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The Fall Of South Vietnam: 1975

And so, early in 1973, after more than four years of negotiation in Paris, the United States finally came to terms with North Vietnam and signed what was called "An Agreement on Ending the War and Restor- ing the Peace in Vietnam." South Vietnam signed the agreement only reluctantly and after prolonged pressure and threats of an aid cutoff from the United States.

The agreement provided for the disengagement and withdrawal of American combat forces from South Vietnam and an ex- change of all prisoners of war. It also provided joint commissions for monitoring the release of prisoners and the withdrawal of American and other non-Vietnamese troops from South Vietnam. A four-party international commission was charged with supervising the cease-fire that was expected to follow the signing of the Paris Agreement and investigating violations of it. Another joint military commission was established by the agreement to investigate the whereabouts of American MIAs (missing in action). The agreement also anticipated establishment of a council to facilitate the peaceful reunification of North and South Vietnam.

The only part of the treaty that was actually strictly adhered to was that requiring the withdrawal of American forces.

On March 29, 1973, the last American combat troops withdrew from South Vietnam. The old MACV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) headquarters at Tan Son Nhut air base became the home of the American Defense Attache Office (DAO), which was strictly limited to monitoring the flow, distribu- tion, and use of American supplies to the South Vietnamese military. The DAO staff was forbidden to assume any military advisory role in South Vietnam. In one of its most controversial clauses, the Paris Agreement allowed the North Vietnamese to maintain somewhere between 80,000 and 160,000 combat troops in South Vietnam. For that reason alone, many South Vietnamese recognized the agreement, not as a peace treaty, but as a death sentence for their nation. According to the agreement, the North Vietnamese troops could be maintained, but not expanded; they could be supplied and replaced, but not reinforced beyond their existing numbers.

In order to assuage the misgivings and the fears of the South Viet- namese, who were asked to coexist peacefully with this North Vietnamese military presence, both President Richard M. Nixon and Henry Kissin- ger, who personally negotiated the agreement, assured the South Vietnamese that the United States would never stand aside and allow North Vietnam to violate the treaty and expand its presence within South Vietnam. In fact, they promised President Thieu that the United States would respond with decisive military force to any gross violations of the treaty by the North. The military might of America, they assured him, would protect the territorial integrity and political independence of our ally.

Soon after he took office in the summer of 1974, President Gerald Ford reaffirmed America's commitment to South Vietnam and the Paris Agreement. Yet, in the end, the pledges of the two American presidents proved empty.

The passage of time brought new problems and new leadership to the United States. The Watergate scandal brought first the discrediting and then the resignation of President Nixon and a weakening of the executive branch of the government. For Vietnam this was ominous, since support for South Vietnam had been centered in the executive branch while opposition to support for South Vietnam was centered in the legis- lative branch. A war in the Middle East and an oil squeeze by OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) brought rapidly rising- prices and a concern for America's ability to maintain its commitments to allied nations in areas outside Southeast Asia.

And in Vietnam the war continued. The Paris Agreement produced no peace. It merely altered the complexion and numbers of the combatants. After the spring of 1973, the long war in Vietnam was almost exclusively limited to Vietnamese killing Vietnamese with America and the Communist bloc nations providing the necessary machinery and materiel of de- fense and death. But rising prices, severe congressional budgetary reductions, corruption in Vietnam, the persistence of the "peace movement" in the United States, and the gradually intensifying conflict in Vietnam worked together to produce vital shortages in essential military supplies. Those shortages, in turn, brought uncertainty and fear to South Vietnamese soldiers and civilians alike. They believed, despite the assurances of Ambassador Graham Martin and his Embassy staff in Saigon, that the United States was about to abandon South Vietnam to the not-so-tender mercies of the North Vietnamese. America had at long last truly written off South Vietnam, they concluded.

In the first week of 1975, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) gained control of Phuoc Long province. The seizure of the province was intended as a test. The North wished to see what the response of the United States might be to this flagrant violation of the Paris Agreement. There was no American response. America, in fact, seemed uninterested in what the North Vietnamese Army did or did not do in South Vitenam. There was little NVA action when, in the next month, an American congressional delegation visited the South to assess the military situation there and to advise Congress and the President on providing additional military and humanitarian aid.

A few days after the congressional delegation departed, the North Vietnamese made their next move. On March 10, 1975, the North Vietnamese Army launched what was to be its final major offensive against South Vietnam, assured that Amer- ica had lost its will to fight or to finance the independence of South Vietnam. No longer fearful of American intervention, the North Vietnamese were certain that victory and the forceful unification of Vietnam was, after nearly thirty years of conflict, soon to be accomplished.

The North moved 100,000 fresh troops down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a route now unthreatened by American B-52 raids that had been trans- formed from a series of bicycle paths zigzagging through the jungles of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, to a bustling highway and an accompany- ing oil pipeline leading to the heart of South Vietnam. The town of Ban Me Thuot in the central highlands fell to the North in mid-March. A counterattack by the South Vietnamese fizzled.

