This episode is the longest for the podcast yet, because it wraps up the narrative that has continued since Episode 71. Yes, today you will hear how the Second Indochina War ended, in Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos! So this is also the last episode of what I called "the Unofficial Vietnam War Podcast." For those of you who were listening when the podcast started covering the Vietnam War, thank you for sticking with it to the end.
This episode is dedicated to Jouke C., Alexei K., Louis C., and Guy H., for making donations to the podcast. Three of you have donated before; thanks to all of you for stepping up when donations were down! For some reason, the Dog Days of August are normally a slow time for donations to podcasts. What’s more, Jouke’s previous donation came in last year, so you now qualify to have the coveted water buffalo icon next to your name, on the Podcast Hall of Fame page! Where I live, summer won’t end for another three weeks, but the air is cooler already. A new season is a time for new beginnings, new opportunities. May all of you likewise prosper as new opportunities come your way.
Episode 96: The Second Indochina War, Part 23
Greetings, dear listeners, and welcome to the last episode of the Unofficial Vietnam War Podcast! Last year, when this podcast started covering the Second Indochina War, better known to Americans as the Vietnam War, I proposed another name for this podcast, the Unofficial Vietnam War Podcast, because there was at least one other podcast claiming to be the official Vietnam War podcast. Now it has taken 23 episodes, and a year of research and recording in real time, but with this episode we have come to the end of the line. As far as I know, this is the first podcast, official or otherwise, to cover the Second Indochina War completely, from beginning to end.
I sure hope you have listened to the other episodes in this series already. If not, you are walking in on the end of the story! For the whole series, listen to Episodes 71 through 95, except for 76, 77, and 85, which covered other subjects. If you are just interested in the war in Laos, go to Episodes 74, 75, 78 and 79. Or if you want to hear about the war in Cambodia, go to Episodes 91, 92 and part of 95. The rest of the episodes cover the war in Vietnam. Perhaps you are planning to go on a road trip soon; podcasts are a great way to pass the time! Now for those of you who are ready to wrap up this whole war narrative, let’s go!
Last time we stopped in December 1974. To refresh your memory, a cease-fire for the war in Vietnam was signed in January 1973, but neither the North or South Vietnamese were interested in observing it. I told you that the North Vietnamese built a highway and an oil pipeline through the territory they had captured in 1972, allowing them to move their troops and tanks to Loc Ninh, the nearest town to Saigon under communist control. On the other side, the South Vietnamese army, ARVN, meaning the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, won a number of small battles in 1973 and early 1974, but afterwards, inflation and corruption caused it to come apart.
Tran Van Tra, the Viet Cong commander at Loc Ninh, felt in the summer of 1974 that the time to act was approaching. If communist forces attacked vigorously during the next two dry seasons, they could capture Saigon and win the war by the middle of 1976. In October he went to Hanoi and proposed this to the Politburo, as the top council is called in communist countries. Now that Le Duc Tho was done negotiating peace with Henry Kissinger, he had gone back to his previous job of managing North Vietnam’s policy for the South, and he didn’t want to make a gamble yet; he thought it was better to continue building up the North Vietnamese armed forces until 1976. Likewise, the North Vietnamese army commander, Van Tien Dung, only wanted small-scale actions for now, feeling that it wasn’t time to go for the big prize yet.
It was Le Duan, still the most aggressive of the North Vietnamese leaders, who agreed with Tran Van Tra. He gave Tra permission to launch a small, experimental campaign in Phuoc Long, a province near Saigon. This would test the relative strengths of the North and South Vietnamese armies, and it would test the Americans’ willingness to retaliate. In the previous episode, we heard that US President Richard Nixon promised the South Vietnamese president, Nguyen Van Thieu, that there would be "severe retaliatory action" if North Vietnam violated the cease-fire. And if the campaign succeeded, it would put communist forces within striking distance of Saigon.
The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong began attacking in Phuoc Long on December 13, 1974. The defending garrison tried as well as it could to fight back, but it was outnumbered two to one. On January 6, 1975, the red-and-blue Viet Cong flag was raised in Phuoc Binh, the capital. This was the first provincial capital taken since 1972, when the North Vietnamese captured Quang Tri and lost it again. The success of this campaign amazed even the winners. Meanwhile in Saigon, the South Vietnamese leaders were shocked at the US response; Washington protested, and that was all.
There were two big reasons why the Americans responded with words, but not with action. First, the US Congress had prohibited any further military activity in Southeast Asia, with the Case-Church Amendment. Second, Nixon wasn’t president anymore. The Watergate scandal had forced his vice president, Spiro Agnew, to resign in the fall of 1973, and Nixon picked a congressman from Michigan, Gerald Rudolph Ford, to take his place. Then Nixon was compelled to resign on August 9, 1974, so Ford became the new Number One, the first US president to get the job without being elected, either as president or vice president. Ford showed he wasn’t going to continue all the policies of his predecessor when he stated during a press conference on January 21, 1975, that the US was unwilling to re-enter the war.
