More than ever before, our shared world is constructed of images. We talk a good game about facts but the connection between our collective memory and history as documented by journalists and historians is more tenuous than we ever imagine.
Take the pictures on this page, for example. I’ve shown them to dozens of Americans over the last few years and nearly everyone recognizes them as the fall of Saigon. It’s not too surprising; how could anyone forget the day America lost the War in Vietnam, that frightening and humiliating day in April 1975 when United States Navy sailors dumped helicopter after helicopter overboard to make room for the fleeing troops, and the embassy staff, protected by M16-wielding marines, evacuated the city as North Vietnamese Army (NVA) tanks rolled into town.
Like the Challenger disaster or the burning World Trade Center, these pictures are burned into the memory of a generation.
The thing I can’t get over is that so far, every one of those people has been wrong, and wrong in exactly the same way. It’s extraordinary. Not one person has correctly identified what was happening, not even people who were adults at the time.
I got interested in this a few years ago when a friend and I came across some of these pictures and she pointed out that my memory of what happened was completely off. She looked at me like I was a little dense, but to this day she remains the only person I’ve encountered who could accurately describe what she was looking at.
My own faulty memory truly surprised me because the timing of the end of the war was of signal importance in my young life at the time. I was 19 years old the year American forces left Vietnam, and number 13 out of 365 in the draft lottery. Uncle Sam was all ready to cut me a ticket when first the draft and soon after, the war, ended.
The End of The War
These pictures are indeed from the fall of Saigon. Practically everyone gets that. The first error that everyone makes is in conflating the fall of Saigon with the end of America’s war in Vietnam. In fact, America had been entirely out of the war for more than two years when Saigon fell.
The Paris Peace Accord was signed in January 1973 by President Nixon and the last American troops were gone within 60 days, completely ending US involvement in the war two years and a month before the fall of Saigon. We were almost gone even before the peace was signed; casualties in 1972 were down to a little more than four percent of their peak in 1968.
The treaty was not an empty formalism covering up a continuing presence. By the terms of the peace, after March, the US was limited to fifty military personnel in South Vietnam. The fifty were embassy guards, just as we have in our embassies throughout the world. One American soldier died in Vietnam in each of then next two years, but they were embassy guards who died in terrorist attacks; neither death was associated with a combat operation. There were no US combat casualties because there were no US combatants, no advisors, no air strikes, no nothing. We were out of it.
The contemporaneous arrival of NVA tanks and the departure of Americans by helicopter make it look like a rout if you only glance at the pictures, but a rout requires troops, and the army had been gone for years. The omission of this fact in many modern articles, and the frequent glossing over of it even in the original news reports is striking.
Reliable sources are consistent but the popular press often gives the same flawed sequence: first there is a description of the troop build up, then the bloody peak of the war in 1968 and ’69 following the Tet Offensive, and finally, a segue into the fall of Saigon in 1975. The massive draw-down of troops in 1970, ’71, and ’72, and America’s complete withdrawal from the war in 1973 often don’t appear at all, nor is it usually made clear how much time went by before Saigon fell.
If we no longer had a war to lose and no troops to evacuate, what exactly is going on in the pictures?
Crowds and Copters
Most of the few Americans left in Saigon in April 1975 were embassy employees and guards, plus a few journalists, missionaries, and random civilians who were late getting out. As the evacuation ramped up and chaos loomed, an ad-hoc detachment of 1000 soldiers was flown in to secure the airport and the embassy for the departure. By the time the helicopter phase of the evacuation began, they outnumbered the remaining American evacuees by about 10:1.
The tide had turned against the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) almost a year earlier and the writing was on the wall long before the evacuation began. The bulk of the American-managed evacuation was via fixed-wing aircraft flying out of Tan Son Nhut airport near Saigon. It went on for a month before the NVA shut the airport down with rocket attacks but long before the evacuation began, both Vietnamese and foreigners who saw what was coming had been leaving Vietnam in droves via ship or commercial airline. The NVA were advancing faster than expected, but it wasn’t as if they suddenly popped up out of nowhere. Everyone in Vietnam knew the end was near.
The helicopter evacuation was dramatic, but nine-tenths of the Vietnamese who would ultimately be evacuated by the American airlift got out by way of Tan Son Nhut. Waiting around for a helicopter lift was an act of desperation by people who’d been left behind when the airport was shut down.
