The American Legion Magazine
September 1, 2003
By Alan W. Dowd
President Gerald Ford called it “the saddest day of my public life.” For his South Vietnamese counterpart, Nguyen Van Thieu, it was a bitter betrayal, one final indignity in a long series of humiliations. Thieu's war-weary countrymen saw it as the end of their nation, while their communist adversaries saw it as cause for celebration. Indeed, North Vietnamese Col. Bui Tin called it "a moment of joy."
It was the fall of Saigon, and it came swiftly and ferociously in the last week of April 1975. With thousands of communist troops plowing toward the city, a handful of Americans became a lifeline of hope for a hopeless people. Dubbed “Operation Frequent Wind,” the complex helicopter-borne evacuation is glossed over or altogether ignored by most retrospectives of Vietnam, which focus instead on the war's other offspring—the Tonkin Gulf and Tet, the Hanoi Hilton and My Lai, the Pentagon Papers and Kent State. But America's final hours and final act in Vietnam are just as significant.
The chaotic end of the Vietnam War is something like a Rorschach inkblot: The hawks view it as a final repudiation of half measures and confirmation of the need for robust US military involvement. The doves point to it as a final proof that South Vietnam was an artificial construct, its government and people either unwilling or unable to fight for their own cause—and at the very least, incapable of fighting with the determination of their northern cousins. Both could be right, but perhaps a clearer picture will come into focus if we begin the story a bit earlier.
Like a long, tragic novel, it is difficult to discuss a single chapter of the Vietnam War without recapping others. For the US military, the final chapters of Vietnam were written not in Saigon, but Paris. In January 1973, after four years of grinding negotiations, the warring sides initialed the Paris Peace Accords and effectively ended the Vietnam War. Under the accords, Washington agreed to withdraw all but a token force from South Vietnam, although the treaty allowed the United States to send military aid and left open the possibility of US military intervention in the event of communist ceasefire violations. By June 1973, only 250 American troops remained in South Vietnam—down from a wartime high of 529,000.
For its part, North Vietnam promised to hand over all US prisoners of war; promised not to introduce new forces into South Vietnam or reinforce those already there; promised not to use Laos or Cambodia for infiltration into the South; promised to work toward the reunification of North and South “through peaceful means;” and promised to respect South Vietnam’s right to self-determination.
But Ho’s henchmen didn’t keep their promises. Just five days after signing the accords, the North was shipping fresh military hardware into South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. By mid-April 1973, the North had deployed 30,000 new troops, 400 new tanks and 300 new artillery pieces into South Vietnam. In the span of 70 days, the communists brazenly shoved 27,000 tons of war materiel across the DMZ and another 26,000 tons into neighboring Laos. The troops and equipment would spearhead the North’s final offensives of the war, which finished off South Vietnam just 24 months later.
Yet Saigon’s fate was sealed long before the Paris Accords. From beginning to end, Washington prosecuted the war halfheartedly: When Lyndon Johnson asked the Pentagon brass what they needed to win, the answer was seven years, 700,000-1,000,000 troops and an unfettered air campaign. “There seems to be no reason we cannot win if such is our will—and if that will is manifested in strategy and tactical operations,” the Joint Chiefs concluded in 1965. But Johnson didn’t heed their advice. Instead of sending an overwhelming force of 700,000, he sent 125,000. Instead of a ferocious and relentless air assault, he chose an incremental approach and kept key North Vietnamese military targets off limits for much of the war. Instead of sound tactics and strategy, Johnson and Nixon launched a combined 16 bombing pauses and 72 peace initiatives during the war.
This was by design, of course. With the prospect of global nuclear war looming over Vietnam and every other Cold War battlefield, the limited wars and police actions that characterized the second half of the 20th century were aimed not so much at defeating the Soviet empire, but at slowing its advance. As the late Harry Summers concluded in 1991, “The problem is that these changes in the American way of war were never adequately explained to the American people.”
Yet it’s not fair to lay all the blame at the feet of Johnson and Nixon. From FDR to Ford, as historian Paul Johnson concludes in his history of the 20th century, Modern Times, “Every American president contributed his quota of error.” He argues that FDR’s men at the Office of Strategic Services helped Ho Chi Minh seize power and notes that Truman bankrolled the French phase of the war. Pointing to Indochina, Eisenhower warned of falling dominoes: “The loss of South Vietnam,” he predicted, “could…have grave consequences for us and for freedom.” Before the end of his first term, Johnson adds, American taxpayers were underwriting 80 percent of the French war effort. Kennedy would send thousands of troops into South Vietnam, Johnson tens of thousands. For his part, Nixon’s stated goal was not victory, but “peace with honor.”
