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27April 2000

Saigon’s Surrender – a 25th Anniversary Perspective

By Matt Franjola

First light broke hazy and gray in Saigon on April 30, 1975. I was on the Caravelle Hotel roof balcony using a baguette to wipe the last bits of sunnyside up oeuf sur plat jambon from my breakfast plate. Hubert Van Es, a Dutch freelance photographer standing next to me, raised his camera with a 300mm lens and took the memorable photo of a helicopter on a roof above a stairway full of Vietnamese waiting to escape.

North, west and east of the panic stricken city explosions had thundered the night through signaling the final North Vietnamese Army (NVA) sprint to the city’s heart. Overnight a staccato whap whap whap of chopper blades renting the air came in waves from the U.S. Embassy compound. Twin-rotor Marine CH-46 helicopters loaded with evacuees pulled pitch, slipped the bonds of earth, and headed to an American Fleet in the South China Sea.

About 7 a.m. a lone CH-46 landed on the embassy roof. A Marine squad scrambled aboard. The last GI exiting Vietnam paused before scampering up the gangway, drew his .45 pistol, and fired a full clip, seven bullets, into a nearby radio microwave dish antenna. America’s Indochina war was over.

An hour after the last chopper, Peter Arnett and I walked to the littered embassy compound. It reeked of tear gas. A swarm of looters rifled desks or beat on steel safes with sledgehammers. Barrels of burned U.S. dollars, $6 million worth, smoldered nearby. Knots of hopeful people, clutching each other and their valises, scanned the sky looking, listening for one more chopper.

The Yanks, those formidable, big, good-hearted and straight-talking folks had cut and run. It was an ignominious, but perhaps predictable ending, for a country whose Cold War leaders had made policy in the shadow of McCarthyism. Gone was America’s WW II victory hubris.

Saigon surrendered about noon, closing the book on America’s Vietnam adventure. It was a journey that began in China during WW II, carried through the French Indochina War and whimpered to a conclusion that hot April day. (more)

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By mid-afternoon thousands of Saigonaise crowded the park in front of the former presidential palace. Two North Vietnamese soldiers who had attacked the palace came to the AP office with a photographer. We opened a map and they detailed their activities during the two-month offensive. International cable and telephone links were cut. We couldn’t file news. The city was calm, festive and curious. Sophisticated Saigon girls carrying parasols and dressed in colorful flowing ao dai robes chatted up NVA soldiers. In mid-afternoon I joined colleagues at a nearby Corsican-run French restaurant for lobster and a 1961 Verve Cliquot champagne.

Earlier George Esper, AP bureau chief, filed the surrender bulletin. Peter Arnett and I took turns typing stream-of-conscienceness color copy straight onto the colonial-era teletype at 15 words per minute. I was unfamiliar with the teletype return mechanism and kept typing overstrikes at line ends. I gave up and ran down one floor to the NBC office where the fleeing staff had left an open telephone line to New York. I identified myself and broadcast the surrender then rattled off what I had seen that day.

It was the beginning of the end of my decade in Indochina. My odyssey paralleled America’s coming of age in a rapidly changing world. It was a trek from innocence to experience. About a month after the war’s end the North Vietnamese rulers summoned me to the Foreign Ministry. I was being kicked out for "counter-revolutionary activities."

Within days of the surrender the NVA’s K-9 "real estate battalion" had begun inventorying property for confiscation. They came to Peter Arnett’s house as he was packing. I spoke Vietnamese with a southern peasant accent, knew back roads around Saigon, and managed to elude North Vietnamese Army roadblocks to get out of the city. I took trips with British journalist and poet, James Fenton, now at Magdelan College, Oxford University. We went south to the Mekong Delta and west to Tay Ninh near Cambodia. We saw few North Vietnamese troops. Viet Cong (southern Vietnamese cadres) roadblocks were casual and easy to pass. They wanted to talk, to tell their story.

We met the local VC commander and a village chief in the delta village of Ap Bac. There in January 1963 the first U.S. helicopters were shot down and a South Vietnamese army unit with new APC armored vehicles suffered a major defeat in a classic "L" shaped ambush. Lt. Col. John Paul Vann, an advisor to the South Vietnamese unit and an early critic of the war effort, knew after Ap Bac that Washington’s policy was a shambles. He was forced to retire because of his outspokenness.

