April 30 marks 40 years since the fall of Saigon, the end of a period known in the region as Black April. Colin Smith was a young reporter who watched the last moments of the Vietnam War
ON APRIL 30, 1975 I arrived at the flattened gates of what had just ceased to be the Presidential Palace in Saigon about ten minutes after a Soviet supplied North Vietnamese tank had gone through them without the formality of lifting the latch. Inside its grounds some ARVN – Army of the Republic of Vietnam always pronounced as the acronym ‘Arvin’ – were gathered on a lawn pulling off boots and uniforms like actors doing a fast costume change. This and the surrender of personal weapons was all their captors required of them before, barefoot and half naked, they were free to go.
Separated from their men and still in their green American uniforms, five downcast looking officers, one of them a colonel, were sitting on the raised kerb that edged the gravelled drive. They glanced up at me as I crunched by and then back at their boots. Mindful of my front line encounters with ARVN over the last weeks, the pleas routinely made to any shade of western reporter for heavy arms and the return of American air support, I felt a little ashamed that matters had now reached the point where I dare not supply them with as much as a cigarette. A pith helmeted teenager waved me back towards the horizontal gates with his new looking Kalashnikov. I was glad to go, consoling myself that probably the last thing his prisoners needed was acknowledgement from some ambiguous Round Eye.
Around the corner the US embassy had already been stripped of most of its furniture and air conditioners and the last looters were fighting over coffee cups and light bulbs. Along corridors and in stairwells leading to the roof lingered eye watering traces of the CS gas the Marines had dropped as they withdrew. Until eight o’ clock that morning their rearguard, a few armed with the pump action shotguns they reserved for riot control, had kept at bay a determined and often hysterical crowd convinced that if they were not allowed in they would die.
A few had shown me what appeared to be valid documents indicating that they had been allotted ‘one seat’ on the helicopters that were leaving the embassy roof. ‘I worked for the CIA,’ whispered an anguished looking man. ‘The Communists will kill me.’ He unclipped the large gold watch on his left wrist, walked up to the white washed embassy wall and began waving it at the Marines who looked every way but at him. At the time I thought they had made the right assessment: an obvious phoney. Later it emerged that the Agency had indeed mislaid at least 40 highly compromised Vietnamese agents and staff including their station chief’s loyal chauffeur.
Occasionally, somebody who had pushed close enough to the Marines to show them the right paper, or perhaps mouth the right password, was pulled over the wall. Obvious westerners were almost invariably offered a helping hand. Sometimes I caught a quizzical glance in my direction. Most of the thousand or so media people in Saigon were already inside the embassy compound but about 100 of us, nine British, had decided that we had to stay for this last act even if we were not entirely certain when or how we would be getting home afterwards.
Then the helmeted heads disappeared from the parapet, their parting gift the eye watering smoke from a gas grenade they dropped over the wall. Those of us watching the helicopters leaving the embassy roof were treated to a brief optical illusion. Until the Chinooks had lifted off only their accelerating rotor blades were visible and it looked as if the entire building was about to shudder aloft.
As a young reporter I witnessed the end of a war that began while I was a child, lasted 30 years, killed at least three million people and was more than generous in its contribution to the 20th century’s gallery of indelible horror. Along a metalled highway a freshly napalmed nine-year-old girl runs naked and screaming into camera. In a city street a check-shirted prisoner, pinioned and grimacing, is about to have his brains blown out with the snub-nosed nickel plated revolver South Vietnam’s most senior police officer is holding inches from his head.
In 1989 the end of the Cold War was celebrated with the demolition of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany. But 14 years before this, the last quarter of the 20th century began with the erasure of another of those frontiers rooted in ideology rather than language and terrain.
Vietnam had been divided along its 17th parallel since 1956. Some 740 miles south of this border was Saigon, still the country’s biggest city and then the capital of the Republic of South Vietnam. When Saigon fell to the Communist North Vietnamese the Republic ceased to exist and its old capital was renamed Ho Chi Minh after the Vietnamese leader who had died six years before his long struggle to impose a unified and Communist Vietnam was completed. US Ambassador Graham Martin famously left his embassy from its roof. As Soviet supplied tanks broke down the gates of the presidential palace America’s humiliating exit from its only major Cold War defeat was over. Behind them the suffering of many Vietnamese had simply entered another chapter.
Their diaspora is currently estimated to number about three million of whom just over half live in the United States. Perhaps an eighth of these can be traced to the 150,000 people, mostly the extended families of South Vietnamese officers and government officials, who managed to escape in a relatively orderly fashion during the last weeks and days before the Russian tanks were at the presidential gates. This is the period the exiles call Thang Tu Don: Black April.
