Sunday, December 16, 2012

Bui Diem Remembers the fall of Saigon

Bui Diem.

"As Far as the US is Concerned the War is Over."

In the spring of 1965 I was at that time, Dr. Quat was Prime Minister, I was a minister in the prime minister's office, I was a chief of staff for Dr. Quat.

The government was formed 15 February, 1965, and the landing of the Marines in Danang on March 8, 1965. Three weeks after the formation of the government by Dr. Quat.

This was after a series of changes of government after 1964, before Quat came to power. So politically speaking, we were in a very very unstable situation by then. The military situation was bad, of course, and I presume that even before Quat assumed the prime minister's office, the Americans talked about having Am troops come to Vietnam. Because it was at that time rolling thunder, the bombing campaign began. So I remember well that during the first two weeks of Quat's government, we were confronted with this problem of facing a very unstable political situation and a very dangerous military situation. And then there was the Rolling thunder campaign going on. And the Ams by then in Saigon, Gen Taylor and Gen Westmoreland and Alexis Johnson, we were in close communication with the Am side. I remember well Gen Taylor coming to the PM's office twice a week and briefing us on the targets of the RT campaign.

We thought about the possibility of having the Am troops come to VN help SVN, but we thought in terms of contingency planning. We didn't see yet at that time, the prospect. We were confronted with thousands of problems those days. The military problems were the most imminent ones. But the, it was the origin of the whole thing. The RT campaign was going on for 2 wks already, part of the planes going north, was based in Danang. And it was a question of defending the base against the infiltration by the communist side. So in general terms it was a question of how to reinforce the defensive forces of SVN and practically for the base at Danang.

I remember it was a very general conversation. But not really in specific terms about landing of troops. In terms of background, Quat and Myself we had been psychologically speaking, very much not in favor of massive intervention of Am troops in Vietnam. We belonged to a category of nationalists who were very much aware of the fact that communists claimed that the forces for the independence were them against the invaders. And Quat with the govt of Emperor Bao Dai in 50 and 53, and he was very much uneasy about the presence of foreign troops in VN. We didn't want to have a handicap on our back in terms of fighting against communists. So the view then,was, that we would not ask for the intervention of Am troops if thee we was no mortal danger to us. The mood was then, I remember,we discussed this problem long before we came to the govt. We were political friends before that and we talked about the issue of foreign troops, and many of us and both us, were not much in favor of the intervention of foreign troops in SVN. We had to admit by then that the military situation was a precarious one.

Suddenly, on the morning of March 8, every early, I was called by Dr. Quat, and on the phone he said to me you have to come to my place right away. I said is it urgent and he said, yes it is urgent.

So I rushed to his home, not his office but his home, and there I found Manful, who was the political counselor at the Embassy in Saigon, Melvin Manful, who was political counselor at the US Embassy in Saigon, already there. And I asked what is happening. and he said, well, the I am asking you to come here because we need to draft a communique announcing the landing of Marines in Danang. I was surprised. I said, in a corner, listen is there anything that drew him to a corner, is there anything that we require this for the time being. Do we have any dangers in the military situation so we have to call in the Marines. And Quat said, I have no time right now to explain the whole thing. So sit down with Manful and draft the communique announcing the landing. P{lease be as brief as possible, just announce the landing of the Marines. And you have to say it is with the concurrence of the VN govt. So I sat down with Manful.

So we sat down with Manful and we drafted the communique announcing the drafting announcing the landing and said with the concurrence of the VN govt the marines are landing. I issued it and then Manful left. I was alone with Quat and asked him the same question before. He said tome, well, the Marines are already there, on the beach at Danang right now. But I have to mention to you that a few days earlier Gen Taylor talked to me a few days earlier about reinforcing the defense of the base in Danang, but I think that Gen Taylor was surprised himself by the sudden decision to send troops in Washington made in Washington.

The VN by then, militarily were in a very bad situation. We didn't have troops enough to secure the base and around the country we were attacked by the coms. Militarily speaking the situation was a very dangerous one and we didn't have enough a troops to face the situation.

There was no problem of trust. but the overall situation required the presence of Am troops because the planes took off from Danang and they didn't want to have these planes in jeopardy and they didn't want to risk infiltration and attack on Danang. And they needed the marines to protect them.

