PARIS PEACE TALKS, FALL OF SAIGON AND THE END OF THE VIETNAM WAR

PEACE WITH HONOR IN VIETNAM?

In the spring of 1972 the North Vietnamese launched an offensive across the DMZ that sent a wave of refugees flowing into Hue and South Vietnamese soldiers fleeing for their lives. The U.S. responded with increased bombing of the North and mines in Haiphong harbour. The ‘Christmas bombing’ of Hanoi the same year was an effort to pressure North Vietnam to make a peace deal. The Paris Peace Accords were signed a month later by the U.S., North Vietnam and South Vietnam January 27, 1973, which provided for a cease-fire, the total withdrawal of US combat forces and the release of 590 American POWs. Left out of agreement was the fate of 200,000 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops still in South Vietnam. [Source: Lonely Planet =]

In 1968, after the Tet Offensive, according to to the Washington Post, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson finally understood that South Vietnamese ineptitude, Viet Cong strength and American impatience with the grinding conflict meant that the United States simply had to end its involvement and cut a deal. Johnson stepped down in 1968 because he could not bring the conflict to a quick end.

By the time U.S. President Richard Nixon took office in 1969 the Vietnam War was becoming perceived as unwinnable and its cost, namely in lives, was becoming too high to justify continuing fighting. Nixon’s primary concern was not winning the war but finding an honorable way out. The cornerstone of Nixon’s policy was "peace with honor"— the notion that the United States had to keep fighting to fulfill its pledge to its ally, South Vietnam. To not do so would be a dishonorable betrayal and would undermine America’s credibility in the world.

The historian Stanley Karnow told the Los Angeles Times: "The war in Vietnam, in my estimation, was unwinnable for the simple, basic reason that we were up against an enemy that was prepared to take on unlimited losses. They would have gone on fighting endlessly." Vietnam War-era reporter Lewis Simons wrote in the Washington Post: "What we failed to understand in Vietnam" was "that people who want foreign occupiers out of their country are willing and prepared to withstand any kind of privation and risk for however long it takes."

Paris Peace Talks

In 1970, Henry Kissinger opened up secret talks with the chief North Vietnamese negotiator Le Duc Tho, a member of the North Vietnam Politburo. Later formal talks began in Paris. These became known as the Paris Peace Talks. Kissinger served as the national security advisor under Nixon and the Secretary of State under U.S. President Gerald Ford. He regarded himself as "realpolitik" pragmatist who believed in pursuing state interests using military power.

As the delegates met in Paris, the goals of each team were clear. The North Vietnamese wanted the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the South. Washington wanted the same, but under terms that would not be seen as a humiliating defeat. The talks began with debates on the size and shape of the table and the seating arrangements. The North Vietnamese demanded full American withdrawal with no strings attached. The United States demanded that the South Vietnamese be allowed to have a choice over their future, that all American prisoners be released and that North Vietnamese forces withdraw from South Vietnam. The South Vietnamese government didn’t participate. During the negotiations it seemed as if peace was always "at hand." In the end the United States for the most part gave into North Vietnamese demands.

Both on the battlefield and at the conference table, a stalemate of sorts was reached by mid-1971. In negotiations there was some flexibility, as Washington offered a unilateral withdrawal of United States forces provided Hanoi stopped its infiltration of the South; and Hanoi countered by agreeing to a coalition government in Saigon along with a United States troop withdrawal and to a cease-fire following the formation of a new government. The main point of debate was the retention of President Thieu as head of the South Vietnamese government, which Washington demanded and Hanoi rejected. [Source: Library of Congress]

Book: Ending the Vietnam War by Henry Kissinger (2003)

North Vietnamese Easter Offensive in 1972

To break the deadlock, the party leadership in Hanoi turned again to the strategy of a general offensive and uprising. Accordingly, the so-called Easter offensive was launched beginning on March 30, 1972, with a threepronged attack across the DMZ through the A Shau Valley. The following day the communists attacked the city of Kontum and the provinces of Binh Dinh and Phuoc Tuy, threatening to cut South Vietnam in two. A few days later, three PAVN divisions attacked Binh Long Province along the Cambodian border, placing the capital, An Loc, under siege. In May the communists captured Quang Tri Province, including the capital, which was not recaptured by the ARVN until September. By that time, Quang Tri city had been virtually leveled by United States airstrikes. Although the Easter offensive did not result in the fall of the Saigon government, as the communists had hoped, it did further destabilize the government and reveal the ARVN's weaknesses. [Source: Library of Congress *]

John A. Graham wrote in the Washington Post, "On April 27, 1972, North Vietnamese forces swept south across the demilitarized zone, scattering the South Vietnamese army defenders in Quang Tri and pushing south toward Hué. By early May, the battle line arced 15 miles north and 10 miles west of the city. To the east was the South China Sea and to the south, the road to Danang -- Hué's last ground link to the outside world. [Source: John A. Graham, Washington Post, January 14, 2007, John A. Graham, a former Foreign Service officer, served in Vietnam in 1971-1977 <*>]

"More than 200,000 refugees poured into Hué. Hungry people fought for scraps of garbage and looted homes and shops. Among the refugees were hundreds of deserters from the South Vietnamese divisions shattered in Quang Tri, still wearing uniforms and carrying M-16s. A mob of drunken soldiers torched the main market at Dong Ba. The city's firemen had long since fled, and black smoke hung in a pall over streets now jammed with terrified people and echoing with gunshots and shattering glass. There was nothing we could do but watch the shouting, shoving mass of people stream past us toward the Danang road.<*>

