Final Fiasco – The Fall of Saigon
“We didn’t know what Thieu was planning because he had deliberately deceived us,” said Frank Snepp, the CIA’s chief analyst in Vietnam in 1975.
The prospect for saving the government of General Nguyen Van Thieu, last in a long line of military dictators propped up by the United States, was rapidly slipping from reality to fantasy. The situation was dire and deteriorating: Thieu was making decisions based on his daily astrological chart, while Graham Martin, U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, had terminated daily CIA briefings, threatened to “cut the balls off” CIA Saigon station chief Tom Polgar, and was becoming increasingly detached from the reality on the ground. Recently declassified documents and fresh insights from Frank Snepp, the CIA’s chief analyst in Vietnam during 1975, present a new and revealing picture of the final fiasco, cutting through political propaganda and undermining many of the myths.
In January 1975, after a nearly monthlong battle, Peoples Army of Vietnam (PAVN) units took Phuoc Long, and by early March the complete unraveling of South Vietnam was in full swing. On March 12, the PAVN captured Buon Ma Thuot, a provincial capital on the southern edge of the strategic Central Highlands. And, even though his paratroopers had repelled an enemy attack east of Route 1 from the DMZ on March 13, Thieu ordered his elite Airborne Division to deploy from Quang Tri to Saigon. In deciding to abandon Military Regions 1 and 2 to protect Saigon and the Mekong Delta, Thieu told his commanders the loss of two of four military regions was preferable to a coalition government with the Communists. However, he had greater fears than a coalition government. Like all his predecessors, Thieu had achieved power via a military coup and now feared being victim of another. He wanted elite military units nearby to protect him from his enemies in the South. Telling his National Security Council that he planned to withdraw all military forces from the Central Highlands, Thieu warned them not to divulge his decision to anyone.
“After the fall of Phuoc Long, Thieu realized the United States was not going to save him,” recalled Snepp. “He decided to retrench, but it was too little, too late. He conceived a strategy as of March 14 called ‘light at the top, heavy at the bottom,’ pulling forces out of northern South Vietnam and concentrating them around the palace…because he was concerned his military commanders might move against him.” He went to Cam Ranh Bay and his message was, let’s pull the Airborne back, let’s shift them around. “But he didn’t follow through,” Snepp said. “He didn’t tell his commanders about his timetable, so when the North Vietnamese moved out of the Central Highlands and concentrated in Military Region 1, the South Vietnamese army was in a confused state. That was one of the reasons they collapsed so rapidly.
“We didn’t know what Thieu was planning because he had deliberately deceived us,” said Snepp. “Only belatedly, from when the Communists began talking about it, we learned from our electronic intercepts and began to understand what he was doing. It was the one time during the war—to my knowledge—that the South Vietnamese were so cagey that we were in the dark about their plans.”
The North Vietnamese quickly turned their forces and cut off the retreating South Vietnamese army. “It was brilliant strategy,” Snepp recalled, “because they had brilliant intelligence. They had an operative inside the South Vietnamese military command.” A corporal, the chief documents manager for the commander of the South Vietnamese army, had been working for the Communists for many years. “You couldn’t have a better spy than that,” Snepp said.
Meanwhile, in the United States, before heading to Palm Springs for a weeklong golf vacation during the Easter holiday in early April, President Gerald Ford ordered General Fred Weyand, Army chief of staff and former commander of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV), to go to Saigon to assess the situation and come back with recommendations. Weyand was accompanied by Ambassador Martin, who had been lobbying Congress for more military and financial aide for Thieu. Weyand and Martin believed that the lack of ammunition and fuel was the primary reason for the Army of the Republic of Vietnam’s (ARVN) collapse and that a rapid injection of military aid would enable South Vietnam to survive another six weeks until the rainy season began, which supposedly would curtail North Vietnamese military operations.
Other senior U.S. officials were not as optimistic. Colonel William LeGro, the Defense Attaché Office intelligence chief, told Weyand on March 31 that it was “already too late” for military aid. In his report to Weyand, he wrote, “defeat is all but certain within 90 days.” LeGro thought the only solution was strategic air power—massive B-52 bombing raids.