The military situation was very dangerous, and general Taylor talked about the possibility of reinforcing the base in Danang. But by then the decision had not been made by then, and it was not officially arranged before hand by the two govts. That was the first time that the Am troops landed troops in vn. Up to then it was adviory groups for the forces. But this was the first time we saw the combat troops in Vietnam at that time. and it was just the beginning.

These were the first marine battalions to land in Danang. I describe it just to focus the attention on the fact that there was not much cooperation between the two sides on such an important matter.

Thee had been talk of Am intervention, but much of the time it was in terms of contingency planning. but never before was it mentioned as an issue of the two governments.
In this, then, I saw the first marines landing in Danang by then.

Of course,after the first landing, Gen Taylor, Amb Maxwell Taylor, described to Quat, well it was strictly a kind of defensive measure with very limited orders to defend the base in Danang.
Gen Taylor himself opposed this kind of action himself, and Alexis Johnson, his deputy, opposed the landing of the Marines in Danang. General William Westmoreland was in favor of it.

He explained later that he would like to have a kind of enclave theory, it means that the troops would be limited to an enclave around Danang, and the Marines should not go out on operations, they should just stay there in a defensive posture. If the base was attacked, they could respond. But later the enclave was enlarged into a more expanded area. They began to patrol around and look for the coms within 40 miles and then it was expanded into the possibility of sending them somewhere else if it was requested by the VN. There is no way to be half pregnant. You are pregnant or you are not. So the enclave strategy, to gradually, into July 1965, the presence of 150,000 more troops.

It was a kind of after the first landing of Marines, always there was a last minute consultation. There was some consultation. But the process was such that we couldn't say no. And sometimes it was a fait accompli. To be very candid on this, I would say there was a kind of pro forma consultation, but not real consultation on how the vn view the problem and how the Vietnamese could bring their own ideas to such an important problem as the presence of foreign troops in Vietnam.

The viet cong didn't concentrate on this immediately. The North immediately capitalized on this. They were very quick to point out the presence of the Am troops there. My point is the process of concentration was such that we could contribute very little.

This was the Americanization of the war, the beginning of it. It began with the landing of the marines in Vietnam and was enlarged then into the full presence of 200,000 troops around the end of 1965.

In the history of the war in Vietnam, there are so many "what if" questions that nobody can have all the answers to that. When we look back to the situation then with hindsight, we have a lot of alternatives. We have at least some alternatives. The one mentioned by Harry Summers, for example. he said in his book on strategy, and a lot of Vietnamese would agree with it. instead of sending half a million troops to Vietnam, the Americans could send just a limited number of troops to stabilize the military situation. And they should limit the number of troops to that area. And they should have interdicted the infiltration of troops from NVN. Right then in 1960 and 1965. One alternative mentioned by Summers, and a lot of Vn included myself agreed, the alternative would be 1. to send to South Vietnam a very limited number of troops to stabilize the situation. 2. solve right away the vnization process 3. try to interdict the infiltration coming from nvn right then.
I don't think the small number of Ams would have been overrun in 1965. The NVN were not so strong then. The could have their offensive and try to cut the country into two parts, but I am not so sure that they could succeed in overwhelming the country by then.

It was wrong for the Americans to apply this concept to the North Vietnamese, if you strike at them quite strongly, but don't telegraph to them that today you are going to bomb the 18th parallel and tomorrow the 19th and soon it is just wrong.

Later in 1975, after the collapse of South Vietnam, many of the North Vietnamese who came to Saigon, to contact relatives still living there, they said that at the time of the Christmas bombing of Hanoi in 1972, they said they expected the South Vietnamese to come North and liberate them and it was surprise later that they had to come south to liberate the south.

Really, if the bombing was to applied to NVN, it should be applied inn strong doses and it really affected them. But when the bombing was applied through a number of years, in gradual doses, and all the time, they got adapted to the situation to it and they could thus endure it. So the way the bombing was applied was wrong.

In 1965 it is impossible for us to speculate now on the what if questions, but with all the hindsight, now a lot of reasonable people can at least in terms of international opinion and in terms of getting the South Vietnamese into the war by themselves, early in the war, perhaps then the situation would have been different.

