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U.S. withdraws from Vietnam
Two months after the signing of the Vietnam peace agreement, the last U.S. In Saigon, some ...read more
U.S. Embassy in Cambodia evacuated
In Cambodia, the U.S. ambassador and his staff leave Phnom Penh when the U.S. Navy conducts its evacuation effort, Operation Eagle. On April 3, 1975, as the communist Khmer Rouge forces closed in for the final assault on the capital city, U.S. forces were put on alert for the ...read more
Fall of Saigon: South Vietnam surrenders
The South Vietnamese stronghold of Saigon (now known as Ho Chi Minh City) falls to People's Army of Vietnam and the Viet Cong on April 30, 1975. The South Vietnamese forces had collapsed under the rapid advancement of the North Vietnamese. The most recent fighting had begun in ...read more
North Vietnamese launch “Ho Chi Minh Campaign”
The North Vietnamese “Ho Chi Minh Campaign” begins. Despite the 1973 Paris Peace Accords cease fire, the fighting had continued between South Vietnamese forces and the North Vietnamese troops in South Vietnam. In December 1974, the North Vietnamese launched a major attack against ...read more
President Ford says that war is finished for America
At a speech at Tulane University, President Gerald Ford says the Vietnam War is finished as far as America is concerned. “Today, Americans can regain the sense of pride that existed before Vietnam. But it cannot be achieved by re-fighting a war.” This was devastating news to the ...read more
The Fall of Saigon
On April 30, 1975, North Viet-namese troops accepted the surrender of Saigon and thus snuffed out the Republic of Vietnam, humiliating Washington in the process. Saigon, within 24 hours, had become Ho Chi Minh City. The surrender of the capital and its prompt renaming years ago this month–became the ultimate symbol of the failure of US policy in Southeast Asia.
For Americans, that day forever will be remembered for the spectacle of overcrowded US helicopters fleeing in a badly timed but well-executed evacuation, their flight to safety contrasting with the terror that gripped thousands of loyal South Vietnamese left to their fates. The media presented hundreds of wrenching scenes-tiny boats overcrowded with soldiers and family members, people trying to force their way onto the US Embassy grounds, Vietnamese babies being passed over barbed wire to waiting hands and an unknown future.
Saigon fell with bewildering speed. After 21 years of struggle against the Communist forces, the South Vietnamese army collapsed in just weeks into a disorganized mass, unable to slow, much less halt, forces from the North.
In nearly 30 years of war, Hanoi had defeated France and South Vietnam on the battlefield and the US at the negotiating table. The Communist regime was expert in manipulating US opinion. For example, Hanoi had converted its debilitating defeat in the 1968 Tet Offensive into a stunning propaganda victory, one that ultimately drove the United States out of the war.
Still, North Vietnam had suffered about 50,000 casualties in Tet and was similarly mauled in its spring 1972 offensive against the South. The People’s Army of Vietnam needed time to recuperate.
South Vietnam’s president, Nguyen Van Thieu, took advantage of Hanoi’s decision to refit and re-equip, extending the South Vietnamese hold on territory wherever possible. The result was that the South Vietnamese army was spread out over a large area and by late 1974 was ripe for an attack. Its condition was worsened by the drying up of US assistance, a drastic increase in inflation, and, as always, flagrant corruption.
The January 1973 Paris peace accords led to a near-total withdrawal of US forces in early 1973. In fall 1974, leaders in Hanoi had decided upon a two-year program to conquer the South and unite the two countries under Communist rule. Called “General Offensive, General Uprising,” the program was designed so that a series of major military offensives in 1975 would bring the South Vietnamese population to the point of revolution and permit a conclusive victory in 1976.
North Vietnam was well aware of the disarray in American politics since President Richard M. Nixon’s August 1974 resignation, and it decided to test the waters. In January 1975, it conquered Phuoc Long province on the border with Cambodia. North Vietnamese regular units, supplemented by local guerrillas, routed the South Vietnamese army in a mere three weeks. More than 3,000 South Vietnamese troops were killed or captured, and supplies worth millions were lost to the invaders. Although Phuoc Long was not particularly important in either military or economic terms, it was the first province the North Vietnamese had taken since 1972-and it was only 80 miles from Saigon.
This absolutely crucial event was scarcely noted in the American news media. Washington had pledged to “respond with decisive military force” to any North Vietnamese violation of the 1973 accords. In the end, however, the US did nothing at all. Hanoi doubtless was encouraged to continue.
Oddly enough, Thieu was not discouraged. That is because he continued to believe in Nixon’s promises, even after Nixon had been forced to resign, and he would continue to believe in those promises almost to the end, frequently musing about “when the B-52s would return.”
March 1975 saw Hanoi make its next seriously aggressive move. In the preceding two years, North Vietnam’s army patiently moved into the South enormous quantities of Soviet artillery, surface-to-air missiles, and armored vehicles, along with 100,000 fresh troops. The Paris accords allowed more than 80,000 North Vietnamese regular troops to remain in the South, and their numbers had already increased to more than 200,000.
North Vietnamese regular and guerrilla forces now numbered some 1 million, despite the heavy losses of the previous decade. North Vietnam’s army units, created by Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, were weapons-intensive, with few logistics or support personnel. In contrast, South Vietnam’s army was modeled on the US Army. It had about 750,000 troops, of which only about 150,000 were combat troops. They were well-equipped but poorly supported, despite the Army’s huge logistics tail.
Giap in 1973 had become ill with Hodgkin’s disease, and power passed to his protégé, Van Tien Dung, North Vietnam’s only other four-star general. Dung, a short, square-faced peasant who had worked his way up through the ranks, carefully infiltrated his forces so that he was able to set up his headquarters at Loc Ninh, only 75 miles north of Saigon. The elaborate preparations included construction of an oil pipeline and telephone grid that was impervious to electronic countermeasures.
Dung dictated tactics designed to minimize casualties from the massed firepower upon which South Vietnam’s army had been trained to rely. Unfortunately for the South Vietnamese, their supplies of ammunition were badly depleted by rampant inflation and severe reductions in American aid.
Final Battle Begins
Dung arrived at Loc Ninh via the Ho Chi Minh Trail, now expanded from foot paths to include paved, two-lane highways with extensions that reached within 30 miles of Saigon. His first target was Ban Me Thuot, a city in the Central Highlands and the capital of Darlac province. It was the absolutely vital link in the South Vietnamese army’s defenses. If it were lost, Communist forces could easily cut South Vietnam in half.
North Vietnam disguised its real assault by mounting pinprick attacks in the two northernmost provinces of South Vietnam. Minor though they were, they triggered a panic flight of more than 50,000 refugees that would have immense effect on battles soon to come.
Northern forces isolated Ban Me Thuot by cutting off or blocking the main highways to it. On March 10, 1975, three North Vietnamese army divisions, well-equipped with tanks, assaulted the city, which was defended by two reinforced regiments of the 23rd Division. Despite a barrage of 122 mm artillery fire, the South Vietnamese army, commanded by Maj. Gen. Pham Van Phu, fought well. However, they were worn down and, by March 12, Dung had essentially captured the city.
It was at Ban Me Thuot that there first occurred a phenomenon that would increasingly undermine the South’s morale. Many of its army officers used helicopters to pick up their families and flee to the south with them. Phu himself fled when the time came.
South Vietnamese hordes then began to flee the countryside, crowding the main roads and the pathways in a mass exodus for the coast, where they ultimately jammed seaports seeking transport to the south. The refugees included not only those civilians who had helped the South’s army or the Americans, but also a great mass who had no reason to expect bad treatment from North Vietnam’s army. They were simply fleeing in the general panic.
The refugee crowd had another characteristic, one that would prove to have a disastrous effect upon South Vietnamese resistance. South Vietnamese soldiers were leaving the line of battle to find their families and escort them to safety. It was a natural response to the war, but it accelerated the dissolution of the South’s capability to resist.
Thieu had believed the target of Dung’s attack would be Pleiku. He panicked on learning of the fall of Ban Me Thuot and on March 14 secretly ordered the withdrawal of the South’s forces from the Central Highlands. It was a monumental error, for no plans for the withdrawal had been drawn up, and the orders to leave simply plunged the remaining troops into a mass of refugees whose agonizing journey came to be called “the convoy of tears.”
