Series Blog

Vietnam: 40 Years On

Forty years after the fall of Saigon, debate continues concerning the reality on the ground in Vietnam in 1975. Below are two varying accounts written by Jim Laurie and Stuart Herrington, both of whom were in Saigon in April 1975. At the time, Laurie was a reporter for NBC News, and Herrington was a captain in the U.S. Army. Both men were interviewed for and appear in the film Last Days in Vietnam, which played in theaters nationwide in 2014 before premiering on PBS April 28, 2015.


Vietnam: 40 Years On
By Jim Laurie

Forty years after the end of what the Vietnamese call "The American War," discussion of the conflict remains as divisive and emotionally charged as it was all those years ago.

The Vietnamese victors celebrate on April 30th what they call their day of "Giải Phóng" - liberation. Many of the Vietnamese who supported the American side and fled their homeland describe that day as "Ngày Quốc Nhục" -- a National Day of Shame.

Rory Kennedy's film "Last Days in Vietnam" portrays powerfully the human drama played out in the final 48 hours of the war. But it raises questions about the history leading up to those compelling hours.

In January 1973 the Paris Peace Accords were signed. The Peace Accords called for a "ceasefire" in place with each side holding positions as they were at 8 am on January 28, 1973.

Very few observers at the time, however, saw the agreement as anything but a fig leaf behind which to bring home American prisoners of war in North Vietnam and to extricate remaining U.S. troops in South Vietnam.

In Henry Kissinger's interview in "Last Days in Vietnam," he says, "We thought it would be the beginning not of peace in the American sense but the beginning of a period of co-existence." Kissinger, who was then serving as National Security Officer and Secretary of State under President Gerald Ford, goes on to say of the tenuous relations between North and South Vietnam, "It might evolve as it did in Korea into two states."

There were, however, dramatic differences between Vietnam and Korea. For starters, the United States has stationed more than 30,000 troops in Korea for more than 60 years to guarantee a two-state situation on the peninsula. In Vietnam no such role for the U.S. was ever envisioned; was ever possible.

Another stark contrast between the peace forged in Vietnam and that in Korea is that in Vietnam, the Paris Peace Accords were violated almost immediately by North and South Vietnam. Both sides, not just one, were responsible for the agreement's failure.

"From its first hours, Kissinger's peace was never anything but an illusion," writes Arnold Isaacs, journalist and author of "Without Honor: Defeat in Vietnam and Cambodia." Except in a handful of places for a few weeks in early February 1973, neither side "observed any restriction on military operations." Neither side ever took any steps to carry out the agreement's political provisions, which were supposed to lead to free elections and peaceful reunification.

In 1973 and 1974, South Vietnam, squandering large stockpiles of weaponry, engaged in a land grab. In the two years after the Peace agreement, South Vietnamese battle deaths soared to more than 56,000; a higher casualty rate than at any time except in the years of the major offensives of 1968 and 1972.

By the end of 1974, the military strategy of Nguyen Van Thieu had left his forces exhausted. President from 1967-1975, Thieu depended on an American style "rich man's war," heavily dependent on air power. The combined forces of North Vietnam and the southern National Liberation Front never had that luxury.

When American supplies of munitions for 1974-1975 failed to match those of earlier years, Thieu's commanders had to "ration" air support, fuel, artillery and all other ordinance.

There was also incompetence and corruption within some of the South Vietnam command.

Newsweek Correspondent Loren Jenkins, accompanying South Vietnam's Economics Minister in 1974, recalls his shock at witnessing the minister handing out fresh $100 bills to military commanders in Da Nang and Hue. "They lined up like school boys at a candy store for their handouts," said Jenkins.

In February 1975, New York Times Correspondent Fox Butterfield reported on a captured North Vietnamese document which spelled out accurately the weaknesses of the South Vietnamese military.

"Corruption and poor leadership particularly in the Central Highlands," was specifically mentioned. Butterfield recalls visiting the city of Pleiku early in the year to discover a demoralized army, rationing armaments, and plagued by alarming drug addiction. "Up to 30% of combat soldiers and airmen were addicted to heroin," he reported.

To be sure, some South Vietnamese units fought valiantly to defend a way of life much different from that enjoyed in Communist Party dominated North Vietnam. Equally certain, the "revolutionary nationalists" who had coalesced around Ho Chi Minh in the early 1940s had never given up their determination to achieve a single unified Vietnam.