Put yourselves in the shoes of the svn people. they were a small country And we knew that the Am intervention, like am intervention all around the world,after the second world war, we had seen the Americans intervening with the Marshall plan, in Greece with the Truman doctrine, we had seen them in Korea in the 50s. We looked upon the US as a champion of liberty. and when John Kennedy said he would pay any price and bear any burden in his inaugural. We believed him. We looked upon the ams as defenders of freedom. And we saw the intervention in SVN as a sort of continuum of other interventions. It was a handicap, we didn't want it, but if it was a matter of inevitability, then we hoped that the war could be concluded early.

The Americans were naive and arrogant, to a certain degree, they thought there was nothing they couldn't do and so they came to South Vietnam and they said to us, Now let us do the job. And perhaps in a matter of time we will do the job and then give the country back to you. But unfortunately ti didn't happen that way.

But we didn't know anything, really,about Ams then. We were as amazed at the Ams then. They had been there since 1954 but we knew little about them. We had big misperceptions about Americans then, you see.

One of the tragedies of the war was that the two people came together when the vn understoodstood very little about Ams and the Ams understood practically about the vn. That is a tragedy of history that two people come together without understanding each other. We had standard ideas about the Ams. but even at the end of the war by 1975 most vn never understood the am system in am. But I was a Vietnamese in Saigon and when I went to Washington as ambassador, I went around and I didn't understand anything about Americans. We knew very little about them despite the fact that they were there as advisers for many years.

We understood very little about am politics and am policies. We believed their public statements. Perhaps blindly. It was a big mistake on our part. We didn't know much. We didn't know how policies were influence in the us by congress and by US public opinion. We thought that the president of the US could do anything. Even Thieu later on, with promises from Nixon that the US would comeback if the Paris Agreement was violated, Thieu believed in Nixon's words. He thought when Nixon said something, it would be done. Even for sophisticated people in Saigon they didn't know that much about American policies and decision making in Washington.

there was a gradual education of the Vietnamese. But not up to the point that we here in the US today understand, how policy is formed and how it is influenced by everyday events in the US. We never never thought you could be as treacherous as the French. We thought in terms of the US as a superpower.

somehow people understood that President Diem, especially around the end of his regime, became so popular, it was more his fault than the American fault, that he was deposed. Even with the gradual education of VN about Am policies and Ams in general, the SVN even during the last days of Saigon, you have a lot of trust and confidence in the US.

There was a visible improvement in the military situation after the landing of the troops. But the war dragged on. At the same time we had to be patient with a lot of political problems in terms of constitutional problems in terms of the new government in terms of the economy due to the presence of American troops, so time flew by quickly between the end of 1965 and, at which there were around 200,000 troops. The buildup was happened during 1966 and 1967,up to 500,000 men. During 1966 and 1967, the visible thing that we saw there was the impossibility for the coms to take over. There was improvement in pacification at the same time. There was beginning of the development of the ARVN by then. But at the same time, there was a feeling of impatience, because we couldn't solve our problems easily. the search and destroy policy from Westmoreland, succeeded in pushing the enemy troops across the border, and inside South Vietnamese with our troops we could begin to control more of the territory. There was an improvement of the military situation. but the improvement was not what we hoped for, the end of the war.

In the same time, in the US, this impatience with the war was building, 1966 and 1967. Then the anti war movement in the US. It culminated with the Tet offensive in early 1968. By then it was a kind of reverse situation. The Johnson administration began thinking of getting out already and there was the presidential elections in 1968, and all these problems were intertwined. During 1967 and 1968 the military situation improved. Only improved, but the war went on. As the war dragged on, the Ams got impatient around the beginning of 1967 and 1968.

I served in Saigon, began my years in the govt with Quat in 1965 and stayed there in 1965 and after that with General Ky in 1965 and 1966, and I came here to serve as Ambassador in 1967. As Ky I was also assistant to the prime minister.

In the US I saw the anti war movement. I thought that the Ams would become more impatient with the war and eventually they would get out of the war. I didn't know under what conditions, but all I felt then was that they couldn't stay long in the war, given the patient mood of this country and the public opinion beginning to be against the war.

I sent back my reports in 1967 and 1968, and I kept all my cables, I warned the government in Saigon even in 1967 that the US would not stay long in the war. I thought, however, that aid would continue. I didn't see a disaster with when the Ams withdrew.