However, as Ford explained in 1975, the long-term viability of peace—and of South Vietnam itself—“rested on two publicly stated premises.” The first was a steady stream of US military aid; the second was a credible threat of American intervention in the event of ceasefire violations. But Congress rapidly cut off aid to Saigon—from $2 billion in 1972 to $1.4 billion in 1973 to just $700 million in 1974. And although the ceasefire violations were flagrant and numerous—in the two years between Paris and the fall of Saigon, the North deployed 350,000 troops into South Vietnam—there was no American cavalry over the horizon. In fact, within five months of the Paris Peace Accords, Congress refused to fund “directly or indirectly combat activities in or over Cambodia, Laos, North Vietnam and South Vietnam by United States forces.”
South Vietnam Folds
By 1975, South Vietnam was in its death throes; Nixon had been ousted; and with questions of legitimacy hanging over him, Ford was reduced to echoing Eisenhower: “US unwillingness to provide adequate assistance to allies fighting for their lives would seriously affect our credibility around the world as an ally,” he warned during a last-ditch bid to gain support for the South Vietnamese government. “And this credibility is essential to our national security.” With nearly 60,000 American lives erased and $150 billion invested, Congress couldn’t be persuaded.
The decisions made in Washington would reverberate in Saigon and Hanoi. As the New York Times reported in the final hours of South Vietnam, “For two years after the 1973 ceasefire accords, both Government and Communist forces attacked each other without any major change in territory.” But as America pulled back its blanket of aid and firepower—and as the North Vietnamese army streamed across the DMZ—the situation rapidly changed: Phuoc Binh was first to fall, then Ban Me Thout, prompting the South Vietnamese to withdraw from strategic positions all across the Central Highlands.
The fighting retreat quickly became a rout. By the end of March, communist forces had swept into the port city of Da Nang, long since flattened by a shower of artillery shelling. The city was crammed with some 2 million war refugees. They hoped to make it to the relative safety of the South China Sea, where a flotilla of US ships waited to evacuate them. But as Walter Boyne, former director of the National Air and Space Museum, recalled in a 2000 article about Saigon’s fall, “only 50,000 would escape by sea.” As the flotilla drifted away, one of the lucky ones looked back and captured the desperation of Da Nang: “All we can see is wall-to-wall people along the shore.”
By April, with communist troops descending down Vietnam’s serpentine geography, US forces were evacuating thousands from all across Indochina. Operation Eagle Pull snatched 276 Americans from Cambodia. Operation Babylift transported 2,600 Vietnamese children from Southeast Asia to America. The ten-day mercy mission began tragically, however, when an explosion blew open the back of a US C-5A transport plane. More than 200 of the 382 people aboard perished. But according to Boyne, it could have been even worse. “Capt. Dennis Traynor did a masterful job of flying the airplane…[and] managed to bring the aircraft back to within five miles of Tan Son Nhut, where he made a semi-controlled crash.”
American military personnel and foreign-service officers orchestrated countless other evacuations that bore no codename at all: Throughout April, American cargo planes streamed in and out of South Vietnam, forming an air bridge that carried thousands of people to US bases in the Philippines and Guam. CIA agents evacuated hundreds by plane. Embassy personnel shepherded South Vietnam’s widows and orphans from the frontlines to freedom flights. In arguably the strangest of these episodes, an official from the US consulate in Can Tho was leading a group of about a hundred refugees down the Mekong River when South Vietnamese helicopters fired on their boats. US Navy fighter jets from nearby carriers were called in to protect the refugees and neutralize the attacking helicopters.
Sadly, this was not an isolated incident. As South Vietnam collapsed, so too did its military. Many South Vietnamese troops fought honorably and to the last, but there were widespread reports of South Vietnamese officers commandeering airplanes and helicopters. As a load of evacuees arrived at Tan Son Nhut air base on the outskirts of Saigon, hundreds of heavily armed South Vietnamese troops tried to force their way inside. They were ultimately repulsed by US Marines. Other South Vietnamese soldiers seized ships. In fact, one barge that joined the evacuation flotilla had not one civilian on it, but was crammed with 600 South Vietnamese paratroopers. They were forcibly disarmed by Marines from the USS Mobile.
