Sunday, December 16, 2012
Fox Butterfield Remembers the Fall of Saigon
"TURN OUT THE LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL"
I first went to Vietnam was 1962. I went as sort of a tourist/graduate student and stopped for a few weeks to look around. I'd been in Taiwan on Fulbright and I stopped and stayed with some Chinese people. There was a war going on. My Chinese friends took me out into the countryside, I was fascinated by it and a little scared because I didn't know what to expect. The American presence was already clear. The American GIs and advisers were sitting around the bars and restaurants. I would have loved to have stayed, I was really fascinated by it, but my professor at Harvard kept telling me to hurry up and come back, so I went back to graduate school. My field was Chinese history, and I did a fair amount of reading about Vietnam and became very interested in it and I led some of the early anti-war protests at Harvard.
At that time, politically, I certainly would have been well to the left of center. I would have been in American terms very far left. I helped found a group called TOCSIN, which, a couple of years later became SDS. We were an anti-nuclear group at a time when the big issue was nuclear testing in the atmosphere. We were calling for a halt on nuclear testing in the atmosphere. That was in 1960-61. We were actually successful, because Kennedy signed the agreement with Khrushchev for no nuclear testing in the atmosphere.
In graduate school I did a lot of reading on Vietnam and organized a thing we called the Speakers Bureau, which provided junior faculty and graduate students to go out and talk about Vietnam to groups. I did a fair amount of lecturing on Vietnam in 1963, 64 and 65, before many other people became interested in it.
My next direct experience with Vietnam came in 1969. My grandfather was Cyrus Eaton, the Armand Hammer of that time, and he got invitations through his Russian friends to go to Hanoi. By that time I was in Taiwan working on my dissertation and also working as a stringer for the New York Times part time. He called up -- he was 89 years old at the time -- and asked if I wanted to go to Hanoi. So I said, sure, I'd love to go. But I didn't take it all that seriously. Then he called back a week later and said give me your passport number and birth date, it's all arranged, and meet me in Phnom Penh.
We got on the ICC plane, the old International Control Commission, which was Poland, Canada and India. They made a once a week plane trip to Hanoi and that was the only means of communication with Hanoi from the non-communist world.
The trip affected me in the reverse way that it affected other people. I expected, having read Harrison Salisbury, to find a lot of bomb damage in Hanoi. In fact, I found none. And I became skeptical and I kept asking them to take me to the bomb damage, but they never could. What I came to see was that the bomb damage stopped on the outskirts of the city. And that the American claims about the bombing were basically correct. The little damage they showed me and said was bomb damage actually came from rockets that had been shot up and came down on the city.
I think Salisbury and others were misled. The correspondents who went there at the end of the war said the same thing. In fact, bomb damage wasn't what the North Vietnamese said it was. The Americans were very careful about bombing Hanoi. They bombed the crap out of the rest of the country, but not Hanoi.
The conclusion that I drew in Hanoi at that time was that I was dealing with a very authoritarian regime. And I didn't care for that aspect of it. I also saw that they were incredibly poor. On the one hand I could see that as being partly as a result of the war. On the other hand one of the things that began to strike me was that they were pursuing the war to the exclusion of any development of their own country. The North Vietnamese leaders were not interested in economic development or the well being of their people, they were interested only in this nationalist goal of obtaining complete power.
On that trip we became the first people aside from Kissinger to talk to Le Duc Tho, who as then negotiating secretly with Kissinger. We met with Pham Van Dong and half a dozen other leaders of the North. I found them to be rigid and clever at the same time. They were not, to my way of thinking, very interested in people. I had a strong impression of them being interested in achieving their goal and their goal had become really transcendent and it was victory in the South and unifying the country. They were determined to pay whatever price was required to do that.
