Alone and Roadblocked

Some months ago, I wrote here about my sense of abandonment during the fall of Saigon. Here’s part of what I said:

“As the North Vietnamese encroached on Saigon and I struggled to hold together what was left of my mission and my organization, I was doing it alone. I managed to get forty-one of my subordinates and their families out of the country, even though the ambassador had forbidden an evacuation. The embassy and CIA not only didn’t help me; they threw roadblocks in my path. I lied and cheated and stole to save the lives of my guys and their wives and children. I succeeded. The only help I received was from the two communicators, Bob and Gary, who volunteered to stay with me through the fall of Saigon. The three of us propped each other up through the days when we had nothing to eat and no time to sleep.”

Because the ambassador had forbidden me to evacuate my people, I used every ruse I could think of to get them out—vacations. home leave, business travel—and toward the end even bought a ticket on Pan Am with money from my own pocket and sent one of my guys out with no orders or authorization. That turned out to be the last Pan Am flight from Saigon.

What my earlier entry may not have made clear is that there was a split in the perception of the U.S. government. The civilian side—the U.S. Ambassador, the State Department, the CIA, and the president—believed that the North Vietnamese would not attack Saigon. The Ambassador, Graham Martin, and the CIA chief of station in Saigon, Tom Polgar, accepted the assurances of the Hungarian member of the ICCS (the International Commission for Control and Supervision) that the North Vietnamese had no interest in seizing Saigon. The north wanted instead to form a coalition government to rule jointly.

The ICCS member was a representative of a communist government allied to North Vietnam. I had been warning the ambassador for more than a month that North Vietnamese forces were moving closer to Saigon and had every intention of attacking the city. The evidence from intercepted North Vietnamese communications left no doubt as to their intent. Besides, since they now held almost all of South Vietnam, why should they negotiate when conquest of Saigon would be so easy?

The military side of the U.S. government—the Department of Defense and Commander in Chief, Pacific Command (CINCPAC)—were persuaded by the signals intelligence evidence and distrusted the assurances of a communist government allied to North Vietnam. They prepared by dispatching the 7th Fleet with Marines aboard to the South China Sea.

The result was reportedly the largest helicopter evacuation ever attempted. The numbers vary, but according to one source, 81 helicopters ferried more than 7,000 people from the Saigon area to the ships of the 7th Fleet.

More tomorrow.

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