Podcast footnote: When things got really bad for Cambodia and South Vietnam in early 1975, President Ford proposed emergency aid packages for both countries. For Cambodia, he offered $222 million; for South Vietnam, he first offered $300 million, and later increased the amount to $722 million. Congress wasn’t in the mood to approve either. They felt this wouldn’t prevent the final collapse of either government, so rather than throw more money down the toilet, they voted against both aid packages.
I am reminded of a cartoon I saw at the time. It showed President Ford walking to a street corner and asking the people standing there, “Hey, would any of you like to give aid to Vietnam?” Nobody in that group is happy to see Ford there.
After the war, many folks on the anti-communist side, from President Thieu to Melvin Laird, Nixon’s Secretary of Defense, asserted that the war wouldn’t have ended so badly if Congress hadn’t first cut back, and then cut off the aid. Looking at the overall trends, I don’t think so myself. End footnote.
Okay, I mentioned Cambodia in the footnote; what was happening there? Well, by the beginning of 1975, the government of the Khmer Republic still controlled most of the cities, but the communist movement, the Khmer Rouge, held virtually all of the countryside. A map of Cambodia at this time would have shown the government-controlled areas as islands in a communist sea, except in the south, where Phnom Penh, the capital, was tenuously connected to South Vietnam by the Mekong River. The final assault on Phnom Penh began on New Year’s Day of 1975. This time, learning their lessons from previous sieges, the Khmer Rouge not only cut off access to the city by land, but also by the Mekong River. In the past, boats traveling on the river during the rainy season were safe, because when it rained, the river was wide enough for them sail out of range of Khmer Rouge guns – that’s why the Khmer Rouge now attacked during the dry season. They attacked Neak Luong, the most important town on the river between Phnom Penh and Saigon, on January 12. The last convoy carrying rice and other supplies arrived in Phnom Penh on January 27; when they tried to go back to Saigon, the boats were destroyed by mines in the river.
Simultaneous attacks around the perimeter of Phnom Penh pinned down Republican forces, while other Khmer Rouge units overran fire bases controlling the vital lower Mekong resupply route. Thus, the only way in and out of Phnom Penh was by air, and aircraft ran the risk of being hit by enemy gunfire. In addition, Phnom Penh and other cities were subjected to daily rocket attacks, causing thousands of civilian casualties. A US-funded airlift of ammunition and rice ended when Congress refused to send any more aid to Cambodia. After that, everyone knew the capital – and the Khmer Republic – were doomed. Food was so scarce and prices were so high that according to historian Michael Vickery, an estimated 8,000 residents of Phnom Penh starved to death in March 1975.
Wait a minute; did you say you heard something going on in Vietnam? Let’s have a look. Yes, while we were talking about Cambodia, the North Vietnamese launched their 1975 offensive. During the Phuoc Long campaign, the Politburo met in Hanoi to plan their next major campaign. The premier, Pham Van Dong, was now sixty-eight years old, and had been struggling against foreigners for the past half century, his whole adult life. He reassured the other leaders, telling them that even if the United States responded to their campaign with renewed bombing, it would not stop them. It would take a full-scale intervention of US ground troops to keep them from winning, and that wasn’t happening. As Pham Van Dong put it, quote, "They won’t come back even if we offered them candy." Unquote.
The Politburo approved the use of 20 divisions for this invasion of the South, and like Tran Van Tra, they predicted it would take more than a year, until some time in 1976, before they won the ultimate victory. As it turned out, though, South Vietnam collapsed in only 55 days. In the previous episode, I said that in 1973, the troops of ARVN outnumbered their North Vietnamese and Viet Cong opponents by 4 to 1. Well, after two years of desertions, and shortages of money and equipment, South Vietnam no longer had the advantage. On February 5, 1975, General Van Tien Dung secretly crossed into South Vietnam to personally lead the final offensive. He would have 18 North Vietnamese divisions, with 5 in reserve, moving against 6 ARVN divisions.
The final offensive, which the North Vietnamese called “Campaign 275” at first, began in the Central Highlands, with the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) 4th Corps maneuvering between the cities of Pleiku and Ban Me Thuot, picking off individual units in the ARVN formation from March 3 onward. The local ARVN general, Pham Van Phu, ignored intelligence which showed that enemy units had entered the district; he believed the maneuvers were diversions, and that Pleiku would be their first target. Instead, on March 10, 25,000 North Vietnamese soldiers struck at Ban Me Thuot. The battle began with a heavy artillery bombardment of the city, followed by an assault with tanks. Half of the defending 4,000 ARVN soldiers surrendered or deserted, and the rest fled with their families, allowing the North Vietnamese to capture Ban Me Thuot the next day.
With the fall of Ban Me Thuot, the quagmire that had characterized most of the Vietnam War suddenly turned into a runaway train. Thieu had been counting on the United States to retaliate, or continue sending aid. Since the Americans did neither, ARVN was stretched too thin. Accordingly, Thieu gave the order to abandon the Highlands region. He thought it might be possible for ARVN forces to regroup along the coast, and launch a campaign from there to take back Ban Me Thuot. This would have been difficult to pull off under good conditions, and now it proved impossible; most ARVN soldiers were more interested in rescuing themselves and their families than they were in following orders.