This flight of refugees was unlike those seen in World War II. Those fleeing the Communists in Vietnam resorted to each and every kind of conveyance: buses, tanks, trucks, armored personnel carriers, private cars. Anything with wheels was pressed nose to tail along Route 7B. The vehicles were jammed with soldiers and overloaded with family members–from babes in arms to aged grandparents–packed on top or clinging to the side, like jitney riders. Many of those who fell off were crushed by the vehicle behind.
Thousands more fled on foot, carrying their pathetic belongings with them. For 15 hot days and cold nights there was no food or water available, and the route was littered with abandoned people–children, the elderly, the infirm.
North Vietnamese army troops of the 320th Division pounced on the disorganized mob trying to get to the coast and kept them under constant attack, killing thousands of civilians. North Vietnamese artillery would destroy one vehicle after another at near point-blank range, throwing body parts into trees and drenching the ground with blood.
It was a different kind of slaughter. Unlike Kosovo where long-standing ethnic hatred led to the killing of a few thousands, the slaughter here was between people of the same blood. As many as 40,000 died on the road. The situation worsened when renegade South Vietnamese army troops also began firing on the refugee columns.
Compounding this sad spectacle was the fact that, when the exhausted survivors finally made it to a seaport, they were exploited by fellow countrymen who charged exorbitant prices for food and sold water for $2 a glass. Here the South Vietnamese army turned into an armed mob, preying on civilians and looting whatever could be found.
Dung swiftly swung north and on March 18 occupied Kontum and Pleiku, putting the invasion weeks ahead of schedule. It was a South Vietnamese debacle, with the southern army managing to lose the war faster than North Vietnam’s army could win it.
Thieu’s hasty and ill-advised surrender of the Central Highlands had cost South Vietnam six provinces and two regular army divisions. More than a billion dollars in materiel was abandoned.
Improvisation and Delusion
The South Vietnamese leader now began to improvise an enclave policy. His forces would concentrate on holding certain coastal cities, including Da Nang, along with Saigon and the Delta region. Thieu, a tough politician, had an almost childlike belief that holding these areas would give the United States time to exert its military power and once again force the North Vietnamese to negotiate.
North Vietnamese forces unleashed attacks in Quang Tri province in late March, accelerating the flow of refugees. In Hue city, the citizens were alarmed. The city had suffered greatly in 1968 during the Communists’ 25-day Tet occupation. It lost another 20,000 civilians during the North’s 1972 offensive. Once again, soldiers and citizens merged to join the throng headed for Da Nang. By March 23, a combination of rumors, desertions, and North Vietnamese propaganda had made Hue indefensible. It fell on March 24.
As Communist artillery shelled Hue and all of the roads leading to and from it, other forces surrounded Da Nang, to which more than 1 million refugees had fled, leaving behind those killed by artillery, collisions, and mob stampedes. Thousands attempted to escape by sea, fleeing in anything that would float. Many drowned.
At Da Nang, a civilian airlift began, presaging the later confusion and terror at Saigon. Edward J. Daly, president of World Airways, defied US Ambassador Graham A. Martin and dispatched two Boeing 727s to Da Nang, flying on the first one himself. After landing, his airplane was mobbed by thousands of people, some 270 of whom were finally jammed on board. (All but a handful of these were armed soldiers-not the civilians that Daly had intended to evacuate.) The 727 took off amid gunfire and a grenade explosion that damaged the flaps. It hit a fence and a vehicle before staggering into the air. People had crowded into the wheel well, and one man was crushed as the gear came up and jammed.
Somehow the 727 made it back to Saigon, gear down and with split flaps, managing to land safely. The dreadful photos of the dead man’s feet hanging from the gear doors told the miserable story. Ironically the one man’s death saved four others who had also climbed into the wheel well, for his crushed body had prevented the gear from retracting all the way. Later, when the details of the overweight and damage-laden takeoff were sent to Boeing for analysis, the response was that the 727 should not have been able to fly.
The seaborne disasters that occurred at Hue were repeated at Da Nang on a larger scale, as people were trampled to death by crowds fighting to board the larger ships. More than 2 million people were crowded into Da Nang, but only 50,000 would escape by sea. In what was now a familiar pattern, discipline broke down as Communist artillery fire raked the city and widespread looting began. Organized resistance crumbled, and fleeing civilians were caught in a murderous cross fire between North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese troops.
The Communist forces entered Da Nang on March 29. Qui Nhon fell on March 31 and Nha Trang on April 3. The battle for Nha Trang lasted only three hours. The rich resources of Cam Ranh Bay fell on the same day after only 30 minutes of fighting. These reverses soon were followed by the fall of other coastal towns. Phu Cat airport was captured with more than 60 flyable aircraft in place.
Lost in the melee was materiel valued at billions of dollars. Anyone who flew in or out of Da Nang or Cam Ranh during the Vietnam War will recall the thousands of acres of supplies stacked around the airfields. That gigantic supply stockpile fell into Communist hands.
Going for Broke
Now it was Hanoi’s turn to improvise. Shocked by the speed of its success, North Vietnam hastily proclaimed a new goal: the conquest of South Vietnam in time to celebrate the May 19 birth date of the late Ho Chi Minh. Dung termed his military action “the Ho Chi Minh Campaign” and gave his troops a new slogan: “Lightning speed, daring, and more daring.”
They complied, and by early April, North Vietnam’s forces had severed the roads around Saigon and had begun shelling Bien Hoa airfield. A battle began on April 9 at Xuan Loc, located on National Route 1 only 37 miles northeast of Saigon.
Southern forces fought well during the course of the bitter 15-day fight. This was particularly true of the 18th Division, an outfit that previously had a bad reputation. Here, it fought on after suffering 30 percent casualties. However, it received no reinforcements, and it faced North Vietnam’s 4th Corps. During this battle, the remnant of South Vietnam’s air force carried out its last effective operation, using cluster bombs, 15,000-pound daisy cutters, and even a CBU-55B asphyxiation bomb.
Elsewhere in the region, the United States on April 12 evacuated 276 Americans from Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in Operation Eagle Pull. The withdrawal sent Hanoi yet another signal that US intervention was not to be feared in South Vietnam. Unaccountably, Thieu for another nine days clung to the hope of US intervention. Then, on April 21, he resigned, turning the government over to aging and feeble Tran Van Huong.
South Vietnamese morale was not helped by rumors, which turned out to be true, that Thieu was sending personal goods and money out of the country. In short order, the man followed his valuables into exile in Taiwan and then Britain.
Xuan Loc fell on April 23, and there was now little to prevent or slow the Communist advance on Saigon. That same day, in an address at Tulane University, President Gerald Ford stated that the war in Vietnam “is finished as far as America is concerned.” He got a standing ovation.
Huong, South Vietnam’s new president, transferred power to Gen. Duong Van Minh. “Big Minh,” as he was called, had planned the assassinations in 1963 of South Vietnam’s president, Ngo Dinh Diem, and Diem’s brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu. The South Vietnamese leadership was out of options and had come to the fantastic conclusion that the Communists might negotiate with Minh. This was far from reality North Vietnamese regular army troops and tanks had by then surrounded Saigon, which became yet another city in panic.
On Life Support
South Vietnam’s capital city was located some 45 miles from the coast of the South China Sea on the Saigon River. Long called the “Paris of the Orient,” it had lost only part of its French-colonial beauty in the long war. It had, however, lost confidence in its government. Despite many officials who did their jobs well, there were far too many high-ranking people who were not only corrupt but incompetent. It was not a government to inspire its people to fight to the last, but it was the government to which the United States had obligations. It was also a government that the American Embassy had to keep functioning as long as possible in order to evacuate the maximum number of Americans and loyal South Vietnamese.
Martin, the US envoy, had tried to shore up Thieu, lobbying for additional US military and financial aid. His efforts were sincere but they delayed the implementation of plans to evacuate American and South Vietnamese supporters of the administration from Saigon until it was far too late.
Fortunately, two evacuation operations were already in action, and the execution of the third was in the hands of professionals. The first of these, Operation Babylift, had been conducted between April 4 and 14, and some 2,600 Vietnamese children were taken to the United States to be adopted. Babylift was marred by a tragic accident on the first flight of the operation, April 4, 1975.
A C-5A transport had taken off and climbed to 23,000 feet when an explosive decompression blew out a huge section of the aft cargo door, cutting the control cables to the elevator and rudder. Capt. Dennis Traynor did a masterful job of flying the airplane, using power for pitch and ailerons for directional control. He managed to bring the aircraft back to within five miles of Tan Son Nhut, where he made a semicontrolled crash. Of the 382 people aboard, 206 were killed, most of them children.