On March 14, President Thieu made one of the most unfortunate mili- tary decisions in the long conflict in Vietnam. He ordered the secret re- deployment of the Vietnamese forces in the central highlands to the coast along the South China Sea. The forces were then to regroup and prepare for a counterattack on Ban Me Thuot. But the attempted redeployment turned into a rout. The unannounced and unexplained movement of the army out of Pleiku and Kontum encouraged frightened speculation and rumors about what was really happening. Many soldiers and civilians concluded that there had been a secret agreement and that Vietnam was about to be partitioned once more between the North and the South, this time with the central highlands and the northernmost provinces of South Vietnam going to the Communists. The military withdrawal became "the Convoy of Tears" as tens of thousands of civilians joined in the frantic exodus from the highlands. They jammed the roads and disrupted the movement of military vehicles. Advance units of the North Vietnamese Army caught the convoy and destroyed much of it. There was no counter- attack on Ban Me Thuot because the army that withdrew from the cen- tral highlands disintegrated before it reached the coast. With the obliteration of the military forces of the highlands, President Thieu next sought to redeploy his forces in the northernmost section of South Vietnam. That effort, too, turned into a disaster, and the divisions in the region disintegrated. Masses of people and remnants of military units flowed along crowded highways toward the safety of cities further south—toward Nha Trang and Saigon, or east to the safety of a flotilla waiting to evacuate them by sea. Now the social and military fabric of South Vietnam began to unravel rapidly in many places at the same time.

 The South suddenly began to lose the war faster than the North could win it. The military forces of the South seemed to be imploding toward Saigon. Cities and provinces were abandoned to the North without a fight. In some areas, desperate South Vietnamese soldiers, frustrated by the cowardice and incompetence of their political and military leaders, turned their rage on South Vietnamese citizens in an ugly orgy of violence and murder. Victory for the armies of North Vietnam became, in many strategically important places, a mere matter of marching.

On March 29, the chaotic and desperate situation was recorded graphically by a CBS news crew that flew aboard a World Airways Boeing 727 to Danang, Vietnam's second largest city, to evacuate refugees. The plane was mobbed by soldiers who shot women and children and each other in a frenzied attempt to scramble aboard the aircraft and escape from the advancing North Vietnamese. As the plane took off witli people clinging to the wheels, soldiers on the ground fired at it and a hand grenade blew up under one wing. The plane limped back into Saigon, and that evening a tape of the flight was shown on the CBS Evening News. American television viewers that Easter weekend saw the almost unbelievable horror of an army transformed into murderous rabble and a country thrashing about helplessly in the throes of a violent death. In Saigon, American businesses, news bureaus, and government agencies began evacuating their employees and dependents. Commercial and military aircraft carried thousands of people to the Philippines, Thailand, Hong Kong, and the United States.

 The collapse gained momentum. On April 21, under pressure from the United States as well as from members of his own government, President Thieu resigned after delivering a tearful speech on Vietnamese televi- sion, a speech in which he laid the blame for the collapse at the feet of the United States. A few days later he left the country. Vice President Tran Van Huong took control of the government. As if to leave no doubt as to America's determination not to intervene again in Vietnam, on the evening of April 23, in a major address at Tulane University, President Gerald Ford announced that the war in Vietnam was "finished as far as America is concerned." The audience of students gave him a standing ovation.

On April 28 President Huong resigned and was succeeded by General Duong Van Minh. It was commonly—and incorrectly, it turned out—be- lieved that Minh would be acceptable to the North Vietnamese and that he alone of all the political figures in the South could arrive at a negotiated settlement with the advancing North Vietnamese Army. But that, too, proved to be an illusion. Minh found that there was no one willing to make an agreement with him. He had nothing to offer the advancing divisions of the North but surrender. His most important act in his brief tenure as President was to make an unconditional surrender to the North Vietnamese.

On the morning of April 29, Operation Frequent Wind began. The exercise involved the evacuation of American and Vietnamese civilians and military personnel from Tan Son Nhut Airbase and from the Ameri- can Embassy in Saigon to the Seventh Fleet in the South China Sea. The operation was completed early in the morning of April 30, a few hours before the surrender of the South. When the last Marines were airlifted from the roof of the American Embassy on the morning of April 30, they left behind more than four hundred Vietnamese waiting to be airlifted out of the compound. Throughout the previous day and night those same Vietnamese had been promised again and again that they would never be abandoned by the United States. They watched in silence as the last American helicopter left the roof of the Embassy. Even the final American promise to Vietnam had been broken.

Late in the morning of April 30, the Frequent Wind evacuees aboard the ships of the Seventh Fleet observed what appeared to be a massive swarm of bees darkening the sky and heading out over the South China Sea from the coast of Vietnam. As the mysterious swarm drew closer it was identified as hundreds of helicopters coming out from the coast and the Delta and other areas around Saigon, piloted by South Vietnamese airmen bringing out their families, relatives, and friends. So many helicopters attempted to land at once, crowding the decks of the American ships, that as soon as the choppers landed and emptied they were pushed into the sea. On the flight deck of the Midway, in order to protect the diminutive Vietnamese who landed and to prevent them from being blown over the side of the ship or struck by helicopter blades, the crew- men used pieces of rope, about ten feet long, to guide the Vietnamese to safety. The rope was handed to the refugees inside the helicopters, and then they held on to it and were led by an American across the flight deck and downstairs to a special processing center. From a short distance away, the groups of people clinging to the rope arid walking quickly across the deck of the large carrier looked like large, multicolored caterpillars.

VIDEO: VIETNAM WAR: LAST FLIGHT FROM DANANG. APRIL 29, 1975
video

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