A Patch of Freedom
In stark contrast to so many of their South Vietnamese allies, the last Americans to leave Vietnam—like the first Americans to arrive—were a selfless breed. Operation Frequent Wind was more than just a long goodbye for them; it was their way of keeping America’s word and keeping faith with those who fought and died in Vietnam the previous fifteen years.
The Ninth Marine Amphibious Brigade—some 900 Marines in all—would serve as the rear guard for America’s farewell mission in Vietnam. The Navy provided air cover and command-and-control from the USS Blue Ridge, USS Midway and other warships floating in the South China Sea, while the Air Force and Marines provided most of the helicopters. More than 40 ships were involved; 170 Naval aircraft took part in the mission; nearly 80 Marine helicopters participated; and the Air Force tasked some 370 warplanes, helicopters and support craft to the operation.
Initially, Frequent Wind was designed to use the Defense Attache’s compound and airfield at Tan Son Nhut as an extraction point. However, after 140 North Vietnamese rockets slammed into the massive base in the predawn darkness of April 29, 1975, the Marines were forced to shift the rescue hub to the US Embassy. Amid the chaos and crush of humanity, the Marines converted the Embassy grounds into a makeshift helipad. Decades later, James Kean, one of the last Marines to leave Saigon, recalled how Plan B worked: “We would be operating two landing zones at the Embassy, one from the parking lot and another from the roof.” Giving new meaning to the old adage that necessity is the mother of invention, they used a 35-mm slide projector to illuminate the roof and guide the helicopters in. As soon as one chopper took off, another would land. By midnight April 30, swarms of US helicopters were descending on the US Embassy—the last patch of freedom in all of Vietnam.
Vietnamese troops—either North or South or both—used the cover of darkness to take potshots at the choppers. In what was perhaps America’s last combat operation in Vietnam, Kean actually sent some of his Marines over the Embassy walls to neutralize the snipers. As he put it, “if one helicopter crashes, this baby is over.”
After lifting off, the helicopters made a harrowing dash to the US Seventh Fleet, some 70 miles away. As they hovered above the decks of the awaiting US flattops, the pilots and passengers in those helicopters saw a most unusual sight: Floating alongside the ultra-modern warships of the US Navy was a hodgepodge of boats and barges, literally brimming with refugees and soldiers from a country that no longer existed. As New York Times correspondent Fox Butterfield noted when the pitiful flotilla came into view, “The ships look[ed] more like the Monitor and Merrimack than a modern fleet.”
Shuttling back and forth between the surreal scene on the South China Sea and the churning chaos of Saigon, US pilots flew more than 680 sorties. In what would become the largest helicopter evacuation in history, they plucked 1,373 American civilians, 5,500 Vietnamese nationals and 989 Marines from the advancing communist armies. Four Marines were killed in the operation—two during the rocket attacks on Ton San Nhut, two others when their helicopter crashed into the sea. Fittingly, the last 11 Americans to leave Saigon were all Marines, their CH-46 lifting off from the Embassy roof at 7:58 a.m. on April 30, 1975. By dusk, the North Vietnamese flag would fly over Saigon.
“This action closes a chapter in the American experience,” Ford concluded as the frenzied evacuation drew to a close. “I ask all Americans to close ranks, to avoid recrimination about the past, to look ahead to the many goals we share, and to work together on the great tasks that remain to be accomplished.”
One of those tasks was welcoming the postwar Vietnamese diaspora into American society. And remarkably, it was something most Americans could agree on—doves and hawks, Republicans and Democrats, squares and hippies. It’s important to remember that by the end of April 1975, the US military had rescued 117,000 people. In 1975 alone, 130,000 Vietnamese would resettle in the United States. As they straggled into America, Ford made a forceful case that if America could find room for 100,000 Hungarians in the 1950s and 600,000 Cubans in the 1960s, the United States could find room for Vietnam’s war refugees in the 1970s. “We ought to welcome these people in the same way,” he said. America agreed and opened wide its arms.
Today, some 2.5 million Vietnamese live outside their homeland. Why did so many flee? It wasn’t just because America or Canada were better. In fact, it was because Vietnam, like Lenin’s other victims, had turned decidedly worse. By 1977, Hanoi had imprisoned 200,000 South Vietnamese in reeducation camps and killed thousands more. Once the Americans were out of the way, Hanoi’s bloody revolution spilled into Cambodia and Laos. Historian Paul Johnson notes that the communist Khmer Rouge (backed by China) drove 4 million Cambodians from the cities in a mad attempt at collectivization. In the span of 18 months, a million Cambodians were dead, and the middle class in Laos was no more.