The second half of March saw a mass exodus. Realizing that the soldiers were abandoning the area, around 400,000 civilians joined them, in the retreat southward and to the coast, clogging the roads and bringing general chaos. The North Vietnamese forces quickly took Pleiku and Kontum, and pursued and shelled the disorganized retreat. South Vietnamese would call this rout "the convoy of tears," or “the road of blood and tears.” Most of the civilians never made it to the relative safety of Saigon and the Mekong delta region. The North Vietnamese also captured vast amounts of American-made equipment, from ammunition to artillery and jeeps, which the ARVN soldiers left behind as they fled. In fact, so much equipment was abandoned, that one US official made a sour comment about future aid shipments. Quote: “We might as well send all this stuff to Hanoi. Then it won’t get damaged.” Unquote.
Besides pushing to the coast from the Central Highlands, North Vietnamese forces also advanced south from the Demilitarized Zone, into the area called the I Corps Tactical Zone. Here Thieu gave contradictory instructions; the troops of the I Corps didn’t know whether they should withdraw, or fight to the last man. As a result, the I Corps became demoralized, and disintegrated. The North Vietnamese took Quang Tri City on March 19, and Tam Ky on March 24. The fall of Tam Ky cut off Hue and Da Nang, two of the most important cities, from the rest of South Vietnam. Hue was the next to go, falling on March 25 after a three-day siege. Hordes of refugees, both soldiers and civilians, now crowded into Da Nang. 35,000 North Vietnamese soldiers surrounded Da Nang and began to shell it on March 28, and the city descended into anarchy. After the war one of South Vietnam’s top generals, Cao Van Viên, described the situation in Da Nang this way, in his book The Final Collapse. Quote: "Hunger, looting, and crimes were widespread. Traffic was impossible…the mass stranded in the city was estimated at approximately one and one-half million." End Quote.
Because Thieu said nothing about whether Da Nang should be evacuated, the I Corps commander, General Ngo Quang Truong, gave orders for an evacuation to begin on March 29. The idea was to rescue as many people as possible, by taking them to Vung Tau, the nearest port to Saigon on the South Vietnamese coast. You have probably heard of the battle of Dunkirk, where during World War II, thousands of British, French and Belgian troops were evacuated after the Nazis surrounded them on the French coast, allowing them to fight another day. Well, there was nothing heroic about the evacuation of Da Nang. The ships could not reach the docks during low tide, prompting thousands of evacuees to rush into the sea. Hundreds of them drowned, and thousands more were killed by enemy artillery. Some soldiers shot civilians to make room for themselves on the boats. With almost no one trying to defend Da Nang, the North Vietnamese entered the city on March 30, putting an end to the evacuation. 16,000 soldiers and 75,000 civilians managed to escape, but at least 70,000 more soldiers were left behind, and thus captured.
Realizing that South Vietnam was collapsing faster than they predicted, North Vietnamese leaders met again in late March, and decided to accelerate their offensive. Now, instead of going for total victory in 1976, they ordered General Dung to achieve it before the rainy season started in May 1975. Hopefully he would do it by May 19; this date would have been the 85th birthday of the late Ho Chi Minh. They also gave a new name for the push on Saigon; henceforth it would be called the “Ho Chi Minh Campaign.” Van Tien Dung and Tran Van Tra moved their headquarters to Loc Ninh, the town near Saigon at the end of the North Vietnamese-built road, to direct the campaign, and Le Duc Tho drove to Loc Ninh on a motorcycle, to act as Hanoi’s overseer.
Over in Cambodia, the war ended in the middle of April, so let’s return to Cambodia and hear the final stage of it. Neak Luong fell to the Khmer Rouge on April 1. A tearful president, Lon Nol, left Cambodia with his family on the same day. Because he had done such a bad job running the country, many Cambodians wished he had left months earlier. One of the few friends he had left was Indonesian President Suharto, and Lon Nol accepted an invitation to take a vacation with Suharto on Bali. Later, Lon Nol moved on to Hawaii. He would spend the rest of his life in the United States, dying in California in 1985. Back in Phnom Penh, the president of the Senate, Saukam Khoy, became the next president of the Khmer Republic. He would only hold that job for eleven days.
I told you in the previous episode about the Khmer Rouge committing atrocities in the areas they controlled. 60,000 refugees from the Khmer Rouge zones brought eyewitness accounts of the killings and living conditions to the outside world. One reason for the brutal policies of the Khmer Rouge was that they were led by men who had been hunted by the authorities since the 1950s and 60s, when Prince Norodom Sihanouk was in charge and did not permit opposition movements or freedom of the press. As Henri Locard, an historian who lived in Phnom Penh in the 1960s, explained, quote, “Just imagine the mentality of people who had been pursued by police for 20 years.” Unquote.