Over small cups of green tea in a roadside house, the men retold the Ap Bac story. A North Vietnamese Army convoy in captured trucks rolled past. The village elder motioned to the convoy and used a disparaging term, "Bac Ky", strange northerners. In a prophetic musing he said that the stern northerners were taking over and wondered if VC cadres would have a role in a unified country. (more)

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Today southerners hold only minor positions of power. Cultural and political differences are apparent in the economy. The south, especially Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City in official name only, is entrepreneurial and growing while the north is stagnating mired in Soviet Communist bureaucracy and red tape. The south lost the war, but is winning the peace. Change will come after Hanoi’s aging wartime leaders are replaced by individuals wanting growth similar to the rest of Southeast Asia.

Another day trip, near the site of the former U.S. 25th Division base at Cu Chi, 30 miles west of Saigon, I met a regional VC commander. He said they would make any sacrifice, pay any price to unify the country and end a thousand years of Chinese, French and American domination and meddling. Their appeal was nationalistic. The crux of the commander’s story was brief. His unit had a strength of 600 and in the decade of his command his battalion suffered 12,000 dead, meaning his unit was killed 20 times over. The Saigon government never had that commitment. Their military was mired first in French colonial attitudes and practice and secondly, after the U.S. investment in blood and treasure, it was unthinkable that America would abandon them.

U.S. leaders never grasped Vietnam as a political war; that the other side Could lose every battle and still win. It wasn’t a WW II war of space; it was a war of time. Hanoi won by not losing, by outlasting America. Washington’s early Vietnam decisions were made after the Chinese Communist victory, the Korean War, and the Cold War intensified. Vietnam was another containment battleground. Once involved, however, U.S. policymakers never seriously reevaluated the policy and "mission creep" set in. Policy implementation was typically American: throw money, materiel and men at Vietnam and maybe it would solve itself.

To be sure, Washington forgot that war is diplomacy by other means. The steps are: policy, strategy and tactics. The U.S. still has policy definition problems today. After years of hand-ringing it was dramatic TV images, not policy goals, that got the U.S. involved in Bosnia and somewhat less time to intervene in Kosovo. The Somalia debacle was the usual confused, multi-layer bureaucratic UN run operation. And, the U.S. military never heeded its own CIA station chief’s advice that Somali clan warfare would eventually target Americans.

In Vietnam there was no one-sentence definition of political goals and no military strategy. But we had tactics: search and destroy, B-52 arclights, small unit Ranger / SEAL hunter-killer teams, hi-lo helicopter gunship "pink teams", and rapid air assault deployment. The U.S. command developed new concepts of air-mobile, quick-reaction and special unit warfare. Vietnam was a training ground for sergeants and officers who would eventually run the Pentagon and shape attitudes for a generation of commanders. Controlling information and the press was a lesson learned well and implemented during the Gulf War and to a lesser extent in the short Grenada, Haiti and Panama "live-fire training" actions.

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Washington never altered its Vietnam military plan. It hobbled its war effort with bombing constraints because it feared China’s entry into the war if provoked by air strikes near the border. The war by its nature was total. Get in or get out. The U.S. should never have been involved initially, however, once in Washington should have done more to win or at least get a Korea-like ceasefire. Washington’s strategy was a decade of disservice to GI’s who died for nothing. A GI near Khe Sanh and the DMZ said to me, "who wants to die for a piece of junk." They knew they were going around in circles.

Neighboring Cambodia and Laos were officially out-of-bounds in another example of the U.S. hamstringing itself. This gave Hanoi relative freedom from infantry attack to move men and supplies along exterior battle lines on South Vietnam’s periphery. Not to totally be self-constrained, the U.S. had its "secret war" in Laos using Hmong hill tribe proxies, an air bombing campaign, and small covert commando and LRRP (long-rang reconnaissance patrol) activities.

I was in Cambodia when U.S. and South Vietnamese troops finally attacked NVA sanctuaries in 1970. Washington gave Hanoi a gift telling them when the operation would end how far U.S. forces would penetrate, 12 miles. In an example of unintended consequence, the U.S. supported coup in Phnom Penh and the incursion gave NVA support and impetus to the then tiny Khmer Rouge movement. Five years later and two weeks before Saigon fell the Khmer Rouge defeated the U.S.-backed Phnom Penh government and launched their genocidal four-year horror of social engineering.

The Vietnam experience appears to get reinterpreted every few years on personal and a policy level. Perhaps the lesson of history is there is no lesson of history – only ad hoc revisionism. Debate still rages as evidenced by the commentary these past weeks in the national press and TV. One thing has changed. Two decades of scorn for Viet vets has ended. The middle-class 19-year-old GI grunts who humped the boonies have been rehabilitated. The country called and they went. They did their duty like their fathers before them. My last battles of the war occurred in 1994/95 in cold windowless rooms at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York. I had a liver transplant and colon cancer because of disease picked up in Indochina’s jungle. Vietnam vets have a saying: all gave some, some gave all.

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