The United States withdrew its forces from South Vietnam in 1972, trusting to a programme of ‘Vietnamization’ (strengthening the South Vietnamese army) to secure the independence of the country after the signing of the Geneva Accords. In 1975 the Communist North Vietnamese government effectively abrogated the Geneva agreement and initiated a full-scale military offensive into the South which, in a number of weeks, overwhelmed the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) and established a Communist government in Saigon. James Fenton, one of the most experienced correspondents of the ten-year war, describes Saigon’s last days before the Communist take-over.
Early on the morning of 30 April, I went out of my hotel room to be greeted by a group of hysterical Koreans. ‘The Americans have called off the evacuation!’ said one. The group had been unable to get into the [US] Embassy, had waited the whole night and had now given up. Of all the nationalities to fear being stranded in Saigon, the Koreans had most reason. I went up to breakfast in the top-floor restaurant, and saw that there were still a few Jolly Green Giants [troop-carrying helicopters] landing on the Embassy, but that the group on the Alliance Française building appeared to have been abandoned. They were still standing there on the roof, packed tight on a set of steps. Looking up at the sky, they seemed to be taking part in some kind of religious ritual, waiting for a sign. In the Brinks building, the looting continued. A lone mattress fell silently from a top-floor balcony.
There was one other group at breakfast — an eccentric Frenchman with some Vietnamese children. The Frenchman was explaining to the waiter that there had been some binoculars available the night before, and he wanted to use them again. The waiter explained that the binoculars belonged to one of the hotel guests.
‘That doesn’t matter,’ said the Frenchman, ‘bring them to me.’
The waiter explained that the binoculars were probably in the guest’s room.
‘Well go and get them then!’ said the Frenchman. It seemed extraordinary that the Frenchman could be so adamant, and the waiter so patient, under the circumstances. I had orange juice and coffee, and noted that the croissants were not fresh.
Then I went to the American Embassy, where the looting had just begun. The typewriters were already on the streets. Outside there was a stink of urine from where the crowd had spent the night and several cars had been ripped apart. I did not bother to check what had happened to mine, but went straight into the Embassy with the looters.
The place was packed, and in chaos. Papers, files, brochures and reports were strewn around. I picked up one letter of application from a young Vietnamese student, who wished to become an Embassy interpreter. Some people gave me suspicious looks, as if I might be a member of the Embassy staff — I was, after all, the only one there with a white face — so I began to do a little looting myself, to show that I was entering into the spirit of the thing. Somebody had found a package of razor blades, and removed them all from their plastic wrappers. One man called me over to a wall-safe, and seemed to be asking if I knew the number of the combination. Another was hacking away at an air-conditioner, another dismantling a fridge.
On the first floor there was more room to move, and it was here I came across the Embassy library. I collected the following items: one copy of Peace Is Not at Hand by Sir Robert Thompson, one of the many available copies of The Road from War by Robert Shaplen, Barrington Moore’sSocialOrigins of Dictatorshipand Democracy (I had been meaning to read it for some time), a copy of a pacification report from 1972 and some Embassy notepaper. Two things I could not take (by now I was not just pretending to loot — I had become quite involved): a reproduction of an 1873 map of Hanoi, and a framed quotation from Lawrence of Arabia, which read, ‘Better to let them do it imperfectly than to do it perfectly yourself, for it is their country, their way, and your time IS short.’ Nearby I found a smashed portrait of President Ford, and a Stars and Stripes, mangled in the dirt.
I found one room which had not yet been touched. There were white chairs around a white table, and on the table the ashtrays were full. I was just thinking how eerie it looked, how recently vacated, when the lights went out. At once, a set of emergency lights, photosensitively operated, turned themselves on above each doorway. The building was still partly working; even while it was being torn to pieces, it had a few reflexes left.
From this room, I turned into a small kitchen, where a group of old crones were helping themselves to jars of Pream powdered milk. When they looked up and saw me, they panicked, dropped the powdered milk and ran. I decided that it would be better to leave the building. It was filling up so much that it might soon become impossible to get out. I did not know that there were still some marines on the roof. As I forced my way out of the building, they threw tear-gas down on the crowd, and I found myself running hard, in floods of tears.
Although the last helicopter was just now leaving, people still thought there were other chances of getting out. One man came up to me and asked confidentially if I knew of the alternative evacuation site. He had several plausible reasons why he was entitled to leave. Another man, I remember, could only shout, ‘I’m a professor, I’m a professor, I’m a professor,’ as if the fact of his academic status would cause the Jolly Green Giants to swoop down out of the sky and whisk him away.
There was by now a good deal of activity on the streets. Military trucks went to and fro across town, bearing loads of rice, and family groups trudged along, bearing their possessions. As I finished writing my Embassy story, the sirens wailed three times, indicating that the city itself was under attack. I returned to the hotel roof to see what was happening. The group on the Alliance Française building was still there, still waiting for its sign. Across the river, but not far away, you could see the artillery firing, and the battle lines coming closer. Then two flares went up, one red, one white. Somebody said that the white flare was for surrender. In the restaurant, the waiters sat by the radio. I asked them what was happening. ‘The war is finished,’ said one.
I looked down into the square. Almost at once, a waiter emerged from the Continental and began to hoist a French tricolour on the flagpole. There were groups of soldiers, apparently front-line troops, sitting down. From the battlefield across the river, the white flares began to go up in great numbers. Big Minh’s broadcast had been heard — offering unconditional surrender — and in a matter of minutes the war would be well and truly over.