All subsequent flights were made safely. The Babylift operation later came under criticism for its overt attempt to create good public relations and for some of the criteria used in selecting the children. In the end, Babylift could be evaluated as yet another good-hearted attempt by the United States to do the right thing under difficult circumstances.
The second evacuation had been going on quietly for many days, relying on standard civilian and military airlift and virtually anything that would float. Some 57,700 were flown out by fixed wing aircraft, and 73,000 left by sea. About 5,000 Americans were evacuated–everyone who wished to come–plus many foreigners. South Vietnamese who were airlifted out were for the most part people whose service to their government or to the United States made them candidates for execution by the Communists.
There were many instances of individual courage, as exemplified by Francis Terry McNamara, the US consul general in Can Tho. McNamara, at great personal risk, commandeered landing craft to ferry hundreds of Vietnamese down the Bassac River to safety. Neither blinding rainstorms, South Vietnamese navy, nor North Vietnamese regulars stopped him.
Martin, who was perhaps too courageous for his own and for his people’s good, was not persuaded to begin a formal evacuation until April 29. Tan Son Nhut had been hit by a small formation of Cessna A-37 aircraft, led by the renegade South Vietnamese pilot, Nguyen Thanh Trung, who previously bombed the presidential palace from his F-5. Then North Vietnamese rockets and 130 mm artillery shells began dropping on the airfield, while SA-7 missiles were being used successfully outside the perimeter.
Finally, after a personal visit, Martin became convinced that Tan Son Nhut was no longer suitable for use by fixed wing aircraft. He reluctantly initiated Operation Frequent Wind.
Frequent Wind turned out to be the helicopter evacuation of Saigon from the Defense Attaché’s Office at Tan Son Nhut and from the embassy compound itself. Some 6,236 passengers were removed to safety, despite severe harassing fire. To some, however, it seemed that the DAO area and the evacuation process itself were deliberately spared by the North Vietnamese.
At the embassy, large helicopters used the walled-in courtyard as a landing pad while small helicopters lifted people from the roof. Despite the lack of time and inadequate landing facilities, crews performed with remarkable precision.
On April 29 and 30, 662 US military airlift flights took place between Saigon and ships 80 miles away. Ten Air Force HH/CH-53s flew 82 missions, while 61 Marine Corps CH-46s and CH-53s flew 556 sorties. There were 325 support aircraft sorties by Marine, Navy, and USAF aircraft. Air America, the CIA proprietary airline, joined in, having flown 1,000 sorties in the previous month. Air America crews distinguished themselves with a selfless bravery not usually attributed to “mercenaries.”
The end came on April 30. At 4:58 a.m., a CH-46 helicopter, call sign “Lady Ace 09,” flown by Capt. Jerry Berry, transported Martin from the embassy roof to the waiting US fleet. At 7:53 a.m., the last helicopter lifted off, carrying Marine personnel who had been defending the embassy. It left behind many South Vietnamese (250 to 400, depending upon which source is consulted) who had been promised escape. They were simply abandoned. It was the last of a long series of US betrayals in Vietnam.
There were more evacuations to come, unplanned and totally chaotic. Every South Vietnamese helicopter was crammed with people and these were flown, like a swarm of bees, to the waiting ships of the 7th Fleet. The helicopters would land (sometimes on top of each other) and their occupants would be disarmed and led away. The helicopters would then be dumped over the side to make room for the next one incoming. At least 45 were disposed of like this many more were stored for future use.
Fixed wing South Vietnamese aircraft fled to Thailand, landing pell-mell at various bases. Americans who were there at the time recall watching the arrival of flocks of overloaded aircraft of every type.
In Washington, State and Defense Department task forces were hastily assembled. Washington decision makers quickly set up refugee processing centers at Ft. Chaffee, Ark., Ft. Indiantown Gap, Pa., and Eglin AFB, Fla. In the days and weeks following the fall of Saigon, 675,000 refugees were brought to the United States.
On April 30, a North Vietnamese tank bearing a huge white ” smashed through the gates of the presidential palace. South Vietnam’s last president, Minh, tried to surrender. He was told that he no longer controlled anything that could be surrendered.
At 3:30 p.m., however, the North Vietnamese conquerors relented just a bit. Reconsidering, they allowed the last chief executive of South Vietnam to broadcast over the radio an abject, two-sentence speech of surrender. By then, a new darkness already had descended on the people of what once had been South Vietnam.
Walter J. Boyne, former director of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, is a retired Air Force colonel and author. He has written more than 400 articles about aviation topics and 29 books, the most recent of which is Beyond the Horizons: The Lockheed Story. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “The All-American Airman,” appeared in the March 2000 issue.
Dutch photographer Hubert van Es's iconic photo of the evacuation of Saigon shows desperate Vietnamese trying to board one of the last helicopters out of the city on the 29th April 1975 from the US C.I.A building.
It was part of the largest-ever helicopter evacuation, ordered by President Ford and code-named Operation Frequent Wind. It was made necessary after damage to nearby runways at the airport. Over 7,000 people were ferried from Saigon to US carriers out to sea, including US citizens and the Vietnamese who had supported the US effort.
The Fall of Saigon — April 30, 1975
April 30, 1975 will long be remembered as the day that Saigon fell and with it, the end of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. It also marked the beginning of Vietnam’s unification as a “socialist republic.” North Vietnamese forces began their final attack on Saigon on April 29, with a heavy artillery bombardment. This bombardment at the Tan Son Nhut Airport killed the last two American servicemen that died in Vietnam. By the afternoon of the next day, North Vietnamese troops had occupied the important points within the city and raised their flag over the South Vietnamese presidential palace. The fall of the city was preceded by the evacuation of almost all the American civilian and military personnel in Saigon, along with tens of thousands of South Vietnamese civilians associated with the southern regime. South Vietnam capitulated shortly thereafter and Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City.
Operation Frequent Wind, the helicopter evacuation of Saigon, was the largest such evacuation in history and produced some of the most iconic images of the Vietnam War. John Bennett was the Deputy Director at the Agency for International Development (USAID) mission in 1975. In this excerpt, he recounts the difficulties he experienced leading up to and during the evacuation. For a dramatic account of the evacuation from the U.S. consulate at Can Tho, read Terry McNamara. Read other Moments on Vietnam.
“The cards had already been dealt”
BENNETT: We were just playing out the hand. The cards had already been dealt and all we could hope for was a slip by the other side. I was beginning the process of getting my people out of Vietnam, thinning down the ranks, trying to be sure that their effects got shipped. I didn’t know how long I was going to stay until noon of the last day. My wife went at about noon that day. But we weren’t sure that we were all going to leave. [Ambassador Graham] Martin thought that we might make some sort of deal where we could keep a small embassy in Saigon. I didn’t want to make a judgment on this. I would probably have stayed if that had happened. That went with my job: I was the acting AID Director the last three months.
My reaction to that is that if we had pulled out any earlier, we would have had an incredible riot in Saigon, a total breakdown in authority. As it is, I don’t know whether Ambassador Martin foresaw it happening the way it did or not. The North Vietnamese divisions had surrounded the city but weren’t in it. They bombed the airport late Monday afternoon. We had been taking out masses of people for weeks, flying them out to the Philippines or wherever we could deposit them. I had been getting people out. The AID mission even chartered a couple of aircraft to get our people out and anybody else who needed a lift.…
The problem for the Vietnamese staff was that many of them had family who couldn’t go. I remember one woman who was preparing to go. Her husband just took off and left her. She decided that she had to stay in order to take care of her husband’s sick sister. A lot of the people who would have been eligible to go couldn’t.…
We took great care that they had enough money, in dollars. We would put them on buses and take them out to Tan Son Nhut, the airport. Then we found the guards at the gate would steal all their money. So we took the money out separately in an American car.
The question is whether or not [Ambassador Martin] should have done it [ordered the evacuation] sooner. If we had done it sooner my personal conviction is that we would have gotten fewer out. We certainly would have gotten different people out. Although, I think more people got out the way we did it, because we had martial law, we could move around the city. We got all of our Americans out and a whole lot of Vietnamese as well. The USIA [U.S. Information Agency] director got heavily criticized for not getting his Vietnamese employees out. That’s what I had spent weeks doing, making sure that each day’s group got out. There wasn’t a hell of a lot else to do. The one thing I didn’t do was burn a whole lot of low-level classified material in the AID building. We somehow never got told when to do it, until it was too late.
