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Date: Fri, 21 Apr 1995 14:32:32 +0900

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Subject: [NEWS] A Lost War - Time Magazine April 24 1995 edition
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TIME Domestic

April 24, 1995 Volume 145, No. 17



As it turns out, we do not reserve all our tears and rage these days
for battles over the flat tax and tort reform. Sometimes matters of
more tragic consequence command our passions. That was the case last
week when Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and
Johnson, expressed shame over America's conduct of the Vietnam
War. Suddenly, hot arguments over the justice of that war resumed as
if interrupted only by a pause for breath, rather than the passage of

Saigon fell on April 30, 1975, but Vietnam is still with us. A
politician's war record - or antiwar record - evokes scorn or
approbation; the masterfully manipulative Forrest Gump makes {*filter*}s
weep; we fret over quagmires, and still we can hear the air torn by
helicopter blades and see that canted, top-heavy map on the evening
news and recall precisely our draft-lottery number or that of our
brother or son. Some brothers and sons did not return; they are still
with us as well.

If there is a peace that passeth all understanding, Vietnam may be the
war that passeth all understanding. In the following pages, as we
convey the panic and heroism of Saigon's last hours and describe
Vietnam as it is today, as we explore the myths of the lessons of the
war and offer a novelist's meditation on its end, we hope to shed some
light on a place where memory burns, but darkness still prevails.


TIME Domestic

April 24, 1995 Volume 145, No. 17


A look at the storm before the long quiet -- through the eyes of the
victors, the losers, the ones who got out and the ones who didn't


The signs of impending doom had been multiplying for at least a
month. A headlong bug-out from the Central Highlands in March 1975
signaled that South Vietnam could no longer muster either the strength
or the will to hold off the armies sweeping down from the communist
North. The fall of Danang late in the month produced scenes of horror
that appeared to foreshadow what might happen later in Saigon:
panic-maddened South Vietnamese soldiers {*filter*}ling women and children
to get aboard the last American 727 to fly out; desperate soldiers
clinging to the landing gear of that plane only to fall off into the
South China Sea or be crushed against the undercarriage.

As the Communist troops drew closer to the South Vietnamese capital
through early April, the atmosphere in both Saigon and Washington
further darkened. Schools in Saigon and its suburbs conducted lessons
and assigned homework as usual, but Nam Pham, then 18, and Diem Do,
who was 12, noticed their classes getting smaller day by day. Says Do:
''One day a couple of guys would be gone, and then a couple more, and
then the teacher wouldn't show up. Everybody was scared. They sensed
that something tragic was about to happen,'' and some were already
fleeing the country.

In Washington a special-action group of top officials was meeting
almost daily, sometimes with a pipe-puffing President Gerald Ford, to
hear the latest news -- uniformly bad. On April 17 the Senate Armed
Services Committee, reflecting an overwhelming American desire to be
done with Vietnam, rejected an Administration request for $722 million
in emergency aid to the Saigon regime. ''Those bastards!''  exclaimed
the usually calm Ford. Though nobody believed the aid would turn the
tide, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and others had hoped it might
enable South Vietnam to put up enough of a last-ditch fight to
persuade the North to negotiate a truce. Two days after the committee
action, CIA Director William Colby told the President: ''South Vietnam
faces total defeat, and soon.''

In Saigon the CIA had already begun ''black'' (secret) flights,
spiriting out of the country Vietnamese collaborators who could expect
only prison or death after a communist victory, and the U.S. embassy
had begun burning its files. (Not fast enough: long lists containing
the names of Vietnamese and specifying what they had done to help
their American allies eventually fell into the hands of the Northern
victors.) CIA analyst Frank Snepp, in his book Decent Interval,
recalled roaming the embassy grounds on April 15 and noting a telltale
sign of onrushing disaster: the outdoor swimming pool was unusable
because of ashes wafting down from the incinerators on the chancery
roof and floating in the water.

Yet many Americans and Vietnamese could not bring themselves to
believe what they were seeing. Long after the Senate committee's
rejection of aid, hope persisted for some kind of negotiated peace
that would leave a nominally independent South Vietnam, possibly even
a coalition government with the communists and a small continuing
American presence.

Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger nonetheless argued that Graham
Martin, the U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, should begin evacuating
the remaining Americans in Saigon and sympathetic Vietnamese. So
little was done, though, that Lionel Rosenblatt and Craig Johnstone,
two mid-level State Department officers in Washington, made a
desperate effort to short-circuit the bureaucracy. They requested
leave and hopped a commercial flight to Saigon to organize an
unofficial rescue mission. Arriving at the embassy on April 22, they
learned that orders were out for their arrest. They posed as French
businessmen, holing up in an empty apartment found for them by
sympathetic lower-level embassy employees and working the phones to
round up Vietnamese to be smuggled out of the country.

Ambassador Martin, who died in 1990, was a strange combination of
Pollyanna and paranoid. He often seemed to regard the Washington
bureaucracy rather than the Vietnamese communists as his main
enemy. In a just-declassified and previously unpublished cable, he
ranted that State Department foes were calumniating him in the
U.S. press: ''The sly, anonymous insertions of the perfumed ice pick
into the kidneys in the form of the quotes from my colleagues in the
Department are only a peculiar form of acupuncture indigenous to Foggy
Bottom against which I was immunized long ago.'' If the ''mattress
mice'' in Washington were pressing him to prepare an evacuation --
well, he knew the situation better: ''I have been right so far, which
is unforgivably infuriating to the bureaucracy.'' Martin initially
refused even to allow the precautionary felling of a huge tamarind
tree that blocked helicopters from landing in the embassy courtyard. A
U.S. embassy team hacked it down only around midday April 29, when the
evacuation was entering its last hours.

As he once confided to White House photographer David Hume Kennerly,
Martin feared even whispering the word ''evacuation'' would set off a
Danang-style panic.  But the ambassador also believed more fervently,
and longer than almost anyone else, in the possibility of an
accommodation with the communists. As late as April 28 he was cabling
Kissinger that he foresaw Americans staying in Saigon for ''a year or
more.'' By then, Gotterdammerung was well under way.


Though any of several dates could be picked as the beginning of
Saigon's final agony, April 20 stands out. For one thing, it marked
the fall of Xuan Loc, a small town 38 miles northeast of the capital
and the site of just about the last prolonged and {*filter*}y battle of the
war. If arvn, the South Vietnamese army, could not hold there, it was
unlikely to hold anywhere.

In Saigon on April 20, Martin called at the Presidential Palace for a
long interview with President Nguyen Van Thieu. The South Vietnamese
leader bore no small share of the blame for the impending catastrophe:
it was his order to the army to withdraw from the Central Highlands
without much of a fight that touched off the final rout. In the last
few weeks, he had shuttled from one villa to another, increasingly out
of touch with his aides and allies, and with reality. He even
speculated that bombing strikes by American B-52s might halt the NVA's
onslaught. Hanoi also had visions of B-52s, but it was a
mirage. Nothing could have persuaded the U.S. to resume the active
fighting role it had relinquished after the Paris peace accords in

Thieu had another caller on April 20: Nguyen Van Toan, commander of
the arvn third corps. Says Tran Can Van, Thieu's Minister of Housing
who was at the Presidential Palace that day: ''Toan normally swaggered
around, but that day he was like a robot, in a trance. I said, 'Hello,
General,' but he didn't answer. He kept walking toward Thieu. Thieu
was really tough, one of those guys who, if you looked right into his
eyes and tried to shoot him, you wouldn't be able to pull the
trigger. But that day when Toan came in, Thieu lost it. He wasn't
noticing anything anymore. His spirit was broken.''

Whatever Toan's exact message may have been, Martin's was surely even
more harrowing. The communists had repeatedly declared they would
never deal with Thieu. If there was to be any hope of a compromise
peace, Thieu had to go, and Martin said as much. On his return to the
embassy, Martin told an associate, he took a long shower and, with
Pontius Pilate symbolism, scrubbed with strong soap.

Thieu went, but not quietly. Appearing in an ...

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