I'll tell you what touched me off at that time. The POW issue had become a big issue by that time. And they had provided no accounting of American POWs -- no names or anything. So nobody really knew much about the prisoners. And there was a lot of agitation back in the states about finding out about the POWs. I used the opportunity when I was there to put some questions to them about the prisoners. I didn't want to go and see the prisoners, but what I said was that the Americans were sincerely interested in getting a list of prisoners. That was very important. And if they could provide such a list they could probably win support in the US, I said, since they were seen as intransigent on that issue.
When I first began bringing up the POW issue, I got a lot of blank looks. And they asked why the Americans were worried about this. I brought this up with some East European diplomats -- East Germans and Hungarians. And we went around to see the Russians and had several sessions with the Russian ambassador and talked to him about this issue. I remember a Hungarian told us, "You know, the North Vietnamese simply do not understand why the Americans are concerned about their prisoners." And he said, "Look around. Do you see any wounded soldiers here?" And it struck me. You didn't see any wounded soldiers, no amputees in Hanoi. And he said, "There aren't any." And I asked, "Why not?" And he said, "It's a very simple answer when you think about it. The Ho Chi Minh Trail is a one-way street. People who were sent down the pike fight till they die or are just left down there. Nobody ever comes back."
When you were drafted in North Vietnam it was a death sentence. They also told me there was a lot of draft resistance in the North because people figured out that once you were drafted you never came back. You were dead.
Also, remember, there was virtually no mail service in North Vietnam. So a family never got a letter from a son or father sent South. If they did, they were very lucky. When you went South, you were dead.
There was a lot of draft resistance in the North. A lot. But it was never in the press. Things like that really shook me up. On the one hand, I thought, what a noble sacrifice they were making. But on the other hand, how horrible! The government was willing to pay that kind of price. I got the impression that one the one hand the North Vietnamese leaders really believed that this was their duty -- to unify the country. But on the other, the average person in North Vietnam was never particularly enthusiastic about the war.
Hanoi was terribly terribly poor. That struck me right away. Terrible poor. Also, to me there was a real sadness about the place. The war had gone on so long with such a huge sacrifice that the common people had become terribly lethargic and they were so exhausted and they had so little to eat. I had never seen such poverty before anywhere in the world, and I had traveled a good deal throughout the Third World.
The leaders in the North had many cultural devices to draw on to keep the war going: the sense of loyalty to the country and the communist party was well organized and really worked on these people.
Later, when I interviewed NVA prisoners in the South, I found that they were very unhappy kids. And there was a lot of running away, a lot of desertion in their ranks. Now you see it again in the boat peopole, and in how screwed up the economy of Vietnam is today.
The journalists who went to North Vietnam were a carefully selected group of people. And they came back with these glowing images, like the people who went to China during the cultural revolution.
But the East Europeans who knew the North Vietnamese leaders were asking, "Who's crazy enough to do this." They saw what was happening. They saw what the problems were.
I realized when I was talking to Le Duc Tho and Pham Van Dong about the POWs that they would stare blankly at me as though to ask, "What are you talking about? Two or three hundred men? Who gives a shit? We've lost 200,000 men going down South and never seen them again and who cares?" It was a very callous attitude and at the same time it was breathtaking. You know one of those light bulbs goes off in your head, and I said, "Of course, how can they possibly see why were interested in a few hundred prisoners, when they have no way of knowing what's happened to millions of their people?" That is what life was like to them and so it seemed like a bizarre American trick to demand the names of a few hundred POWs.
I said to myself, "My god, this is horrible." So my idea of "the glorious cause" was seriously dented by actually going to Hanoi. You see, I'm the funny person who went to Hanoi being very anti-war and came home very anti-North Vietnamese.
I think that people like Jane Fonda who went to the North just didn't look around. They were either not trained enough or basically they didn't look. They didn't see this. They were mesmerized by the banquets and the good cheer and so on.
I went to Hanoi on the antiwar side and came back feeling quite different. I was becoming a reporter at that time. I wrote a series of stories on the visit and they were published in the Times. They gave me bylines for my stories, and when the first one appeared, the publisher of the paper called the managing editor and asked, "Who is this guy Butterfield and what is he doing in Hanoi and what is his bio? Who is he?"