No one knew it at the time, but the battle raging just north and west of Hué that night -- May 2, 1972 -- was the turning point in the war. If the city fell, the road to Danang would be open to the North Vietnamese army. My three American colleagues in Hué and I did not believe we would be pulled out in time if the city fell. We knew that any choppers sent to save us would be mobbed by Vietnamese desperate to escape. We're alive because U.S. carrier jets caught the advancing North Vietnamese at daybreak just short of the city walls and all but obliterated them. <*>

The costs were great on both sides, however, and by October both Hanoi and Washington were more inclined to negotiate. By then Hanoi had agreed to accept Thieu as president of a future Saigon government in exchange for the removal of United States forces without a corresponding removal of PAVN troops. Thieu's objections to the failure to require the removal of North Vietnamese forces was in the end ignored, and the Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam was signed in Paris on January 27, 1973. *

Bombing of Hanoi and Pressure for a Peace Deal

Nixon ordered the bombing of Hanoi and bombing and mining of Haiphong Harbor during Christmas time 1972 in response to major North Vietnamese offensive across the DMZ into South Vietnam. Nixon believed his decision to bomb Hanoi would bring the North Vietnamese to the negotiating table.

Rebecca Kesby of the BBC wrote: "The biggest ever bombing campaign by US B-52 aircraft took place over Christmas in 1972, when the US dropped at least 20,000 tonnes of explosives on North Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. More than 1,000 Vietnamese died, but some claim the assault may have helped bring about the deal signed a month later that led to an end to US involvement in the war. Operation Linebacker II was President Richard Nixon's attempt to hasten the end of the Vietnam War, as the growing strength of the Viet Cong caused heavy casualties among US ground troops. The capture and torture of downed airmen in the north, regularly paraded on television, was also an embarrassment for Washington. Nixon was under pressure to bring the troops home. At the same time, long-running negotiations in Paris between the warring parties had broken down. [Source: Rebecca Kesby, December 24, 2012 ////]

"The relationship between American negotiator Henry Kissinger and the government in the south was strained, while Le Duc Tho - representing the northern Communist government - was refusing to budge on the issue of prisoner releases. So the Americans decided to take decisive action. On the evening of 18 December, 129 B-52s roared over Hanoi - huge bombers each capable of carrying many tonnes of explosives. They flew in formation, in successive waves made up of smaller cells, containing three planes. Thousands of metres below them, the sirens sounded and residents of Hanoi raced for the shelters. ////

In just one night, more than 2,000 homes were destroyed around Kham Thien, a busy shopping street in Hanoi. About 280 people were killed and at least as many again injured. Ha Mi had a friend, whose house was hit. "There were a few houses still standing, but most of it was just rubble, flattened on the ground - or even just a big hole. Houses were just gone, it was horrible. I remember seeing people just standing there looking at it - but there was nothing there. Everything was just gone." ////

"The US Air Force lost two B-52s that night out of a total of 15. A number of fighter jets and support aircraft were also destroyed during the 11 days of Linebacker II. At least 30 US airmen were killed and more than 20 went missing in action, others were captured after ejecting over North Vietnam. At the time the communist authorities said about 1,600 Vietnamese were killed, but many suspect the true figure is far higher. ////

"Linebacker II came to an end on 29 December and by 8 January all parties were back in the negotiating room in Paris. The Paris Peace Accords were signed by the end of the month, leading to the release of some US prisoners of war and paving the way for an end to US military involvement in Vietnam. The wording of the agreement was almost exactly the same as it had been at the beginning of December - before the Christmas bombing campaign. ////

Giap wrote in Newsweek, "In 1966, Ho told me that only when we can destroy the B-52 bombers over Hanoi will the U.S. withdraw. He was right. On Dec. 28 1972, I heard that we had brought down 17 percent of the B-52 attacking us. As soon as we received the news that the U.S. intended to negotiate its withdrawal. This shows how humans can win over steel weapons."

Paris Peace Accord of 1973 and Nobel Peace Prize for Kissinger and Le Doc Do

On January 27, 1973, representatives of the United States, North Vietnam, South Vietnam and Viet Cong signed the "Agreement of Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam " in Paris. Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Do were awarded the Noble Peace Prize in 1973. Kissinger accepted his but didn’t attend the ceremony in Oslo out of concern of being assaulted by anti-war demonstrators. Le Duc turned his down.

The agreement called for free elections in the South and peaceful reunification and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Vietnam but said nothing about the withdrawal of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops from South Vietnam The United States touted that agreement as a fulfillment of the United States’s desire for "peace with honor." In accordance with the terms of the agreement the U.S. pulled all of its troops out of Vietnam and North Vietnam released all the remaining POWs. After the accord was signed North Vietnam called for the creation of a new South Vietnamese government made up of South Vietnamese and North Vietnamese Communists. One of the main question about the agreement was why it couldn’t have been made sooner and thousands of lives could have been saved.

On March 29, 1973, the last U.S. combat troops left Vietnam. On April 1, 1973, Hanoi released the last 591 acknowledged American POWs. Soon after the Americans left the agreement collapsed. After the Americans left, the South Vietnamese government under Thieu continued fighting the North Vietnamese with financial support from the United States. As the amount of funding was reduced, so was the South Vietnamese ability to fight. By 1975, there only Americans left in Vietnam were a few C.I.A. agents and staff at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon.