On Monday afternoon they bombed the airport. I was running a fever and had came home and sat down. I was taking an aspirin and a little libation. The next thing I knew all hell broke loose. Ten minutes of unremitting gunfire. Everybody in the city thought that this was it. My reaction was, hey, they’re in the city and here we go. It turned out not to be the case. The soldiers panicked and were firing in the air.
What really worried me was my wife, who was driving back from the airport when the bombing occurred. She had just put some kids who had been left by the American parent, married to a Vietnamese, with Vietnamese relatives. She’d taken them out and put them on an airplane. She was really concerned that they had been killed, but it didn’t happen.
The next thing I knew, I got this phone call to come to a meeting at midnight at the embassy. I said I’m not going, I’m sick. Then I thought better of it and so I called up [Ambassador] Martin. I talked to him for an hour about all the things that had happened that day. He was in a reflective mood. He’d called the meeting, but he wasn’t going to be there himself. But by that time I was fired up, so I went.
We talked about whom we were going to take out the next day. Then I went home to bed. At about 2:30 a.m. the Vietnamese artillery started shelling the city. You don’t sleep when that’s going on. The next thing I know, at 5:30 in the morning, I get a call from the embassy: “Meeting in the ambassador’s office.” So down I go with my wife and I never went back.
I spent that day burning embassy files and trying to round up my AID people. At first not all of them had to go, so I had to identify which ones would and get them picked up. Then we learned all of them had to go. So then I had to contact the rest by telephone and get them picked up. We had a number of small helicopters destroyed by the artillery the night before. They were the kind that could land on roofs, so their loss meant we had to move people around the city in cars and buses. We had a ship, but we couldn’t get to it because North Vietnamese troops were between us and the ship. So that didn’t work out. But we put others on a barge and towed it out to sea with a tug….
It was dark when the choppers finally began to come into the embassy. Because there was so little light and the pilots feared small arms fire, we had to use smaller choppers than originally planned and take off from the roof of the embassy. Fortunately there was little wind, because the pad was small and there was little room for error up there….
One crisis after another but no recognition for the embassy
There was one crisis after another. I can tell you that at one point I was so tired I didn’t think I was going to make it. But we kept soldiering on. At 8:00 p.m. I was told to go, and so I went upstairs to get on the helicopter. The Marine captain who was in charge was standing there cursing and saying, “Where the hell are all these people? We’re waiting up here and they’re downstairs having a party.” I decided that he might be right and went downstairs. People were milling around, doing nothing. I began telling them to go upstairs and get on the helicopters. Well, I was effective enough that by the time I’d made it to the ground floor there was a line running all the way to the roof. I had to get at the end of it. But I got out at midnight….
It was an eerie sight, flying out. We could see tracers arcing across the ground, and in a couple of places it looked like ammunition dumps were burning and blowing up, a Fourth of July celebration….
[I was evacuated] to a helicopter carrier. My wife was on another ship, the Denver, a landing ship. I was so tired. When we got on we had to stand in line and register and then they searched us for weapons and had us turn in government property — e.g., some people had brought electric typewriters. I got bunked with a young lieutenant who was on duty at the time. It was right underneath the flight deck. Every time a plane landed, it hit hard. Boy, that really wakes you up! A couple of days later I got on a copter and joined my wife.…
I felt I did all right. I got all my people out. That was my responsibility. Nobody was telling me to do it. I just went ahead and did it. I even got four
of them over the wall and into the embassy at seven or eight in the evening by pure fluke. I had been working in [Political Counselor] Joe Bennett’s office at the switchboard and saw the light for his number and took the call. They had been waiting for a bus all day at the AID headquarters. I told them if they could get to the embassy in fifteen minutes we could get them in. The embassy was surrounded by crowds of Vietnamese who wanted to get out on the helicopters, so we had to figure out a way to identify them. I told them to take the cover off the embassy phone book and wave it. And we got them over. An American on top had to identify them and lean down and pull them up.
The people in the Korean embassy stayed there till it was too late and they couldn’t move. We could have gotten them out earlier through the American embassy. There were other people who worked for the CIA whose lives were in real danger. They should have been picked up and taken out, but apparently, they all weren’t. The AID Mission was told how many could go out on a particular day. I would simply make sure to fill my quota.…
A lot of Americans had friends whom they helped get out. These were not officials. If you could get them out to the airport, the planes would take them. This did produce trouble. A friend of mine picked up an ex-minister and took him out to Tan Son Nhut [airport] and dumped him on the street. The Vietnamese police picked him up. The next thing I knew Graham Martin was calling. I had to pick up the Vietnamese after he got out of jail. He was really shaking. He was white. We got him out. There was a lot of freelancing. We had a lot of people coming back in. Mission employees who’d been there in past years, came back to get their friends out. Then we had to get those people out again. There was a lack of control over what was happening….
In thinking back over Saigon’s fall, a whole lot of issues arise…. I discovered that the embassy, and Martin in particular, was strongly criticized for its conduct of the evacuation. Neither Kissinger nor Assistant Secretary Phil Habib had any great love for Martin. They believed that we should have taken far more people out earlier than we did. Perhaps, but they weren’t in Saigon and had no sense of how fragile control of the city was. I always believed we would have gotten fewer people out had we started earlier and order broke down. Even if it hadn’t broken down, the difference would have been in who got out, not how many.
I also think that Martin, as tough and nasty as he could be, kept everyone soldiering on in an effort widely thought of as hopeless. It was a remarkable performance, never acknowledged. In fact, somewhere I have a memo from Phil Habib saying that no one in the embassy was going to get any recognition because they didn’t want Martin to get it. Some years later, we turned that around, so that the lower level AID people did get recognition.
Fall of Saigon - HISTORY
The Fall of Saigon was the capture of Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, by the North Vietnamese Army on April 30, 1975. The event marked the end of the Vietnam War and the start of a transition period leading to the formal reunification of Vietnam under communist rule.
North Vietnamese forces under the command of the Senior General Văn Tiến Dũng began their final attack on Saigon, which was commanded by General Nguyen Van Toan on April 29, with a heavy artillery bombardment. By the afternoon of the next day, North Vietnamese troops had occupied the important points within the city and raised their flag over the South Vietnamese presidential palace. South Vietnam capitulated shortly after. The city was renamed Ho Chi Minh City, after communist leader Ho Chi Minh. The fall of the city was preceded by the evacuation of almost all the American civilian and military personnel in Saigon, along with tens of thousands of South Vietnamese civilians associated with the southern regime. The evacuation culminated in Operation Frequent Wind, which was the largest helicopter evacuation in history. In addition to the flight of refugees, the end of the war and institution of new rules by the communists contributed to a decline in the population of the city.
Chaos, unrest, and panic broke out as hysterical South Vietnamese officials and civilians scrambled to leave Saigon. Martial law was declared. American helicopters began evacuating South Vietnamese, U.S., and foreign nationals from various parts of the city and from the U.S. embassy compound. Operation Frequent Wind had been delayed until the last possible moment, because of U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin's belief that Saigon could be held and that a political settlement could be reached.
Schlesinger announced early in the morning of 29 April 1975 the evacuation from Saigon by helicopter of the last U.S. diplomatic, military, and civilian personnel. Frequent Wind was arguably the largest helicopter evacuation in history. It began on 29 April, in an atmosphere of desperation, as hysterical crowds of Vietnamese vied for limited space. Martin pleaded with Washington to dispatch $700 million in emergency aid to bolster the regime and help it mobilize fresh military reserves. But American public opinion had soured on this conflict.
In the United States, South Vietnam was perceived as doomed. President Gerald Ford had given a televised speech on 23 April, declaring an end to the Vietnam War and all U.S. aid. Frequent Wind continued around the clock, as North Vietnamese tanks breached defenses on the outskirts of Saigon. In the early morning hours of 30 April, the last U.S. Marines evacuated the embassy by helicopter, as civilians swamped the perimeter and poured into the grounds. Many of them had been employed by the Americans and were left to their fate.
On 30 April 1975, VPA troops overcame all resistance, quickly capturing key buildings and installations. A tank crashed through the gates of the Independence Palace, and at 11:30 a.m. local time the NLF flag was raised above it. President Duong Van Minh, who had succeeded Huong two days earlier, surrendered.
The Communists had attained their goal, but the cost of victory was high. By war's end, the Vietnamese had been fighting foreign involvement or occupation (primarily by the French, Chinese, Japanese, British, and American governments) for 116 years.