There was always a tremendous difference of perception between Washington and Saigon. And the Ams in Saigon even thought differnt from those in Washington. I was in Washington and I tried to communicate the differences in perception between Washington and Saigon.

When the South Vietnamese saw the Americans coming to Cam Ranh Bay, building millions and millions of dollars. When they saw that, they could never think in terms of the Ams giving up these kinds of and going home. That was our way of thinking. How could the Americans spend billions of dollars on this in Vietnam, and wash it off. It was to us unthinkable. It was impossible for the South Vietnamese to understand this. They perceived of the Ams coming to SVN to help us to staying there until Communism was completely defeated there.

For all of the South Vietnamese who like myself had lived under communism, we never had illusions about the sincerity of the communists in terms of negotiations. We knew by then, we knew them because we had lived under them and because they put it openly in their writings, they call it fight and talk and talk and fight, that strategy was well known for all of us. They put it clearly in their writing. So we understood and we had no illusions about it. If they accept peace talks and decide to talk peace, it was for convenient reasons of their own, military and political. It was for their own advantage and not because they want peace.

We were always nervous about the secret talks in Paris. In May 1968 I was picked to serve as ambassador and then to serve as an observer in Paris, and I was there with Governor Harriman and Cyrus Vance. But it was just the beginning of the talks, and we saw that one way or the other, there would be some kind of private talks. I remember even in June 1968, during the kind of formal negotiations between the two sides, I saw a friend of mine on the Am team, Bill Jordan, having lunch with someone from the other side on negotiations, and we saw right away that there was this possibility of the Americans meeting secretly with the North Vietnamese provided that the North Vietnamese wanted it. And the Americans probed and probed and probed looking for a settlement.

Thieu knew about the secret talks since 1969, but nothing is black and white. We cannot say that Thieu or the VN govt was not consulted about these private talks. Because Nixon did mention to Thieu that thee could be private talks and Thieu agreed with him. But the Kissinger way of operating, he was simply informed of it without the substance of it. It means that every time Henry Kissinger met with Le Duc Tho , he sent back a very laconic telegram to Saigon, and Bunker would have a meeting with Thieu and he would talk about the meeting, but Thieu was never briefed in substance about these talks, and that is the reason why in October 1972, he objected to the Kissinger draft of the agreement. He thought he was cheated by Kissinger and the maximum would be that the VN were briefed in a very sketchy form.

When I first heard the agreement, I was out of the government, I left the government in the middle of 1972, and I became a private citizen. In the beginning of 1973 I became ambassador at large, I came here then. When I returned around the end of the summer in the summer of 1972, but my colleague who replaced me in Washington, Tran Kim Phuong, he came to me quite often and apprised me of the situation.

Washington and Hanoi began to agree on the draft of an agreement. I was not shocked at all in terms of this agreement. But I was shocked in terms of how the agreement was drafted. Because well first of all there was at the beginning there was no draft in Vietnamese of the agreement, we asked for it and only one or two days later we got the draft in Vietnamese, and there were a lot of things that were subject to every possible interpretation, and we were very very shocked by this.

So we got together and found that in the Vietnamese text there were so many loopholes, and I don't know if it was due to the hastiness of the draft or by lack of understanding of the Vietnamese language, but when we saw the Vietnamese text of the agreement we were shocked to learn that there were a lot of things in the Vietnamese text that we didn't like. We didn't think the ams could understand what was in it.

In terms of Kissinger, he was always very very coy. In terms of how he operated and the way he kept things to himself, his kind of information about the US administration mood, he was a special man, he kept it to himself.

The way that , I was ambassador here in Washington, and had seen him from time to time in the White House, but more than before than after the agreement. Later on he was so immersed in negotiations all around the world, but I saw him more in 69 and 70 and less and less after that.
In Washington I understood the problem I saw it was very difficult for the Am Administration.
In 1968, when we had beaten off the com offensive in January and February, and then later again in April and May, when I came back to Saigon, and went back to the provinces, I discovered a tremendous optimism then, people saw that the enemy could be defeated, and they were very encouraged by it. But the mood in Washington was a gloom and doom one by them. The TET offensive, the Johnson administration was completely depressed by it. I saw president Johnson just two weeks before he withdrew from the election. And I saw Clifford in March 1968 when he came to replace McNamara and I saw sec Rusk and all three of them were in a very changed mood. I have my own record of what they said tome then. I compared the two moods, one in Washington and one in Saigon, despite all the destruction, there ws optimism that we had beaten the communists. Optimism versus doom and gloom. the two contrasted very dramatically.

