When the Republic of Vietnam officially surrendered to the Communist army in April of 1975, the world had only one remaining superpower left: the United States of America. Almost immediately, President Gerald Ford signed an executive order to end the war and officially end the war in Vietnam.
The war in Vietnam has been one of the most controversial conflicts in U.S. History. The war pitted the United States against North Vietnam and the Viet Cong, both communist nations. The casualties from the war are estimated at more than 58,000 (official) and more than 3 million (unofficial).
From November 1963, when President John F Kennedy was assassinated, to February 1975, when the Vietnamese war finally ended in the longest war in American history, the war in Vietnam was a tragic and chaotic affair. Tragedy like no other, with an enormous body of literature dedicated to it.. Read more about who won the vietnam war in 1975 and let us know what you think.
Frank Snepp, the CIA’s top analyst in Vietnam in 1975, stated, “We didn’t know what Thieu was doing because he had purposefully misled us.”
The possibility of preserving General Nguyen Van Thieu’s regime, the latest in a long series of military rulers backed up by the US, was fast fading from fact to dream. The situation was dire and deteriorating: Thieu was making decisions based on his daily astrological chart, while Graham Martin, the US ambassador to Vietnam, had halted daily CIA briefings, threatened to “cut the balls off” CIA Saigon station chief Tom Polgar, and was growing increasingly detached from reality on the ground. Declassified papers and new insights from Frank Snepp, the CIA’s top analyst in Vietnam during 1975, provide a new and illuminating picture of the ultimate disaster, breaking through political misinformation and debunking numerous misconceptions.
Peoples Army of Vietnam (PAVN) troops seized Phuoc Long in January 1975, following a nearly month-long struggle, and by early March, the total unraveling of South Vietnam was well underway. The PAVN took Buon Ma Thuot, a provincial capital on the southern border of the strategically important Central Highlands, on March 12. Thieu ordered his elite Airborne Division to move from Quang Tri to Saigon, despite his paratroopers repelling an enemy assault east of Route 1 from the DMZ on March 13. Thieu informed his troops that losing two of the four military areas was preferable than forming a coalition government with the Communists in order to preserve Saigon and the Mekong Delta. He, on the other hand, was more concerned than a coalition administration. Thieu, like all of his predecessors, had risen to power via a military coup and now dreaded becoming the next casualty. He desired elite military forces to defend him against his southern adversaries. When Thieu informed his National Security Council that he intended to remove all armed troops from the Central Highlands, he cautioned them not to tell anybody about his intentions.
“After the collapse of Phuoc Long, Thieu knew the US would not be able to rescue him,” Snepp said. “He made the decision to cut back, but it was too late. He devised a ‘light at the top, heavy at the bottom’ plan on March 14, withdrawing troops out of northern South Vietnam and concentrating them around the palace…because he was worried that his military leaders might turn against him.” He proceeded to Cam Ranh Bay with the message, “Let’s draw the Airborne back, let’s rearrange them.” Snepp remarked, “But he didn’t follow through.” “Because he didn’t inform his superiors about his plans, the South Vietnamese army was puzzled when the North Vietnamese withdrew out of the Central Highlands and concentrated in Military Region 1. One of the reasons they fell apart so quickly was because of this.
“We had no idea what Thieu was intending since he had purposefully misled us,” Snepp said. “It was only after the Communists started talking about it that we learnt through our electronic intercepts and started to comprehend what he was doing. It was the one occasion throughout the war that the South Vietnamese were so secretive that we didn’t know what they were planning.”
The North Vietnamese swung their troops around swiftly and cut off the fleeing South Vietnamese army. “It was great strategy because they had amazing intelligence,” Snepp remembered. They had an operative within the military leadership of South Vietnam.” For many years, a corporal had been working for the Communists as the main records manager for the commander of the South Vietnamese army. “You couldn’t ask for a better spy,” Snepp added.
Meanwhile, in the United States, President Gerald Ford ordered General Fred Weyand, the Army chief of staff and former commander of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV), to go to Saigon to assess the situation and return with recommendations before heading to Palm Springs for a weeklong golf vacation during the Easter holiday in early April. Ambassador Martin joined Weyand, who had been pushing Congress for greater military and financial support for Thieu. Weyand and Martin believed that the Army of the Republic of Vietnam’s (ARVN) collapse was primarily due to a lack of ammunition and fuel, and that a quick injection of military aid would allow South Vietnam to survive another six weeks until the rainy season began, which would ostensibly halt North Vietnamese military operations.
