U.S. must not abandon Iraq as it did South Vietnam

May 5, 2004, 10:33PM

Shortly after noon on April 30, 1975, a mass of panicky Vietnamese refugees on Guam burst into tears. They had been huddling near the camp's operations center listening to the BBC. My mother was among the crowd of mostly women and elderly people. "The communists have entered Saigon. It's all over." The radio announcement quickly filtered throughout the camp.

Our worst fears had been realized, for my father was still in Saigon, whereabouts unknown. But I was only 10 and oblivious to the calamity at hand. As the tropical sun baked the salty sweat onto my skin, so would the memories of Vietnam later stencil their indelible marks.

The next day we left for a new life in the United States, fortunate to be among the half-percent of the population that escaped. But even though the war was over, the blood continued to spill in Vietnam. America betrayed us that day (although many have denied it ever since); it was the only time the United States ever abandoned an ally on the battlefield.

After Watergate dethroned President Nixon, President Ford's hands were tied, despite his final plea to help South Vietnam amid the North's all-out assault to capture Saigon. Congress overwhelmingly voted against resuming aid despite atrocious and blatant cease-fire violations by the North Vietnamese. With the exception of a handful of people in the State Department and U.S. military and of citizens involved in the evacuation and refugee resettlement, Americans had had enough. The war had gone on for more than a decade, with 58,235 American dead and countless physical and psychological casualties. For the South Vietnamese, about 300,000 soldiers paid the ultimate price. Vietnam as a people lost 2 million to 3 million.

The United States didn't lose in Vietnam. The South Vietnamese did. Those stranded behind paid dearly for losing their war and their country. Life changed drastically. A month after winning, the communists began rounding up a million former government officials, educators and soldiers, including my father, for internment in "re-education" camps.

With few exceptions, these prisoners were detained without charge, trial or protection from criminal abuses by the guards. A month turned into a year, then into more than a decade. My father was held for 12 years. Human rights researchers estimated 70,000 were executed and thousands died of hard labor, disease and malnutrition while the world ignored their plight.

After several years under communist rule, millions began escaping, mostly via boats. According to the Red Cross, an additional 300,000 died on the high seas. In nearby Cambodia, 2 million more perished in the Khmer Rouge's "killing fields." Although the quest to account for American POWs and MIAs in the postwar years continued, the United Nations took several years to investigate the re-education camp crisis.

What will June 30 bring the Iraqis? In the year since Baghdad's liberation, victory has morphed into uncertainty. It is increasingly clear that President Bush can't let things drag on. Americans are losing patience, especially those who are not doing the fighting. But America must not betray the Iraqis as it betrayed the South Vietnamese. Our soldiers must finish their job, whatever that may be, and leave Iraq only when it is prepared for stable self-government. Otherwise, start erecting refugee camps for those Iraqis who have been on our side, however few they may be.

I still remember my flight to the United States. The tropics of Guam had given us a temporary illusion of Vietnam, but we had to go on. As the cargo plane rolled down the runway, I noticed two rows of dark green jets. Neatly parked, with no crewmen in sight and no bombs to be loaded, they were the B-52s the South Vietnamese had thought were coming one more time.

Pham, a Marine veteran of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, is writing a memoir about duty, fate and the aftermath of war.