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Fall of Saigon - HISTORY
U.S. Marine on wall of U.S. Embassy, Saigon, Vietnam
Marines defending the Walls of the Embassy
Marines throwing Vietnamese back over the American Embassy wall, Saigon, R. South Vietnam
Roof of American Embassy, Saigon, R. South Vietnam
Marines on roof of Embassy
Marines on roof of Embassy
American Embassy Compound, Saigon, R. Vietnam
Marines loading up a CH-53 Chopper in Compound
Marines loading up a CH-53 Chopper in Compound
Fall of Saigon Marines Association
The Fall of Saigon Marines Association is a public benefit / nonprofit corporation whose members consist of United States Marines serving at U.S. missions in the Republic of Vietnam during the spring of 1975. Our members served at the U.S. consulates in the cities of Da Nang, Nha Trang, Bien Hoa and Can Tho as well as the U.S. Embassy and other installations (the Defense Attaché Office / Military Assistance Command Vietnam complex) in South Vietnam’s capital city of Saigon. Our members were among the last representatives of the United States to evacuate from each location.
The association serves as a living history to the events in each community as viewed through the prism of Marines on Embassy Duty at each location and as a reminder to the sacrifices of Corporal Charles McMahon, Jr. and Lance Corporal Darwin L. Judge, their families and communities. Cpl. McMahon and LCpl Judge were the final Americans killed-in-action during the Vietnam War. Each year the association returns to their home towns and awards memorial scholarships at the Boys and Girls Club of Woburn (Massachusetts) in honor of Corporal McMahon and at Marshalltown (Iowa) High School in honor of Lance Corporal Judge.
The association has also provided technical assistance to the authors several books, magazine articles and various visual media productions. The association is incorporated in the state of California and is recognized as a Veterans’ Organization under Section 501(c)(19) of the Internal Revenue Code.
Biden’s Disgusting History Of Abandoning The Military
To say that Joe Biden’s history with the military has been somewhat problematic is an understatement of colossal proportions. Still, Biden’s sketchy relationship with the Armed forces didn’t begin with the countless wars that his administration involved our country in during his tenure as Vice President, nor was it limited to the abandonment (and the subsequent coverup of it) of our embassy and military personnel in Benghazi.
Although Biden’s many campaign ads attempt to blame all COVID 19 deaths, along with the wind, rain, and weather, combined with the losses of your favorite sports teams on President Trump, the former Vice President is not as quick to accept any blame for the failures of the Obama administration that resulted in the deaths of Americans, particularly American military personnel. This was made very clear in an article published by PJ Media early this year the article debunks the Biden’s campaign efforts to blame COVID 19 on Donald Trump and additionally makes the case that
There is an actual example of government incompetence leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths nationwide—but it didn’t happen under Trump. It happened during the Obama-Biden administration. And their incompetence killed more people than the Chinese coronavirus has in this country.
The Veterans Affairs Department was notorious for its poorly managed health care system, and the Obama-Biden administration promised to end the horrendous backlog in VA benefits claims, some of which languished for years.
But the backlog of VA claims, which had been on the decline when Obama and Biden took office, skyrocketed on their watch. Unprocessed claims exceeded 900,000, with roughly two-thirds of all claims idling for 125 days or longer.
From 2011 to 2013, the time it took to process claims increased 40 percent, to an unthinkable 272 days. As a result of this backlog surge the number of veterans who died waiting for care and benefits skyrocketed.
And the Obama-Biden administration did nothing.
As sad as that is (and make no mistake, it is reprehensible), it only represents the tip of the iceberg regarding Joe Biden’s dismissal of the military and their mission. In fact, Biden’s callous disregard of the military goes back much farther, father than Behngazi, and farther than the indifference and ineptitude demonstrated by Joe Biden while serving as Vice President.
Senator Biden (a position that Biden has repeatedly expressed interest in securing) exhibited far worse traits than went beyond his inadequacies to lead the military. He demonstrated an outright disdain for them.
This was evident by the manner in which Biden failed to support the military’s evacuation efforts from Vietnam, an excerpt from Donald Rumsfeld’s book “When the Center Held” shows clearly how then-Senator Biden failed not only our military, bur our allies
Ford asked Congress for financial assistance to help evacuate desperate South Vietnamese attempting to escape death and resettle in the U.S. Mr. Biden opposed that assistance. What ensued was an embarrassing and disorganized hasty evacuation of U.S. and Vietnamese citizens from Saigon to U.S. naval vessels offshore. It was a shameless spectacle that could have been avoided.
Unfortunately, Mr. Biden and other senators misunderstood the importance of standing by allies. And in a disgusting follow-up when Ford enlisted Christian organizations to offer assistance on a voluntary basis, Mr. Biden made light of those efforts.
Regrettably, Biden’s failures didn’t end on the rooftops of Saigon but continued with his total lack of sympathy for the South Vietnamese people
Despite the efforts of this U.S Senator–President Ford managed to rescue 1,500 South Vietnamese allies prior to the country’s fall. Had President Ford not acted quickly, these people would have been targeted and slaughtered for their support for America. Saving them was a moral obligation.
When they arrived in America, President Ford asked Congress for a package to assist these refugees as they integrate into American society. But that troublesome US Senator showed up-again and torpedoed any support for these shell-shocked refugees. Instead, President Ford had to recruit Christian organizations to offer assistance on a voluntary basis. As he did so, the aforementioned-Senator belittled those efforts.
One of the South Vietnamese refugees who did manage to escape was Quang Pham who shared his story with the Washington Examiner
…Quang Pham, who wrote a 2010 autobiography, A Sense of Duty: Our Journey from Vietnam to America, about his escape to the U.S. in 1975 at the age of 10 with his mother and his three sisters, aged 11, 6, and 2.
…Pham praised Ford for saving Vietnamese refugees such as his family and criticized Democrats such as Biden for trying to keep them out, saying, “When we needed help, I remember who helped us — and who didn’t.”
“When you look at the biggest supporters of Vietnam refugees, it definitely wasn’t Sen. Biden,” Pham said. “The people who wanted us weren’t necessarily who you’d expect — the openness wasn’t coming from Democrats.”
Referring to Biden, Pham said, “You have to look at foreign policy and humanitarianism. The Vietnam refugee crisis was a big deal in 1975. Even if you were against the war, why wouldn’t you support the refugees? Why wouldn’t you support the families and women and children who were trying to escape?”
Good question, why would liberals like Biden, who express such concern for refugees at our Southern borders, have zero interest in rescuing Vietnamese refugees? Perhaps the South Vietnamese, feeling that they owed a debt of gratitude to the Republican leadership of the United States at the time, didn’t seem to be a good candidate for a Democratic voting block
Much is made of the debunked statements that the left has tried (with some success) to pin on President Trump the Biden campaign realized that the lies about Trump’s comments concerning the military were gaining traction in much the same way that lies about Trump’s comments about Charlottesville did (and continue to do), but why doesn’t Joe Biden’s history merit any scrutiny from our media?
Biden’s remarks and actions during the Vietnam era are a matter of record, although accessing that record can be somewhat difficult today given liberals expertise at scrubbing the internet.
Never the less, the story of Biden and Vietnam has been receiving a lot of attention from vets who have been circulating it through family and friends on Facebook, but given the shenanigans of Facebook and Twitter as of late, don’t expect this story to receive any attention from the Main Stream Media (as if).
Remembering the Historic Evacuation and Fall of Saigon
The iconic photographs of the Fall of Saigon include a North Vietnamese flag being raised over the city, people being loaded onto a helicopter atop a building, and a helicopter being pushed overboard by American sailors aboard a U.S. carrier. All these events took place during the Fall of Saigon, but they are misleading amongst the chaos.
April 30, 1975, in the American context, is the date that Saigon fell to the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN). However, on the other side of the conflict, the Fall of Saigon is known as the Liberation of Saigon. Regardless of the viewpoint, this event marked the end of the war in Vietnam.
Despite the optimistic assessment by the CIA and military intelligence that the city could withstand a siege, the capital city of Vietnam fell rapidly. The groundwork for the city’s demise was laid weeks prior to the event. North of the city, General Văn Tiến Dũng, commander of the PAVN, had launched an offensive against the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) in the central highlands. Dũng’s army tore through the region, causing a disorderly retreat of the ARVN toward Saigon. The South Vietnamese lost the major cities of Huế and Đà Nẵng by the end of March. This campaign became known as the Hồ Chí Minh campaign, named after the former revolutionary leader who had died in September 1969.
