April: Anniversary of the Fall of Vietnam (6)

Continuing the story of the fall of Saigon:

After helping the Vietnamese family to escape, I risked another trip through Saigon’s mobbed streets to check on a South Vietnamese signals intelligence officer I had worked with on and off for years. I wanted to be sure he and his troops knew where to go when the evacuation order was given, something I couldn’t discuss on an unsecured phone line. Always a model of Asian politeness, he invited me in and served me tea.

He told me that his wife, who worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), had been offered the opportunity to leave the country with her family. That included him. But he wouldn’t go because he was unwilling to abandon his troops—no evacuation order had been issued—and she wouldn’t leave without him. Alarmed, I asked him what he would do if he was still in Saigon when the Communists’ tanks rolled through the streets. He told me he couldn’t live under the Communists. “I will shoot my three children, then I will shoot my wife, then I will shoot myself.”

He didn’t escape at the end, and I have no doubt that he carried out his plan. Many other South Vietnamese officers did precisely what he described.

That left one more requisite foray. I got through the hordes to the embassy and pleaded with Ambassador Graham Martin to evacuate everybody as soon as possible, citing signals intelligence evidence that an assault on Saigon was imminent. I repeated what I had already reported hourly to him, 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. The briefing was over.

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 the signals intelligence evidence of a forthcoming assault could be disregarded. It was all due to the Communists’ skillful use of “communications deception.” Stunned, I asked Tom what evidence he 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 Polgar months later in the U.S., he never made good on that bet.

More next time.

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