SecDef Schlesinger and the End of Vietnam

Chuck and Sparky, characters in Last of the Annamese, keep track of the war and the North Vietnamese encirclement of Saigon by monitoring all intelligence sources available to them. But they also listen to the American Radio Service (ARS), a U.S. government broadcast that transmits news and popular music. About three-quarters of the way through the book is the following scene:

“It is plain that the great offensive,” an authoritative voice was saying, “is a phrase that probably should be in quotation marks. What we have had here is a partial collapse of South Vietnamese forces, so that there has been very little major fighting since the battle of Ban Me Thuot, and that was an exception in itself.”

Chuck and Sparky gawked at each other.

“That,” the ARS reporter said, “was Secretary of Defense Schlesinger speaking today on Face the Nation.”

Sparky swung his head from side to side as if to fight off a case of the wobblies. “What’s that guy smoking?” He sighed. “You can bet we’ll be drafting a message for General Smith to send to Washington ticking off the facts.”

Chuck didn’t answer. They’d be correcting Washington rather than the other way around. Sinister topsy-turvy had become a way of life.

End of quote. Once again, the quote from the novel is drawn from fact. As the North Vietnamese surrounded us, I listened to every broadcast I could—BBC, Voice of America, ARS—to glean any fragment of information on what was happening. I heard the ARS report quoted above. It made me feel more isolated and abandoned as I realized that the SecDef didn’t understand that Saigon would soon fall to the North Vietnamese. I redoubled my efforts to get the last of my people safely out of the country—operating under false pretenses because the U.S. Ambassador, Graham Martin, refused to allow me to evacuate my people. The world might well be turning upside down. So what? It was up to me to get my guys and their families out of Vietnam. No one was going to help me. I had to do it myself.

Who Fired on the Helicopter I Escaped In?

Toward the end of my article on the fall of Saigon, I say the following:

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?

End of quote. I wrote recently about the shelling Bob, Gary, and I were subjected to, and earlier I reported that the Huey I escaped in as Saigon was falling was fired upon—we took so much lead in the fuselage that I thought we were going down. But we made it.

But looking back, I can see now that the North Vietnamese had enough fire power at hand to utterly destroy the DAO building where Bob, Gary, and I were holed up. And they could have shot down every helicopter used in the evacuation. To the best of my knowledge, not one chopper went down under fire.

I’ve concluded that the North Vietnamese didn’t want to attack the fleeing Americans. They just wanted us to leave. I’ve inferred that the fire at our slick probably didn’t come from the North Vietnamese but from the South Vietnamese soldiers we were abandoning. They were desperate and furious with us—and for good reason. I was lucky enough to escape unharmed, but they were all killed or captured by the North Vietnamese.

Losing Vietnam

On 15 June, I gave my presentation on the fall of Saigon to Post 156 of the American Legion of which I am a proud member. As I finished speaking and was taking questions, one member asked why the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN, the South Vietnamese army) fought so poorly and lost the war after the U.S. withdrawal. My answer was that I observed some below-par ARVN units, but most fought valiantly. I cited the heroic battle for Xuan Loc which the North Vietnamese turned into a meat grinder, throwing more and more forces again the ARVN 18th Infantry Division until the communists finally prevailed on 21 April 1975, just eight days before the fall of Saigon. I said that Vietnam fell not because of the failure of ARVN but because the U.S. withdrew its military and financial support. My questioner rejected my answer.

I just started reading Losing Vietnam, a 2013 book by U.S. Army Major General Ira A. Hunt, Jr (retired). I’ll note here what I think of the book after I complete it, but it starts citing the U.S. unkept promises after the signing of the Peace Accords in 1973. We had pledged to provide air support for the ARVN and maintain the flow of money to keep the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) afloat. But the unpopularity of the war led the U.S. Congress to terminate all air operations in August 1973. In July 1974, it drastically reduced funding for South Vietnam. In April 1975, it refused to increase the funding. Saigon fell at the end of the month.

In effect, the Congress’s action crippled ARVN. It couldn’t pay its soldiers or buy ammunition or replace lost weapons and equipment.

In sum, Vietnam fell to the communists because the U.S. population turned against the war and demanded that the Congress withdraw funds.

We have handled the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in a similar fashion. And in all three conflicts, when the war became unpopular, we withdrew our forces and aid and abandoned the people who had fought at our side to the mercies of the enemy. In Vietnam, scores of thousands of South Vietnamese who had worked and fought at our side were killed or imprisoned and tortured by the North Vietnamese. Two thousand seven hundred ARVN who worked with my organization were abandoned to their fate. Surely we can do better than that in the future.

Shelling During the Fall of Saigon

Toward the end of Last of the Annamese, I describe the shelling that punctuated the final days in Saigon. Chuck, Sparky, and Colonel Troiano cower at first when rockets, later when artillery shells explode all around them. The description is accurate. My two communicators, Bob and Gary, and I hunkered in our comms center, the only room in the office suite we were still using, hoping none of the shells would hit us.