Mark Jacob wrote in the Chicago Tribune: "The most controversial honor in Nobel history? Perhaps the Peace Prize of 1973. Two members of the selection committee resigned to protest the choice of U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and North Vietnamese negotiator Le Duc Tho for crafting a Vietnam War peace deal. Tho rejected the prize, saying his nation was not yet at peace. Kissinger accepted, but in later years has been much criticized for his role in the secret war in Cambodia and the overthrow of a democratically elected government in Chile. Humorist- songwriter Tom Lehrer once said that "political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Prize." The North did not abide by the terms of the 1973 Paris Agreement, which officially settled the war by calling for free elections in the South and peaceful reunification. Two years after the withdrawal of the last U.S. forces in 1973, Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, fell to the communists, and on April 30, 1975, the South Vietnamese army surrendered. In 1976 the government of united Vietnam renamed Saigon as Ho Chi Minh City, in honor of the wartime communist leader who died in September 1969. [Source: Mark Jacob, Chicago Tribune, October 14, 2007]

After the Paris Peace Accord of 1973

After all the U.S. military personnel left Vietnam in 1973, the only Americans remaining in South Vietnam were a small number of technicians and CIA agents and the staff at the Saigon embassy. The bombing of North Vietnam ceased and the U.S. POWs were released. Still the war continued, now without U.S. help.

Associated Press reported that after the cease-fire accord was reached in Paris in early 1973, "Thieu angrily denounced its provisions for a coalition regime and for allowing 140,000 enemy troops to remain on South Vietnamese soil as "tantamount to surrender.'' Tran Van Don, another senior South Vietnamese leader, said Thieu bitterly told Kissinger, "We are scarcely more than a dot on the map to you... for us the choice is between life and death.'' The U.S. withdrawal in 1973 left South Vietnam to fight on its own against an increasingly powerful north, though it still depended on American financial and logistical support. [Source: George Esper and Richard Pyle, Associated Press, September 30, 2001]

Although the terms of the peace agreement were less than the communists had hoped for, the accords did permit them to participate in the new government legally and recognized their right to control certain areas. Most important, the removal of United States forces gave the communists a welcome breathing space, allowing them to concentrate on political efforts. In the initial period after the signing of the agreement, the party leadership viewed armed struggle as a last resort only because it was feared that the United States might reintroduce its forces. PLAF troops were instructed to limit their use of force to self defense. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Meanwhile, the Thieu government embarked on pacification efforts along the central coast and in the Mekong Delta, which resulted in a reduction of the area under official communist control to about 20 percent of the South. The Saigon government, however, faced serious difficulties, including the negative effect on the economy of the withdrawal of United States forces and a critical refugee problem. During the course of the war, several million Vietnamese had been evacuated or had fled from their villages to find safety and jobs in urban areas. Most of these remained unemployed and, together with militant Buddhist groups, the Cao Dai, and the Hoa Hao, represented a sizable wellspring of discontent with the Thieu government. *

In early 1974, the communists launched a campaign to regain the territory they had lost since the cease-fire. Raids were conducted on roads, airfields, and economic installations; the flow of supplies and equipment from the North was stepped up; and a 19,000-kilometer network of roads leading from the DMZ in Quang Tri Province to Loc Ninh, northwest of Saigon, was completed. By summer the communists were moving cautiously forward, seizing vulnerable areas in the Central Highlands and in the provinces around Saigon. There was no direct response from the United States, and the resignation of Nixon in August convinced the party leadership that further United States intervention was unlikely. ARVN forces continued to deteriorate, suffering high casualties and facing a lack of ammunition and spare parts. *

South Vietnamese Army After the Americans Left in 1973

In his paper "Villager Attitudes During The Final Decade Of The Vietnam," Mark Moyar wrote: "By 1972, the war's outcome would hinge on the struggle between ARVN (South Vietnamese army) and the North Vietnamese main force units for South Vietnam's towns and cities. The victories of the GVN (government of South Vietnam) in the war for control of the villages put ARVN in a better position, but did not determine who would win the war. When the North Vietnamese Army launched its two major offensives on South Vietnam's urban centers, in 1972 and 1975, the GVN's pacification forces provided some useful intelligence about enemy troop movements, and some Regional Forces units and other pacification forces contributed substantially to the defense of certain areas. ARVN, nevertheless, bore most of the burden of defending against the big NVA attacks. Given ARVN's central role, popular attitudes really could have affected the war's outcome only by influencing ARVN's performance. [Source: Mark Moyar, Villager Attitudes During The Final Decade Of The Vietnam, Naval Institute Press, 1997 ++]

"The weakness of ARVN's top leaders was one of the most important reasons that the GVN failed to halt the 1975 North Vietnamese offensive. Their mismanagement and corruption in the preceding years had helped deplete ARVN's military supplies and equipment, leaving many units short of vital items in the war's last months. Poor leaders had allowed high desertion rates to erode many units. The deployment of South Vietnamese Army units also put them at a serious disadvantage. Thieu had spread his forces over a large area in order to thwart Communist attempts to retake the populated areas through political activity and low- intensity guerrilla warfare. He had established the sort of population control system in the countryside which so many American critics had advocated, and it did enable the Government to make use of the village resources and largely kept the Communists from doing so. Thieu also tried to defend remote province capitals in the highlands. He expected that American bombers would help his dispersed forces fight off the North Vietnamese, but the political situation in Washington prevented President Gerald Ford from coming to the rescue as Nixon had promised, leaving the GVN highly vulnerable to a conventional military attack, as American military men had long feared. ++

North Vietnamese Offensive in South Vietnam in 1975

By July 1974, following the cut-off of US aid to the South, the North Vietnamese leadership had decided to abrogate the ceasefire and to invade in 1975, instead of 1976 as previously planned, because they believed an earlier Vietnamese unification would put Vietnam in a stronger position against Chinese and Soviet influence.

In January 1975 the North Vietnamese launched a massive ground attack across the 17th Parallel—the unofficial border between North and South Vietnam—using tanks, heavy artillery and other advanced weapons supplied by Soviet Union The party leadership in North Vietnam met in October, 1974 to plan a 1975 military offensive concentrating on the Cambodian border area and the Central Highlands. A clear violation of the peace treaty the North Vietnamese had signed two year earlier, the offensive was the largest North Vietnamese conventional ground offensive of the war. Hanoi kept only one division behind to guard Hanoi. Eighteen others were ordered to capture Saigon.