Other top American officials were less upbeat. On March 31, Colonel William LeGro, the Defense Attaché Office intelligence head, informed Weyand that military assistance was “already too late.” “Defeat is all but inevitable within 90 days,” he said in his report to Weyand. The only answer, according to LeGro, was strategic air power—massive B-52 bombing attacks.
“The balance of forces in South Vietnam has now changed dramatically in the Communists’ favor,” CIA Director William Colby informed President Ford’s Washington Special Action Group (WSAG) on April 2. Colby came to this conclusion after discovering that the ARVN had abandoned Nha Trang, the seat of Khanh Hoa province, 450 kilometers northeast of Saigon, despite the fact that the city had not been assaulted or even explored by the North Vietnamese. After learning of the ARVN’s withdrawal, George Jacobson, Ambassador Martin’s personal assistant, wrote a wire from Saigon ordering the US consul general in Nha Trang to “get the heck out of the city immediately.” The departure of American troops created fear among local military forces and citizens. In reality, many minor North Vietnamese armed troops did not reach the city until April 5.
The North Vietnamese could take Saigon, according to Thomas Polgar, CIA station chief in Saigon, but they would prefer a coalition government headed by a South Vietnamese neutralist like General Duong Van Minh, whose brother was a North Vietnamese Army commander. Indeed, the Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG) stated on Liberation Radio on March 31 that it would entertain negotiations with South Vietnamese officials, but only after “traitor Thieu” was ousted from power. Polgar expected the Soviets would push the North to accept a coalition government as a stopgap measure. In the two months before the rainy season began, he didn’t believe the North Vietnamese had the military or political wherewithal to invade and govern South Vietnam. Martin subsequently said, “I should have sent Polgar away.” “He didn’t have a clue what was going on.”
South Vietnam’s National Assembly accused Thieu of “abuse of authority, corruption, and social injustice” the day after Nha Trang was abandoned, April 2, and called for a new “government of national unity.” The same day, Polgar wrote a top-secret cable to the White House warning that unless Thieu was removed from power, South Vietnam would collapse within “the next few months.” The French envoy to South Vietnam started campaigning for General Minh to succeed Thieu. Nguyen Van Binh, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Saigon, requested Thieu’s resignation two days later, stating, “Everyone wants an orderly transition.” Former Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky supported the archbishop’s proposal almost immediately and started covertly planning a coup.
“Ky claimed he was going to murder Thieu and take over,” Snepp said. “I believe he was bluffing, but his bluffs came at a time when the nation and the situation in Saigon were so volatile that even the most outlandish threats were taken seriously.”
On April 3, Ambassador Martin and General Weyand met with Thieu in Saigon. The president, who is under siege, requested additional military assistance and B-52 backup. Weyand turned down the B-52 request, but vowed to keep the daily gun and ammo airlift going. Weyand also suggested a new line of defense at Phan Rang, 370 kilometers northeast of Saigon, as well as a second line between Saigon and the Cambodian border along Highway 4. Martin assured the gathered media after the meeting that Saigon was not in danger.
The situation was just as bad on the Cambodian side of the border. On April 3, US Ambassador to Cambodia John Gunther Dean submitted President Ford a top-secret request for authorization to remove all Americans from Phnom Penh because the Khmer Rouge had blocked all supply lines into the city and were bombarding the airport. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger pushed President Gerald Ford to postpone the evacuation, saying that he might create a coalition government or persuade former Cambodian leader Norodom Sihanouk to forsake his Chinese backers in favor of the US. The evacuation was postponed until April 11 when Ford agreed to Kissinger’s demands.
On April 4, Thieu dismissed Prime Minister Tran Thien Khiem, a former Army commander and coup leader, because he suspected Khiem was working with Ky. Thieu appointed Nguyen Ba Can, the Speaker of the National Assembly, as Prime Minister and requested him to create a new “government of war and national union.” Except for Thieu and the ARVN generals who still back him, the new prime minister was unable to persuade others to take seats in the new administration, leaving South Vietnam without a functional government.
