Robert E. Wheatley

WITNESSING THE DEATH OF A NATION
The Fall of Saigon

IWVPA Double Tap Award for War Poetry: April 2001
Awarded: April 2001
With the signing of the Paris Peace Accords and the eventual “Vietnamization” of the war, Nixon had kept his campaign promise to end America’s combat role in South Vietnam. But in spite of his success, he would eventually be brought down by a little thing called “Watergate”. Vice President Gerald Ford would step in and finish Nixon’s term of office when his boss resigned from the Presidency in disgrace. It was in April of 1975, during the Ford Administration, that the final American withdrawal would come. Predictably, the North Vietnamese violated the 1973 cease fire that had been hammered out in Paris. When we had naively settled for a cease fire in the Paris accords, we had in reality settled for defeat. The Communists were patient. Seeing they could not win a true military victory with the US, the North Vietnamese had simply bided their time, watching as we reduced our troop strength in South Vietnam. Then, when the time was right, they and the VC began advancing, taking city after city in the South. By then, they knew the remaining American force was too small to stop them, and the best the ARVN troops could do was slow them down. They knew too, they had outlasted us. They knew America had absolutely no will to reenter the fray by sending more troops.

After initially resisting, the ARVN troops finally panicked, broke ranks and ran. It was not for lack of discipline, as some will say, but for lack of arms. The gutless US Congress had by then broken our promises of continued aid and shut off military and financial support of the South, while the Soviets and Chinese continued their massive aid to the North. I quote here from a 1997 Washington Post interview with writer James Fallows:

“On the battlefields of Vietnam the elimination of all U.S. logistical support was stunning and unanticipated news. South Vietnamese commanders had been assured of material support as the American military withdrew-the same sort of aid the U.S. routinely provided allies from South Korea to West Germany-and of renewed U.S. air strikes if the North attacked the South in violation of the 1973 Paris Peace Accords. Now they were staring at a terrifyingly uncertain future, even as the Soviets continued to assist the Communist North.”

If America’s Vietnam vets felt betrayed by their country, how much more betrayed must the South Vietnamese have felt by this complete reversal of US policy? Fallows further states:

“As the shocked and demoralized South Vietnamese military sought to readjust its forces to cope with serious shortages, the newly refurbished North Vietnamese immediately launched a major offensive. Catching many units out of position, the North rolled down the countryside over a 55-day period. In the ensuing years I have interviewed South Vietnamese survivors of these battles, many of whom spent ten years and more in Communist concentration camps after the war. The litany is continuous: ‘I had no ammunition. I was down to three artillery rounds per tube per day. I had nothing to give my soldiers. I had to turn off my radio because I could no longer bear to hear their calls for help.”

So hundreds of thousands of refugees flooded the highways heading South, soldier and civilian alike fleeing in terror before the onrushing Communist tide: Saigon would be their last bastion of refuge from the Communist onslaught – or so they hoped! Surely the Americans would send in reinforcements! Surely they would preserve Saigon, the seat of government, at all costs! They were wrong, of course. Saigon would in fact, be their Alamo. For though they didn’t know it then, there was no hope for them. The die had already been cast. America had given up on South Vietnam. We had washed our hands of the matter. America would not send in more troops!

Considering the gravity of the situation, with South Vietnam’s government rapidly losing its grip on power and its military in full retreat, the “business as usual” atmosphere that still prevailed in the streets of Saigon in the last days was absolutely surreal! Yes, they had heard the hamlets in the countryside were falling, but the population of Saigon seemed unwilling or unable to grasp that it could actually happen to them. While the city went about its daily business, seemingly unconcerned, hurried secret preparations were being made for an emergency evacuation of all remaining Americans. The illusion of calm need be maintained as much as possible, to forestall the inevitable panic and anarchy that would finally grip the city in its ante-penultimate hours. America’s government had abandoned its promises to help the South defend itself, and we knew that within days, the North would at last deliver the Coup de Gras to the Republic of Vietnam. And Saigon, that Crown Jewel of the Mekong Delta, quaking and shuddering in her last violent throes of death, would fall to the communists, even as we were airlifting out the last 6,000 American troops and civilian advisors. So it had all come down to this, the most bitter pill of all – America, crumbling from within, had defeated herself! Ho Chi Minh had won the war – not in South Vietnam, but in the streets, the homes, the college campuses, in the print media, and the TV news anchor desks of America! And all the years of misery and sacrifice, the lives wasted, all of the blood spilled had been for nothing!