Now coming to 1972, you remember we first lost Quang Tri, but we stood strongly in An Loc, a kind of Stalingrad, and in the end we succeeded in liberating An Loc and Quang Tri. So after 1972 we were in a good optimistic mood, but we were very precarious because we suffered a lot of military losses. But in general there was a good feeling. But we suspected then, as in 1968, the TET offensive and a few months later the talks in Paris and the election. So we thought after 1972 there would be a lull and then negotiations again, because it was a parallel of 1968.

AS I mentioned to you, I was out of the govt by then and was just a private person. We were confronted by the war with the arrival of Kissinger in October. He brought a draft of the Paris Agreement and we objected to it, and Thieu sent me back again to Washington in January 1973, to try once more again to see what way we could influence the Am government to alter the terms of the Paris of Agreement. I stayed in Washington and met with K and many American officials and friends, and all the people then, in Am, the public opinions, the news media. the Johnson administration was completely depressed by it. I saw president Johnson just two weeks before he withdrew from the election. And I saw Clifford in March 1968 when he came to replace McNamara and I saw sec Rusk and all three of them were in a very changed mood. I have my own record of what they said to me then. I compared the two moods, one in Washington and one in Saigon, despite all the destruction, there was optimism that we had beaten the communists. Optimism versus doom and gloom. the two contrasted very dramatically.

Now coming to 1972, you remember we first lost Quang Tri, but we stood strongly in An Loc, a kind of Stalingrad, and in the end we succeeded in liberating An Loc and Quang Tri. So after 1972 we were in a good optimistic mood, but we were very precarious because we suffered a lot of military losses. But in general there was a good feeling. But we suspected then, as in 1968, the TET offensive and a few months later the talks in Paris and the election. So we thought after 1972 there would be a lull and then negotiation as again, because it was a parallel of 1968.

As I mentioned to you, I was out of the govt by then and was just a private person. We were confronted by the wary with the arrival of Kissinger in October. He brought a draft of the Paris Agreement and we objected to it, and Thieu sent me back again to Washington in January 1973, to try once more again to see what way we could influence the Am government to alter the terms of the Paris Agreement. I stayed in Washington and met with K and many American officials and friends, and all the people then, in Am, the public opinions, the news media, the congress, all they said to me was that there was no possibility of going further than the existing Paris agreement.
I followed Dr. K to Paris and again tried to do our best over there, but practically everything was done by then, already. President Nixon sent all kinds of messages to Thieu then to get agreement from him. Nixon made promises to him and Thieu gave me copies of the messages. But having lived in the US I was skeptical. But Thieu felt different. Thieu could not come to the conclusion that the US would give up Vietnam completely. Especially the emajority of the Vietnamese believed the words of the president of the US, counted on his words, his promises. We came to San Clemente in April 1973 for talks with Nixon and Kissinger, and they said, "You can count on us." I remember well the words from Nixon, he said, "We will bomb them out if there is a violation of the Paris Agreement." And again we have to put ourselves in the context of this period of time, Nixon was the man who achieved detente with Russia the man who achieved removal of diplomatic relations, renewed contact with communist China, and was just reelected with the biggest margin ever achieved in Am history. So Nixon was at that time at the pinnacle of his political power. So Thieu believed in Nixon and it was difficult not to believe in Nixon then.
Then Watergate came up in April and May. And so at the time that Theiu and Nixon got together on April 3, 1973, Nixon was feeling in pretty good shape. We have to go back to the context in which things were done and circumstances in which people consulted and operated.

Personally, I remained very skeptical about it. and I constantly warned Thieu about the Americans completely getting out. By the summer of 1974 it was too late. Thieu should know, the lack of reaction to the Ams when Tan Le Chan was lost showed that there was no possibility of relying on the Ams reacting against the NVA if they violated the Paris Agreement. But there was another thing, even myself as a Vietnamese living in Washington, in 1974, fall of 1974, even myself I did not believe that South Vietnam would collapse. Why? Because many times already in the past we had faced tremendous difficulty and somehow we always got out. The whole country had been subverted by a com offensive and somehow we got out in 1968 and the 1972, and we retook what they took. And so we had been lulled into this feeling in thinking well we have been through all of these difficulties already and somehow we will get out of it.