CIA Director William Colby told President Ford’s Washington Special Action Group (WSAG) on April 2: “The balance of forces in South Vietnam has now shifted decisively in the Communists’ favor.” Colby’s conclusion came upon learning that Nha Trang, capital of Khanh Hoa province, 450 kilometers northeast of Saigon, had been abandoned by the ARVN even though the city had not been attacked or even probed by the North Vietnamese. After learning of the ARVN’s departure, George Jacobson, special assistant to Ambassador Martin, sent the U.S. consul general in Nha Trang a cable from Saigon instructing him to “get the hell out of the city now.” The American evacuation then caused local military units and civilians to panic. In fact, it wasn’t until April 5 that several small North Vietnamese military units entered the city.
Thomas Polgar, CIA station chief in Saigon, believed the North Vietnamese could capture Saigon but thought they would prefer a coalition government led by a South Vietnamese neutralist such as General Duong Van Minh, whose brother was a North Vietnamese Army officer. Indeed, on March 31, the Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG) had announced over Liberation Radio that it would consider talks with South Vietnamese leaders, but only after “traitor Thieu” was removed from office. Polgar thought the Soviets would pressure the North to accept a coalition government as an interim step. He didn’t think the North Vietnamese had the military or political resources to conquer and administer South Vietnam in the two months before the rainy season would start. “I should have sent Polgar out,” Martin later said. “He didn’t know what the hell was going on.”
The day after Nha Trang was abandoned, April 2, South Vietnam’s National Assembly accused Thieu of “abuse of power, corruption and social injustice” and called for a new “government of national union.” The same day, Polgar sent a top-secret cable to the White House warning that South Vietnam would collapse within “the next few months” if Thieu was not removed from office. The French ambassador to South Vietnam began actively supporting General Minh as Thieu’s successor. Two days later, the Roman Catholic archbishop for Saigon, Nguyen Van Binh, demanded that Thieu resign, saying, “Everyone wishes an orderly change.” Almost immediately after that, former premier Nguyen Cao Ky endorsed the archbishop’s demand and secretly began to organize a coup.
“Ky said he would kill Thieu and take over,” said Snepp. “I think he was bluffing but his bluffs were at a time when the country and the situation in Saigon was so volatile that you took it seriously, even the most outrageous of threats.”
Ambassador Martin and General Weyand met with Thieu in Saigon on April 3. The beleaguered president asked for more military aid and support from B-52s. Weyand rejected the B-52 request, but promised to continue the daily airlift of guns and ammunition. Weyand also proposed a new line of defense at Phan Rang, 370 kilometers northeast of Saigon, and a second line along Highway 4, between Saigon and the Cambodian border. After the meeting, Martin told assembled journalists that Saigon was not in danger.
Across the Cambodian border, the situation was just as bleak. On April 3, U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia John Gunther Dean sent a top-secret request to President Ford for permission to evacuate all Americans from Phnom Penh as the Khmer Rouge had cut all supply routes into the city and were shelling the airport. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger urged Ford to delay the evacuation, claiming he could negotiate a coalition government or convince former Cambodian leader Norodom Sihanouk to abandon his Chinese benefactors in favor of the United States. Ford acquiesced to Kissinger and the evacuation was postponed until April 11.
Thieu fired Prime Minister Tran Thien Khiem on April 4 because he thought Khiem, a former Army general and coup leader, was collaborating with Ky. Thieu named the National Assembly Speaker Nguyen Ba Can as prime minister and asked him to form a new “government of war and national union.” The new prime minister couldn’t convince any others to accept positions in the new government, leaving South Vietnam without a functioning government except for Thieu and ARVN generals who still supported him.
Before departing Saigon, General Weyand told reporters that the South Vietnamese military forces “are still strong and have the capability to defeat the North Vietnamese.” However, he privately told a different story to Ford and Kissinger in Palm Springs on April 5. In his report, Weyand wrote: “The current military situation is critical and the probability of the survival of South Vietnam as a truncated nation is marginal at best. The Government of Vietnam is on the brink of military defeat. Given the speed at which events are moving and for reasons of prudence, the United States should plan now for a mass evacuation of some 6,000 American citizens and tens of thousands of South Vietnamese and Third Country Nationals.” To buy time, Weyand urged the president to ask Congress for $722 million in emergency military aid. He also told Ford, “Thieu will have to step down.”