The beginning of Saigon’s demise commenced at the Xuân Lộc district, an area just north of the city. By April 9, PAVN forces had reached this last line of defense before Saigon. The district was defended by the ARVN’s 18th Division. This tough, battle-hardened unit could only put up an 11-day defense against the advancing PAVN. The district was completely overrun by April 20, and the following day, April 21, 1975, Nguyễn Văn Thiệu, the president of South Vietnam, delivered a televised resignation.
The tearful resignation of the president is remembered as a shining moment of the lack of U.S. intervention and aid during the PAVN offensive on the region. President Thiệu even noted this during his speech, outwardly admonishing the U.S. for not doing enough to prevent the oncoming fall of the city.
General Nguyễn Văn Toàn, commander of the ARVN 18th Corps, was charged with defending Saigon. He organized a defense that created a protective arc that encircled the areas west, north, and east of the city. Despite being in the defensive position, the momentum of an already-winning armored enemy element proved too much for the morale-deprived ARVN soldiers. The ARVN soldiers also faced another element of anarchy that would further complement their defensive posture. Due to mass migration of defeated ARVN soldiers and civilians from the previous offensive, the city was thrown into chaos over the influx of leaderless men and civilian masses.
The PAVN began their final attack on Saigon on April 29, 1975. The attack began with a highly effective artillery barrage. This neutralized and demoralized the already disillusioned and battered ARVN elements. The area of the bombardment that struck the Tan Son Nhat International Airport killed U.S. Marines Charles McMahon and Darwin Judge, the last two American servicemen killed in combat in Vietnam. By the next day, the PAVN occupied the strategic points of the city.
The PAVN raised their flag over the South Vietnamese presidential palace, signifying the fall of the city. The city was quickly renamed Hồ Chí Minh City to solidify victory over the South Vietnamese forces.
The lack of U.S. involvement proved to be a major factor in the fall of Saigon. There was evidence within CIA briefs that Saigon would have needed significant U.S. air superiority to help slow the enemy’s armored and infantry advance. In the weeks leading up to the fall of the city, the U.S. was focused on the evacuation of American personnel, allied nation personnel, and the friendly South Vietnamese.
Despite the optimistic assessment by the CIA and military intelligence that the city could withstand a siege, the capital city of Vietnam fell rapidly.
While the Fall of Saigon was portrayed across international media as a blatant blunder of American foreign policy, the weeks and days leading up to the demise of the Republic of South Vietnam proved a humanitarian success.
Widespread rumors and government reports noted the atrocities of the PAVN as they pummeled their way to the outskirts of Saigon. It is alleged that mass graves were eventually unearthed years after the conflict and that former leadership, business, and political figures were targeted for public beheadings in an effort to completely demoralize any potential further resistance by the South Vietnamese.
President Gerald Ford’s administration was still in its infancy. Allegations such as these would explain the imperative emphasis on evacuation by the Americans to prevent further embarrassment. Ford’s leadership council likely wanted to avoid any type of mass imprisonment crisis to already add to the staggering number of American prisoners of war (POWs), already being held in Hanoi.
One such operation was called Operation Babylift. This U.S.-led operation led to the eventual evacuation of about 2,000 orphans from the country. However, the operation wasn’t without tragedy. A plane involved in the evacuation crashed, killing 155 passengers and crew. Another mission, Operation New Life, focused on the evacuation of friendly South Vietnamese. Vietnamese refugees successfully evacuated during this mission numbered 110,000.
Many South Vietnamese were able to self-evacuate as well, fleeing by fixed-wing aircraft and boat to the safety of U.S. outposts and naval vessels.
However, the major and final phase in the evacuation attempts of the city of Saigon was known as Operation Frequent Wind . The purpose of the operation was to evacuate American civilians and Vietnamese civilians from Saigon. The evacuation was carried out over the course of two days as the city was falling to the PAVN.
Throughout the course of the helicopter evacuation effort of Operation Frequent Wind, more than 7,000 people were evacuated to safety. It became known as the largest helicopter evacuation in history.
Forty years on from the fall of Saigon: witnessing the end of the Vietnam war
When North Vietnamese troops marched into the capital on 30 April 1975, it marked the most crushing defeat in US military history. Four decades after he reported on these events for the Guardian, Martin Woollacott reflects upon what it meant for the future of both nations
Last modified on Wed 31 Mar 2021 12.00 BST
T he day after the North Vietnamese took Saigon, the city was woken by triumphal song. During the night the engineers of the victorious army had rigged up loudspeakers, and from about 5am the same tinny liberation melodies were incessantly played. It was 30 April 1975, and sharp early sunlight illuminated Saigon’s largely empty streets, at a time when the city’s frenetic traffic would normally have already begun to buzz. But hardly anybody knew what to do – whether to go to work or not, whether there would be anything to buy in the market, whether there would be petrol, or whether new fighting might break out. It was, of course, not just Saigon’s daily routine that had been utterly disrupted. Its established role as the capital of non-communist Vietnam had vanished overnight, its soldiers had disappeared, and many of its generals, politicians and civil servants were at that moment bobbing up and down on the decks of warships in the South China Sea, with US Navy blankets pulled round their shoulders.
Through all the years of conflict, war had not often touched Saigon, with the exceptions of the occasional rocket attack, some restaurant bombings and the dramatic but limited incursion into the city – indeed, into the grounds of the US embassy itself – during the Tet offensive in 1968. Saigon shuddered, but felt it had escaped the worst. And in fact, as the liberation music echoed down the streets, it had just escaped again. Although few knew it, the North Vietnamese had been prepared to batter the city with heavy artillery and to fight their way in, block by block, if the defence they met had been stronger. Had the last South Vietnamese president, General Duong Van Minh, not ordered the army to lay down its arms, Saigon would have fared very badly indeed. Vietnamese joked that the communists took Saigon “without breaking a light bulb”. That was not true either: casualties were heavy on both sides, but the fighting stopped just short of the city limits. In the centre, there was potentially more to fear from lawlessness and looters. Stewart Dalby of the Financial Times and I were walking along Tu Do, one of Saigon’s main streets, when a hard-looking man with his shirt out over his trousers stood in our way. He touched his waistband to indicate a gun, and then casually lifted Dalby’s expensive camera off his neck. Incidents like that were enough to convince most people that the sooner the communists took full control, the better.
There were, on that first day of the new era, no Americans in the fort-like embassy on Thong Nhat Boulevard, just the detritus of the previous day’s chaotic evacuation and the looting that followed. There was nobody in the ornate little town hall. There were no deputies in the old French opera house where the National Assembly used to meet. And there was no president in the presidential palace. Nguyen Van Thieu had left the country. His immediate successor lasted a week before handing over to Minh. Minh told the first North Vietnamese officers who entered the palace that he was ready to hand over power. “You cannot give up what you do not have,” they replied, and took him away. He had been president for just two days.
Minh’s power was indeed a fantasy, but Saigon had lived on fantasy for weeks. In the city’s botanical gardens, where citizens used to promenade at weekends with their children, you could hear a dozen rumours in as many steps. “The French are coming back in with two divisions,” said one. “The Americans will soon bomb,” said another. “There’s going to be a coalition government,” said a third. As the end approached, the most common sentiment seemed to be “We are all Vietnamese”, pronounced in a manner somewhere between hope and resignation. That was a comforting thought for many, but not for those of rank, or those with close connections to the government or the Americans. They feared vengeance or, at least, that they would be marked for ever by the disgrace of their former allegiance. Some, it seemed to us, had no real reason for such anxieties, but were just caught up in the madness of the moment. “Fear of the Vietcong had made Saigon lose its wits,” wrote one reporter. But they wanted to leave, and many did, on transport aircraft at first, and, at the last moment, on helicopters – the first of the huge diaspora of nearly a million Vietnamese who were to leave the country after 1975.
