Apr 24, 2015

Forty years after the fall of Saigon, the Vietnam War is a distant memory to many young Americans. But to baby boomers growing up as America rebuilt war-ravaged Western Europe, saved South Korea from the North Korean Communists and sent men into outer space, Vietnam remains an open wound.

The CH-53 helicopter packed with 120 South Vietnamese and a handful of Americans lifted off a tennis court and into night sky, illuminated only by bursts of lightning northwest of Saigon and tracers from the machine-gun fire of enemy soldiers.

As Air Force Maj. John Guilmartin Jr. flew 90 miles to the safety of the U.S. aircraft carrier Midway, he recalled his college studies about the fall of Constantinople in 1453, realizing that on this night of April 29, 1975, he was witnessing what he described as an entire civilization dying.

For Guilmartin, now a history professor at Ohio State University, Americas lengthy war in Vietnam and Cambodia was over, and we had lost, he said. More than 58,000 American soldiers had been killed along with as many as 3 million Vietnamese and Cambodians.

The people left behind in the hasty evacuations of Phnom Penh and Saigon 40 years ago would endure even greater calamities.

 In the next four years, more than 2 million Cambodians would die at the hands of the Khmer Rouge Communists, and 165,000 South Vietnamese would lose their lives in North Vietnamese re-education camps.

Vietnam remains an open wound.

The conflict is so fresh that when someone says ISIS is the Khmer Rouge with prayer rugs, you know its still there, said Elizabeth Becker, who covered Cambodia in the early 1970s for The Washington Post and who wrote the 1998 book When the War Was Over.

The war ushered in many firsts. Television networks and newspapers exercised unprecedented freedom to cover the conflict.

Americans sitting in their living rooms saw dead U.S. soldiers on their color TV sets.

The battle gear of U.S. troops who lost their lives or were wounded during Operation Harvest Moon, was piled up near operations headquarters December 22, 1965 (Dispatch photo archives)

The World War II generations sons and daughters protested the war in the streets of Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention and on college campuses. Ohio National Guard members shot four young people to death in May 1970 during a demonstration at Kent State University.

Fervent believers in American exceptionalism that Americans were a special force for good in a tumultuous world were jolted by the brutal reality of My Lai, where in 1968 U.S. soldiers shot to death scores of unarmed Vietnamese.

The war continues to affect our culture and politics but in a very conflicted way, said Christian Appy, a University of Massachusetts history professor and author of American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and our National Identity. The way we look at the war ranges from those who see it as a noble failure or a tragic mistake and those who see it as a shameful injustice.

Americans were a special force for good in a tumultuous world

U.S. troops wait next to their tank in a staging area two miles from the Laotion border Feb. 2, 1971 (Dispatch Archive photo) 

Combined with the Watergate scandal and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the war left many Americans with a deep skepticism about the federal governments ability to tell the truth, with Marilyn B. Young, co-editor of the book Iraq and the Lessons of Vietnam saying, If nothing else, Vietnam leads the American public to ask questions.

The war provoked a seismic shift in American politics. The Democratic architects of the post-war world in 1945, such as Secretary of State Dean Acheson and defense Secretary Robert Lovett, had been air-brushed out of the party by 1968. Their places were filled by people who questioned the basic premises of the Cold War, including President Jimmy Carter, who warned in 1977 of the  inordinate fear of Communism, which once led us to embrace any dictator who joined us in that fear.”

It paralyzed the Democratic Party (internationally), and that has continued to this day,

said Mark Moyar, who is the author of Triumph Forsaken  The Vietnam War, a national-security expert and a senior fellow at Joint Special Operations University.

The festering wounds divide Americans who believe that the U.S. could have prevailed and others who say the war was a hopeless endeavor to salvage corrupt and inept regimes in South Vietnam and Cambodia. You can line up 100 so-called Vietnam experts and you will get a split right down the middle, retired U.S. Army Col. Stuart Herrington said.