A lot of people—the vast majority—missed the boat. Approximately 600,000 people had been identified by the US as at risk because of their or a family member’s collaboration with the Americans. 200,000 of these were actually targeted for evacuation by the US, but only about fifty thousand were evacuated as the end loomed. All others who managed to leave before the NVA arrived got out on their own. (Several tens of thousands of those left behind were summarily shot in the aftermath of the fall, many of them as a result of a list of collaborators being inadvertently left behind in the embassy and discovered by the Communists.)
By the time the American-supported evacuation was down to helicopters, the hundred or so American civilians who remained were mostly embassy people destroying documents, scribbling out visas as fast as they could, an helping to organize cramming as many refugees as they could onto outbound flights. They, plus the 1000 soldiers, and about five thousand Vietnamese were helicoptered out, the last with the NVA already in the city. Only a tiny proportion of the thousands waiting outside the gates made it in.
We’ve all seen the pictures of the crowds outside of the American Embassy compound. An old friend and colleague of mine, Phil Than, 12 years old at the time, was in that crowd with his brother Phuc Than, and his mother Xuan Lan. (They aren’t in this particular picture.) They had been waiting in the heat for hours when the boys begged to be allowed to run across the street for some cane juice. No sooner had they run off, than Xuan Lan’s boss, Olaf B. Holt, who had come outside to look for any of his Vietnamese colleagues that he might be able to find in the crowd, spotted Xuan Lan and told the soldiers to let her in. It was a stroke of luck, but the boys weren’t back. The embassy was in chaos and they were out of time. The gates were closing when the boys reappeared with juice and the three of them squeaked through, among the very last to get into the compound and onto a helicopter. It’s a moving experience to hear Phil talk about the whirring of the helicopters and huddling together on the carrier listening to the broadcasts from the new Communist government.
The family settled in the United States and both boys became technologists. Phil is a programmer and Phuc Than was repatriated 24 years later as the Vietnam country manager for the Intel corporation. He lives today in an apartment just behind the former embassy (today the US consulate.)
The helicopters were ferrying people to USN aircraft carriers parked offshore in the South China Sea. They shuttled them over as fast as they could get them on board and went back for more, but as the end drew near, the flights necessarily became one-way. As the evacuation drew to a chaotic close, the only point in going back would have been to drop off an empty Republic of Vietnam Air Force (RVAF) helicopter with its new owner. Carrier deck space being a limited resource, pilots were ordered to ditch the now-surplus helicopters in the ocean and wait for rescue. RVAF aircraft that weren’t ditched were simply pushed over the side after the passengers and crew disembarked.
Neutral media coverage is a theoretical ideal never realized in life; images are selected to tell what is necessarily a simplified story with maximum impact in limited space, often before the full meaning is apparent.
Numerous RVAF helicopters were shoved overboard on all the aircraft carriers but the pictures you see published over and over are from the carrier Midway where helicopters with American markings were pushed over the side. It is a shocking image if you don’t know what’s going on. Actually, the story behind those shots could be a Hollywood movie.
Late in the evacuation, with the NVA closing in, a tiny Cessna flew low over the Midway and dropped a note to the deck. The note blew over the side, so he made another pass and dropped a second note. That too blew away. Finally, a third note, scribbled on a map and wrapped around a pistol to keep it from blowing away, was recovered by the sailors on deck.
The note was from the pilot, a Major Buang. It said that Buang’s wife and children were onboard and the plane was low on fuel but he could land if the helicopters on deck could kindly be moved to one side. Ditching wasn’t an option; there were seven people, mostly children, on board, and a plane like that would sink like a brick.
The deck of the Midway was choked with Jolly Green Giant search-and-rescue helicopters. With no time to shift all the aircraft around, Captain L. C. Chambers called for volunteers to shove overboard any helicopters that couldn’t be quickly relocated on deck.
Carriers move at top speed for fixed-wing aircraft landings to reduce the relative difference in speed, but the Midway was almost stopped, with just enough power to keep it oriented. While the deck was being cleared, the below-decks crew engaged in an emergency exercise to bring the ship up to speed.
The orders did not in fact end the Captain’s career or result in a court martial but the possibility must have occurred to him as he watched the crew drop something like 120 million dollars worth (in today’s money) of aircraft into the the South China Sea.