A short time after that I was working for the New York Times in New York. I stopped working on my PhD. It was a combination of things that made me give up the degree. First, the thesis topic I picked out wasn't going anywhere and second I had been in graduate school too long, and third this was literally an activist period. People back on American campuses wanted to be participating in the action and be doing something. And the idea of being in graduate school at that time really lost its appeal to me. When I began writing stories for the Times and publishing them the next day in the newspaper, well, my God! That was something.
They hired me as a clerk at the Times and I spent the first 9 months as a clerk. Then I worked on the Metro staff for another 9 months. Then I became the Newark bureau chief for the Times. Then in the spring of 1971 in Newark I'd been badly beaten up covering a story and my life was threatened. It was not pleasant. Newark's a rougher place than Hanoi. The Times hired a bodyguard to stay with me and I ended up with a black bodyguard who was about 6'7", and designed to be as menacing looking as possible.
Then, I got called in to help out on the Pentagon Papers in the spring of 1971. Neil Sheehan couldn't read all this stuff by himself, so I was the next person assigned to the project.
One thing I got out of the Pentagon Papers was that Nixon ordered the IRS to audit everybody who had anything to do with the Pentagon Papers. And so they did.
After we published the Pentagon Papers the Times sent me back to Newark for about a month and then they sent me to Saigon. So in essence the real reward for working on the Pentagon Papers was getting the assignment in Saigon.
Of the individuals who went to Hanoi as correspondents none of them ever came to Saigon except me. They went to Hanoi and that was all they knew about Vietnam. They would say, "We know all we need to know about Vietnam."
Harrison Salisbury is an example of this. He's really pretty bad on Vietnam. Read his book. Read his dispatches. He was wrong on all the important issues on Vietnam.
I arrived in Saigon and here's Saigon this wealthy city, and they were relatively free, and people were telling me how bad it was and how there were orphans on the street and, "Yes," I could tell them, "but go to Hanoi and see how bad it can get."
There were political prisoners in the South but there were major reeducation camps in the North for political prisoners. I talked to the Eastern European journalists who were there and heard about them.
By the time I got to Vietnam the American soldiers had become pretty sloppy and lazy and nobody cared. That was 1971. And I made a big effort to spend as much time as I could with the Vietnamese instead of the Americans.
I came to this from a very specific perspective. Early on people came to Vietnam came to Vietnam believing in the American cause. Later on correspondents came as committed anti-war activitists. Very few people came having started out with the anti-war movement and then having had a change in their thinking and then concluded, as I had, "It's not so simple."
In Vietnam I wanted, because of my academic training, to find a village, that could be a sounding board, and I wanted to find a communist village. I drove to Long An province. I'd read a book by Jeffrey Race called War Comes to Long An, a good book that's entirely wrong. The book was 100 percent right up until the time he finished it. And then when he finished it, it had no bearing on anything. He wrote the book only up to Tet in 1968, and after Tet everything changed. All the guerrillas from that area went into Saigon to fight and were all killed. And in the aftermath, the US 9th division went through that area and they just cleaned out every communist that was left there.
So I went into this village and walked around. It had been a solidly pro-communist village. And when I got there I could walk around and stay overnight. I took my interpreter, Nguyen Ngoc Luong, with me and I went back several times.
My conclusion from the village was that the political causes of the war had disappeared. The years of horrible fighting and sacrificing and killing had affected the people so that they really didn't care any more. They had become survivors. They were contemptuous of the Saigon government for its corruption and inefficiency, and they were scared of the communists for their very heavy handed, ruthless methods and their constant appeals to ideology without any allowance for human nature. To them, the rights and the wrongs of the long conflict had almost been eliminated and the problem that was primary was simply survival.
In war, any war, you have these things that are terrible, and this war was no better and no worse than other wars. General Weyand said that the lesson we've got to learn from Vietnam is that war is really hell and if you go to war you've got to be involved in things that war is. War is about killing and death and terror sand its the absolute worst and one shouldn't think otherwise. And if you can't accept that, stay out of it.