The US officers managing the evacuation had to make agonising choices. In order not to undermine what was left of the defence of South Vietnam, they had to limit the earlier departures, but they also had to make increasingly firm promises to those who remained that, “if it came to it” (for the idea that South Vietnam might survive in some form was still officially alive), they would all be got out at the last minute. This was a promise they could not keep. “Their cries of panic over CIA radios on the last day still tear at my conscience,” Frank Snepp, one of the agency’s team in Saigon, wrote many years later. The day before the fall, from the vantage point of the roof of the Caravelle, one of the city’s two smart hotels, I and other correspondents watched one queue waiting in increasing despair at a pickup point on the top of a nearby building. A slow, mute tragedy, as the beat of the rotors faded away, and the realisation gradually dawned that there were not going to be any more US helicopters – ever. At the US embassy, the desperation was anything but mute. Wailing crowds besieged the place, pleading for entry, as marines pulled in those who had the right credentials – a white face helped – and pushed out those who did not.
The next day, the tanks came in first, their long-barrelled guns sticking out like Pinocchio’s nose, heading for the centre of the city and the presidential palace. Since war is always a muddle, some got lost. We saw one backing up and turning, its gears grating, and then advancing on the old French hospital, hardly a military objective. But soon enough the tanks were at the palace gates and then through them, the lead tank bearing a jubilant but nervous James Fenton, the poet and journalist who had improbably become the last Washington Post correspondent in Saigon. As the new soldiers came in, the old soldiers faded away, sometimes with a final, bitter flourish. We saw one column deliberately firing off all its signal flares as it marched in formation – green, red, white, green again – before dispersing.
The Guardian’s front page on 1 May 1975, after the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam war. Click here for larger view of full story
The new soldiers, who we soon learned to call bo doi (“foot soldiers”), wore plain, slightly floppy green uniforms and old-fashioned pith helmets. They looked relieved: the war was over, they had not died, and they had played their part in a great victory. Some days later, there was a parade, after which many left Saigon. Those who stayed were polite, and almost hesitant. They assumed white foreigners were Russians. Some seemed wide-eyed at Saigon’s prosperity, or were fascinated by watches, issued in the North Vietnamese army only to those of the rank of major and above, particularly those showing the date. They called these “watches with windows.” If in pairs, they held hands, a curiously touching sight. But they appeared formidably well trained. When a few diehards opened fire on North Vietnamese troops near the park between the presidential palace and Saigon’s red‑brick cathedral, journalists saw an instantaneous and almost balletic rearrangement. Soldiers who had been lounging and smoking a minute before were suddenly prone and judiciously returning fire, as outflanking squads rapidly closed in on the attackers. It was a reminder that the time when the war had been about under-equipped guerrillas taking on big, conventional forces was long gone. The North Vietnamese rolled into Saigon with everything a modern army could want. They had ample armour and artillery – everything except air power. But by then the South Vietnamese had hardly any air power left either.
Vietnam had been a political, military, and moral cockpit for years. The war was so much at the centre of everybody’s consciousness that it sometimes seemed as if all that was wrong with the world and all that might be made right in it was here. So many important things would be decided here: which side would prevail in the international contest between communists and non-communists whether western countries would continue to dominate the ex-colonial world whether small countries could stand up to big ones whether guerrillas could defeat modern armies. And also, whether a popular movement – a peace movement in the very heart of the war-making country itself – could turn around the policies of a great power. These questions, simple in outline, remain almost as hard to answer today as they were on the day Saigon fell. The plain fact that the American war in Vietnam was a mistake and a crime – because it was undertaken so lightly, pursued so brutally and abandoned so perfidiously – is about the only plain fact there is.
The story of the collapse of South Vietnam is notoriously a chronicle of a defeat foretold. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, knowing the war was no longer politically sustainable, had agreed to withdraw US troops, as stipulated by the Paris Peace Agreement in 1973. They knew that meant the North would probably win, but wanted, in Kissinger’s words, a “decent interval” between their departure and the likely defeat of South Vietnam. Although it seems they occasionally entertained the idea that South Vietnam, given help, could perhaps survive, what this really meant was that they expected the South Vietnamese to fight on after the American soldiers slipped away, with the result that the US would not look too bad internationally. This insidious design was compounded by the general slippage in Nixon’s political position, with his expansion of the war into Cambodia attracting widespread opposition, the 1973 oil-price shock taking its toll and the huge costs of the war coming home in the shape of rising inflation – and all of this capped by the unfolding Watergate scandal. A disillusioned and mutinous Congress bolted, particularly on the war, imposing cut after cut on the military aid that Saigon had been promised.
Inexorably and, to the South Vietnamese, inexplicably, the number of shells their guns were allowed to fire, the number of missions their aircraft could fly and the spare parts available to keep equipment working diminished month by month. In late August 1974, Major General John E Murray, whose job it was to maintain the supplies the South Vietnamese army needed to function, wrote flatly that “without proper support the RVNAF (Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces) are going lose, maybe not next week, or next month, but after the year they are going to”. As a technical, military problem, the war really was quite simple. South Vietnam was a long, thin country that was, by its geographical nature, permanently outflanked. It had to defend itself at every point, and could not do so without the mobility and firepower that was provided by US aid. But the tap supplying that aid was now being turned off.
President Thieu, who never had much legitimacy, now had even less. The southern economy was falling apart, he had lost the support even of the Catholic parties that were normally with him, and the Buddhists were more and more estranged, as were the moderates and neutralists in the so called “Third Force”. But if the South Vietnamese were in a parlous state, the North Vietnamese had deep anxieties of their own. Although party and government maintained an outward show of absolute confidence that victory and reunification would come, inwardly they were not so sure. They, too, had equipment and ordnance problems, since the Russians and Chinese had also cut supplies after the Paris Peace Agreement. And, just like the South Vietnamese, they worried about the reliability and motives of their allies. As George J Veith wrote in Black April, his military history of the final years of the war, Hanoi felt that it had only “had a small window of opportunity to win”.
The plan was for a two-year campaign that would bring victory in 1976. But the opening moves in the central highlands were so successful that they went for broke in 1975. It was all over within two months. Mistakes of generalship by Thieu and some of his commanders made things worse, but the early defeats were essentially caused by the South’s lack of reserves and reduced firepower. The North Vietnamese then closed in on Saigon. In the central highlands, Hue, Danang and elsewhere, there were terrible scenes of panic and disorder, of disobedience and desertion, but also hard-fought battles and acts of heroism and sacrifice. But South Vietnam – “puppet entity”, real country, or whatever it was – had disappeared in a puff of battle smoke. The world gasped.
The reporters who had chosen to stay in Saigon were mainly French and Japanese, plus a few British and one or two Americans vaguely pretending to be Canadians. We had reported a war that, while not without its dangers, was in some ways an easy one for journalists. We were ferried around efficiently by US planes and helicopters, and fed, accommodated and protected by US and (to a lesser extent) South Vietnamese soldiers. You could be on the edge of a battle in the north, near the ironically named Demilitarised Zone, in the morning, and back in Saigon having a drink after a shower in the early evening. Now we suddenly found ourselves in limbo. Our life-support system of American pilots and protectors, analysts, Australian embassy military attaches and the like had vanished. Many Vietnamese contacts had left or gone to ground. Our fixers, assistants, drivers and translators had, too. (Some who turned out to have been communist agents did remain, but they had moved up in the world, naturally.)
The North Vietnamese had a few sophisticated English- and French-speaking officers who were sometimes helpful, but that was rare. On one such occasion, just after the fall of the city, a North Vietnamese army film unit burst into the offices of CBS and demanded that the bureau hand over its footage of the last real fight of the war, at Newport Bridge just outside the city. They were sweaty and angry – it seemed they had arrived too late at the bridge to get their own film, so they wanted to grab what the US TV crew had shot. I witnessed the confrontation and shot off to get a suave North Vietnamese colonel we had met earlier. He came, defused the situation and ordered his compatriots to leave. The relieved bureau chief offered him a drink. He gracefully refused, adding, with a slightly crooked smile: “Later on, we will have many happy times.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, we never did. We were left to our own meagre devices. We could not file our reports at first, because the post office was closed and all other telexes and phone lines were down. When we could, we sent reams of copy about the final days that we had been unable to get out at the time. After that, what could we do? We could not do what we had so often done in the past, which was to write critically about US policy and the South Vietnamese government and army. All that was gone, and our criticisms no longer mattered, if they ever had. Some of us tended instead to follow an odd routine, visiting places and buildings that had once been important and writing “then and now” pieces. A group of us drove along Route 13 toward An Loc, a town north of Saigon that had been under siege during the 1972 general offensive. We came across a bizarre sight as we drove down a side lane – what looked like a whole company’s worth of combat boots lined up neatly on the tarmac, as if their owners had been suddenly raised to heaven. South Vietnamese military tunics were scattered in the ditches on each side. There were similar scenes elsewhere. The explanation was that the North Vietnamese troops had ordered surrendering units to shed their gear.