The taking of the Phuoc Lang province capital, Phuoc Binh (now Ba Ra in Song Be Province), in early January was followed by a surprise attack in March on Ban Me Thuot, the largest city in the Central Highlands. By March the North Vietnamese had occupied the strategic Central Highlands and had driven out South Vietnamese troops from Ban Me Thuot, which had been the anchor of Saigon defenses in the Central Highlands. President Thieu ordered ARVN units at Pleiku and Kontum to leave the highlands and withdraw to the coast to regroup for a counter attack on Ban Me Thuot.

The collapse of South began in March 1975 when the North Vietnamese began moving out of the Central Highlands encountering virtually no resistance from the South Vietnamese army, which had been ordered by Thieu to withdraw to a more defensible position. Thieu’s decision proved to be a spectacular military blunder as South Vietnamese troops interpreted it as an excuse to throw down their weapons and desert. They were followed by a panicked mob of 200,000 refugees. The soldiers that didn't throw off their uniforms were intercepted and routed by NVA regulars.

The pullback from the Central Highlands was a move long urged by U.S. strategists, but the orderly pullback became a chaotic rout that surprised even the North Vietnamese. "Why such a retreat?'' Gen. Van Tien Dung, Hanoi's chief of staff, would ask later. "The enemy had again made another grave and strategic mistake.'' Making matters worse, North Vietnamese units had already cut the main roads to the coast and fleeing civilians clogged the secondary roads as panic ensued. By the end of March, eight northern provinces had fallen to the communist forces, including the cities of Hue and Da Nang. George J. Church, Time magazine, "The North Vietnamese easily captured Ban Me Thout, Hue, Da Nang, Chu Lai, Qang Ngai, Qui Nhon and Nha Thang. The fall of Danang at the end of March was a horror show in which Vietnamese soldiers trampled women and children to get on board the last American 727 to leave the base. Soldiers unable to get inside the plane clung to landing gear when the plane took off, "only to fall off in the South China Sea or be crushed against the undercarriage." [Source: George J. Church, Time magazine, April 24, 1995]

South Vietnamese Army After the Americans Left in 1973

Whole brigades of South Vietnamese soldiers disintegrated and fled southward, joining hundreds of thousands of civilians clogging Hwy 1. Hué, Danang, Quy Nhon, and Nha Trang had largely been abandoned when the North Vietnamese arrived and were taken with hardly any shots being fired. South Vietnamese troops fled so quickly that the only thing that kept the North Vietnamese from advancing any faster than did was the top speed of their tanks.

Mark Moyar wrote: "As the thrusts of North Vietnam's 1975 offensive cut into the South, many South Vietnamese units fought poorly or simply collapsed because of bad leadership. With the North Vietnamese Army piling up victories, ARVN running out of supplies, and American help not coming, ARVN leaders grew increasingly demoralized. Some leaders even abandoned their units in order to save themselves or their families. The GVN high command made some major strategic blunders during the offensive which ensured a rapid defeat. When the North Vietnamese captured Ban Me Thuot, Thieu unwisely ordered a retreat from Kontum and Pleiku for which no one had planned, and the ARVN II Corps Commander, Maj. Gen. Pham Van Phu, fled the scene. These actions led to the disintegration and destruction of most of the units involved. Thieu also critically undermined the defense of I Corps as the NVA moved towards it by transferring the Airborne Division from I Corps to the Saigon area. In both I Corps and II Corps, The South Vietnamese Army also suffered tremendous losses to desertion because it had allowed soldiers' families to live in the same areas as the soldiers; when ARVN units retreated or panicked civilians fled, the soldiers frequently left their units to help their families. The roads became clogged with civilians and deserters, which impeded the movement of the remaining ARVN units. [Source: Mark Moyar, Villager Attitudes During The Final Decade Of The Vietnam, Naval Institute Press, 1997 ++]

"The South Vietnamese Army faced other difficulties in its last months that made its defeat much more likely, none of which had anything to do with villager attitudes. Heavy fighting between ARVN and the NVA in the war's last years and reductions in US aid contributed to the shortages of military supplies and equipment. Because of scarce equipment and supplies, the ground and air mobility of ARVN units declined drastically, as did their access to air and artillery strikes. As mentioned earlier, the US no longer supported ARVN with its air power as it had during the Easter Offensive of 1972. These developments severely curtailed ARVN's capability for attacking enemy main forces and defending the GVN against enemy attacks. The departure of most of the Americans and the aid reductions led to massive unemployment and high inflation in the South, so numerous ARVN soldiers no longer had enough money to provide their families with the bare essentials. Many soldiers, as a consequence, left duty temporarily or deserted to help their families. Where leadership was poor, economic woes also led to declines in discipline and morale. The North Vietnamese, in the meantime, had built up their logistical lines to the South after the Paris Agreement without interference from the US. They eventually sent enough men and Chinese and Soviet materi‚l to the South to give their main forces decided advantages over ARVN in firepower and mobility. ++

"The North Vietnamese offensive lasted for most of March and all of April 1975. Although some of the outmanned and outgunned ARVN units repelled the attackers with heavy losses thanks to good leadership, the NVA had too many strong, well-led, and well-supplied main force units for the weakened and dispersed South Vietnamese Army to handle. Villagers and Government pacification troops stood by as the North Vietnamese raced through the countryside towards the cities, powerless to stop them. The Government of Vietnam had won the struggle for control over rural South Vietnam and the allegiance of its inhabitants, but it lost the war.