The final pullout was neither graceful nor honorable. Picture the last minutes at the US embassy in Saigon. It can only be described as a scene of utter chaos. Throngs of terror filled, panic-stricken South Vietnamese civilians assail the gates, hoping to find refuge inside the embassy. Those Vietnamese that are already inside, swarm the landing pad and desperately attempt to claw their way aboard, or cling like flies to the skids of the overburdened choppers as they strain to become airborne. But the “lifeboats” are too few to save everyone, as the US ship of state is sinking. There’s only enough room for American troops and the few Vietnamese women and children that are their legal dependents. The men aboard are forced to kick the hangers-on off in order to just get airborne. Vietnamese mothers, knowing they cannot go themselves, plead for us to take their babies with us in our retreat. For them, especially those who are half-breeds, the Bui Doi, the “Dust of Life”, a life in the States as orphans will be far better than any possible with their mothers in a Communist ruled Vietnam.

But as the chopper engines gain speed, the quickening Whump! Whump! Whump! Whump! of the whirling blades drowns out the screams of those left behind. Some, having managed to hang on until the choppers are aloft, finally exhausted, fall to their deaths in the jungle or the sea below. A mile offshore, aboard the carriers, the choppers disgorge their human cargo onto the flight decks. Then, amazingly, the spent Hueys are pushed overboard into the sea to make room for more incoming flights to land. But it’s a dire situation, calling for the most desperate of measures! The cost of the gear is no consideration at all. Now, saving as many American lives as possible is paramount!

Meanwhile, sounds of fighting in Saigon’s streets beyond the embassy gates draw menacingly near. Inside the gates, terror and confusion reign. We are in full fledged, all-out retreat! As if choreographed, the last choppers have just lifted off the embassy roof as the gates are crashed, and the communists surge into the embassy courtyard to raise their flag and celebrate their victory. An era has ended and a new one begun. South Vietnam’s fate is now sealed. Any hopes for their freedom are leaving with the last Americans. And yes, the ever-present American media is there to document our final inglorious defeat for the eyes of the world. It was a defeat that they, themselves, had helped to bring about in large measure.

It was gut-wrenching to watch it unfold on the evening news. Helpless, on the opposite side of the globe, we the veterans of that war, watched in horror and grief, powerless to intercede – powerless to do anything to aid those people whom we had come to know as friends. I was sickened by it. I just wanted to weep! Today, it still brings back the same emotions, when I think on it or see the video again. I quote once again from the James Fallows Washington Post interview, for his words ring so true…

“For most of those who fought in Vietnam, and for their families, friends, and political compatriots, this was a dark and deeply depressing month. The faces we saw running in terror from the North Vietnamese assault were real and familiar, not simply video images. The bodies that fell like spinning snowflakes toward cruel deaths after having clung hopelessly to the outer parts of departing helicopters and aircraft may have been people we knew or tried to help. Even for those who had lost their faith in America’s ability to defeat the Communists, this was not the way it was supposed to end.”

The ugliness of it all was fodder for Pulitzer winning stories, I guess. It was a virtual media feeding frenzy, and I’ve often wondered how many of those in the media were secretly pleased by this outcome. The American military establishment had finally gotten its “comeuppance”. No matter what they said about “Vietnamization” of the war, what the world witnessed that day was America, instead of leaving victorious, with dignity, being chased out of the country, tail tucked between its legs, with the Communists nipping at its heels. Another quote from Fallows here testifies to the perverted sense of justice, then so prevalent among many of the nation’s liberal college elite, as they actually celebrated the carnage wrought in what was arguably one of the darkest, most heart rending, most shameful events in all of American history.

“For those who had evaded the war and come of age believing our country as somehow evil, even as they romanticized the intentions of the Communists, these few weeks brought denials of their own responsibility in the debacle, armchair criticisms of the South Vietnamese military, or open celebrations. At the Georgetown University Law Center where I was a student, the North’s blatant discarding of the promises of peace and elections contained in the 1973 Paris Accords, followed by the rumbling of North Vietnamese tanks through the streets of Saigon, was treated by many as a cause for actual rejoicing.”

But the folly of those who had wished for a Communist victory quickly became painfully apparent. God help our former South Vietnamese allies, whom we left behind to face the vengeance of the North! The blood bath which the anti war faction claimed they wished to end was only replaced by another, more horrific blood bath, as the Communists brutalized and bludgeoned into submission the people they had conquered. In the days and weeks following the American pullout, many who did not die on that day would later be hunted down and would lose their lives for having been “the running dog lackeys of the Yankee Imperialists”. The atrocities of My Lai would pale in comparison to the atrocities wrought when the North finally gained control of the South. In the purge that followed, more than 80,000 would be systematically tracked down and summarily executed by the new regime. Hundreds of thousands more would be sent to “re-education camps” where they would languish for years in virtual slavery. So this was the “better life” that so many said the Communists would bring to the people of South Vietnam