The stories of atrocities convinced US officials that there would be a bloodbath if the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh, and they prepared for an evacuation of Americans in the capital. The plan was called Operation Eagle Pull, and it used helicopters to carry evacuees to a squadron of US ships in the Gulf of Thailand. They also planned to bring 400 friendly Cambodians with them, but as it worked out, they brought out 3,600. Here is how the US ambassador, John Gunther Dean, explained it. Quote: “We took gardeners, houseboys, Koreans working for our mission, Cambodian generals or ministers, or educated Cambodians. In short, we took people whose lives would be endangered when the Khmer Rouge came to power.” Unquote.
Surprisingly, few Cambodian leaders went with the evacuation, though they must have known they were dead meat if they fell into enemy hands. About the only one who left was Saukam Khoy, who took off on April 12 without telling his fellow leaders. Like Lon Nol, Khoy would spend his last days in California. Prime Minister Long Boret, Prince Sirik Matak, and Lon Nol’s brother, Lon Non, all chose to take their chances with the Khmer Rouge. Another who refused to go was Cambodia’s first native bishop, Joseph Chhmar Salas, though several dozen Catholic monks and nuns left, at the insistence of Ambassador Dean. Long Boret thought he could make a deal with the Khmer Rouge, because some of them had gone to the same high school as he did. Sirik Matak thought only cowards should leave. He put his refusal in writing, in a letter to Dean. Quote:
<Read Sirik Matak quote>
It only took one day for Operation Eagle Pull to remove everyone who wanted to leave Cambodia. With acting President Khoy gone, a seven-member Supreme Committee, headed by Lieutenant-General Sak Sutsakhan, took charge over the collapsing Khmer Republic. We met Sutsakhan in Episode 92; he was a former defense minister under Sihanouk, and most recently he commanded the Khmer Special Forces. On April 17, Khmer Rouge soldiers entered Phnom Penh, and Sutsakhan escaped with his family, on one of the last Khmer Air Force helicopters to leave. That left Long Boret as the Khmer Republic’s last head of state. Here is how the American historian Arnold Isaacs described the last two days of the war in Phnom Penh. Quote:
When Phnom Penh awoke on the 16th, even the hard-line members of the Supreme Committee saw at last that further resistance was impossible … [and] agreed to … the immediate transfer of power to the revolutionaries. They asked only that there be no reprisals against officials and soldiers of the Phnom Penh regime.
As dawn broke on the 17th, the dispirited group returned to Long Boret’s house, where they finally received [the Khmer Rouge’s] reply to the previous day’s peace offer. It was a flat, frightening rejection. Not only would the liberation forces accept no arranged handover of power, but the membership of the Supreme Committee had been added to the seven original “traitors” on the Khmer Rouge death list.
Stunned, members of the government walked out of the prime minister’s residence and dispersed, leaving a ‘strange calmness,’ General Sak later recalled. Only he and Long Boret were still there when an army officer arrived to report that a few helicopters were preparing to leave from the Olympic Stadium. The two leaders, each in his official car, reached the stadium shortly after eight o’clock and boarded one of the helicopters waiting there. A few minutes later, however, Long Boret’s wife, two children, and his sister, along with some family friends, arrived at the landing zone, and he stepped down to join them on another helicopter. With him went his close friend, Information Minister Thong Lim Huong.
General Sak, with his wife and children, took off at eight-thirty. From the air, as they rose over the city, they could see the prime minister’s party switching to still a third waiting helicopter. Whether both craft were mechanically unflyable or failed to take off for some other reason is not known. But Long Boret never left Phnom Penh. He was seen under arrest that afternoon, and shortly afterward was executed.”
The people of Phnom Penh welcomed the Khmer Rouge as they marched into the city, relieved that with their arrival, the war was over. The Khmer Rouge soldiers did not respond in kind, most of them were uneducated, battle-hardened teenagers loaded with weapons, and they showed no emotion. When the leaders of the Khmer Republic were captured, they were taken to the Cercle Sportif, a sports club with tennis courts and a swimming pool that the French had built many years earlier, and were promptly executed there. Captured soldiers were also executed at the sports club. Sirik Matak took refuge in the French Embassy for three or four days, but the Khmer Rouge forced the embassy to hand him over, and then executed him as well.
Podcast footnote: From 1975 to 1991, the United States did not have an embassy in Cambodia, because the US government recognized neither the Khmer Rouge nor the pro-Vietnamese government which came after them. When diplomatic relations were restored, and it was time to build a new US embassy, the Cercle Sportif was torn down to make room for it. End footnote.
Lon Nol’s brother, Lon Non, should have been spared. At some point in the 1940s he attended a new college in Kompong Cham, which was ironically called Norodom Sihanouk College, and there his best friend was a classmate named Saloth Sar. Saloth Sar was introduced to us in Episode 91, but since 1963 he has gone by another name, Pol Pot. Alas, Pol Pot did not come to Phnom Penh at this time; he was not ready to reveal himself as the real leader of the Khmer Rouge. Too bad for Lon Non; he was killed as quickly as the others who ran the Khmer Republic.