The war could have been won, said Lewis Sorley, a retired Army officer, CIA official and author of Westmoreland  The General Who Lost Vietnam. But Young, a professor of history at New York University asked,

What did we achieve there? The unequivocal answer is we achieved death and destruction. Not another thing.

In contrast to baby boomers, the younger generations are not even learning about Vietnam, said Rory Kennedy, a daughter of the late U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. When she asked a group of students if they were taking courses on Vietnam, only two people raised their hands, she said.

In an ironic twist no one could have imagined in 1975, unified Vietnam today has edged closer to its old enemy the United States, a move fueled in part by neighboring Chinas aggressive energy claims in the South China Sea. Having long ago jettisoned its Marxist economy, Vietnam today combines an authoritarian government with a vibrant market economy.

Saigon, renamed Ho Chi Minh City in 1975, shows few signs of the war. It is now a city of gleaming skyscrapers, nearly 10 million people and streets choked with whizzing motorbikes. A massive subway project is underway in the heart of downtown, where international tourists stroll in search of street food.

To many, the city is still Saigon. Don’t call it Ho Chi Minh City, a tour operator born after the war admonished an American tourist last month.

The war was a test of wills between five American presidents, who regarded South Vietnam as crucial to the security of the United States and its Pacific allies, and Le Duan, the general secretary of the North Vietnamese Communist Party.

By 1963, Le Duan had eclipsed both Ho Chi Minh, founder of the North Vietnamese government and the legendary Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap. Le Duan’s goal was clear the elimination of the American-backed Saigon regime.

Convinced that Ho Chi Minh had foolishly agreed in Geneva in 1954 to partition the North and South, Le Duan launched one military offensive after another in the South, while simultaneously blocking serious negotiations with the Americans, offering peace terms that Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon never would have accepted.

Negotiations under the Le Duan regime were a dirty word, said Lien-Hang Nguyen, the author of the 2012 book Hanoi’s War. Le Duan wasn’t ready to negotiate seriously until the summer of 1972.”

As once-secret U.S. and Hanoi archives have become available to scholars such as Nguyen, many analysts say two key events in 1963 transformed Vietnam from a sideshow into a major international conflict.

The first was the Kennedy administrations support for a coup to replace what many U.S. officials regarded as the ineffective and intolerant South Vietnamese Premier Ngo Dinh Diem, ending in his murder by rebellious South Vietnamese generals. Diem’s death led to one weak South Vietnamese regime after another.

The second came in December 1963, a month after Kennedys assassination. Le Duan ordered a full-scale invasion of the South by not only Viet Cong Communists but also by well-equipped North Vietnamese regiments.

Members of the U.S. 1st Division pour heavy fire through a thick rubber plantation December 5, 1967, during action just outside the special forces camp at Bu Dop, 90 miles north of Saigon (Dispatch Arichive photo)

The end of 1963 was a major turning point, not just on the American side with the overthrow of Diem but also in the North with the decision to go for a big war, Nguyen said.

Le Duan’s offensive forced Johnson, who succeeded Kennedy, into a difficult choice: Reinforce the 16,000 U.S. soldiers Kennedy had dispatched to South Vietnam or watch the Saigon government collapse.

In 1965, Johnson took the first steps that would result in 549,500 U.S. soldiers fighting in Vietnam by 1968 while launching a ferocious air campaign, known as Rolling Thunder, against targets in North Vietnam and South Vietnam.

(President Harry S.) Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy had the luxury to kick the can down the road, said U.S. Army Col. Gregory Daddis, a professor of history at West Point. Johnson is faced with the choice that if he does not act, South Vietnam will fall.

Wearing a poncho and carrying an M-16 rifle, a weary US soldiers stands in the monsoon rain near an overtuned tank on August 29, 1969 (Dispatch Arichive photo)

Johnson’s intervention temporarily saved the Saigon regime, but by 1968, many Americans at home had grown weary even hostile to the seemingly endless and bloody war. The insurgent presidential campaign of Democrat Eugene McCarthy resonated with anti-war Democrats, forcing Johnson to abandon running for a second term.