I suspect that no one who has never been through an artillery barrage can imagine the terror. The closest parallel I know is earthquakes, like the ones I experienced in the San Francisco Bay Area growing up. But artillery strikes are more terrifying because they come and go quickly, only to be repeated seconds later. In my memory, the whole comms center lurched with each strike. If I was standing, the sudden shift of the floor knocked me off my feet. The walls seemed to slap inwards, then snap back into place. Dust fell from the ceiling. The light fixtures leaped and broke loose and fell to the floor shattering glass and plastic over us.

The crash of the explosions were the loudest sounds I’ve ever heard. They made my ears hurt. And they did damage my ears—I’ve needed hearing aids ever since.

But the scariest element was the helplessness. We could do nothing to protect ourselves. We had no bomb shelter. We had no protective clothes. We had no means to shield ourselves. All we could do was keep our eyes tightly shut, hunch our shoulders, cover our ears, and try to keep the shaking under control.

It was an experience I wouldn’t wish on anybody. I hope I never again have to be the target of shelling.

Boy-Child

The boy-child is a recurring theme in Last of the Annamese. In the prologue, a little boy dies. Later the reader learns that the protagonist, Chuck Griffin, lost a son who was killed as a soldier in Vietnam. Throughout the story, Chuck goes to the orphanage at Cité-Paul-Marie to spend time with Philippe, a crippled Amerasian boy. The sisters at the orphanage gave Philippe his French name. They don’t tell Chuck his history or how he suffered the mutilations to his body.

And Chuck is utterly charmed by Thu, the six-year-old son of Tuyet and Thanh. Chuck plays with Thu in the little pool in Tuyet’s garden. He teaches Thu the word “buddy.”

In my mind, Chuck’s relationship to little boys, starting with his son, is the key to his character. He returns to Vietnam in 1973 as a civilian after he has retired from the Marine Corps because he is determined to do all he can to win the war—he can’t tolerate the thought that his son, Ben, died in vain.

Of all the principal characters in the book, only Chuck and Thu survive. One interpretation of the novel’s title, the one I prefer, is that it refers ultimately to Thu. He is the last of the Annamese.

The Fourth of July in Clarksville

Yesterday, I marched with my American Legion brothers in the Fourth of July parade in Clarksville, Maryland—a town that’s about as middle-America as you can get. I came away with a series of strong impressions.

First, I was struck by how many people in the crowd were not Anglo-Saxon standard Americans. More than half of them bore the racial hallmarks of Asia, Africa, and central-south America. There they were, the blacks, the Chinese, the Vietnamese, the Koreans, the Mexicans and other Hispanics—all as American as I am. They dressed in red, white, and blue, waved flags, and shouted “Happy Fourth of July!” More than ever before, I saw and celebrated American diversity.

Second, I must have heard bystanders shout a hundred times, “Thank you for your service.” These were ordinary, everyday Americans grateful to veterans for defending the country we all love. I waved back at them with tears in my eyes.

Third, for the most part, the men and women I was marching with were, like me, veterans long past retirement age. The march of several miles was not easy for them. Part of the way was uphill. It was hot and muggy. The sweat poured. I heard jokes about people wringing out their shirts when they got home, but I heard not one complaint. Nobody quit because the march was too hard or long or hot.

So I got a dose of what we Americans are like these days—diverse, aware of the sacrifices of veterans, and tough. What we all, veterans and people on the sidelines alike, shared was our patriotism. Once again I’m reminded of why the United States of America is worthy of our love.

For years after the fall of Saigon, when I came back sick and shattered by defeat, I yearned with all my heart to hear my fellow Americans say “Thank you. And welcome home.” Instead, I was treated like a pariah. But people change, and the younger generation, who wasn’t even alive when Saigon fell, sees our sacrifice for what it was. Now we are honored. And I am more moved than words can express.

Volunteers

Several readers have asked me over the years why I repeatedly went to Vietnam during the war, why I volunteered to go into combat with the soldiers and Marines I was supporting, and why I didn’t escape from Saigon before it fell. After all, I wasn’t required to do any of those things. I did them by choice.

I think the same question could be put to any serviceman who endured combat. Why didn’t you run away instead of facing enemy fire?

The answer lies in the slogan that drove me and shapes the actions of characters in Last of the Annamese: “Do what you have to do—whatever it takes.”

For me, there are three aspects to that answer.

First, had I shied away from danger, I would have lost my self-respect. The easy, safe way out would have left me devoid of any pride in being the man I am. I sense that same feeling in men I’ve been in combat with: not to do the job would have shamed them.

Second, patriotism drove me. I do genuinely love my country and all it stands for. If my country demands sacrifices, then that’s what it takes.

Third and maybe the most important is the bond I shared with the men and women who worked and fought by my side. I couldn’t let them face danger without the help I could give. During the fall of Saigon, I could no more abandon my guys than I could help the enemy. I knew the risks, but I, like men in combat everywhere, would lay down my life to save my buddy. He would do the same for me.

I conclude that honor, love of my country, and love of one’s fellow combatants and workers are forces strong enough to make the facing danger the decent thing to do. Taking risks for the good of others makes like worth living.