North Vietnamese Advance on Saigon in 1975

Buoyed by this stunning victory, North Vietnam’s party leadership directed the commander of revolutionary forces in the South, General Van Tien Dung to prepare for an offensive against Saigon. In early April, People's Army of Vietnam ( PAVN) and People's Liberation Armed Force (PLAF) troops moved south and began an encirclement of the capital. Associated Press reported that as "Hanoi's final offensive rolled almost unchecked toward his capital, Thieu asked the United States for a new infusion of money and military equipment, and was infuriated when Congress refused President Gerald Ford's $300 million supplementary military aid bill for Saigon." [Source: George Esper and Richard Pyle, Associated Press, September 30, 2001]

As the Communists drove toward Saigon virtually unopposed, Thieu pledged that his troops would defend it "to the last bullet, the last grain of rice.'' But after enemy forces attacked a radar facility on the edge of Saigon itself, one of Thieu's generals advised him that the war was lost. Even as the situation deteriorated, some senior U.S. and South Vietnamese leaders held out hope for a cease-fire type of settlement that would avoid total defeat. But Hanoi made clear that Thieu's removal from office was a prerequisite for any agreement, and Thieu himself finally reached that conclusion.

On the outskirts of Saigon, Col. Vo Dong Giang received a coded message from North Vietnamese army headquarters that said an all out attack was iminent. It ended: "Good luck. See you in Saigon." As the North Vietnamese army closed in on Saigon in early April, a Vietnamese man who was 12 at the time told Time: "One day a couple of guys would be gone, and then a couple more, and then the teacher wouldn't show up. Everybody was scared. They sensed that something tragic was about to happen." Rumors began spreading that a blood bath was going to occur, with thousands dead. Businesses closed. Sand bags were set up around houses. Insurance premiums for journalists who refused to leave jumped 1,000 percent.

In early April the C.I.A. loaded South Vietnamese collaborators who faced death or long prison sentence under Communists on "black" flights out of the country. The staff at the U.S. embassy was burning sensitive papers at such a high rate that the ash floating down from the incinerators made the embassy swimming pool unusable. [Source: George J. Church, Time magazine, April 24, 1995]

David Lamb wrote in Smithsonian magazine, "I had spread out a map on the bed in my hotel near South Vietnam's parliament. Each night I had marked the advancing locations of North Vietnam's 12 divisions as they swept down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to the city's doorstep. The end of the war was at hand and it would come amid chaos but with surprisingly little bloodshed. "I was 12 miles north of Saigon with the 2nd Division before the final advance," said Tran Dau, a former North Vietnamese officer living in Ho Chi Minh City. "We could see the lights of the city at night. When we came in, I was surprised how modern and prosperous it was. We had been in the forests so long that anyplace with pavement would have seemed like Paris." [Source: David Lamb, Smithsonian magazine, March 2008]

U.S.-trained South Vietnamese pilot Nguyen Thanh Trung defected to the North mid-mission. Faking engine problems, he peeled off from his squadron and headed back to Saigon to bomb the presidential palace and the international airport.

Thieu Resigns

On April 20, after ten days of stiff resistance, the ARVN Eighteenth Division, stationed thirty kilometers north of Saigon, finally crumbled under the attack of three PAVN divisions. With Saigon in a state of panic, President Thieu resigned the following day and was replaced by Vice President Tran Van Huong.

George J. Church, wrote in Time magazine, "The "last prolonged and bloody battle" of the Vietnam took place on April 20, 1975 in Xuan Loc, a small town 38 miles outside of Saigon. By this time the Americans had a hard getting in contact with Thieu, who was shuttling from villa to villa, a ghost of man with "his spirit broken." On April 21, Thieu addressed the South Vietnamese National Assembly and gave a tearful resignation speech, berating the U.S. for running away and leaving "us to do the job that you could not do." [Source: George J. Church, Time magazine, April 24, 1995]

Thieu accused the United States of leading the South Vietnamese people to death, saying Washington had broken a promise to help Saigon if the Communists violated the 1973 peace accords. The North Vietnamese commander Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, said "the key was April 21, when Thieu resigned. Then I knew, we all agreed, we had to attack immediately, seize the initiative." Afterwards the North Vietnamese encircled Saigon with virtually no residence.

On April 24, U.S. President Gerald Ford declared the war "finished, as far as America was concerned" at a speech at Tulane University. When he said the words finished, the students "raised the roof with whoops and hollers." In the meantime Thieu was still railing the United States for abandoning him. Some Americans still left in Saigon were more fearful of retribution from the South Vietnamese than they were of attacks from the North Vietnamese.

Gen Duong "Big" Van Minh, thought to be more acceptable to the communists, took over the presidency on April 28. The communists refused to negotiate, however, and fifteen PAVN battalions began to move toward Saigon. On April 30, communist forces entered the capital, and Duong Van Minh ordered ARVN troops to lay down their arms. *

Thieu and Ky Flee Vietnam

Thieu had been in power since 1967. At the time the North Vietnamese attacked the radar facility on the edge of Saigon Thieu learned that his family graveyard at Phan Rang had been destroyed by the advancing enemy, an unspeakable insult in ancestor-lovingVietnam. In his speech on April 21, 1975 he said "I am resigning, but I am not deserting," he said. Four days later he flew to Taiwan with a fortune in gold.