Virtually every available sailor on the carrier turned out to help and even as they were pushing the helicopters over the side and clearing the arrest cables out of the way, five more Hueys (the iconic gunship/transports you see in every Vietnam War movie) landed and were summarily tossed into the drink after them.
Major Buang, by then flying on vapor, brought his plane down, bounced it once, lightly, on the deck and coasted to a tumultuous welcome. It is believed to be the first and possibly only carrier landing of it’s kind. Buang Ly and his family ultimately ended up in the United States, where they still live.
The decision that Captain Chambers (who was incidentally the first African American to reach flag-rank in the USN) made was one of those things that they either court martial you for or clap you on the back and buy you a drink. The Navy chose the latter and Captain Chambers continued a distinguished career, retiring in 1984 as Rear Admiral Chambers. He is also still alive.
The Fallacy of the Excluded Middle
The second, and more profound misunderstanding is that, despite the vehement insistence by Americans of every political stripe that we were “defeated” in Vietnam, the nature of the outcome was more complicated. To this day it is an issue so fraught and so complexly bound up in culture wars politics that it is almost impossible for many Americans to discuss it civilly.
Vietnam occupies a place in America similar to that of the Dreyfus Affair in France, except that unlike the Dreyfus Affair, the central facts about Vietnam have never been in serious dispute. Allegiances in the Dreyfus Affair turned on the binary issue of whether or not you accepted that Dreyfus was a traitor, but the facts regarding the end of US involvement can be checked in any standard source.
The Paris Peace Accord wasn’t a technicality that somehow got us out just before an inevitable collapse. We didn’t decamp under a hail of bullets. (The French actually did get unambiguously run out of town after losing the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, about ten years before the US involvement began to escalate.)
On the contrary, one of the most striking features of the Vietnam war is that the US failed to win the war despite never having lost a significant battle. That’s not to say we never lost at all. Nobody fights a war without losing at least the occasional platoon-level firefight, but in Vietnam, anytime a fight escalated into something significant, the United States’ extraordinary mobility, unchallenged control of the air, and almost unlimited availability of materiel, ensured that we could quickly bring to bear whatever level of force was necessary. There were battles that fizzled out without a winner but the US literally never lost one.
Because, albeit for very different reasons, it suits both the Left and the Right to say we “lost the war,” it is almost universally forgotten in popular culture that when the US went home, we left the ARVN in command of the field, decidedly dominating a nearly exhausted NVA. It took the inept and corrupt leadership of South Vietnam more than a year after the US departed to turn that situation around and another year after that to fully succumb.
Saying we “lost” in Vietnam is essentially a political position, not a statement about history. Long before 1973, the US was most heartily sick of not winning, but at no point did it look even vaguely like we were losing.
If We Didn’t Lose, Why Couldn’t We Win?
In a nutshell, the United States’ problem in Vietnam was that turning not-losing into winning would have required invading North Vietnam.
We had bombed the living bejasus out of North Vietnam year after year to no avail and it was clear that we could continue to drop bombs on the North and win battles in the South till hell froze over, but without invading the North, achieving victory would next to impossible.
The NVA did not appear likely to get bored and go home any time soon. The Second Indochina War (the longer war that our “Vietnam War” was in the middle section of) had been on since 1955 and it is not always fully appreciated that Americans had been fighting in Vietnam since the First Indochina War, which started in 1946, when the world was still smoking in the aftermath of WWII.
Americans were involved in Vietnam before some of the American soldiers who died there were born; we’d been the primary backers of the French as far back as 1950 and the first smattering of Americans were already in combat in 1953, well before Dien Bien Phu. Indeed, a handful of American pilots flew on the French side in that epic disaster.
The problem with invading North Vietnam was that the Chinese leader then known as Mao Tse-tung (now Zedong) had pledged to oppose any such action with Chinese troops. This was no idle threat. The United States had already bumped heads once with Mao in a strikingly similar situation in Korea and the results were most unsatisfactory.
North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950 and by the time the UN forces (approximately 90% American) got up to speed, only a small portion of South Korea in the south-east remained unconquered by the North. Nevertheless, within months the greatly augmented UN forces counter attacked from the sea at Inchon and cut much of the North Korean army off from supplies. The ROK and UN forces bottled up in the south-east burst out, and together they drove the army of the North the length of South Korea and back across the border. The Northern troops retreated in disarray and the UN forces penetrated into North Korea nearly to the Yalu river, which forms North Korea’s 900-mile border with China.