As it turned out, the rapid unraveling of South Vietnamese troops in the Central Highlands and the loss of the city of Ban Mê Thuột in March 1975 emboldened the combined "revolutionary forces" and sealed the fate of the South.

Not even the confident commander of the "Great Spring Victory," General Văn Tiến Dũng, who I interviewed in Hanoi in March 2000, thought he could take the Central Highlands so easily and go on to win a total victory in 55 days. The high command's timetable in December 1974 called for the main offensive in the Central Highlands, which would "create conditions for total victory" sometime in 1976.

Around noon on April 30, 1975, "a great cheer went up in the command bunker (19 miles north of Saigon) and we began to hug each other," General Dũng told me, "we had captured Saigon well ahead of our plan."

Nearly three weeks later, my longtime colleague and cameraman, Neil Davis and I met a junior North Vietnamese military commander who marveled at how wealthy Saigon was compared to Hanoi. "What I don't understand is why the South didn't fight harder for all these riches," he said, "Didn't they realize we were destitute in the North."

Living in Saigon and Phnom Penh beginning in 1970, Jim Laurie was an NBC News Correspondent who in 1975 witnessed events in Saigon from April 26th to May 26th 1975. He has been a frequent visitor to Vietnam and a writer on Asian issues in the 40 years since.


A Response
By Stuart Herrington

Concerning the stillborn cease-fire, Jim Laurie observed that "neither side observed any restrictions on military operations," and that "In 1973 and 1974, South Vietnam, squandering large stockpiles of weaponry, engaged in a land grab..." which, "By the end of 1974 had left his (Thieu's) forces exhausted." Thieu, Jim Laurie notes, was used to fighting an "American-style rich man's war, heavily dependent on air power." Jim adds that "The combined forces of North Vietnam and the southern National Liberation never had that luxury." Jim's comment implies that Hanoi's forces lacked for firepower. Events showed this to be untrue. After the signing of the Paris Agreement, the balance tipped inexorably in favor of Hanoi. The North enjoyed the luxury of constant allies as both the Soviets and the Chinese continued generous aid levels, even while Washington was cutting aid drastically to Saigon. A 1994 history published in Hanoi reveals that during the nine months of 1973 following the Paris Accords, the quantity of supplies shipped from North Vietnam to its forces in the South was four times that shipped in the entire previous year. Even so, that was minuscule compared to what was sent south from the beginning of 1974 until the end of the war in April 1975. During these vital 16 months, while the U.S. Congress was pulling the plug on our Saigon ally, war materiel shipped by Hanoi to its forces on various southern battlefields was 2.6 times the tonnage delivered during the preceding 13 years. Hanoi's victorious General, Van Tien Dung, whom Jim Laurie once interviewed, later noted with satisfaction in his memoirs that as Thieu's American allies cut back on aid to the South, "Nguyen van Thieu was forced to fight a poor man's war."

While we can agree that all parties to the cease-fire violated it at some point or another, Jim Laurie's assertions imply an equivalency between Hanoi's massive violations, leading to a major invasion of the South, and Saigon's local military operations against North Vietnamese forces which were never withdrawn from their territory and which pushed daily for military advantage. Within 60 days of the Paris Agreement's signing, American forces went home, but Hanoi's legions clung to significant tracts of South Vietnamese territory. Even as the world applauded the signing of the Paris Agreement, Hanoi's reinforcement of these forces was already underway. Jim singles out Saigon's "land grab" operations (Hanoi's term, by the way) as violations of the cease-fire, but it should be noted that, even as the North Vietnamese accused Saigon of "land grabbing," American intelligence was detecting and tracking Hanoi's efforts to build up and restructure its forces and logistics in preparation for a return to "revolutionary violence." (Communist-speak for jettisoning the Paris Agreement and conquering the South by force.) In his memoirs, Hanoi's General Dung gloated that, by 1974, the North Vietnamese Army's newly-completed roads, trails, and pipelines leading south were "endless lengths of sturdy hemp ropes being daily and hourly slipped around the neck and limbs of the monster who would be strangled with one sharp yank when the order was given." By the end of 1974, Hanoi's forces seized the entire province of Phuoc Long, an hour north of Saigon, and the South Vietnamese, bled by the cease-fire, and demoralized by Congressional aid cuts, could do nothing about the loss.