After the fall of Phnom Penh, the other government-controlled cities quickly surrendered. The last place taken by the Khmer Rouge was Preah Vihear, a Hindu temple built by the Khmers in the early eleventh century. This thousand-year-old temple is located on top of a mountain on Cambodia’s northern border. Before the war, Thailand and Cambodia both claimed the site until 1962, when the International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled that the temple belongs to Cambodia. Some of Lon Nol’s soldiers barricaded themselves here, and one of them said, quote, "This is the Khmer Republic. It is very small now." Unquote. Because of Preah Vihear’s location on high ground, they held out until May 22, 1975, five weeks after Phnom Penh fell. And that is how the Cambodian Civil War ended. But for those Cambodians who did not get out of the country, the worst part of their ordeal was only beginning.
Okay, now that we’re done with Cambodia, let’s wrap up the war in Vietnam. Once Da Nang fell to the North Vietnamese, the remaining towns on the coast controlled by the Saigon government quickly followed. Arnold Isaacs described this by saying they, quote, "fell like a row of porcelain vases sliding off a shelf." Unquote. Quang Ngãi was taken on March 24, Qui Nhon and Nha Trang on April 1, and Cam Ranh Bay on April 3. With that the whole northern half of South Vietnam, the I and II Corps Tactical Zones, was in communist hands. It wasn’t until the North Vietnamese reached Xuan Loc, a town 38 miles northeast of Saigon, that ARVN put up any resistance. Xuan Loc was on the last defensive line before Saigon, and President Thieu ordered the ARVN 18th Infantry Division to hold the town at all costs, which it did. At Xuan Loc the ARVN 18th Division had 12,000 troops, pitted against 20,000 troops from North Vietnam’s 4th Army Corps, and both sides had reinforcements available nearby. For twelve days, from April 9 to April 21, the ARVN 18th Division beat off all attacks from the North Vietnamese, and inflicted more than 5,000 casualties. Many of the casualties were caused by South Vietnamese aircraft, dropping cluster bombs. The 18th Division only withdrew from Xuan Loc when it received new orders – to fall back and take part in the defense of Saigon itself. This was the last major battle of the Vietnam War, and the South Vietnamese Army’s last stand.
The battle of Xuan Loc also marked the end of President Thieu’s career. The US ambassador, Graham Martin, met with Thieu on April 20, and because it was unlikely that Thieu could ever negotiate with the communists, Martin urged him to resign for the good of the country. A bitter, tearful Thieu gave his resignation on April 21, 1975, with a 90 minute rambling speech on TV to the people of South Vietnam. Thieu read from the letter sent by Nixon in 1972, pledging "severe retaliatory action" if South Vietnam was threatened. Then he condemned the Paris Peace Accords, Henry Kissinger and the US. Quote: "The United States has not respected its promises. It is inhumane. It is untrustworthy. It is irresponsible." Unquote.
Five days later, Thieu boarded a C-118 cargo plane provided by the US Central Intelligence Agency, taking with him his wife, their two children, and fifteen tons of belongings. He also wanted to take sixteen tons of gold, but for reasons I couldn’t find in my sources, the gold was left behind, and sometime after the war, the Vietnamese gave it to the Soviet Union, presumably as payment for all the equipment the Soviets gave them. Washington advised Thieu that it wasn’t safe for him to come to the United States at this time, so he first went to Taiwan, then to Britain. When he finally slipped into the United States, sometime in the early 1990s, no one was paying attention. He settled in Foxborough, Massachusetts, lived there quietly, and died of a stroke in 2001.
Back in Saigon, Thieu was succeeded by his vice president, Tran Van Huong. We have seen him before; Tran Van Huong was prime minister for three months in late 1964-early 1965. When we first met him, he was 61 years old, and I called him decrepit; now he was 71, so what I said about him before was even more true! Huong would stay in office for just one week.
From Xuan Loc, the North Vietnamese Army advanced to Bien Hoa, where 60 percent of ARVN’s ammunition was stored, and then went on to Saigon. By April 27, Saigon was encircled. There were 30,000 South Vietnamese soldiers in the city, but they were leaderless. Many of them ditched their uniforms, so they would not be recognized as enemy soldiers when the communists arrived. The North Vietnamese began firing rockets into the city, and the city experienced a wave of chaos and widespread looting. On the next day, Tran Van Huong resigned and handed over power to another former head of state, General Duong Van Minh, also known as “Big Minh.” Then Huong tried to hide, but was captured by the communists, and placed under house arrest. He would die in his home in 1982.
We saw Duong Van Minh in Episode 80, when he ran South Vietnam from November 1963 to February 1964. His second reign would be even shorter – two days. The first thing “Big Minh” tried to do was call for a cease-fire, but his appeal was ignored.
On April 29, the North Vietnamese began to shell Tan Son Nhut air base, Saigon’s airport. This meant it was unsafe for aircraft to take off or land here; in addition, South Vietnamese civilians broke in and looted the base. Two Marines were killed in the bombardment of the compound gate, Corporal Charles McMahon and Lance Corporal Darwin Lee Judge. While these were the last Americans to be killed in Vietnam, they would not be the last casualties of the war. That dubious honor goes to the Americans killed in the Mayaguez Incident, which we will cover later in this episode.