These events took place only one year after the Communists had consolidated control over China, but with the UN/US virtually on his doorstep, Mao unhesitatingly jumped into the Korean conflict with 300,000 troops, stopping cold the Allied advance into the North.
Then as now, China was the most populous country on Earth and had no shortage of soldiers battle-hardened in the recent wars with Japan and the Kuomintang. They poured a seemingly inexhaustible flood of troops into the conflict and after two and a half years of intense fighting, they had pushed the Allies back to approximately the original borderline between North and South.
The level of the Chinese commitment in Korea borders on the incredible. North Korea only had a population of about 11 million in 1950, but the number of Chinese troops ultimately swelled to over three million, which is substantially more than the total number of Americans who fought in the European theater in WWII. At least as many Chinese died in Korea as Americans died the the entirety of WWII, by some estimates, more than twice as many, and they were plainly able and willing to continue as long as necessary.
The United States’ losses in Vietnam were dwarfed by even the margin of error in the estimates of what the Chinese had demonstrated themselves willing to lose in such a fight. In the late 1960’s, the population of China was approximately 3.6 times that of the US, and Vietnam, like Korea, borders China. No sane American military planner was up for that kind of land war with a China far stronger than they had been back in 1950 after decades of war and revolution, nor did Mao show signs of fearing American nuclear weapons. There was no Chinese bluff to call.
Am I saying the US actually “won?” Of course not. People simplify it to that because of what logicians call the fallacy of the excluded middle. Not winning isn’t the same as losing. Declining to pursue a decisive victory in a small war in order to avoid fighting an unwinnable large war is hardly the same as defeat.
We definitely did not win, but we certainly no more lost the war in Vietnam than we lost the war in Iraq (or in Korea, for that matter.) Much as in Vietnam, we officially pulled out of Iraq (in 2011) with the war not won and bullets still flying. We simply got tired of it.
And as in Vietnam, the war in Iraq spluttered along for years without US combat troops. If anything, the ARVN was in better shape when we left than the Iraqi Army was at the time of our departure, but unlike South Vietnam, the Iraqis did not ultimately lose. When they came close enough to losing that the US commenced fighting again, it was only three years later in 2014; it was the same Iraqi government but the enemy by then had mutated into the Islamic Caliphate of Iraq, aka ISIS, aka Daesh and the mahem was becoming regional, much as the war in Vietnam has spread into Laos and Cambodia.
The renewed war, which we have rather cleverly never given a name to, started out in 2014 as an air campaign called Operation Inherent Resolve but quickly came to involve ground troops, which continue to fight there even now. So we didn’t “win” the Iraq war, and we haven’t won the current war in Iraq that has no name, but nobody calls either experience “losing.”
It is a truism of US foreign policy that anytime the phrase “nation building” or “winning the peace” are used, there is no expectation of victory.
Tricks of Memory
Google up any of this and you’ll find I’m telling it pretty accurately. So how did a completely divergent version get embedded in America’s mind? It’s not a partisan thing. The Right and the Left tell pretty much the same inaccurate factual story; they differ primarily in where they locate their bitterness, not in having distinct versions of the facts.
I trace it back as far as The Deer Hunter (1978) which came out only five years after the US Military exited the Vietnam war, and only three years after the fall of Saigon, which is the background of the climax of the movie.
Movies aren’t developed in an afternoon, so when the screenplay was written, the events at the end of the movie would have been not much more distant in time than the 2016 Presidential Campaign is from today (July 2018.)
As The Deer Hunter winds toward its denouement, the DeNiro character has grown from raw recruit into an Army Ranger, but the John Savage and Christopher Walken characters have been mauled by the war. Savage is a double amputee in a VA nursing home and Walken is a psych-casualty gone AWOL, a blank-eyed wraith haunting the gambling dens of Saigon playing high-stakes Russian roulette.
Back in Pennsylvania, Savage can see from the nightly news that the end is coming for Vietnam. When DeNiro visits him, he reveals that a mysterious someone has been sending him large amounts of cash from Saigon. He has a drawer full. DeNiro immediately guesses that it’s Walken, and that money in that quantity can only be coming from the Russian roulette gambling racket that Walken flirted with the last time he saw him. Savage, who had thought Walken dead, urges DeNiro to go and find him, with the oddly memorable line: “That place is gonna get caught in a tewwible shit storm.“
The movie is so powerful that the nonsensical chronology can go right over your head. They went off to war at the end of 1967. The close of the movie, is ostensibly 1975 but several years and the withdrawal of American forces from Vietnam are missing. As far as we know, the US is still fighting.