General Weyand told reporters before leaving Saigon that the South Vietnamese armed forces are “still powerful and capable of defeating the North Vietnamese.” On April 5, he gave Ford and Kissinger a different narrative in private in Palm Springs. “The present military situation is grave, and the likelihood of South Vietnam surviving as a truncated country is minimal at best,” Weyand stated in his assessment. Vietnam’s government is on the verge of military defeat. Given the current pace of events and for the sake of caution, the US should begin planning immediately for a mass evacuation of 6,000 Americans and tens of thousands of South Vietnamese and Third Country Nationals.” To gain time, Weyand pushed Obama to request $722 million in emergency military assistance from Congress. “Thieu will have to step down,” he also warned Ford.
When Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger learned of Weyand’s plan, he publicly opposed it, as did most of Ford’s political advisors, who didn’t want the president to be politically damaged by a losing scenario. Kissinger, on the other hand, backed Weyand’s proposal and met with Ford and Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, the president’s deputy assistant for national security, the following day in Washington. Kissinger’s frank appraisal of the developing scenario in Phnom Penh and Saigon is revealed in the recordings of the meeting: “We’ve got two wacky ambassadors on our hands. Dean wants to flee. Martin wants to reenact the Easter Rebellion in a fresh way. He is too supportive of Thieu.”
“What would Ike, Kennedy, Johnson, or Nixon have done if they were president?” Ford asked his secretary of state. “Kennedy would have ratted out,” Kissinger replied. Nixon may have flopped, but he was ruthless when it came to these things.”
“What about Johnson?” Ford inquired.
Kissinger responded, “He wouldn’t have bugged out.” “His aides would have attempted to flee.”
Then Ford went after President John F. Kennedy, saying, “Without seeming to do so, Kennedy would have probably bugged out, with some famous remark that would have camouflaged it.”
“I must think it would be fashionable to say we have done enough,” Kissinger told the president. Give only humanitarian assistance, negotiate with North Vietnam to remove those who wish to leave, and threaten to use force if the North refuses.”
Ford responded, “It goes against my grain.”
“It’s mine as well,” Kissinger said.
“I don’t think I can do it,” Ford said.
After that, Kissinger assumed command. “Then say in the speech you considered it and you don’t see how we can withdraw assistance from people who know the odds better than us and yet want to fight,” he added, referring to a scheduled presidential address to Congress. Kissinger was aware, however, that the CIA had reported that since March 25, 1975, some 150,000 South Vietnamese soldiers in the northern half of the country had been killed or simply vanished, and that the North Vietnamese had captured more than $1 billion in equipment, including 400 planes and helicopters.
“If Congress wishes to vote this way,” Ford predicted, “the efforts of five presidents, 55,000 dead, and five Congressional attempts would be in vain.”
Kissinger urged, “We should bring the exit option before the NSC [National Security Council].” “I’ll discuss the pullout option, as well as $300 million in humanitarian assistance and $722 million. Then there are a variety of evacuation alternatives…. Martin is a brave man, but he is on the verge of a disaster. He refuses to provide us with any planning. We need to go into Thieu before the end of the week and tell him that we may not receive the assistance and that we must now be prepared.” The conversation came to a halt when Ford did not reply.
Kissinger persuaded Ford on April 9 and 10 in WSAG and NSC sessions that financial assistance for South Vietnam was critical to future American foreign policy. Schlesinger, Colby, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Harold K. Brown all advocated for the rapid evacuation of American troops and civilians during the sessions. Kissinger opposed them, repeating Martin’s view that a hasty departure would lead to the collapse of South Vietnam’s government and put all remaining Americans in jeopardy. Ford was afraid of being held responsible for the loss. Kissinger won out again, as he had with the assistance plan, although he agreed that Martin should speed up the “thinning out” of non-essential staff and retired Americans.
Ford criticized Congress for not giving “adequate support” to South Vietnam in a televised address to a joint session of Congress on April 10, implying that North Vietnam’s invasion was a direct consequence. He didn’t mention Weyand and Colby’s warnings that South Vietnam was on the verge of collapsing, but he did ask for the $722 million as well as an extra $250 million for refugee assistance. He also asked Congress to change immigration rules to allow “tens of thousands of South Vietnamese to whom we owe a deep moral responsibility” to join the country immediately. The president then surprised Congress and many Americans when he asked for the suspension of military force limitations, saying that he required unfettered use of military combat units to defend Americans.
The president’s combative attitude surprised Ford’s senior domestic political advisors, notably Donald Rumsfeld, John Marsh, and speechwriter Bob Hartmann. Kissinger, who had worked with Ford on the address until 1:30 a.m. the night before, had been misjudged.