People who say we were in Vietnam out of some malice or we were so bad and the Vietnamese were such good people, are just misinformed about the horrible thing that war is. And Vietnam was no less of a war than any other war we were in, but it was a lot longer than the First World War or the Second World War. We should remember that.
These figures about the bombing, for example. I remember talking about the bombing of Vietnam in my antiwar lectures and this tonnage of bombs that we were dropping. And then I got to Vietnam and I went first to Hanoi and I started looking for the bomb damage and I was honestly looking for it and it wasn't there. I thought it was there and it wasn't there. In South Vietnam and I was amazed by the tonnage of bombs they dropped and I didn't see bomb damage. We dropped millions of tons of bombs on the jungle. And maybe we killed a few people, but we didn't destroy cities. The figures on the bombing are irrelevant. They were dropped on the jungle -- nowhere.
By 1972 I was not optimistic. After the Paris Agreement, the South Vietnamese needed continuing American economic support to keep South Vietnam alive and they needed American air support to survive militarily.
In 1973, November I left, and said to the guy who was going to take my place, "Remember, this is a war and it's going to end militarily. Don't forget it. You're going to have to go out and cover it."
In 1973 I went to Tokyo and was there until February 1975 when they asked me to come back to Vietnam.
And I went up to Pleiku in February, 1975, and I went to see the press officer at the II Corps headquarters. And this guy kept a little press book and every time a correspondent came in he had them sign his book. And he brought it out for me and I signed it, and I found that the last correspondent to be there was me in 1972. Nobody had been there since. They had forgotten there was a war. Nobody had been to the Highlands and they forgot there was a war.
After 1973 the reporters believed in the Paris Agreement, I think, and they got mesmerized by Saigon and the North Vietnamese who had their little camp out at Tan Son Nhut and nobody was going out to see the real war.
I went to see a number of Vietnamese in Pleiku, I knew some of them there, and I met a Vietnamese CIA contact, a very bright guy, and I visited the DAO intelligence people. The Vietnamese and the Americans there outlined for me exactly what was going to happen. They knew where the North Vietnamese were, they knew their unit numbers, they knew their position they knew their objectives basically. I just went up for the briefing and had been given the briefing and was told what would happen.
I did two or three stories when I was there I did one on the North Vietnamese plan for the big offensive. I outlined the impending offensive, and I said that the Central Highlands would fall and nobody could tell the consequences of that.
I also found that the price of heroin had gone way down after the Americans left. The Chinese merchants who brought drugs in from Thailand were stuck with enormous oversupply of it. And so the reduced the price on it. The troops in the Central Highlands who had nothing much to do, were getting hooked on it. It was particularly true in isolated areas. They were smoking it. And of course this was almost pure heroin, very powerful stuff. Not cut. They were high all the time.
I met this ranger who was completely spaced out, and my interpreter started talking to him and gave him in lift in the car we were riding in.
The troops were very demoralized and they were so strung out they were completely ineffective. This is not just casual drug use. At this fire base where the Ranger was stationed, nobody was doing anything. They were just sitting there stoned all the time. And so I started talking to people and I found that a very high percentage of the combat troops in the Central Highlands were drug addicts. And this was in particularly true in Pleiku where the chief pusher in this area was the son of the province chief. He was operating out of the TOC, Tactical Operations Center. His heroin price was very low, very affordable.
My conclusion was that this area was in terrible shape and the men there were very vulnerable.
I traveled around the highlands and did other stories and then I went to the Delta to do stories there. I kept looking at the basic forces.
The American people had turned against the war. Whatever happened in the war seemed quite irrelevant. We were gone. So, in addition to the logistical consequences of the American pull out there were the psychological consequences. The South Vietnamese troops who went out on patrol would think, "I've got no air support and I've got no artillery fire, the local commander can only fire two rounds a day."