Ironically, the communist revolution in Indochina was snuffed out by the very people who spawned it—the Vietnamese. Fearing that the revolutionary chaos would spiral back at them, the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia in December 1978. By 1979, there were 220,000 Vietnamese troops occupying Laos and Cambodia. Unhappy with Vietnam’s treatment of the Khmer Rouge, China armed thousands of anti-Hanoi guerillas and ultimately launched a punitive border war against its southern neighbor. The dominoes had indeed fallen, but they fell on Vietnam—at least in Southeast Asia.
Still other dominoes fell in Central America, Angola, Ethiopia and Afghanistan. In Henry Kissinger’s view, “It is doubtful that Castro would have intervened in Angola, or the Soviet Union in Ethiopia, had America not been perceived to have collapsed in Indochina.” However, Vietnam would prove to be the high-water mark for the Soviet empire, and that’s due in no small part to the resolve America showed there.
Vietnam in Context
It is often said that Vietnam was just one battle in a much larger war. But if we really believe that, we shouldn’t look back on the Vietnam War with such bitterness. We shouldn’t question the justness or necessity of fighting for South Vietnam. The Cold War was not an unbroken string of victories. Wars seldom are. Indeed, contrary to Hollywood history, America even saw its share of defeats in World War II:
In 1941, Japan decimated the US Pacific fleet and killed more than 2,400 Americans in just two hours. In 1942, the Japanese overran Corregidor, captured 76,000 American and Filipino troops, and conquered the Philippines. Halfway around the world, Nazi submarines were having their way in the Battle of the Atlantic. In 1943, the Allies sustained some 19,000 casualties during the month-long battle for Sicily. Even worse, they ultimately allowed the outnumbered and outgunned Germans to evacuate the bulk of their army ontothe Italian mainland.
Many of these losses were avoidable, but poor military planning and shortsighted political leadership made the avoidable inevitable. Yet the individual battles do not embitter us. We know America’s sons didn’t die in vain. And we never question the necessity or justness of fighting the battles of World War II.
With the passage of time, perhaps we can come to terms with Vietnam in the same way. The Soviet empire is part of history, its revolution discredited and defeated. Vietnam now looks to Washington rather than Moscow for aid. And America remains what it was 30 years ago—the leader of the free world.
Of course, putting Vietnam in historical context is more easily said than done. For many Americans, Vietnam’s ghosts are not so easily exorcised, its questions not so easily answered. But one thing is certain: What the United States of America did as it left Saigon and what the communists did once they arrived still speaks volumes about them both.
 Richard Nixon, “Peace with Honor” address, Jan.23, 1973; Henry Kissinger, news conference, Jan.24, 1973.
 State Department, Complaints of Violations of the Ceasefire, April 10, 1973, State Department Bulletin, Apr.24, 1973.
 Paul Johnson, Modern Times, p.635.
 Harry G. Summers, “Mid-intensity Conflict: The Korean War Paradigm,” The United States Army in the 1990s, p.52.
 Johnson, pp.631-635
 Gerald Ford, Public Papers of the President 1975, p.461.
 Quoted in Kissinger, p.696.
 As quoted in Betts/Gelb, p. 351.
 AP, “Minh surrenders, Vietcong in Saigon,” New York Times, April 30, 1975.
 Walter Boyne, “The Fall of Saigon,” Air Force Magazine, April 2000.
 Quoted by Malcolm Browne, “Da Nang’s fall feared imminent; US ships sent to help refugees,” New York Times, March 30, 1975.
 Reuters, “US planes in action,” New York Times, April 30, 1975.
 See George Esper, “Evacuation from Saigon tumultuous at the end,” New York Times, April 30, 1975; Reuters, “US planes in action,” New York Times, April 30, 1975; Fox Butterfield, “Six days in the evacuation from Saigon,” New York Times, May 5, 1975.
 George Dunham, Appendix J, US Marines in Vietnam: The Bitter End, ehistory.com, 1990.
 James Kean, “The last Marines out of Saigon,” msnbc.com, date not available.
 Fox Butterfield, “Six days in the evacuation from Saigon,” New York Times, May 5, 1975.
 Ford, Public Papers of the President, April 29, 1975, p.605.
 Johnson, p.657.
 Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (1994), p.698.