No doubt about it; it was time for the Americans to get out of Saigon, and take their Vietnamese friends with them. However, this would not be as easy as Operation Eagle Pull in Cambodia. To start with, far more people needed to be evacuated. There were six thousand Americans, plus a hundred thousand Vietnamese who worked for them; the Vietnamese would be subject to persecution by the communists if they did not leave. Add the families of the Vietnamese workers, and the number who needed to go was nearly one million. The other challenge was that there was far less time to carry out the evacuation. A similar number of people had to get out of North Vietnam when the First Indochina War ended in 1954, but they almost a year to do it. At first the Americans saw four ways to leave Saigon: by boat, by military planes, by civilian planes, and by helicopters. Well, there was an evacuation by ship from the port of Vung Tau, and it went much like the evacuation from Da Nang; although 60,000 South Vietnamese got out, thousands more had to be left behind. The Saigon River connected Saigon with the sea, but now with the city surrounded, it was no longer safe for boats to use that river, and the shelling of Tan Son Nhut ruled out escape by airplane. That left the helicopters, which could land in several parts of Saigon, including the US Embassy courtyard. On April 29, President Ford ordered the evacuation by helicopter, which was called Operation Frequent Wind.
The embassy was secured by a wall and US Marines in full combat gear. They were needed, because frantic civilians tried to break into the compound, when they learned what was happening. When it was Ambassador Martin’s turn to go, he brought his wife and the embassy flag. The Americans, and those Vietnamese lucky enough to be allowed in the helicopters, were taken to three aircraft carriers in the South China Sea. Many South Vietnamese pilots also landed on the carriers, flying American-made helicopters. After they were used, the helicopters, which cost $250,000 each, were pushed into the sea to make room for more refugees.
Podcast footnote: The most famous photo taken from the last days of the war shows a helicopter on the roof of the US Embassy, with people lined up, waiting to board it. To Americans that picture became a humiliating symbol of how the Vietnam War ended. For the past two and a half years, I have used that picture as album art. With MP3 files, you can insert a picture; usually it’s the cover of the album the file came from, if it is a music track. I have done that with the recordings of this podcast; if you download the files, as opposed to listening to streaming audio, you can see the album art in a viewer like Windows Explorer. For the episodes I recorded in 2016 and 2017, Episodes 0 to 35, the photo showed the temple of Angkor Wat. Since the beginning of 2018, that is, Episodes 36 through 96, the album art has been the famous photo of the embassy evacuation. This is the last time I will use that photo; the photo I plan to use for the rest of this podcast series is a view of modern-day Singapore. Look for it! End footnote.
During the last days of the war, about 130,000 Vietnamese refugees managed to get out with the Americans. They were eventually settled in the United States, creating the communities of Vietnamese-Americans that exist to this day. For example, in previous episodes I told you about the “Little Saigon” neighborhood in my former home town, Orlando, Florida. The largest community formed in California, as you might expect. I told you about the two presidents of the Khmer Republic, Lon Nol and Saukam Khoy, going to California; so did Duong Van Minh, after he was allowed to emigrate from Vietnam in 1983. Nguyen Cao Ky, the former vice president, went to California, but returned to Vietnam in 2004. Those who did not get out of Vietnam would try again later, beginning the exodus of "boat people" that continued for the rest of the 1970s and 1980s.
The last Americans to leave the US Embassy were ten Marines. They took off at 8:35 AM, on April 30, 1975. Their departure marked the end of the United States presence in Vietnam. North Vietnamese troops poured into Saigon on the same morning, and they encountered little resistance. At 10:24, Duong Van Minh went on the radio, announced an unconditional surrender, and ordered what remained of the South Vietnamese armed forces to cease fighting. At 11 AM, North Vietnamese tanks arrived at the presidential palace, and knocked down the gates; soldiers then rushed in to raise the red-and-blue Viet Cong flag. Minh and an improvised “Cabinet” were waiting for them in a reception room on the palace’s second floor. Ironically, the highest ranking officer among the soldiers, was not the commander of an army unit, but Colonel Bui Tin, deputy editor of Quan Doi Nhan Dan, the North Vietnamese army newspaper. Here he not only got to report the surrender of the South Vietnamese government to the newspaper – he also accepted the surrender from Minh. Here is the exchange of words between Bui Tin and Minh:
Minh: “The revolution is here. You are here. We have been waiting since early this morning to transfer power to you.”
Bui Tin: “There is no question of your transferring power. Your power has crumbled. You cannot give up what you do not have.”
Then there was a burst of gunfire outside, causing some of the Cabinet ministers to duck. Bui Tin reassured them with a short speech. Quote:
“Our men are merely celebrating. You have nothing to fear. Between Vietnamese, there are no victors and no vanquished. Only the Americans have been beaten. If you are patriots, consider this a moment of joy. The war for our country is over.”
That afternoon, Minh went on the radio again, and announced, quote,"I declare the Saigon government is completely dissolved at all levels." Unquote. With that, the Vietnam War was over. And the result–Vietnam united under communist rule–was exactly the same as what many thought would happen, if the 1956 elections had taken place. Once the war ended, the first thing the communists did was to give Saigon a new name – Ho Chi Minh City.