And that that was all true. Really crucial things were gone. For example, if you wanted to come to the central highlands, the only way they could get in and out quickly was by air, and when they lost all air support from the U.S., the number of helicopters they had to fly in and out were down to a couple of flights a day. How can you support two divisions like that? You can't. And the North Vietnamese had four, five or six divisions up there.
I think after the trip I made to the Highlands, I wrote that the situation was really bad. And then in the Delta, I saw the consequences of December offensive. The communists had launched their first major offensive in the Delta since 1968 in December of 1974. And they had succeeded way beyond their expectations. The South Vietnamese lost chunks of the Delta that they hadn't lost since Tet. It was very obvious that the South Vietnamese had neither the will nor the wherewithal to stop the North.
I was in Vietnam for three weeks in February of 1975 and I saw some amazing things. The North made huge inroads in December, and the South Vietnamese morale had declined drastically. In the highlands they were sitting ducks, that they were doing nothing about it, they had no plan. I wrote a story about it. But nobody was paying attention. Nobody paid attention.
I went back to Tokyo. And later I went off on a planned vacation to Austria to go skiing. I was skiing for three days and Ban Me Thout was attacked. And I read about it in the International Herald Tribune.
I called my foreign editor and said, "This looks like the beginning of the end and if you need somebody I'll go back." I felt very strongly about Vietnam. I put a lot of time and effort into it. And I felt I wanted to know what was going to happen. I thought I could still do a good job there. A few days later, the withdrawal from the Highlands began.
So I called again and this time he said, "All right. Go." I got on a train and I went to Zurich and I got on a plane and I got to Saigon. I arrived in Saigon with my skis.
By the time I arrived Pleiku had fallen and offensive had started to succeed. I got there and found that the bureau chief of the Times ,Jim Markham, had just left and gone to Bangkok. He never came back to Vietnam. But Markham, in his last act as bureau chief, had chartered a plane, a brilliant stroke that he had. The plane came from Continental Air Services-- they were there with a few planes. It was a spy plane flown by an guy who was an ex-special forces guy, a big guy who always carried a pistol. And for the last six weeks of the war we had this guy and his plane to take us around.
The first time I flew with him was to Danang on virtually the last day it was in the hands of the South Vietnamese. And I flew to Nha Trang on the last day the South controlled it. Then I went to Phan Rang. We went to a lot of places, and we would always be the last people to get out, since we had our own aircraft.
I became very emotionally involved. The funny thing was that the people in Saigon, in the first few weeks of the offensive, couldn't believe the worst would happen. There was this denial. But the Americans who went up there and saw what happened in Hue or Danang--saw the panic--knew that this was the end. And the panic began to spread. It took a long time to get to Saigon --about three or four weeks. And soon every Vietnamese you knew came to you and wanted help. They knew. In the office we said we'd do what we could.
I didn't worry about my own safety until the very end when Saigon was surrounded. And having seen what was in Danang and Nha Trang, the chaos and the panic, nobody could safely predict what might happen in Saigon. Maybe the Vietnamese would turn on us, we thought.
There was a clear division between the correspondents who went along with the Embassy view, that there would be a negotiated settlement and the others who believed there would be no negotiated settlement. I thought the North wouldn't settle for half a loaf when they could get the whole thing. And I also did not think the North Vietnamese victory would improve Vietnam or the world.
But there was no choice for Americans. There was no way we were going to make the North Vietnamese pay the price and stop.
Once the Americans made that decision, there was no way to change it. And it was tragic that so many Vietnamese would lose so much.
The final evacuation was so screwed up it was almost funny. I had a hotel room on the top floor of the Caravelle. I was the only person who was a guest on the top floor of the hotel. There was a bar up there. It made me a little nervous because when the North Vietnamese rocketed the city, one rocket landed on a hotel just down the street and had blown away the top floor.
That last night, I slept there with some trepidation. Soon after sun up I went to the office about a block away. And I wrote or rewrote my stories from the night before, updating them, saying that two Marines had been killed out at Tan Son Nhut and that the North Vietnamese were inside the city now.
