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

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)

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. 

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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