Everything else in the movie says that no more than about four years have passed and it’s barely 1972. Streep is still the same dewy beauty she was when they left. Tours in ‘Nam lasted one year and Savage isn’t even out of the hospital yet. Walken is still a professional in a sport characterized by notably short careers. You could throw a few months in for the period of time that they were captive, but nobody spends years and years in a half submerged cage—it can’t have been very long.
If none of that satisfies the reader that the movie has crammed the fall of Saigon into the chronological position before the American troop withdrawal, in the funeral scene we see Savage’s son by the woman he married in the opening wedding scene. Her pregnancy was already showing as she dressed for the wedding, yet the boy is still a toddler, young enough for her to carry. He looks to be about three and a half years old, four years at the outside. The film has moved the fall of Saigon forward to a time when we still had troops fighting there.
When DeNiro returns for Walken, the scene in Saigon is like The Last Days of Pompeii. You don’t see a billboard saying “American Still Fighting Here” but DeNiro arrives in uniform with a copter load of American military officers, and there are American soldiers, officers and MP’s galore everywhere. American Huey gunships are flying around with their signature .50 caliber machine guns hanging out the door, American soldiers are seen on stretchers, and American combat troops are all around doing warlike things. There’s a war on, and everything says America is part of it.
You might be thinking, hey, who remembers all those dates you’re nitpicking about?
You’d have a point if the movie were made today but these things weren’t history back then. When The Deer Hunter was developed, there would still have been magazines in your dentist’s waiting room with these pictures on the cover. No more time had passed since the fall of Saigon than passed between the fulfillment of the Paris Accord and those days in April.
What Does It Mean?
Somehow, the withdrawal of America from the war and the fall of Saigon had already telescoped together within just a couple of years; the biggest movie of 1978 merged the two events into one and nobody noticed. It’s as if an author writing in 1868 had merged Gettysburg and Appomattox into one event and nary a reviewer noticed that two years of the war had gone missing. America did the mirror image of that with Vietnam; we filled a two-year blank space with fighting that never happened.
Can The Deer Hunter have rewritten history so effectively that an entire country forgot, or had we somehow already forgotten, or had we, en masse, simply failed to notice when the war ended? None of these possibilities make much sense to me, but if I have to pick one, I’ll go with the last.
There was no fanfare when the last troops came home after Vietnam. Nothing marked it. It wasn’t like when Germany or Japan surrendered and people danced in the street. WWII ended with American presence in the combat theaters at a peak but American troop presence and casualties in Vietnam had long been dwindling by the time the Paris Accord was signed.
The actual end was almost theoretical, really; a matter of articles in the newspaper. Only 753 Americans were killed in the last full year of the war, down steadily year by year from 16,899 in 1968. Fewer and fewer had died each month in 1972, and at the end, days would go by without a combat fatality. In theory, our departure had a hard date, but mostly we just faded away from the conflict. If you had missed a few days of news coverage in early 1973, you could almost not have noticed when the war ended for us.
I think that’s exactly what happened. Without the hullabaloo of a victory, America barely registered the event when it was finally over for us. For years, the war and the protests had dominated the news, but then less and less and less, and one day, the war wasn’t in the news at all anymore. The end of our War in Vietnam was just a silence, a negative space.
It seems that even as the fall of Saigon was being broadcast live, many, maybe most, Americans didn’t understand that we’d left the war years before. Memory, like nature, abhors a vacuum; the fall of Saigon was sucked in to fill the empty space left by our silent departure from what was once America’s longest war.
One thought on “The Last Days of Pompeii”
Another example of the same compression of history occurs in “American Gangster,” the 2007 historical drama by Ridley Scott about the career of Frank Lucas, who built a drug empire on heroin smuggled in from Vietnam. The movie shows Nixon’s speech announcing the imminent cease-fire in 1973 and footage of dumping helicopters from the carriers during the fall of Saigon in 1975 as contemporaneous events, apparently happening within days of each other. It’s a movie intended for educated mature audiences and purports to be an accurate history of the times; clearly the makers either do not know or do not expect the audience to know that the events are years apart.