Today in History: A Humiliating End to the Vietnam War

In 1975, President Gerald Ford ordered the evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon as North Vietnamese troops closed in
Vietnamese civilians crowd in front of the U.S. Embassy in April 1975.
Vietnamese civilians crowd in front of the U.S. Embassy in April 1975. (Bettmann/CORBIS)

April 28, 1758: James Monroe born. He was the fifth president, serving between 1817 and 1825.

Born in Virginia, Monroe attended the College of William and Mary, fought with distinction during the Revolution, then practiced law. In 1790, he was elected to the Senate. He served until 1794, when he became Minister to France for two years. His experience in Paris came in handy when he later, with Robert R. Livingston, helped negotiate the Louisiana Purchase.

Monroe, an ambitious man, sought the presidency in 1816. With the support of President James Madison, he won and was easily re-elected in 1820.

Monroe made unusually strong Cabinet choices, naming a Southerner, John C. Calhoun, as Secretary of War, and a northerner, John Quincy Adams, as Secretary of State. Only Henry Clay’s refusal kept Monroe from adding an outstanding Westerner.

Early in his administration, Monroe supported nationalist policies. This eventually resulted in regional division around the country. This, combined with an economic depression, created problems for Monroe. Then, in 1819, the Missouri Territory applied for admission to the Union as a slave state. This effort failed, and an amended bill for gradually eliminating slavery in Missouri sparked two years of bitter congressional debate.

The result of this was the Missouri Compromise of 1820. It was decided that Missouri would join the Union as a slave state, while Maine would join as a free state. Furthermore, slavery would be barred north and west of Missouri forever.

But the one thing that Monroe will be most remembered for dealt with foreign affairs. Fearful that governments in Europe might try to aid Spain in winning back its former Latin American colonies, Monroe — with the help of the man who would succeed him in the White House, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams — recognized Latin American nations as independent countries and opened U.S. diplomatic missions in them.

Great Britain — which had just fought a war with the U.S. less than a decade earlier — counseled Monroe to declare a “hands off” policy toward Latin America, and ex-Presidents Jefferson and Madison urged Monroe to accept the offer. But Secretary of State Adams was cautious. He advised the president: “It would be more candid … to avow our principles explicitly to Russia and France, than to come in as a cock-boat in the wake of the British man-of-war.”

Monroe agreed with Adams. Not only must Latin America be left alone, he warned, but also Russia must not encroach southward on the Pacific coast. “The American continents,” he stated, “by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European Power.” Some 20 years after Monroe died in 1831, this became known as the Monroe Doctrine.

In the two centuries since, the Monroe Doctrine has been invoked by multiple presidents as a key part of American foreign policy. John F. Kennedy, for example cited it during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

April 28, 1975: President Gerald Ford ordered the evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon as North Vietnamese troops closed in. It was a humiliating end to the Vietnam War, in which the United States formally fought from 1964 (Gulf of Tonkin Resolution) to 1973 (Paris Peace Accord). Vietnam, once the longest war in American history, has since been surpassed by two wars fought simultaneously: Afghanistan, which began Oct. 2001, and the Iraq war, which ran from March 19, 2003 to December 18, 2011.

Quote of the Day

“The best form of government is that which is most likely to prevent the greatest sum of evil.” -James Monroe

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