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Vietnam Veteran James Kean
describes leaving on the last helicopter out
 real 28k

Brian Barron
reports from a South Vietnamese helicopter gunship, March 75
 real 56k

Da Nang debacle
BBC archive report on the convoy of tears
 real 56k

Brian Barron
The Americans left their evacuation dangerously late
 real 56k

The fall of Saigon
The BBC's news report from 30 April 1975
 real 56k

Brian Barron
The defeated army did a striptease en masse
 real 56k

Thursday, 16 November, 2000, 15:36 GMT
Vietnam revisited
A napalm attack in Vietnam
A napalm attack in Vietnam
By Brian Barron

Once Saigon was a country's capital. Today the name and the country itself - South Vietnam - are only a memory.

They were wiped from the map by the legions of revolutionary North Vietnam following one of the most stunning victories of modern times.

Twenty-five years ago America's pledge to stand by its Saigon ally was abandoned.
US evacuation
The last US marines leave the embassy roof

Major James Kean, one of the last men evacuated from the US embassy roof, remembers the humiliation.

"I was crying and I think everyone else was crying. We were crying for a lot of different reasons," he says.

"But most of all we were ashamed. How did the United States of America get itself in a position where we had to tuck tail and run?"

Cold War

In the late 1960s the cold war was at its height and the superpowers had their proxies in Vietnam.
Human cost
3m Vietnamese lives, military and civilian
58,000 US lives

The former French colony was partitioned. Hanoi was backed by the Soviet Union and communist China; Saigon by America.

The North was under the revolutionary patriarch Ho Chi Minh whose crusade was to reunify the nation.

The South was a quasi democracy but corrupt and internally divided with Washington pulling the strings.
US soldier fighting
Vietnam: The world's first televised war

For years the Americans poured their own conscript soldiers into Vietnam, believing superior firepower and technology would annihilate communist soldiers and guerrillas of the Viet Cong.

The Pentagon was always promising light at the end of the tunnel.

But 58,000 American lives were lost. The carnage, often televised across the nation, triggered a public mutiny.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono were among the celebrities who joined the anti-war movement - so intense, it drove one president from the White House, and eventually forced all American forces from Vietnam.

Corruption

In 1973 a peace agreement was signed. It left Vietnam still partitioned but with enclaves of communist troops dotted across the south.

Saigon's leader, President Nguyen Van Thieu, may have commanded the world's fourth largest army, but it was riddled with greed and incompetence.

Colonel David Hackworth, the most decorated US combat officer in Vietnam, says many of the South Vietnamese generals he knew were in it for one thing.

"The Americans were so dumb that they were shovelling money in by the wheel barrow and the [Vietnamese officers] were simply grabbing it and opening business after business.

"They were businessmen, not fighting generals," he adds.

It's a harsh judgement, but accurate.

Panic

Twenty-five years ago I was at Tuy Hoa, on the central coast, to report on one of the great military debacles of the late 20th century.

Shaken by a sudden communist assault, President Thieu, ordered one of his top commanders to secretly withdraw his army from mountain bases that secured the middle of the country.
A helicopter gunship
A helicopter gunship in action over Vietnam

The ensuing exodus became known as the convoy of tears.

"Panic set in,'' remembers Colonel Hackworth. "The worst thing that can happen to an army is fear takes over and ... tactical soundness just goes down the toilet.

"That's what happened there. We had this raging inferno of fear that just got the generals, the colonels, the majors, the sergeants, the privates - everybody was running. It was just chaos to get out."

Convoy of tears

Even today communist veterans of the battle marvel at how easily they destroyed the convoy of tears.
Exodus from central vietnam
Refugees and troops rush to get out

But there was worse to come. Further up the coast news of the chaotic retreat had a fatal impact on South Vietnam's second most important city, Da Nang.

"When Da Nang fell it marked the end of half the South Vietnamese Army," says former Saigon CIA analyst Frank Snepp. "And really the end of the top half of the country.

"At that point any sensible person would have started planning some kind of evacuation. That didn't happen."

Evacuations

In three weeks the map of South-East Asia had been redrawn.

North Vietnamese forces had seized nearly all the South and 15 divisions of tanks and infantry were closing in on Saigon.

Crowds began building up around the American embassy, as officials dithered.
refugee boy
A refugee boy is lowered onto a boat

There were reports that at least 90,000 southerners who had worked for US agencies might be evacuated.

But time ran out as American officials clashed over how far to spread the evacuation net.

