April 1975 in Vietnam (13)

More on what happened 43 years ago, in April 1975, in Saigon:

I reported earlier on my attempts to help families to escape. I also tried and failed to evacuate a South Vietnamese officer and his family. Each of those efforts required me to drive through the streets of the city, now overwhelmed by mobs of refugees.

I had ahead of me one more foray through the throngs in the streets. I got through the hordes to the embassy and pleaded with the Ambassador to evacuate everybody as soon as possible, citing signals intelligence evidence that a North Vietnamese assault on the city was imminent. I repeated what I’d been reporting to him hourly, that Saigon was surrounded by sixteen to eighteen North Vietnamese divisions, poised to strike. Communist troops less than two kilometers north of my office at the airport were awaiting the command to attack.

The Ambassador put his arm around my shoulder and guided me to the door. “Young man, when you’re older, you’ll understand these things better.” He showed me out.

Frantic, I went down the hall to the office of the CIA Chief of Station, Tom Polgar. He laughed at my frenzy and showed me a cable to Washington the Ambassador had released that morning. It stated that forecasts of a forthcoming assault on Saigon could be disregarded. It was all due to the Communists’ skillful use of “communications deception.” Stunned, I asked Tom what evidence the ambassador had of communications deception. He waved my question away and bet me a bottle of champagne, chateau and vintage of my choice, that he and I would both still be in Saigon a year hence, still at our desks, still doing business as usual.

Even though I ran into him months later in the Washington, Tom Polgar never made good on that bet.

I finally understood what was going on. The embassy was a victim of what sociologists now call Groupthink Syndrome—firm ideology, immune to fact, shared by all members of a coterie. The Ambassador, and therefore his subordinates, could not countenance the prospect of a Communist South Vietnam and therefore dismissed evidence of the coming disaster. Graham Martin later told Congress he had been advised by the Hungarian member of the International Commission of Control and Supervision, the ICCS, that the North Vietnamese had no intention of conquering Saigon; they wished to form a coalition government with “all patriotic forces in the south.” This from a representative of a Communist government allied to North Vietnam. And the Ambassador believed him in the face of overwhelming signals intelligence that the attack was at hand.

On 24 April, the wire services, which we monitored, reported a speech that President Ford had given the previous day at Tulane. He referred to Vietnam as “a war that is finished.” My cynicism overcame my dread. If the war was finished, what was I, a civilian signals intelligence officer and potential prisoner of singular value to the Communists—in short, a spy—doing in a combat zone with nothing better than a .38 revolver to defend myself against eighteen North Vietnamese divisions?

More tomorrow.

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