The rest left during the 15 years that followed the fall of Saigon whose 40th anniversary is Thursday. Many put their trust in slow boats through the South China Sea, heading for the gas flares made by Thai and Malaysian offshore rigs and prey to fishermen who carried automatic rifles. As late as the mid-1990s the bodies of raped and murdered Vietnamese women were still coming in with the surf along the palm fringed beaches of Thailand’s pirate coast. Among these escapees were some of the very people who had welcomed the North Vietnamese Army, the South Vietnamese nationalists most of the world knew as the Viet Cong.
Both Hanoi and Washington were unfaithful to South Vietnam. The Americans who assured their client state that they would never permit the Communists to break the peace agreement that had allowed them to withdraw from an unpopular war then looked on while the North Vietnamese rolled over it in their latest Soviet tanks. And the victors themselves who alongside a straightjacket economy, imposed an Asian Gulag where thousands disappeared into the night and fog of their ‘Re-Education camps’ and even South Vietnamese Communists and members of the Viet Cong were not safe.
One of these was Doan Van Toai who was arrested while attending a Chopin piano recital at the National School for Music and Drama. Accused of ‘suspicious acts’ he found himself returned to the Saigon jails he had got to know so well under the previous administration. The difference was that this time he was locked into a Kafkaesque nightmare where he is never told exactly what he is charged with. The most one of his interrogator would accuse him of was a failure to ‘commit himself to the party’. After almost 30 months of this he was released and eventually allowed to join his wife and children who had managed to get to France. In 1985 he published, in French and English, a memoir entitled The Vietnamese Gulag which theNew Yorker compared to Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. ‘My ideals had led me down a trail at whose unforeseen end lay terror and destitution for the nation,’ wrote Toai.
In May 1979 the singer Joan Baez was one of 84 disillusioned former peace activists whose signatures appeared beneath an open letter to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam published in a full page advertisement in the New York Times. They wrote: ‘Instead of bringing hope and reconciliation to war-torn Vietnam, your government has created a painful nightmare.’
When Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho, a key member of Hanoi’s Politburo, signed the 1973 Paris Peace Accords that effectively ended America’s involvement in the war neither Vietnamese side evinced much enthusiasm. South Vietnam’s President Nguyen Van Thieu felt that by leaving some 150,000 North Vietnamese troops within the Republic’s borders they had arrived at a peace that was tantamount to surrender. The last US ground troops had left the previous year. Most of what was left were advisers and airforce technicians. Only the threat of a unilateral American agreement with Hanoi and the end of all economic and military US aid persuaded Thieu to sign. And North Vietnam’s Tho declined to share the Nobel peace prize with Kissinger. As far as he was concerned, the war was far from over.
Yet for almost two years the document that bore Tho’s signature engendered a kind of peace, albeit a relapsing arrangement that required constant nursing. At Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut airport a delegation from the Viet Cong’s Provisional Revolutionary Government were quartered in unaccustomed air conditioned splendour in a former US Marine Corps’ transit camp. They were part of the Joint Military Commission set up to monitor ‘zones of control’, a patchwork of fortified hamlets within rifle shot of each other.The conflict had become a series of brief ceasefire violations that rarely intruded on Saigon itself which had not seen any serious fighting since the Communists’ failed Tet 1968 offensive. The city was safe enough but shabby.
Deprived of the millions of dollars the Americans had spent on services ranging from sex to shaving, the city was in recession, its main employer vanished. At Mimi’s Flamboyant and other Tu Do Street establishments bored bar girls in their mini-skirts and hot pants played endless card games and pined for their departed GIs, even those Cheap Charlies who haggled over the price
Those Americans who remained in Vietnam were often married and Saigon boasted an American Women’s Association whose members were mostly embassy wives or the spouses of military advisers and aircraft technicians. In April 1974, exactly a year before Saigon fell, it published a guide to Vietnam with a forward by its Honorary President Dorothy Martin, wife of the US Ambassador. ‘Written especially to help the tourist enjoy his stay and to assist the new arrivals settle quickly,’ announced its back cover. Shopping tips for Saigon included where to get a leg wax, books bound, and find the pet market. ‘Be prepared to see many heart rending scenes,’ it said. It also included a potted history that went up to the Paris Accords and concluded: ‘Some fighting continues throughout the country and much demands to be done to bring a true peace to Vietnam.’
By 1992 even Kim Phúc, the girl on fire treasured by Hanoi for her iconic status and made one of its roving ambassadors, had acquired political asylum in Canada. The Vietnamese photographer who took the picture that made her famous lives in Los Angeles.
Most of the Vietnamese who live in Ho Chi Minh City still call it Saignon.
Colin Smith was an award winning foreign correspondent for the Observer. An established military historian, he is the author of ‘Singapore Burning’ and ‘England’s Last War Against France – Fighting Vichy 1940-42’. He recently edited Andrew Borowiec’s ‘Warsaw Boy’ for Penguin. He lives in Nicosia.