Upon learning of Weyand’s proposal, Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger openly opposed it, as did most of Ford’s political advisers who did not want to see the president politically wounded by a losing situation. Kissinger, however, endorsed Weyand’s plan, and back in Washington the next day, he met with Ford and Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, deputy assistant to the president for national security. Declassified transcripts of the meeting reveal Kissinger’s candid assessment of the unfolding situation in Phnom Penh and Saigon: “We have two nutty ambassadors. Dean wants to bug out. Martin wants a new version of the Easter Rebellion. He is supporting Thieu too strongly.”
Ford asked his secretary of state, “Supposing Ike, Kennedy, Johnson or Nixon were president, what would they have done?” Kissinger responded, “Kennedy would have ratted out. Nixon may have bombed, he was vicious in these things.”
“How about Johnson?” asked Ford.
“He wouldn’t have bugged out,” replied Kissinger. “His advisers would have tried to bug out.”
Then Ford took a shot at President Kennedy: “Without appearing to do so, Kennedy probably would have bugged out, with some famous statement that would have disguised it.”
Kissinger told the president: “I must say it would be popular to say we have done enough….Give only humanitarian aid, negotiate with North Vietnam to take out those who want to go and say if the North won’t agree, we’ll do it by force.”
“It goes against my grain,” replied Ford.
“Mine too,” said Kissinger.
“I don’t feel I can do it,” said Ford.
Kissinger then took charge. Referring to a planned presidential address to Congress, he said: “Then say in the speech you considered it and you don’t know how we can withdraw aid from those who know the odds more than us and still want to go on fighting.” Kissinger knew, however, that the CIA had reported that some 150,000 South Vietnamese soldiers in the northern half of the country had been annihilated or simply disappeared since March 25, 1975, and that the North Vietnamese had captured more than $1 billion worth of equipment, including 400 airplanes and helicopters.
Anticipating a congressional rebuff, Ford said, “If Congress wants to vote this way, the efforts of five presidents, 55,000 dead and five Congressional efforts are in vain.”
“We should put the withdrawal option before the NSC [National Security Council],” Kissinger pushed. “I will present the withdrawal option, $300 million in humanitarian aid and the $722 million. Then various evacuation options….Martin is a gutsy guy but he is heading for a debacle. He won’t give us any planning. We have got to go in by the end of the week to Thieu and say frankly we may not get the aid and we must now be prepared.” Ford did not respond, and the discussion ended.
On April 9 and 10, at meetings of the WSAG and NSC, Kissinger convinced Ford that financial support of South Vietnam was crucial to future American foreign policy. In the meetings, Schlesinger, Colby and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Harold K. Brown called for immediate evacuation of American personnel and citizens. Kissinger, paraphrasing Martin’s opinion that a rapid withdrawal would trigger collapse of South Vietnam’s government and endanger all remaining Americans, opposed them. Ford feared being blamed for the loss. Again, as with the aid proposal, Kissinger prevailed, but he agreed that Martin should expedite “thinning out” nonessential personnel and retired Americans.
In a televised speech to a joint session of Congress on April 10, Ford blamed Congress for not providing “adequate support” to South Vietnam and implied that North Vietnam’s invasion was a direct result. He made no mention of Weyand’s and Colby’s warnings that South Vietnam was on the brink of collapse, but he did ask for the $722 million and an additional $250 million for refugee relief. He also urged Congress to amend immigration laws so “tens of thousands of South Vietnamese to whom we have a profound moral obligation” could immediately enter the United States. Then the president shocked Congress and many Americans when he requested suspension of restrictions on the use of military forces, claiming he needed unrestricted use of military combat units to protect Americans.
Ford’s top domestic political advisers, including Donald Rumsfeld, John Marsh and speechwriter Bob Hartmann, were taken aback by the president’s confrontational stance. They had underestimated Kissinger, who had worked with Ford on the speech until 1:30 a.m. the night before.
The day after the speech, New Mexico Democratic Sen. Joseph Montoya of the Senate Appropriations Committee questioned Kissinger: “You want $396 million to sustain South Vietnam for 60 days and the other $326 million of the $722 million is for the purpose of organizing ranger units and training more manpower for self-defense….What happens after the 60 days?”
