Inside America's Massive, Messy Evacuation From Saigon

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tags: Vietnam



Bartholomew Sparrow is a professor and associate chair of the Department of Government at the University of Texas at Austin.


On April 23, 1975, before a youthful crowd of forty-five hundred at Tulane University, President Gerald R. Ford announced that the Vietnam War was over. “Today,” the president proclaimed, “America can regain the sense of pride that existed before Vietnam, but it cannot be achieved by refighting a war that is finished as far as America is concerned.” The crowd erupted in “a jubilant roar” and “nearly raised the roof with whoops and hollers,” the New Republic’s White House correspondent wrote. In less than a week, thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of Vietnamese would be evacuated from Saigon as the North Vietnamese Army closed in on the capital city.

One hundred and thirty thousand Vietnamese left South Vietnam that April, ten times the number that the State Department had planned for. In the final phase alone, in just over 14 hours’ time, Marine helicopters lifted out almost 8,000 U.S. military personnel, South Vietnamese, and their dependents—about 5,600 from Tan Son Nhut airport, another 2,206 from the roof and courtyard of the U.S. embassy in Saigon, and dozens more from other locations.

Like the Vietnam War itself, the evacuation of Saigon was both a demonstration of extraordinary courage and resolve, and an ignominious failure.  Thousands of Americans and many South Vietnamese acted heroically and selflessly during those final weeks of near chaos, among them State Department, Defense Department, and intelligence officials, Marine Corps soldiers and officers, Marine helicopter pilots and crews, Air America pilots and crews, and many South Vietnamese civilians and military personnel. The United States thereby avoided what could have been a horrible disaster. As National Security Council official Richard Smyser noted, “I can at least say that we did do the decent thing to get the people help.”

At the same time, the evacuation of Saigon was a disaster in some fundamental respects. As Smyser also pointed out: “It was obvious that we couldn’t help them all.” Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese who wanted to leave could not. These were the people who didn’t make it on board USAF transport aircraft or the CIA’s Air America flights, who couldn’t reach the helicopters, who were unable to make it onto the U.S. embassy grounds, or who could not escape by boat. Many simply did not have the political clout, military standing, personal ties, cash and other valuable possessions, good looks—many dancers and bar girls were among those taken out—or other assets that allowed them to get out. 

The sheer numbers were daunting. As of mid-April, about 4,000 Americans remained in Saigon, according to the U.S. embassy and NSC’s calculations, and they figured there were another 90,000 relatives of U.S. citizens who likely wanted to leave. There were also 17,000 local employees of the U.S. government and their 120,000 relatives, whom Graham Martin, the U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, had promised he’d evacuate. Martin wrote Brent Scowcroft, then deputy national security advisor, that the United States owed protection to about 175,000 people, among them “local national employees, in-laws of U.S. citizens, Vietnamese employees of American concerns, including the communications media, American foundations, and volunteer agencies, religious leaders, and Western educated professionals” in the employment of the Thieu government. The government of South Vietnam had about 600,000 employees of its own, too, together with their dependents—and all of them would be vulnerable to reprisals after the fall of Saigon. A total of two to three million people thus had a legitimate claim for being evacuated or a good reason to fear for their safety should they stay in South Vietnam. ...




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