One more story needs to be told, to complete our narrative about the war in Vietnam and Cambodia. Three and a half weeks after the fall of Phnom Penh, an American container ship, the SS Mayaguez, traveled on a routine voyage from Hong Kong to Thailand. On May 12, 1975, as the Mayaguez sailed past islands in the Gulf of Thailand which belonged to Cambodia, swift boats carrying Khmer Rouge soldiers first fired at the ship, then boarded and captured it. They accused the 40-member Mayaguez crew of sailing too close to Cambodian territory, in Cambodian waters, and forced the ship to sail to one of the previously mentioned islands, Koh Tang Island.
The Mayaguez managed to get off SOS and Mayday messages by radio, so Washington heard about the capture soon enough. This was just seven years after the Pueblo Incident, where North Korea captured an American spy ship, and President Ford definitely did not want a long, drawn-out crisis like that during his watch. Naturally ships and aircraft were diverted to the Gulf of Thailand; Ford sent quite a few, feeling that in this case, too much force was better than too little. A battalion of Marines was airlifted from Okinawa to the nearest base in Thailand, in order to carry out the rescue. Ford and his advisors decided to conduct three actions simultaneously: use a destroyer escort, the USS Harold Holt, to board and seize the Mayaguez; use the Marines to take Koh Tang Island; and use the Air Force to launch air strikes against the port of Kompong Som, which was where the Khmer Rouge boats came from. All of these actions would take place on the morning of May 15.
The Mayaguez was recovered first, but the crew wasn’t aboard; only the cargo was there, untouched. Then when 175 Marines landed on Koh Tang Island, they found between 150 and 200 Khmer Rouge soldiers waiting for them. Three of the eight helicopters used were shot down, killing 23, and two more were damaged. Although the Marines killed between 13 and 25 of the enemy, the battle on the island did not go well for them; they lost 15. In the middle of the battle, a fishing boat carrying white flags approached, and was intercepted by another destroyer, the USS Henry B. Wilson. The fishing boat carried all 40 members of the Mayaguez crew, unharmed. It turned out the crew had been taken to another island, where the captain was briefly interrogated, and they were all released when the captain agreed to contact the US armed forces, and tell them to call off the planes bombing Kompong Som. With the ship and crew back in US hands, it was time to withdraw the Marines. By the morning of May 16, all the Marines had left Koh Tang Island, except for three who were reported missing; those three were later captured and killed.
The final score was that the United States had sacrificed 41 lives to rescue 40 lives and the ship, making it a costly victory. At the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC, the last 41 names on the memorial wall are the names of the servicemen killed in the Mayaguez Incident. And because the Khmer Rouge had already freed the ship and the crew, the action by the Marines turned out to be unnecessary. Still, a victory is a victory, and immediately after the fall of Saigon, the United States looked and felt like a helpless giant. This affair showed the world that the United States would pay whatever price was needed to protect its citizens and preserve its national honor. Thus, for most Americans the rescue was one of the few pieces of good news they got in that turbulent year. For Gerald Ford it was the high point of his presidency. Immediately afterwards, public opinion polls gave him a 51% approval rating. Never before, and never again, was Ford this popular.
Okay, did you think I was going to skip Laos, the third country in Indochina? No way will I do that! The last time we talked about the civil war in Laos was in Episode 79. To refresh your memory, shortly after the Vietnam cease-fire was signed, a cease-fire was signed for Laos as well, in February 1973. Unlike what happened in Vietnam, the Laotian people sincerely tried to keep the agreement. For most of the next two years, Laos was quiet. After nearly fourteen years of fighting, the communist faction, the Pathet Lao, controlled about 80 percent of the country, leaving only the Mekong River valley to the government. The Mekong valley held two-thirds of the country’s three million people, and included the two capitals: Luang Prabang, the royal capital, and Vientiane, the administrative capital. And in early 1974 they formed a coalition government, the third attempted so far, where the Cabinet had five communist, five rightist, and two neutralist members. The Pathet Lao leader, Souphanouvong, the “Red Prince,” became president of an advisory body called the National Political Council. The prime minister, Souvanna Phouma, suffered a heart attack in 1974, and though he recovered, he was away in France for part of the year, and after he returned he announced he would retire in 1976.
The Pathet Lao still schemed to take over everything in Laos that they did not have already, but because of the cease-fire, they looked for a non-violent way to do it. Accordingly, in May 1974 Souphanouvong introduced an 18-point plan for "National Reconstruction," and it was unanimously approved, which showed that he was now the most powerful member of the government. Non-communists could accept the plan because it promised free elections, democratic rights and respect for religion, and constructive economic policies. But press censorship was introduced in the name of "national unity," and that made it more difficult for non-communists to organize politically in response to the creeping Pathet Lao takeover. In January 1975 all public meetings and demonstrations were banned. Seeing how the overall trend was headed toward communism, important businessmen and politicians, as well as foreigners, began to move their assets, and in some cases themselves, out of the country. Unlike Vietnam and Cambodia, there was no organized evacuation, except for the Hmong tribe, which I will talk about shortly. Some of those leaving went to France or the United States; most simply crossed the Mekong River into Thailand.