The irony of this sort of sightseeing was obvious. An Loc had been a South Vietnamese victory, hard fought by airborne troopers and rangers, but clinched by US air power: almost every B-52 in south-east Asia was called in to strike the North Vietnamese attackers. We were, in a sense, reporting the past, because the present was too puzzling. We had an iced drink at a stall near an abandoned military camp and looked for where an American adviser’s office had been, but failed to find it and set off through the flat, scrubby countryside back to Saigon. On the way out to An Loc we had passed the British embassy, and I noticed that the squad of soldiers guarding it had taken down the union jack and were using it as an awning to shield themselves from the sun. Choked – and surprised – by a sudden rage, I got out of the car, marched over to them, and insisted they put it back on its staff. Taking me for a Russian or East German and imagining I had some kind of authority, they at least folded it up.
“What was that about?” I asked myself. The soldiers had meant no insult. It was just a piece of cloth, after all. But the truth was that we were all, to one degree or another, still mentally in the old war, and still imbued with a consciousness of western supremacy that events had just contradicted in a most emphatic and dramatic way. And this was so, even though few us had ever been strong supporters of the war. Before the fall of the city, Philip Caputo, an American journalist who had also been a marine officer in Vietnam and had written a brilliant book about his experiences, wondered aloud whether what was happening was akin to the legionnaires withdrawing from the outer reaches of the Roman empire. Was our western sway over the world, in its final American embodiment, coming to an end? Something had been torn down and something else – something not “ours” – would come in its place. The drawing of such parallels was commonplace – a kind of self-romanticisation that seems distasteful in retrospect. Vietnamese people, North and South, were at an extraordinary moment in their history, and we were sitting around misquoting Edward Gibbon.
South Vietnamese troops and their US advisers resting in the jungle near the town of Binh Gia, 40 miles east of Saigon, in January 1965. Photograph: Horst Faas/AP
We also tried, of course, to report what was happening in the new Vietnam. Some of it was under our noses, in the very hotels in which we were staying, as staff were summoned to various kinds of re-education meetings. Hoc tap, as it was called, would eventually touch almost everyone. Former officers were called in, grade by grade. Was there to be, at least for a while, a separate southern state? What role would be played by the provisional revolutionary government, which had been such a feature of wartime propaganda? Not for long, and very little, were the answers, but our time was so short and the new authorities so opaque in their workings that we had only slender notions of what was going on.
We had a sense that we – or rather the countries we represented – had been demoted, even if, with one part of our minds, we saw that as a long-deserved comeuppance. That feeling was reinforced by the fact that, while we journalists were not prisoners, we were not free agents either. We could not decide for ourselves whether we would stay in Vietnam or leave. “They” would decide that. We admired them and their discipline – what we thought was their revolutionary purity – but something about their unbending attitude was disconcerting. It seemed to rule out the possibility of a national reconciliation based on even limited compromise. The Italian journalist Tiziano Terzani put it best in his book Giai Phong! (Liberation!): he felt both “a great admiration and a subtle fear” that the revolution was close to “the borders of inhumanity”.
It was sometimes galling to be as excluded as we felt we were. Most of the small group of British correspondents holed up during the day in a spacious villa belonging to a British bank. The bank’s remaining representative, an Indian citizen, was happy to loan it to us because he thought our presence would prevent it being requisitioned. It came with a big, good-natured dog, who was very pleased to see people, as dogs often are. One evening a North Vietnamese patrol arrived, posing some polite questions about why we were there, but often looking pointedly at the dog. “Good to eat,” one of them finally said, rubbing his stomach. “The bastards want to eat our dog,” we said indignantly to one another after they left. A little while later, we British, together with most of the 100 or so journalists who had stayed, were politely thrown out of the country and put on a Russian Antonov passenger aircraft to Vientiane in Laos. Before we left, we tried to make arrangements to protect “our” dog, but we were not very optimistic about them.
Back in Washington, Gloria Emerson of the New York Times, perhaps the most passionately anti-war of all American correspondents, recorded the irrational elation, backslapping, cigar-lighting and self-congratulation over the Mayaguez operation at the White House, and the extraordinary increase in the government’s popularity it brought about. The Mayaguez was a US freight ship whose crew were detained off Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge a few days after the fall of Saigon. The Americans sent in marines to rescue the crew, who, it turned out, were probably not in any danger. The operation then somehow got ludicrously pumped up as a counterweight to the humiliation of 30 April in Vietnam and the earlier fall of Pnomh Penh. In reality it was a botched and stupid affair in which the Americans lost a lot of people while attacking Khmer Rouge forces who – in a foretaste of the future – were in fact preparing to defend what they saw as their territory against the new masters of South Vietnam. In its poor intelligence, wasteful firepower and bloody confusion, it encapsulated much that had been wrong about the war that had just ended.
The Mayaguez affair was the first indication that you could take the United States out of Vietnam, but you could not take Vietnam out of the United States. In the decades since, the US has never ceased to fight the war. It continued to fight it, in the most immediate sense, by vindictively isolating the new Vietnam economically and politically. This it later took to a monstrous extreme by effectively favouring the Khmer Rouge regime remnants who were resisting the new Vietnamese-imposed government in Pnomh Penh.
29 April 1975: US navy personnel aboard the USS Blue Ridge push a helicopter into the sea off the coast of Vietnam in order to make room for more evacuation flights from Saigon. Photograph: AP
The two countries are now almost as friendly as Ho Chi Minh had hoped they would be in 1945, when his appeals to the US for help in achieving independence from France went unheard. But if the US has finally stopped chastising Vietnam itself, the war still goes on in other ways. Everything the US has done in the world since then has been conditioned by its fear of the consequences of trying to reassert itself militarily – and by its compulsion to do so. The fear is of another Vietnam, another quagmire, another debacle. The compulsion, though, constantly seeks out other places where something like Vietnam can be taken on again, but this time won, cleanly and conclusively. The US has sought this compensatory victory again and again, most recently in Afghanistan and Iraq. Vietnam, like Hamlet’s ghost, refuses to go away. The war never went away in America, at the most fundamental level, because it became a test of how Americans saw their country.
The young regular army officers who served in Vietnam returned home determined to create a new army. It would be a professional, all-volunteer force, and thus less subject to public pressure over casualties. It would have technology that could replace boots on the ground. But if there had to be boots on the ground, the new army would have skills in counter-insurgency of a kind it had lacked in Vietnam. Finally, it would not go to war without a guarantee that there would be no constraints on the full use of its resources – constraints that, in the view of many soldiers, had cheated the US army of victory in Vietnam. It was all in vain. The US public proved almost as sensitive to the deaths of volunteers as it had been to those of draftees. New technology created as many problems as it solved. Counter-insurgency strategies were still ineffective. And the guarantees that the use of force would not be constrained simply did not happen, because that is not how governments function.
At least three different Vietnam wars have competed for American attention, and for space on the heavily loaded shelves of books about the conflict. In one, the US had all but won, only to throw away its victory because of a lack of resolution, the liberal media’s opposition and congressional foolishness. In a second, it did win, because its aims of containing China and Russia and preventing a domino-fall of other south-east Asian countries into the communist sphere were actually achieved. In the third, the mission was undertaken in ignorance, quite aggressively, in the expectation that setting up a South Vietnamese equivalent of South Korea would be relatively easy, and then lurched out of control. Which war really happened? The war “cleaves us still,” President George HW Bush said in 1988, but “surely the statute of limitations has been reached. The final lesson is that no great nation can long afford to be sundered by a memory.”
For a homely reminder of how the war once touched nearly every American household, consider the buffy. Buffies are ceramic elephants about two-and-a-half feet high, with a flat top on which you can put a drink or a pot plant. They survive across the US as mute proof that a generation of young men went off to war in Vietnam. Made in Vietnam in vast numbers, they were being shipped back at the rate of several thousand a day at the height of the conflict. Hugh Mulligan of the Associated Press wrote in 1983: “They stand at ridiculous attention on the porches of West Point” and “alongside the backyard swimming pools of suburbia.” They could be bought for a few dollars and shipped home for less, thanks to the subsidised US Army Post Office. The name, derived from the acronym for “Bloody Useless Fucking Elephant”, was bestowed on them by a frustrated logistics officer who saw his scarce air cargo capacity being eaten up by the mania for these souvenirs.