“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,” New Mexico Democratic Sen. Joseph Montoya of the Senate Appropriations Committee questioned Kissinger the day after the speech. What happens at the end of the 60-day period?”
“Senator, we would be asking from Congress the amount that we have already proposed, which is $1.3 billion, after the 60 days, depending of course on the military situation and assuming there has been no negotiation,” Kissinger responded.
Senator Walter Huddleston pushed the secretary of state for further information. “The American people want to know if, after all these years, this extra spending will lead to any outcome that is better than what would occur if we stop. Is there any way to respond to that?”
“There is no definitive answer to that question,” Kissinger responded. “I wish there were,” says the narrator. Senator John McClellan, the committee chairman and a lifelong supporter of the war, summed up congressional sentiment: “I believe it is too late to do any good.” More military assistance would simply prolong the war, perhaps delaying the inevitable—a Communist victory—for a time.”
Ford blamed Congress for South Vietnam’s defeat. On April 16, he told the American Society of Newspaper Editors that Congress’ decision “didn’t make me happy to be an American.” “The United States failed to meet its commitments in terms of military weapons and economic assistance. We would not have ended up in the current sad scenario in South Vietnam if we had.” Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield slammed Ford’s allegation, calling it “a massive misrepresentation that borders on the absurd.”
When Ford was told on April 17 that his emergency assistance request had been denied by the Senate Armed Forces Committee, he screamed, “Those bastards!” “South Vietnam risks complete defeat and soon,” CIA Director William Colby warned Ford two days later.
Regardless matter what Ford said or who he blamed, the situation in Saigon was well beyond repair by US assistance. Two PAVN divisions broke through the so-called Weyand line of defense at Phan Rang on April 16. “We knew Nguyen Cao Ky was pushing to topple President Thieu,” Snepp says. We were aware of it and told him not to do it.” Unnamed Americans allegedly urged Ky to take action against Thieu, according to Ky.
On April 19, Graham Martin, fearful of being branded a scapegoat, wrote Kissinger a secret cable stating that Defense, State, and the intelligence community had taken steps to avoid responsibility, and that “the only guy whose ass isn’t covered is me.” “My ass isn’t covered,” Kissinger retorted. When this is done, I guarantee it will be many yards taller than you.”
South Vietnamese Army troops retreated from Xuan Loc, Saigon’s final line of defense, on the evening of April 20. Seeing the writing on the wall, Thieu informed close advisors around midday the following day that he planned to resign that evening during an address to the National Assembly of South Vietnam. He stated sadly in a command performance that the United States “went away and abandoned us.” Tran Van Huong, the 72-year-old half-blind vice president, took over from Thieu.
“I have a big task for you,” Polgar informed Snepp the night before Thieu quit. I’d want you to pick Thieu up from the deputy prime minister’s home tomorrow night and transport him to Tan Son Nhut Airbase, where he may flee the country.”
“When I arrived to the deputy prime minister’s home, Thieu was dressed in a gray sharkskin suit,” Snepp remembered. His hair was slicked back, and he had a greasy face. He had a handsome appearance, yet he was inebriated. As I motioned for him to get in the vehicle, his assistants dashed out of the woods, carrying bags. They stuffed them into the trunk of my vehicle. The clink of metal on metal could be heard. He was transferring the last of his personal gold bullion wealth out of the nation. In complete darkness, we made our way to Tan Son Nhut airfield. It was a tense situation. The greatest worry was that Ky would attack our motorcade and assassinate Thieu.”
On April 28, 1975, President Ford meets with Secretary of State Kissinger and Vice President Rockefeller to plan the evacuation of Saigon. (David Hume Kennerly, Gerald R. Ford Library)
Polgar was waiting for Thieu to board the CIA’s black C-130 plane to take him to Taiwan. “Thieu leaned over and said ‘thank you,’” Snepp recalled the touching moment. I was taken aback. I had no clue for what he was expressing gratitude. All the lives that had been lost, all the lives that had been lost in America? He staggered out and walked up the ramp to the plane. Ambassador Martin was still clinging to the stairwell. Martin seized the ramp and pulled it away from the airplane as Thieu passed through the doorway, as if disconnecting the cord that had kept us connected to South Vietnam.”