Kissinger replied, “Senator, after the 60 days, depending of course on the military situation and assuming there has been no negotiation, we would be requesting from Congress the sum that we have previously submitted, which is $1.3 billion.”
Senator Walter Huddleston pressed the secretary of state. “The American people want to know whether or not after all these years this additional funding will lead toward any conclusion that is any better than what is going to happen when we stop. Is there any answer to that?”
“There is no certain answer to that question,” replied Kissinger. “I wish there were.” Senator John McClellan, committee chairman and a longtime supporter of the war, expressed the general consensus in Congress: “I think it is too late to do any good. Further military aid could merely prolong the conflict and perhaps postpone briefly the inevitable—a Communist victory.”
Ford blamed Congress for the loss of South Vietnam. The action of Congress, “didn’t make me proud to be an American,” he told the American Society of Newspaper Editors on April 16. “The United States did not carry out its commitment in the supplying of military hardware and economic aid. If we had, this present tragic situation in South Vietnam would not have occurred.” Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield angrily called Ford’s accusation “a distortion so immense that it borders on the irrational.”
“Those bastards!” yelled Ford when informed on April 17 that the Senate Armed Forces Committee rejected his emergency aid request. Two days later, CIA director William Colby told Ford, “South Vietnam faces total defeat and soon.”
The situation in Saigon was now far beyond repair by U.S. aid, regardless of what Ford claimed or who he blamed. The so-called Weyand line of defense at Phan Rang was penetrated on April 16 by two PAVN divisions. And, according to Snepp: “We knew Nguyen Cao Ky was agitating to overthrow President Thieu. We knew it and we warned him that he should not do it.” Ky claimed he was encouraged by unnamed Americans to take action against Thieu.
Graham Martin, figuring he was being made a scapegoat, sent Kissinger a secret cable on April 19 claiming Defense, State and the intelligence community had taken actions to avert blame and that “the only person whose ass isn’t covered is me.” Kissinger fired back: “My ass isn’t covered. I can assure you it will be hanging several yards higher than you when this is over.”
During the evening of April 20, South Vietnamese Army units withdrew from Xuan Loc, the last line of defense for Saigon. Seeing the writing on the wall, at noon the next day Thieu told close advisers that he intended to resign that evening during a speech to South Vietnam’s National Assembly. In a command performance, he tearfully said the United States “ran away and left us.” Thieu handed control to Tran Van Huong, the 72-year-old half-blind vice president.
The night before Thieu resigned, Polgar told Snepp: “I have a major mission for you. I want you to collect Thieu at the deputy prime minister’s house tomorrow night and take him to Tan Son Nhut airbase so he can escape the country.”
Recalled Snepp: “When I arrived at the deputy prime minister’s house, Thieu was dressed in a gray sharkskin suit. His hair was slicked, his face oiled. He was a dashing figure, but he was drunk. As I invited him to get into the car, his aides came running out of the bushes with suitcases. They shoved them in the back of my car. I could hear the clink of metal upon metal. He was moving the last of his personal fortune in gold bullion out of the country. We headed for Tan Son Nhut airbase in totally blacked-out conditions. It was a very tense moment. The great fear was that Ky was going to attack our motorcade and kill Thieu.”
Polgar was standing by at the CIA’s black C-130 aircraft waiting to wisk Thieu to Taiwan. Snepp recounted the poignant scene: “Thieu leaned over and said ‘thank you.’ I was stunned. I had no idea what he was thanking me for. All the lives that had been lost, all the American lives? He stumbled out and went up the ramp steps to the aircraft. Ambassador Martin was holding on to the ramp. After Thieu went through the doorway, Martin grabbed the ramp and yanked it away from the aircraft, as if he was severing the umbilical that had kept us attached to South Vietnam.”
From then on, the fog around Graham Martin deepened, according to Snepp. “He was convinced Thieu’s departure would give us one more chance of a negotiated settlement. That eventually a neutralist such as General Minh would take Thieu’s place and the Communists would be satisfied. We had no intelligence suggesting that scenario. On the contrary, our electronic intercepts indicated the North Vietnamese army was continuing to move at top speed, and two additional divisions were on the move from North Vietnam. So where the wishful thinking was anchored, I don’t know.”
