As a general rule, the men who led America into war did not see Vietnam itself as of great value. What haunted them was the fear that if America did not uphold its commitments there, it would demoralize America’s allies, and embolden the Soviets, in places that really mattered, like Central Europe. “Around the globe, from Berlin to Thailand,” declared Lyndon Johnson in April 1965, “are people whose well-being rests, in part, on the belief that they can count on us if they are attacked. To leave Vietnam to its fate would shake the confidence of all these people in the value of an American commitment and in the value of America’s word.” If the United States did not uphold its guarantees to Saigon, added Secretary of State Dean Rusk, its “guarantees with regard to Berlin would lose their credibility.”
Ironically, the very European leaders whose morale Johnson and Rusk feared undermining if America abandoned South Vietnam—men like British Prime Minister Harold Wilson and French President Charles de Gaulle—privately urged the U.S. not to escalate the war. In the end, after tens of thousands of Americans and millions of Vietnamese had died, the United States did abandon South Vietnam. And the world shrugged. Yes, communists racked up victories in some other corners of the developing world in the 1970s. But they lost ground in others. And in the heart of Europe, the place American policymakers really cared about, NATO held together and the Soviets stayed on their side of the Iron Curtain.