On April 26, Thieu boarded a plane out of Vietnam with the smell of Scotch on his breath and gold bars in his luggage, a CIA agent who took him to the told later Newsweek. He flew to Taiwan, leaving his disintegrating government in the hands of Gen. Duong Van "Big'' Minh as president. Thieu later moved to Britain (rather the United States) and lived for a while in mansion he bought with money he spirited out of the country. In Britain, Thieu lived in self-imposed obscurity, steadfastly refusing to give interviews, or publicly discuss the last days of Saigon. He eventually settled in Foxburo, Massachusetts, to be near members of his family, still shunning the spotlight but keeping in touch with old cronies. They often talked about returning to Vietnam to regain what had been theirs. He died in Massachusetts in 2001 at the age of 78.

The day after Thieu’s departure, the National Assembly elected Gen. Duong Van "Big" Minh—who was viewed as a neutralist "third force"—as president. He served only a couple of days. The same day he became president rockets began falling on Saigon and the North Vietnamese army began bombing Tan Son Nhut air base. A North Vietnamese official told Time, "We didn't think we'd do much real damage, but we wanted to have maximum psychological effect. We wanted to create chaos."

By this time South Vietnamese planes were also bombing Saigon as Air Marshall Nguyen Cao Ky tried size power in a coup. He eventually fled the country in a helicopter he flew himself and ended up in California, where he opened up a liquor store. Even though he stocked the shelves and worked the cashier himself to save money the venture was not successful and he was forced to live in a house owned by relatives.

Nine days after Thieu’s resignation communist tank units burst through the gates of Saigon's Independence Palace, ran up their victory flag and arrested Minh.

Evacuating Americans and Vietnamese from Saigon

As the North Vietnamese moved on Saigon, American presence in Saigon was reduced to 1,250, the number that could be evacuated by helicopter in a single day. Transport planes began flying in and out of Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut Airport to ferry out Americans and Vietnamese. Americans who were in Vietnam not only worried about saving themselves and their family they also worried about saving their Vietnamese friends, officials, girl friends, bar girls, mixed-race children, who faced execution or at least long terms in re-education camps if they didn’t get out.

The evacuation at Tan Son Nhut airport picked up it pace on April 20. Ironically even though tens of thousands of Vietnamese were desperate to get out many planes left half empty to show that the evacuation was orderly and to prevent panic. The United States originally had plans to only help evacuate a handful of Vietnamese but in the end it assisted 130,000 to get out. One state department offical pilfered a consular stamp and worked through the night in a bowling alley, the only place with electricity, to issue exit permits . To assist Vietnamese women get out a major at the defense attache told Time: "We just married them in the lines, sometimes to American men. It was a quick thing: 'Do you? I do." Then onto the plane. The evacuation system was a bit unfair: bar girls that could easily find American sponsors easily got on planes while villager that risked their lives for years for the Americans didn't. [Source: George J. Church, Time magazine, April 24, 1995]

One of the biggest tragedies of the evacuation from Vietnam was the crash, 20 minutes after take-off, of C5A with more than 243 war orphans on board. Over 100 were killed and many died when they were sucked out of the plane after a cargo-door malfunctioned during the flight. Their bodies forming a trail which led to the wreckage. After reading about the crash, a Connecticut businessman donated the money to charter two Pan Am 747s to bring the survivors and about 500 other orphans to the U.S., where they were adopted by American families.

Saigon Airport Closes and Panic in South China Sea

The North Vietnamese launched their final drive on Saigon on April 28. By April 29, Tan Son Nhut airport was shut down to everything but helicopters after two U.S. Marines were shot there (the last casualties of the war) and it had become overrun by desperate refugees. Ironically, the last plane to land at the airport contained only bundles of the military newspaper Stars and Stripes . [Source: George J. Church, Time magazine, April 24, 1995]

It was at this point that the final helicopter airlift, Operation Frequent Wind, was launched with an order by President Ford . The evacuation began with the signal—Bing Crosby's White Christmas played on the U.S. Armed Forces Radio—for all Americans to head to their evacuation points.

By this time panic had already set in among the South Vietnamese army. A Navy warrant officer on a command ship told Time: South Vietnamese flyers "were jumping out of their helicopters into the sea" alongside American ships. "The South Vietnamese were not obeying orders when or where to land. It was terrifying...We pushed 10 to 12 helicopters over the sides to keep the decks clear for American helicopters."

Civilians reached American navy ships in the South China Sea 80 kilometers (50 miles) offshore on barges and boats that set off from docks in Saigon and ports along the coast. "They were packed like animals," a medical corpsman told Time. "most of the people were frightened to death. There were old ladies and men, just crying scared."

Panic and Chaos in Saigon

Twelve-year-old Diem Do boarded a boat in Saigon that was so crowded the captain couldn't get on. When he managed to board he told Time, "the shells started hitting. Out of nowhere there were bullets and shells coming from the other side of the [Saigon] river. Smoke and flames were coming out of the first and third ships. And people were still scrambling and trying to get on." The captain finally 'screamed at his crew, 'Leave!' Get the hell out!" [Source: George J. Church, Time magazine, April 24, 1995]

Remembering April 30, 1975, one Vietnamese man told National Geographic, "You wouldn't have believed it. People were trying to escape. Some committed suicide." People panicked when an ammunition dump exploded and a helicopter, piloted by a Vietnamese man trying to rescue his family, crash landed in a major intersection.

A Vietnamese reporter told Time: "I saw on the streets—you wouldn't believe it. You can hear the bombs, the guns [outside the city]. Everyone running out in the street, shouted, cried. They run, run, run, look for a boat, someplace to move. I saw right now I remember—their eyes open, suffering."

An AP reporter told the Los Angeles Times that when he went outside his office, "the first guy I saw was a police officer. His eyes were crazed and he was yelling, ‘Fini! Fini! ’ He took out his pistol, and I thought he’s going to shoot me.’ Personally, I never liked weapons. He put the gun to his head, saluted the statue of the South Vietnamese soldier that stood nearby and fired. He died at my feet."