That took me a while. Then I heard that the North Vietnamese had moved into an area near the Saigon Zoo. And Luong and I were going to look at that. So I went downstairs and our office car was gone, but Jim Markahm had left his Volkswagen. I got in it, but I couldn't get it to start, and I spent about 15 minutes trying to get this thing to go but it wouldn't go. And finally Mal Browne came down the street and said, "The plug has been pulled. We're going to evacuate. Let's go." I was right outside the office. There was a 24 hour curfew at that time and nobody was supposed to be on the street. I went back into the office and I pulled my files out of the drawer, all the papers I had. And I thought if there was anything worth saving it had to be those files. Then I went back to the Caravelle and got an Airline bag I had. And I put the files in the bag and came downstairs and we virtually went to the assembly point we had been told to go to, down on Tu Do Street. We walked down there. We waited for a a bus and there was no bus. We waited there not too long but it was apparent that nothing was going to happen there. So we walked for a ways to a hospital complex and we waited there for bus and it never came. We stayed there for an hour or two, and by that time there were more Vietnamese there than Americans. There was this housing complex nearby and the idea was that the helicopters would land on the roof and pick us up. But the doors were locked and there was no way to get inside. So we waited. Keyes Beech and Bob Shaplen were there -- a group of us.
I was a starting to get a little worried. I was mostly worried about what would happen on the street with these Vietnamese civilians. It was natural that they would panic in this situation, and in fact a lot of Vietnamese tried to get aboard the buses and they did.
I got on one of those funny buses to the Embassy. The last bus that went to Tan Son Nhut, they took us out there. The bus drivers were, well, they were civilians who had never been in Saigon before and they never knew where they were going. Our driver took us down to the port and we told him he was taking us in the wrong direction, going the wrong way down the street. People were hot and confused and scared. We just didn't know what was going on. We wondered who were these guys and where were they going. They said they were going to Tan Son Nhut and then went to the port where a lot of Vietnamese wanted to get on the bus.
When we got to Tan Son Nhut and tried to get inside there was firing going on and you could hear it. The gate was barred and there were soldiers there and they were pretty mad and they came out. They stopped us there for some time. Finally they let us in, and there was artillery overhead. We drove in and as we were going by the American compound, which was on our left, a rocket came right over the bus, you could hear the whoosh as it went over very close, and it exploded about 50 yards away from the bus in the American compound. The stuff was coming in right over the bus. Very very close. And as we came in we could see this helicopter lying on its side burning
We were just driving along in this bus. It was a little bit scary. Finally we pulled into the DAO compound. We pulled in and got off and went inside and got in line. We got in these groups of 50 -- a group was called a "stick" by the Marines . The Marines were there and they had machines guns and mortars and they were firing at something. And I went outside and asked them what they were shooting at. And they said they were shooting the bad guys. But I didn't see anybody out there.
We were waiting in a long line and people were telling jokes as we were moving forward. They were saying, "Will the last one out please turn out the light at the end of the tunnel."
When we got to the front of the line, the Marine captain said, "Drop everything you have and run for it." They told us to drop everything. Some people dropped everything and some held their typewriters and so on. I had another little paper sack full of underwear and stuff and I dropped that and kept my notes. And they said run, and we ran. I waited till everybody else in the stick got in the chopper. Then I got in.
I still wasn't sure we would make it out. I wondered if they were going fire rockets at us. As we drove into Tan Son Nhut, we saw a C 119, a flying boxcar, a South Vietnamese air force plane, and it took off to about 600 to 1000 feet and a rocket hit it and it just came apart. It was filled with people. And I thought if they could shoot that down, they could shoot us down. I didn't feel really safe until we got out over the South China Sea.
I felt very sad on the way out. Very sad. I felt very sad for all the people I knew who were losing their country. I had studied China, and I knew what happened there after 1949. Now something like that was sure to happen in South Vietnam. I knew that there would be an end to that entire way of life and that anybody who had anything to do with us was finished, absolutely.