Corruption in South Vietnam in 1975

In Last of the Annamese, South Vietnamese Marine Colonel Pham Ngoc Thanh explains to the protagonist, Chuck Griffin, that he has no money to buy tickets for his wife and son to escape from Saigon before the communists take the city. Eventually, he tasks Chuck with evacuating them when he stays behind to face the North Vietnamese.

Thanh is incorruptible in a society riven by corruption. The habit of private citizens giving money to public servants for their carrying out their obligations went back centuries. The accepted way of doing business was that the government paid functionaries so little that, to survive, they were forced to sell their services. It was so commonplace as to be unremarkable.

Thanh’s pay as a colonel is paltry. He is expected to siphon off the salaries of his subordinates, exact taxes from the civilian population, and accept payment for protection. But Thanh, a monk turned warrior, refuses to participate in such practices. As a consequence, he is dirt poor. He’s used to poverty. His family, before the communists murdered them, were poor dirt farmers.

One of the causes of the fall of South Vietnam was poverty driven by corruption. The Viet Cong (really the North Vietnamese) exploited the situation with great success. Some U.S. personnel in-country, as early as the beginning of the 1960s, saw what was happening. They were at a loss to ameliorate the situation. The collapse of South Vietnam, under the pressure of the communists, was inevitable.

Bombing of the Saigon Presidential Palace, April 1975

One of the pivotal scenes in Last of the Annamese occurs on 8 April 1975 when a renegade South Vietnamese Air Force pilot bombs the presidential palace in downtown Saigon. Chuck and Tuyet are in front of the U.S. Embassy, just up the street from the palace, when the strike occurs because Tuyet is going to the embassy to get a visa to enter the U.S. Neither of them is hurt, but Tuyet doesn’t get her visa.

My wife and children were at our villa that day, close to the presidential palace, packing for their departure from Vietnam the next day. I was at my office at Tan Son Nhat, some four miles away. As soon as I learned of the attack, I drove home. My family was terrified. My wife, who had resisted my demand that she and children leave Vietnam as soon as possible, was now more than willing to go. But the next day as I tried to drive them to the airport, I was repeatedly stopped at roadblocks—the South Vietnamese government had imposed a curfew because of the attack. I finally had to pull rank to get through. When the plane with my family aboard finally took off for Bangkok, I was greatly relieved. I immediately moved out of the villa and stayed in my office, sleeping on a cot with a .38 revolver under my pillow. Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese 20 days later.

The Intelligence Professional

Chuck Griffin, the protagonist of Last of the Annamese, is professional in the business of collecting and analyzing information from all sources about the North Vietnamese. He uses data from signals intelligence, aerial and satellite photography, interrogation reports, captured documents, human intelligence (spying), and even transcripts from the Liberation News Agency, the propaganda organ of the North Vietnamese, to determine what the enemy is up to. And he has the rare gift of being able to forecast what’s going to happen next.

Chuck’s profession is based on my own experience. I, too, was a professional, but only in the signals intelligence business, and I, too, had the gift.

But I’ve discovered over the years that many Americans view intelligence as a profession with suspicion. They believe there’s something sneaky about it, and they distrust those engaged in it.

They’re right that intelligence is a sneaky enterprise. It has to be. If the target knows of efforts to collect information about him, he can usually put a stop to it. So the sources and methods of intelligence must remain secret, or intelligence will not succeed.

So many Americans cite intelligence failures. It’s an imperfect discipline and not always successful. But I posit that for every failure one can name, there are literally hundreds of spectacular successes about which the public knows nothing because sources and methods must remain secret.

To me, intelligence is an honorable profession. Its purpose is to uncover and reveal the truth. I take great—and to me completely justified—pride in the work I did in Vietnam. I saved many lives by discovering what the enemy was up to. I could have saved many more had the decision-makers listened to me when I warned them about what was about to happen. I called that the Cassandra Effect and have written about it elsewhere.

So I plead with Americans to honor spies who risk everything, even their lives, to provide the truth to our leaders. And I ask our leaders to listen to their intelligence experts before they act. I worry that our current president may court disaster by ignoring his intelligence professionals. It’s happened before. May it never happen again.

Embers of War by Frederik Logevall

Yesterday afternoon I finished reading the book noted in the title, all 718 pages, not counting 118 pages of notes and bibliography. It is a masterful work, well deserving of the Pulitzer Prize it won.

The epilogue of the book examines in detail how the U.S. became entangled in the conflict between the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) and the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). Our intelligence professionals, myself included, kept warning policy makers that the war was unwinnable if the population of South Vietnam did not take to heart the goal of repulsing the northern invaders. Our elected officials pushed on with the war anyway.

Until sometime around 1968, the American public supported U.S. involvement in the war. Then popular opinion began to shift. At the same time, the arrival of General Creighton Abrams to head the war effort in-country changed to focus away from kill-ratio tactics to concentration on fighting at the village and hamlet level, protecting the populace, and working to persuade the South Vietnamese to support their government against the communists.

By the 1970s, U.S. popular opinion had turned sharply against the war. The U.S. responded by signing the 1973 peace accords which withdrew U.S. forces but left North Vietnamese troops in the south. The stage was set for the north Vietnamese victory of 1975.

That victory was hastened by the withdrawal of U.S. support, starting in 1974—the period when Last of the Annamese begins. We had already stopped air support, but now we withdrew financial support. In a very real sense, those decisions were the death knell to an independent South Vietnam.

Could we have won the war? Militarily, yes. The Abrams strategy was working. But I question whether the people of South Vietnam would ever have thrown their support behind the string of leaders who headed South Vietnamese governments during the sixties and seventies. All were autocratic and dictatorial; they alienated the people.

The end, on 30 April 1975, was shameful. We pulled out leaving behind thousands of loyal South Vietnamese who had worked with us to defeat the communists. All of them were killed or captured by the North Vietnamese.

What did we learn? Not much. We’ve repeated that scenario in Iraq and Afghanistan, deserting those who supported us to face their enemies without defense.

Those Who Stayed Behind

Several characters in Last of the Annamese choose not to be evacuated during the fall of Saigon. They decide to stay behind and face the North Vietnamese.

One is Mother Monique, the superior of the nuns that operate the orphanage at Cité Paul-Marie, a Catholic chapel in Saigon. She arranges for her subordinate sisters and all the orphans—mostly Amerasian, fathered by American GIs with Vietnamese women—to depart Vietnam as part of Operation Babylift, an effort launched by President Ford to save orphans before the North Vietnamese completed their conquest of South Vietnam.

Why did Monique stay behind to face the North Vietnamese? The reader doesn’t know, but I do. Monique is from of an upper-class family which fled North Vietnam after the signing of the Geneva agreement that divided Vietnam. She despises the Viet Cong, which she still refers to as the Viet Minh. As a young woman, she joined the convent responding to a calling she felt deep within her to devote her life to helping others. Partly because of her devotion to her vocation and partly due to her aristocratic roots, she was chosen to head the orphanage at Cité Paul-Marie. She shares with Tuyet, the principal female character in the novel, a preference for speaking French rather than Vietnamese because she grew up speaking it.

Now in her fifties, Monique feels within herself a strong bond to her native land. She knows she must not flee. She must stay and confront the North Vietnamese when they take Saigon. As an aristocrat and speaker of French, she knows that the Communists will be brutal to her. But if she is to be true to herself and her lineage, she must not run away.

I don’t know whether the North Vietnamese execute Monique outright or send her to one of the so-called “reeducation camps”—really prison or concentration camps—but I’m sure she did not survive long. I’m sure she dies at peace because she was faithful to her calling.