Bedlam at the U.S. Embassy as Saigon Falls

U.S. ambassador Graham Martin failed to make adequate preparations for the execution of the embassy and embassy personnel in Saigon. Worried about a Danang-style panic, he refused to even authorize the felling a tamarind tree that prevented helicopters from landing in the embassy courtyard.

Thousands of people milled around outside the U.S. embassy. When the gates were opened to let in people marked for evacuation, the crowd surged and Marines had to beat them back. When the crowd became too big and unruly, those marked for evacuation had to pulled by their arms over the embassy walls. [Source: George J. Church, Time magazine, April 24, 1995]

Looters, mainly Vietnamese staff, guzzled down wine in the embassy commisary. Marines hacked the giant tamarind trees to clear a space for the helicopters. Well-connected Vietnamese had difficulty getting to the embassy compound because of the mob outside so a special safe house was set for them in a different location, where they could be fetched.

Captain Stuart Herrington, an officer at the embassy told Time: "The embassy was a monstrous mess...People started coming out of the woodwork...I saw people surrounding the swimming pool with suitcases. Who were they?...Everybody who worked in the embassy had Vietnamese people their consciences told them they couldn't abandon, and by hook or by crook all ended up there." Herrington and others went around with a bullhorn shouting "thing like, We're not going to leave you. Don't worry...And we believed it at the time."

Final Helicopter Evacuation from Saigon

The helicopter evacuation of Saigon was largest of its kind in history. George J. Church wrote in Time: "The helicopter lift went on for about 21 hours, from roughly 11 a.m. on April 29 to almost 8 a.m. on the 30th. Pilots flew for 10 to 15 hours straight; each trip took about 40 minutes in the air and 10 to 15 minutes on the ground loading up." [Source: George J. Church, Time magazine, April 24, 1995]

Marine Captain Glynn Hodges who landed his H-53 helicopter in the embassy compound told Time: " My troops couldn't believe the scene. People were climbing fences. It was bedlam. We were afraid of the crowds. We had to wear gas masks, though we saw only smoke, no gas. We also wore flak vests. They were hot and heavy. We were really uncomfortable and scared too."

Hodges said: "After dark you could see fire fights coming from the coast to Saigon. Air traffic was very crowded at night...The worst fear I had was running into another airplane. The Vietnamese I saw, I remember looking at them and they were just confused—how'd I'd feel if I'd just left my home forever."

Another pilot, who was under fire, told Time: "The chopper groped for altitude as the motors wined in protest...For three or four minutes, the tracers continued reaching for us, slowly burning out as they fell short...I thought to myself, ‘How absurd, to be shot down on the way out.’"

Final Stages of the Final Helicopter Evacuation

The final stages of the evacuation were carried out largely with relatively small H-46 Huey helicopters because the larger H-53 Chinooks were too heavy to land on the embassy roof. One pilot told Time his H-46 was designed to take 24 but he jammed in 36 on the belief that Vietnamese were smaller, and worried if he had enough fuel to reach his ship in the South China Sea.

CIA operatives at the U.S. embassy were desperate to get out their informers, translators and staff, knowing there was good chance they would killed if they weren’t evacuated. The CIA also worried about the valuable information they could hand over to the Communists. In the end many were left behind.

Ambassador Martin was on one of the last helicopters to take off from the roof of the embassy. He later told Time: "Hundreds of Vietnamese had swarmed over the walls and were looting the warehouse, the offices, the snack bar. Some were driving embassy cars around in almost maniacal frenzy. On the other side of the walls, crowds were shouting chants against the U.S., celebrating the imminent victory of the communists." One Vietnamese man who jumped from an embarking chopper told Karnow, "I couldn't leave my wife and four children behind."[Source: George J. Church, Time magazine, April 24, 1995]

For many Americans the evacuation of Saigon is summed up by the image of a CH-46 helicopter picking up evacuees lined up on a staircase on the roof of what was said to be the U.S. Embassy. Hugh Van Es took the iconic photograph from the balcony of the Peninsula Hotel. He won a Pultizer Prize and earned a $150 bonus for the picture. However, the helicopter was not taking off from the roof of the U.S. Embassy. It was actually the C.I.A. safe house two blocks away.

The very last American helicopter was sent to rescue a rear guard of 12 Marines that had inadvertantly been left behind. It was escorted by gunshipes sent to supress the gunfire coming from South Vietnamese who had not been evacuated and were inside the embassy compound. The Marines were removed with a Chinook at 8:00am on April 30. Just before the helicopter arrived the Marines fired tear gas and beat off South Vietnamese with their rifle butts to keep the mob from moving on the chopper. As the helicopter flew off the Marines had their guns trained squarely on the people that the United States had spent years defending.

When the airlift was over 120,000 Vietnamese and 20,000 Americans had been evacuated. When Ford gave the order to halt the operation early in the morning of April 30, it was estimated that 420 Vietnamese were left behind at the embassy. Ford said. "It was one of the saddest days in my life. To see the United States literally kicked, beaten by the North Vietnamese. It was tragedy in my own mind." After the last choppers left there was some looting and violence but mostly Saigon was deadly quiet as the North Vietnamese entered the city. One Saigon resident later told the Los Angeles Times, "The silence was so total it scared me. No one knew what to expect."

Saigon Falls on April 30, 1975

On April 30, 1975, Communist tanks barreled through the gates of the Presidential Palace, the heart of the US-backed Saigon government, marking the fall of Saigon and the official end to the Vietnam War." For the North Vietnamese the fall of Saigon was like the American victory of the British at Yorktown. "It was joyous," Brigadier General Hoang Dung told Reuters in 2006, tears in his eyes as he spoke of "the memories playing in my head like a film." The military campaign to claim Saigon took 55 days. On May 1, 1975, the workers and citizens of Vietnam, from North to South, were able to celebrate May Day in a completely liberated country for the first time ever. Vietnamese know the fall of Saigon as "The Great Spring 1975 Victory."

