On the Fall of Saigon

By July 17, 2005 No Comments

Thirty years ago this month, the first of what would soon be more than two million people were on the move throughout South Vietnam, fleeing the Communist juggernaut rolling relentlessly down upon them from the north and west.

In one tightly packed refugee column on the road that winds down from the ancient highland capital of Hue to the major coastal city of Danang, I remember a family being interviewed by a U.S. television reporter.

A typical media representative of his generation, the reporter was clearly sympathetic to the North Vietnamese invaders and obviously puzzled why so many people would flee their “liberation.”

It was a young Vietnamese man in his 20s, nobody important in the political sense of the word, who answered him.

In fluent American, he replied, “The Communists are always telling you what to do. I don’t like being told what to do.”

It is a vision of what his war was all about that undoubtedly sets historical dilettantes to snickering, yet it sums up in an anecdotal way the essence of the great seven-decade struggle between the Marxist-Leninist world and the free democracies.

I’ve often wondered whether that young Vietnamese made it out in the initial evacuation, or later as a “boat person,” or whether he ended up being worked to death in the immense Communist-built gulag that came with “liberation.”

That young man, whatever his fate, was a casualty of the Second Indochina War, the sadly lost battle to save Laos, Cambodia and South Vietnam from the commissar and the collective.

Faulty strategy, and the irresoluteness of a United States torn by racial discord and the political strife surrounding Watergate, doomed the peoples of Indochina to servitude under the purposeful imperialism of northern Vietnam’s Tonkinese rulers.

That March three decades ago was the decisive moment. For two years, the Tonkinese had mocked the Paris Peace Accords signed in 1973, rebuilding their shattered armies and importing billions of dollars worth of Soviet and Chinese weaponry. They had even paved the Ho Chi Minh Trail for their tanks and supply convoys.

In January, they tested the Americans by taking Phuoc Binh, an hour’s drive north of Saigon, in a brutal battle against outnumbered, outgunned South Vietnamese forces. The reaction of a myopic U.S. Congress was to further reduce U.S. military aid to South Vietnam while preventing U.S. air power from enforcing the Paris Peace Accords.

The emboldened Tonkinese, upping the ante to total war in March, set in motion Phase 2 of their campaign with an assault on the central highlands. The badly stretched South Vietnamese gambled. They tried to disengage from the highlands, and failed — a fighting retreat is the most difficult of all military manoeuvres, even without having families and refugees in tow. Retreat became rout.

Cities that held for months or never fell during North Vietnam’s 1968 and 1972 offensives were lost this time. Bright spots, like the 18th Division’s defence of Xuan Loc, became footnotes to the chaos of defeat.

True, no general uprising greeted the conquerors, and only rarely, such as in Binh Dinh province, was there a friendly welcome. Hundreds of thousands died in flight. On April 30, the Tonkinese flag was raised over Saigon’s presidential palace.

On May 7, 1995, barely 30,000 out of Saigon’s four million people turned to celebrate the “liberation” of the city. It is a sure bet my young Vietnamese from the road to Danang was not among them.