At some point during the final North Vietnamese drive on Saigon, Hanoi told the Pathet Lao it was time to seize power in Laos. Therefore the Pathet Lao began advancing into the Mekong valley in late April. Demonstrations broke out in Vientiane, denouncing the rightists; when the war ended in neighboring Vietnam, the rightist ministers and senior Royal Lao Army commanders resigned and fled the country. A Pathet Lao minister became the new defense minister, and he made sure the Army did not resist Pathet Lao troops. Therefore, in most places the Pathet Lao took over without firing a shot.
The only place where there was much resistance was Long Tieng, the secret CIA base and the largest Hmong community in Laos. We saw previously that the Hmong enthusiastically supported US activities in Laos, and the Royal Laotian Army had one Hmong general, Vang Pao. Unlike the other generals, Vang Pao was a true alpha male leader. One of my sources described Laos as a country where fighters were few and fighting leaders almost non-existent, so the Americans who worked with Vang Pao liked him, and the Hmong saw him as a living legend, their equivalent of George Washington. By May 1975, US officials realized they needed to evacuate Long Tieng, but the only Americans left in Laos were a few embassy personnel and a CIA officer, Jerry Daniels, in Long Tieng. Daniels only had one airplane, with a Hmong pilot, and he managed to find three more planes with pilots to take evacuees to Udon Thani, a US air base in Thailand. From May 10 to May 14, the aircraft managed to take out between 1,000 and 3,000 Hmong, mostly Hmong military leaders and CIA employees. Vang Pao and Jerry Daniels were the last to go. Vang Pao reluctantly boarded a helicopter and told the people still on the tarmac, quote, "Farewell, my brothers, I can do nothing more for you, I would only be a torment for you." Unquote. At least 10,000 Hmong guerillas and refugees were clustered around the airfield, expecting the aircraft to return and pick them up, but they soon realized that none would come. The shelling of Long Tieng by the Pathet Lao began on the afternoon of the same day, May 14. Over the next ten years, a large part of the Hmong community got out of Laos in the only way available to them, by hiking overland to Thailand; many did not survive that journey. And those who made it to Thailand found out that their troubles were not over; many were repatriated against their will, and some only managed to stay by going into hiding, as “illegal immigrants.” As for Vang Pao, he will never come back, but we’re not done with him; expect to see him once more in a future episode.
Taking their time, Pathet Lao forces moved into the towns of southern Laos in May, Luang Prabang in June, and Vientiane in August. For a few months it looked like they would honor the promises made in the 1974 plan. Neutralists were allowed to remain in the coalition government, there were no arrests or show-trials, and private property was respected. Diplomatic relations with the United States were maintained, though US aid to Laos had been cut off. But then at the beginning of December, the communists had a sudden change of heart. There was a meeting between the Cabinet and the National Political Council, where Souphanouvong demanded immediate change. Nobody opposed him, so on December 2, Souvanna Phouma resigned as prime minister, and King Savang Vatthana abdicated, ending the 600-year-old Laotian monarchy. So if you want a date to mark the end of the Second Indochina War, December 2, 1975 will do, because that is when Laos got the government that still rules today.
In place of the monarchy and the coalition, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic was proclaimed, with Souphanouvong as the first President. Kaysone Phomvihane, the real Pathet Lao leader, introduced himself to the world and became the first prime minister; now he would be the real ruler of the country. There was no more talk about elections or political freedoms; non-communist newspapers were closed, and thousands of government workers, soldiers and policemen were sent to “re-education camps” in remote parts of the country, where many died and some were kept for as long as ten years. This created a new wave of refugees. Many of the country’s educated class, which had been willing to work under the new rulers, changed their minds and left. By 1977 ten percent of the population had fled, since it was easier to escape from Laos than it was to escape from Vietnam and Cambodia.
Souphanouvong was merciful to most of the defeated leaders from the other factions, since they were in fact his relatives. However, the king, queen and crown prince went to a re-education camp, where they were forced to grow their own rice. Eventually the king died in captivity, and the communists considered his death so unimportant that they did not record when it happened; my sources give estimated dates of his death ranging from 1978 to 1984. Souvanna Phouma was Souphanouvong’s half-brother, as we noted in a previous episode, and he was allowed to serve as an advisor for the last years of his life, after he learned communist ways.
How about that, we’re done! This episode turned out to be the longest in this podcast yet. I did not want to leave out any details relevant to the Vietnam War story, but I also wanted to get the war over with in just one episode.
We may be done with the war, but this isn’t the end of the podcast. Across all of Southeast Asia, our narrative has so far covered the history of Burma up to 1948, Indonesia to 1950, and gotten as far as 1957 with Malaya, the Philippines and Thailand. We have to finish their stories, of course! In addition, I haven’t told you yet how Singapore, Brunei and East Timor became independent; we can’t leave them out, can we? And at some point I have to tell you what happened in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam after 1975. Finally, our centennial, Episode 100, is just around the corner; I promised something special for that! So join me as we begin a series of episodes to finish our historical narrative, which I am tentatively calling “Recent History.”
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