Even myself, a man who lived in Washington and who to some degree understood Ams and the mood in Washington, I could never believe that thee would be a complete collapse of South Vietnam.
Ban Me Thout, even then, I remember it well, I was traveling around the world then, all around the world, in January of 1975 Thieu sent me to New Delhi in India. I was a trouble shooter then. And I returned to Saigon in February. And on March 10 Ban Me Thout fell and Thieu asked me again after I returned, to go to Washington, on the 18 of March, after the fall of BMT. It was a very dangerous situation. Even more dangerous because of the political situation in Saigon, because there was the opposition of Father Thanh-- politically speaking it was a mess. Militarily speaking it was more than a mess, mortal danger. And psychologically speaking it was very bad. With inflation and with all the problems of US aid elimination, the vn barely succeeding to have to live on their monthly salary. But even with that, candidly, when I took the plane to WASH on the 17th of March 1975 I did not think it could be a collapse.

I was told that Ted Serong had submitted his idea on reconsolidation to Prime Minister Khiem around the end of 1974. And Khiem gave that to Thieu. But if Thieu agreed with this idea he kept it to himself. Later on when I asked Cao Van Vien, after the war, whether or not the Serong plan was discussed, he said no there was no discussion of it until 11 of March, one day after Ban Me Thout. There was a breakfast meeting on the 11 of March, and only then did Thieu describe to some of the generals attending the meeting, he had the idea of regrouping the forces to better defend the country.

By the time I arrived in Paris, the news of the withdrawal of the highlands was on the front page of the papers.

When I arrived in Paris and saw the debacle of Pleiku and Kontum I saw that it was very dangerous. I arrived in Washington on the 21st of March. I contacted the Am administration and discovered that well there was a lack of interest in Vietnam. Kissinger was in the middle east. And a few days later President Ford proceeded on his vacation in Vail, and the Am Congress went on its recess. And with Vietnam in trouble, you have to come to some conclusion about this.

I saw many men in the Pentagon. I saw General Weyand when he went to visit Vietnam. But by then it was too late.

I returned to Saigon one week before the final collapse. My wife and my children were here already. My wife and son came along with me to the US and my daughters were in college in America.
But I came back to South Vietnam, three days before President Thieu's resignation. President Thieu was incommunicado by that time, so I didn't see him.

I was contacted by Robert Shaplen at that time. He called me in Washington from Hong Kong. He had flown there from Saigon on the 16th of April. And he said my friends had given him the message that I have come home many of my Vietnamese friends said. They had no idea what was going on in Washington and they had no contact with Thieu or Graham Martin and they needed to know what was going on. And I had serious flu, but I could not afford not to go back. My mother and my sister were in Vietnam.

My friends had no idea what the situation was and they asked Shaplen to ask me to come back to Saigon.

I suddenly realized that it was the end of an era and there was a new era coming up. I told my friends that as far as the US is concerned the war is over.

I had heard President Ford's speech at Tulane on television. And that is what he said.
I left on the 26th. I left from Tan Son Nhut. Among my relatives there was no one closely related to me politically, and so they were not punished. A cousin the Airborne is still in the reeducation camps (1988).

I came out on a small Navy plane. We flew to Bangkok. You have to understand now that during these days in Saigon, everyone was walking around like in a trance. And no one could have the serenity to look at the situation. It is impossible to described the mood of all of us in Vietnam, then. During the last days in Saigon it was a kind mechanical gestures, we went through, I destroyed documents, I tried to select documents to bring to the US, I saw friends who came to see me for help in getting out, all these were done in a very mechanical way without thinking much about it. And so it was in a kind of physical and mental exhaustion, at the end, you found yourself at Tan Son Nhut, and by the time I was on the plane and looked out the windows and saw all the colors, the green delta of South Vietnam gliding by the plane, only then was there the swelling up of emotions as the plane climbed. I felt the emotion well up and I could no longer resist it.

And I cried.

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