April: Memories of the Fall of Saigon

Forty-seven years ago this month, Saigon fell to the communist North Vietnamese, and I escaped under fire after the North Vietnamese were already in the streets of the city. I had been head of the clandestine National Security Agency (NSA) operation in South Vietnam. My guys and I worked with the South Vietnamese to intercept and exploit the radio communications of the advancing North Vietnamese as they approached then surrounded Saigon. I knew more than a month in advance that the communists were preparing to seize Saigon, and I made it my business to get my subordinates and their families safely out of the country before the North Vietnamese took the city.

The U.S. and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV, that is, North Vietnam) had signed a ceasefire in 1973. The official U.S. position was that the war was over. Tours in Vietnam ceased to be wartime assignments and became “gentlemen’s tours,” diplomatic rather than martial. Those assigned were allowed to bring their families with them. But from watching the communications of the DRV, I knew that the communists were determined to increase the territory they controlled and, eventually, to swallow up Saigon as the final step in their conquest.

During the first months of 1975, I continuously warned the U.S. government and the American ambassador in Saigon, Graham Martin, that the North Vietnamese were preparing to attack Saigon. Martin didn’t believe me. He had been told by the Hungarian member of the International Commission of Control and Supervision (ICCS, an international group formed to monitor the cease-fire) that the North Vietnamese had no intention of attacking Saigon; they wanted to form a coalition government “with all the patriotic forces in the south” and rule jointly—this from a representative of a communist government allied to North Vietnam.

Besides, Martin could not abide the notion that the communist flag would ever fly over South Vietnam. The very idea was inconceivable, even unthinkable. Certain that Saigon would never fall to the communists, he forbade me to evacuate my subordinates.

More next time.

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