Still, Jim Laurie points out that "Both sides, not just one, were responsible for the agreement's failure." One wonders whether he would believe this if he had enjoyed access to the satellite imagery that we saw daily, showing the Ho Chi Minh "Trail," choked with thousand-truck convoys headed south, as Hanoi carried out unprecedented levels of infiltration into South Vietnam of men, ammunition, and war materiel, even while its engineers worked feverishly to upgrade the "trail" to a highway, with pipelines to supply fuel for armored and mechanized forces. By March 1973, seeing this damning evidence of Hanoi's perfidy, Henry Kissinger pushed for resuming bombing of infiltration routes and logistical parks as soon as the last prisoners were safely home. (An unwelcome idea just about everywhere in Washington, it died when President Nixon was forced to face his Watergate threat.)

The Laurie letter raises corruption in the South Vietnamese military as a significant cause of the collapse, citing a North Vietnamese document as part of his evidence. All of us can no doubt agree that corruption was a very real issue in the Saigon military. This said, when comparing corruption as a possible cause of Saigon's defeat with the despair and demoralization resulting from the realization in the South that their American ally was deserting them, and that the feared North Vietnamese Army, backed by the Soviets and the Chinese, was poised to invade the South, corruption does not emerge as a major issue. Yes, corruption was a problem, and yes, with the American withdrawal, followed by the aid cuts, its impact was amplified, but it was emphatically not a key determinant of South Vietnam's fate. True, many South Vietnamese with whom the undersigned were in contact railed about corruption, but to our Vietnamese comrades, it was a problem that took a distant third or even fourth place on the list, well behind American withdrawal and subsequent aid cuts, the painful contraction of South Vietnam's economy, and the increasingly threatening presence of the powerful North Vietnamese Army. However detestable, GVN corruption belongs far down the list of causes of the South Vietnamese defeat.

To sum it up, we offer here the views of two of the best-placed intelligence professionals in Saigon. What led us to an ignominious evacuation from our Embassy rooftop? Colonel William LeGro served until war's end as the senior military intelligence officer in in Saigon. From that close-up vantage point, LeGro saw precisely what had happened. "The reduction to almost zero of United States support was the cause" of the final collapse, he observed. "We did a terrible thing to the South Vietnamese."

In 1975, as the curtain was falling on South Vietnam, Thomas Polgar, the CIA's Chief of Station, Saigon, cabled a succinct assessment of the situation: "Ultimate outcome hardly in doubt, because South Vietnam cannot survive without U.S. military aid as long as North Vietnam's war-making capacity is unimpaired and supported by Soviet Union and China."

The South Vietnamese lost for many reasons, not the least of which, lest we forget, was a determined and better-supported North Vietnamese Army. But the death blow that led to despair was the abandonment by their American ally. Our military had squandered years since 1964 in pursuit of a losing strategy, and thereby lost the support of the American people. We cannot explain away, or seek to shift the blame, for that betrayal. Jim Laurie's letter, while seeking balance in evaluating the causes of Saigon's defeat, flirts disappointingly with this kind of blame-shifting by putting the onus for our failures on President Nguyen van Thieu and his countrymen. Thieu must answer for his sins of omission and commission, but so must we. Had we formulated and executed a viable strategy beginning in 1964-5, the war might have gone entirely differently, and we would not have lost the support of the American public. There is sufficient blame to go around, of course, but if we really want a peek at the real culprit in our South Vietnamese ally's downfall, we would do well to look in the mirror.

Colonel Stu Herrington is a retired Army intelligence officer. Fluent in Vietnamese, he was assigned in 1973 to the Intelligence Branch in Saigon, with access to Top Secret Codeword intelligence on North Vietnamese forces. He departed the roof of the Embassy on a Marine Corps helicopter at 5:30 AM on April 30, 1975. His book, "Peace with Honor? An American Reports on Vietnam, 1973-1975" is widely considered to be one of the most definitive insider accounts of the cease-fire period. In writing this piece, Colonel Herrington benefitted from valuable input from Mr. Bill Laurie, who served as a U.S. Army officer in the MACV Intelligence Directorate and returned to Vietnam after the 1973 cease-fire as an intelligence analyst in Saigon until the city fell, and Lewis "Bob" Sorley, a retired armor officer, and author of "A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam."

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