In Washington, President Gerald Ford and his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, thought they knew their duty.

"We had an obligation to help our South Vietnamese allies who wanted to leave and come to the United States," Mr Ford says. "On the other hand the ambassador, Graham Martin, wanted to stay and fight to the last bullet."

Betrayed

Among the thousands who were assured they would be evacuated was Kim Vin Luong, an interpreter for American intelligence, and her husband, an air force pilot. The communists would regard both as enemies.

Ms Luong says: "I was told an American bus would stop at our house to pick us up for the airport.
The scramble at the US embassy
The scramble at the US embassy

"Nothing happened, and I spent 18 years with the communists because of the mispromise of the American embassy."

Mr Snepp, the former CIA officer, says he was terrified for his Vietnamese friends who pleaded to be rescued.

The desperate cries for help which came over the radio circuits, he calls "sound mares" - nightmares in sound.

"They'd say, I'm Mr Han the translator, please ... come pick me up. And we got on the radio and said sure, we'll be right there - and, of course, it was never going to happen."

The Americans left their evacuation dangerously late. Fifteen hours before Saigon surrendered hundreds of Vietnamese besieged the embassy.

A large number had been promised a seat out, but many were left behind.

The last US military in Vietnam escaped to the embassy roof chased by a crowd of desperate southerners.
Tanks smash through the palace gates
Tanks enter the palace grounds

They boarded the final evacuation helicopter watched by the incoming Northerners.

But former North Vietnamese general Vu Xuan Vinh says they were told not to shoot.

"There were many American helicopters flying around, but we had orders ...to allow them to escape," he recalls.

"We feared if we shot them, the US air force would interfere and it would hamper their withdrawal."

Humiliation

As the last Americans scrambled out, 17 divisions of North Vietnamese troops and tanks were heading for the gates of the Independence Palace of Saigon, the seat of government.
flag
A triumphant soldier at the ''liberation'' of Saigon

But there was further humiliation out at sea. Scores of South Vietnamese military officers escaped on their own helicopters to the American evacuation fleet.

The crush became so great their machines had to be dropped overboard. There were no worries about the cost - after all the US had spent 12 years and $150bn on this lost crusade.

Scars

America's involvement in Vietnam ended in a nightmare of guilt and recrimination, and scars remain unhealed to this day.

Mr Snepp remembers receiving a call in the final hours from a Vietnamese woman who had claimed he was the father of her child.

"She said she had to get herself out of the country or she would kill herself and the boy.
Crowds celebrating on tank
Celebrating after the fall of Saigon

"I said, My Lai I can't get you out right now - this is the morning of the last day. Call me back in an hour.

"[When] she called back I was in the ambassador's office and she killed herself and that boy. I couldn't get to them."

President Ford accepts their failure to evacuate everyone they had promised to get out could be called a betrayal.

But he adds: "We made the maximum effort. As I recall six to seven thousand people in the final 24 hours had been evacuated from the roof of the American embassy."

Striptease

As the North Vietnamese entered Saigon, the South Vietnamese soldiers leapt out of their uniforms in a mass striptease.

Their combat gear and boots were left strewn across the streets. Three divisions of the South Vietnamese Army around Saigon melted away, the soldiers returning to their villages.
uniforms were left in the streets
Army uniforms were discarded on the spot

Colonel Hackworth says the North Vietnamese troops were the most motivated soldiers he had ever seen.

"They had lots of fire in their belly. They were well led. They were totally dedicated and they weren't fighting for communism,'' he adds.

"They were fighting for independence much like the Americans in 1776 were fighting against the British. They wanted their country free of any foreign oppression."

Isolation

Today, a quarter of a century after that epic triumph, Ho Chi Minh's tomb in Hanoi remains the hallowed ground of unified Vietnam.

But the fruits of peace have proved elusive. Vietnam's isolation has been intensified by the Soviet Union's disappearance.

Vietnam remains stuck in the grip of communist interference and bureaucracy. New hotels stand empty, and most foreign investors have pulled out.

Division

For a reporter returning to Vietnam 25 years on there's much to admire. The steely sense of self sufficiency, real progress in health care and education.

But the military boldness shown by the north when it swallowed up the south has never been matched by any political audacity.

Even today, the one party state, and its old style communist custodians, is afraid of new ideas.

Beneath the veneer of unified Vietnam the north and south remain two very different places.


Brian Barron covered the Vietnam war as a correspondent for the BBC
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