The BBC reported: "The war in Vietnam ended today as the government in Saigon announced its unconditional surrender to the Viet Cong. The President, Duong Van Minh, who has been in office for just three days, made the announcement in a radio broadcast to the nation early this morning. He asked his forces to lay down their arms and called on the Viet Cong to halt all hostilities. In a direct appeal to the Communist forces, he said: "We are here to hand over to you the power in order to avoid bloodshed." The announcement was followed swiftly by the arrival of Viet Cong troops. Their entrance was virtually unopposed, confounding predictions of a bloody and protracted last-ditch battle for the city. [Source: BBC News, April 30, 2006 :::]

"The front line of tanks smashed through the gates of the presidential palace within minutes, and at 11:30am local time (3:30am GMT), decades of war came to an end. Viet Cong troops, many barefoot and some no more than teenagers, rounded up government soldiers, and raised their red and blue flags. The looting which has ravaged the city over the last 24 hours stopped, and power was restored later in the day. Only the United States embassy remained closed and silent, ransacked by looters. Saigon was immediately renamed Ho Chi Minh City. A statement by the Provisional Revolutionary Government, or PRG, in Paris, promised a policy of non-alignment, and the peaceful reunification of Vietnam. The British government is now urgently reviewing the possibility of recognising the PRG. France has already recognised the new regime, and other Western countries are preparing to follow suit. :::

"The capitulation of the South Vietnamese government came just four hours after the last frenzied evacuation of Americans from the city. President Ford, who has requested humanitarian aid for the Vietnamese, let it be known that he was proud to have saved what Vietnamese he could in the last, frantic helicopter evacuation. But there is said to be deep humiliation in the United States government at the desperation and chaos of the final hours of America's presence in Vietnam. The President ordered United States ships to remain indefinitely off the Vietnamese coast to pick up refugees: but even this gesture has been snubbed by the North Vietnamese, who have prevented any more refugees from fleeing." :::

Final Hours as Saigon Falls on April 30, 1975

At 9:00am on April 30, North Vietnamese general Tran Van Tra ordered the columns of his army to move into Saigon from five different direction. The North Vietnamese army was very professional and disciplined. Later Tran Van Tra told Time "our purpose was to sieze Saigon , not to kill people." A South Vietnamese general said many of the tracer bullets fired at U.S. helicopters was from the South Vietnamese army "angry at the U.S. for leaving." [Source: George J. Church, Time magazine, April 24, 1995]

Many South Vietnamese soldiers got rid of their uniforms, weapons and anything else that might give away their identity, and blended in with the general population the best they could. One North Vietnamese journalist told Time: "Everywhere you looked on the road, they had left their military clothing and supplies...they must have ended up fleeing in their shorts."

On April 30, 1975, about an hour after the last helicopter took off from the roof of the U.S. embassy, tank No. 843, a Soviet-made T-54, commanded by North Vietnamese major Nguyen Van Hoa, crashed through the gates at presidential Palace in Saigon. He later told Time that he almost stumbled on the palace by accident. "The only directions we had were to go through seven intersections and we would find the palace...We met a woman on a motorcycle, and we asked her where the palace was. It was right there...we only had two shells left. I ordered the gunner to fire one at the agate. But it misfired. So I decided to just drive through the gates and raise our flag."

At around 11:30am, according to one account, North Vietnamese soldiers entered the office of President Minh, who had already written out a surrender, which he had delivered over Saigon radio. According to another account Minh was taken by North Vietnamese soldiers from the palace to the radio station, where he read a surrender statement that had been given to him. By noon by North Vietnamese were broadcasting over the radio that they had captured Saigon and renamed it Ho Chi Minh City. "I was listening to the radio with my family and heard that Saigon had been liberated. I was very happy because for many years we weren't free. To Thanh Nghia, a government worker told AP.

After the Fall of Saigon

Kenneth Morfield, a foreign service officer at the U.S. embassy who also spent three years in Vietnam as an infantry officer, told Time that on the helicopter leaving Saigon, "I was numb from exhaustion. Physically, I was beyond sensation. But I felt the tremendous weight of all that pressure lift off me. I realized my war, our war, was finally over." In Washington, the Treasury Department froze all Vietnamese assets and prohibited Americans from sending money to Vietnam.

At about 3:00pm on April 30, Saigon’s new authority, the Provisional Revolutionary Government, broadcast a 10-point program, promising peaceful reunification, freedom of thought and worship and sexual equality. Prostitution and "acting like Americans" was banned. All in all, though, events after the war unfolded relatively peacefully. This was quite a contrast to Cambodia, where the Khmer Rouge took control of Phnom Penh and began their campaign of horror almost immediately

At night hungry North Vietnamese soldiers gathered around campfires on the lawn of the Presidential Palace. One North Vietnamese soldier recalled, "The enemy fought well, but not for long. Then, just like that the war was over, the country reunited. That night for the first time in months, we got to sit quietly and talk about comrades who died, to write letters to our families in the north....I had not seen my wife and children for almost 10 years. Ten years. That was several lifetimes in those days.’

"After 1975, Saigon turned into Ho Chi Minhgrad,"the spy-reporter Pham Xuan An told The New Yorker , speaking of the year that he spent manning Time’s Saigon bureau, before it closed in May, 1976. "The censorship was so tight, it was like back in the days of Graham Greene. I didn’t file many stories, because I didn’t know how to dodge the censors. I spent my days going to cockfights and fish fights."

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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