HOANG: I do hope that the humanitarian impulse among Americans would prevail - right? - over the anti-immigration perspective - right? - that have dominated discourse so much lately.

(SOUNDBITE OF VOLLEYBALL HITTING GROUND)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hey.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: OK. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLAPPING)

HOANG: America should welcome Afghan refugees, he says, like it did for him and so many Vietnamese who left everything behind nearly a half century ago.

John Ruwitch, NPR News, Garden Grove, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIAM THOMAS' "BITTER FEELING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.