You get so much time to win a war, and if it takes six years to figure out what you’re doing, then you are going to be a loser, said Herrington, the retired Army colonel whose fluent Vietnamese allowed him to interrogate North Vietnamese and Viet Cong prisoners.

Nixon took office in 1969 on a pledge to seek an honorable end to the war, one that preserved the Saigon regime. Through a combination of withdrawing American forces, using air power to pummel Le Duans Easter offensive in 1972 and forging closer relations with China and the Soviet Union, Nixon was able to extricate the Americans from the war in January 1973.

I am not a big fan of Nixon and (Secretary of State Henry) Kissinger, said Nguyen, an associate professor of history at the University of Kentucky. But she said Nixon’s move toward China and the Soviet Union showed in the pressure the Communist giants applied to Le Duan, leading him to accept the 1973 Paris Peace Accords.

But Nixon sparked intense domestic and international criticism by sending American ground forces into Cambodia to attack North Vietnamese sanctuaries in 1970 and unleashing a bombing campaign of Cambodia that resulted in the deaths of an estimated 50,000 civilians.

Becker, the reporter who saw entire villages destroyed by U.S. bombs, argues that the U.S. handed the Khmer Rouge Communists a propaganda tool to recruit thousands of new rebels, transforming a small force of 5,000 in 1970 into a larger and more dangerous organization by 1975.

I am not blaming America for everything, Becker said. But we are not innocent.

The Paris Peace Accords did not last. By the summer of 1973, Congress prohibited money for U.S. combat operations in Southeast Asia. That same year, Congress cut Nixon’s request for $1.6 billion for military equipment for the South Vietnamese to $700 million.

Would continued U.S. help have saved Saigon? Nguyen said the Saigon government headed by Premier Nguyen Van Thieu was really just an awful regime.

Saigon would have fallen under that kind of leadership

Moyar, the national-security expert, dismisses that claim saying, we had brought the war to such a position that the South Vietnamese could survive without American ground troops.

Had the U.S. continued to provide air and logistical support, South Vietnam would have been able to survive.

In early 1975, North Vietnam launched an offensive in the South while the Khmer Rouge edged closer to Phnom Penh in Cambodia.

As Southeast Asia crumbled, Americans turned away.

Many members of Congress and newspaper reporters in Cambodia believed that the killing would end once the Khmer Rouge assumed power. But Becker, one of the first Western reporters to write about the Khmer Rouge, was not as sure. Saying she did not want to see what they were going to do to Cambodia, Becker left the country in 1974.

Phan Thi Kim Phuc, a napalm victim pictured in a 1972 Pulitzer prize winning photo by Nick Ut, wipes her eyes after placing a wreath at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington on November 11, 1996 during a Veterans Day ceremony (Dispatch Archive photo)

On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh and ruthlessly forced hundreds of thousands of people to leave, the beginning of the worst genocide since the Nazi Holocaust. And yet as United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power wrote in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book A Problem from Hell, the U.S. barely denounced the massacres.

Nearly two weeks later, on April 29, Guilmartin flew his helicopter out of Saigon for the last time. At 5:30 a.m. the next morning, Herrington climbed aboard a CH-46 helicopter parked on the U.S. embassy roof. It was eerily quiet, and the only lights seemed to come from the parking lot, where 420 Vietnamese whom we promised safe passage, he said, were hoping to escape.

Because of President Gerald R. Fords last-minute decision to halt the evacuation, those Vietnamese never were rescued, leaving Herrington sick at heart, he recalled, during the 35-minute flight to the U.S. amphibious-assault ship Okinawa.

That same day, the CIA station chief sent a cable to Washington, D.C.: It has been a long and hard fight and we have lost. Saigon signing off.

The Columbus Daily Dispatched announced the end of the war across its front page January 24, 1973 (Dispatch Archive photo) 

Daniel Malloy of The Atlanta-Journal Constitution contributed to this story.

Here is the link to the original story: https://www.dispatch.com/article/20150424/NEWS/304249786

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