According to Snepp, the fog surrounding Graham Martin began to thicken after that. “He was confident that Thieu’s departure would offer us one more opportunity to reach an agreement via negotiation. That the Communists would be happy if a neutralist, such as General Minh, took Thieu’s position. That scenario was not suggested by our intelligence. Our electronic intercepts, on the other hand, showed that the North Vietnamese army was still moving at full speed, and that two more divisions were on their way out of the country. So I’m not sure where the hopeful thought came from.”
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.
Martin wrote Kissinger a secret letter on April 28 in which he projected the Americans would remain in Saigon for “a year or more.” “Graham Martin remained devoted to the idea that a fig leaf surrender was a possibility,” Snepp recounted.
“The Communists carried out their intentions on the final day,” Snepp added. “The airbase was shelled,” says the narrator. Fixed-wing aircraft were unable to land or leave at Tan Son Nhut. A helicopter evacuation was required of us. Because the ambassador had failed to prepare for an evacuation, a number of young officials from the Embassy, the CIA, and the State Department had started cramming their Vietnamese acquaintances into departing empty cargo planes some weeks earlier…. In the middle of it all, Graham Martin, in his optimistic thinking, ordered the unauthorized airlifts to cease.”
Martin’s wishful thinking and procrastination, on the other hand, produced a far bigger issue. “We had delayed so long to destroy secret papers that on the final day, we had mountains,” Snepp said. “We were dumping them into the embassy’s incinerators and shredding equipment on the upper levels. We carried sacks of half-shredded papers outside to the embassy parking lot, where they would ultimately be burned. The downdraft tore apart the bags as the choppers arrived. In the embassy courtyard, we had top-secret confetti…. The South Vietnamese military and intelligence offices were evacuated without burning any of their secret papers due to the utter disarray…. The catastrophe was complete.”
On instructions from the White House, the evacuation from the embassy was to end on April 30. “The following message is from the president of the United States and should be passed on by the first helicopter in touch with Ambassador Martin,” said a radio broadcast to helicopter pilots flying over Vietnam. Only American citizens will be transferred. Once airborne and on route, Ambassador Martin will board the first available helicopter, which will broadcast ‘Tiger, Tiger, Tiger.’
At 4:45 a.m., a CH-46 helicopter piloted by Captain Jerry Berry arrived on the embassy rooftop. Berry declined to load the refugees, saying that he was under presidential instructions to remove Ambassador Martin and his staff. Martin boarded minutes later, and the helicopter took off at 4:58. Except for the US Marines security unit, another CH-46 landed soon after and evacuated the remaining diplomatic personnel.
At about 11 a.m., Company 4 of the PAVN Huong Giang Tank Brigade 203 broke through the steel gate of South Vietnam’s Presidential Palace. The company commander and a few of his men rushed to the palace and ascended to the top, where the National Liberation Front flag was hoisted. They discovered General Duong Van Minh, the last president of South Vietnam, and Prime Minister Vu Van Mau as they entered the building.
“We’ve been waiting for you to give over authority since the morning,” Minh remarked. “You cannot give up what you no longer have,” the North Vietnamese warned Minh. And with that, the Republic of Vietnam came to an end, only 20 years after the CIA had established it.
The next morning, from 9:50 to 10:30 a.m., President Ford, Henry Kissinger, and Brent Scowcroft convened in the Oval Office. “Tommy the Cork [Tom Corcoran] claimed Anna Chennault [Nixon’s first conduit to General Nguyen Van Thieu] is traveling to Taiwan and would visit Thieu,” Ford started the meeting. “Do you want us to write a letter?”
Kissinger responded, “I would send a kind message.” “With his negative remarks, he isn’t helping.” That was the last thing I had to say about the South Vietnamese government.
“I told Ron [White House press secretary Ron Nessen] that I didn’t want to criticize Graham Martin since he had been under so much pressure,” Ford said. “I would say you didn’t want to comment,” Kissinger corrected him. Otherwise, it will be seen as a kind of criticism.” That was the meeting’s last comment on the Vietnam issue.
The conversation then moved on to other global hotspots, such as Israel and the Middle East.
Edward Rasen was a combat infantryman in Vietnam from 1965 to 1968, and subsequently worked for ABC and CBS News in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. More of Rasen’s latest conversations with Frank Snepp may be found on Amazon.com’s Vietnam War Secrets, a five-DVD set.
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Frequently Asked Questions
How did the war end in 1975?
The war ended in 1975 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris.
Why did people leave Vietnam in 1975?
In 1975, the people of Vietnam were forced to leave their country by the communist government.
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