Bob Hartmann wrote the speech President Ford delivered on April 24 at Tulane University and got some revenge against Kissinger for Ford’s speech to Congress on April 10. Hartmann wrote about American pride, and Ford declared, “it cannot be achieved by fighting a war that is finished as far as America is concerned.” The predominantly student audience exploded with wild cheers. Ford displayed a mile-wide smile.
On April 28, Martin sent Kissinger a classified cable in which he predicted Americans would be in Saigon “for a year or more.” Snepp recalled, “Graham Martin remained committed to the belief that a fig leaf surrender was a possibility.
“On the last day, the Communists followed through with their plans,” said Snepp. “The airbase was shelled. Fixed wing aircraft could not arrive or depart Tan Son Nhut. We had to go to a helicopter airlift. Because of the inaction of the ambassador to plan for an evacuation, a lot of young officers in the Embassy, CIA and State Department officers had, several weeks before, begun stuffing their Vietnamese friends onto outgoing empty cargo aircraft….Graham Martin in the midst of all this, in his wishful thinking, ordered the unofficial airlifts to stop.”
But Martin’s wishful thinking and procrastination created a far greater problem. “We had waited so long to destroy classified documents that we had mountains on the last day,” said Snepp. “We were heaving them into the incinerators and the shredding machines on the top floors of the embassy. We took bags of the half shredded documents outside to the embassy parking lot to be eventually taken to the incinerator. When the choppers arrived, the downdraft tore open the bags. We had top-secret confetti in the embassy courtyard….The chaos was so total that the South Vietnamese evacuated their military and intelligence headquarters without destroying any of their classified files….The disaster was total.”
On April 30, evacuation from the embassy was to be terminated on orders from the White House. Helicopter pilots flying over Vietnam received the following radio transmission: “The following message is from the president of the United States and should be passed on by the first helicopter in contact with Ambassador Martin. Americans only will be transported. Ambassador Martin will board the first available helicopter and that helicopter will broadcast ‘Tiger, Tiger, Tiger,’ once it is airborne and en route.”
A CH-46 helicopter flown by Captain Jerry Berry landed on the embassy rooftop at approximately 4:45 a.m. Berry refused to load the evacuees led to the aircraft by U.S. Marines, explaining he was under presidential orders to evacuate Ambassador Martin and his staff. Martin boarded minutes later and at 4:58 the chopper departed. Another CH-46 landed shortly after and evacuated the remaining embassy staff, except for the U.S. Marines guard detachment.
Company 4 of PAVN Huong Giang Tank Brigade 203 smashed through the steel gate of South Vietnam’s Presidential Palace at approximately 11 a.m. The company commander and some of his soldiers ran to the palace and climbed to the roof, where they raised the National Liberation Front flag. When they entered the building, they found General Duong Van Minh, the last president of South Vietnam, and Prime Minister Vu Van Mau.
“We have been waiting impatiently for you since morning to hand over power,” said Minh. But, the North Vietnamese told Minh, “You cannot hand over what you no longer have.” And that was the end of the Republic of Vietnam, slightly less than 20 years after the CIA created it.
The next morning President Ford, Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft met in the Oval Office from 9:50 to 10:30. Ford began the meeting by saying: “Tommy the Cork [Tom Corcoran] said Anna Chennault [Nixon’s initial conduit to General Nguyen Van Thieu] is going to Taiwan and will see Thieu. Do we want to send a letter?”
“I would send a warm message,” replied Kissinger. “He is not helping with his critical comments.” That was the final comment about the Government of South Vietnam.
“I told Ron [Ron Nessen, White House press secretary] to say that I didn’t want to be critical of Graham Martin who had been under so much pressure,” said Ford. Kissinger corrected him: “I would say you didn’t want to comment. Otherwise it will be implied criticism.” That was the meeting’s final remark about the situation in Vietnam.
The discussion then turned to other trouble spots around the world, including Israel and the Middle East.
Edward Rasen was a combat infantryman who served in Vietnam from 1965 to 1968 and later worked in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos for ABC and CBS News. More of Rasen’s recent interviews with Frank Snepp can be seen in Vietnam War Secrets, a five-DVD series available from Amazon.com.