Monday, December 10, 2012

Nguyen Xuan Oanh Remembers the Fall of Saigon

Nguyen Xuan Oanh

"An Increasing Sense of Dejection"

In early March of 1975 I was right here in Ho Chi Minh City. I had been out of the government for a few years. I had been the minister for economy and finance in the past, but I was also acting prime minister of the government on two occasions, altogether for about six months time.
After I left the government I worked in the private sector. I was involved in banking. I had my hands involved in almost every bank in the country, with holdings here and holdings there. I was called the "Father of the Commercial Banking System" here in the Ho Chi Minh City because there were no commercial banks before I helped establish them. I came back and I undertook reform in banking. I put together a banking law that allowed 13 or 14 Vietnamese banks to open their doors for business. This is one of my solid professional achievements, establishing a good banking system for Vietnam and then transforming the central bank, which was nothing but a currency body in the past, to function as a real central bank. So I had undertaken a fundamental reform of the banking system and of the financial structure of the country. And with that I tried very hard to push the country toward greater growth and more development. Economic development is in a sense my background, my job.
I quit the government because I didn't like the way the military ran the country. I didn't think they knew much about politics or economics. And I think that when someone like Nguyen Cao Ky came to power, I think that really was the end, the bottom. I had no respect for anyone of his extraction. He was basically a soldier who could not become anything at all besides that. He joined the with the French in our war against the French. And after that he used his social contacts in the army to fulfill his ambitions. The good generals were weeded out of power and the Young Turks, as they called themselves, came to power, with little knowledge of economics or of government.
The American aid to the generals was very subtle, I would say. They played a role in the sense that they would push someone rather than let things happen as they should have and then simply to try their best to do whatever they could with whoever might come into power. So in a sense the Americans played a low key role. On the other hand they might have been misled by those who gave them information from inside the government. They may have felt that Ky was very well liked, and that may have been the source of their confusion. But I don't think you can blame it on the Americans only. Once Ky and the Young Turks emerged, after all, how much truth can you really expect from people's opinions? Ky and his friends emerged on the mistakes of others, really. The mistakes of others created a power void and someone had to emerge to fill that void in the government and it happened to be Ky and his friends.
The military were the ones who really held the power, and so in the government they simply created a position for themselves. But in looking at it from an other perspective, you have to wonder what other qualifications Ky and his friends had, what qualities that were needed to restore the country. And I don't believe that a man of either his understanding or of his stature could do the job.
There was a very rapid decline in Vietnam after 1973. That is when the war became more serious than ever before. So the oil crisis and rising oil prices affected Vietnam, but not in the way that it affected other countries. We still had American aid and money, somewhere near 800 million dollars a year. The rise in the price of oil didn't affect Vietnam that much. It was at war at the moment but it had the support of the American government. The rising oil prices caused a slowdown somewhat but the sluggishness of the development was due mainly to the war situation which had become more serious than ever before. In particular since the Vietnamization efforts of the war, economic development had declined terrifically, because Vietnam was not ready to carry on this type of war. Foreign investment in Vietnam also dropped off considerably after 1973.
As the Americans withdrew their support -- military, financial and otherwise step by step -- Vietnam went deeper and deeper into trouble. In terms of national unity, in terms of combat effectiveness and the economy itself there began a downward trend. I don't think that corruption became worse after that time but it remained at about the same high level.
The trouble comes in this way. As you are approaching the end, things go from bad to worse. You could feel that people felt less and less about what you might call national identity. Or national independence. There was an increasing sense of dejection. People felt less and less attached to a government that did not yield results. The help of the Americans was drawing away, very clearly. And that added to an adverse psychological impact due to the results of the news from the war effort and the fact that the armies did not succeed in regaining some of the lost territories.
The North Vietnamese came south with a mission and with an ideology. But the South was without a profound ideology. The ideal of the North Vietnamese was Communism, carried to its ultimate end. The strong feeling of nationalism had been turned by them into an ideal of communism. Consuming communism. This was because of the mistakes that had been made in American by men like John Foster Dulles. Ho Chi Minh himself, in his writing, said very clearly that "the road that carries me to communism is through nationalism," and if you turn to that first sentence of the Constitution, which he himself had written in 1945, you see it is a quotation from the American Declaration of Independence. Ho Chi Minh had all of his hopes and dreams on America. But when in the end he was confronted with the fact that he was rejected by John Foster Dulles and the Americans, he had nothing left but communism for help and for ideology.
I don't believe that Ho Chi Minh was a communist even after he formed the Indochinese Communist Party and studied in the Soviet Union. Even after that he approached the US many times for help. But he felt very much rejected by America. The simple fact is that Ho Chi Minh's road to power went through Moscow but it also went back and forth many times through the American State Department and the White House. They never paid any attention to him. You should look at that Constitution which he had written himself to see how much he admired America.
The ideology of the South, on the other hand, was based upon the fact that people of the South were used to a kind of democracy and a free-wheeling kind of life style. And they seemed to like very much the American way of life. Good work, good money, good life. That was the ideology of the South. This was the psychology of the South. But it came apart pretty easily.
Of course inflation was bad in 1974 and 1975 because everyone was trying to leave the country and they wanted to get rid of their dollars to buy gold to take with them, so prices went up very rapidly. By January of 1975 the price of Vietnamese money in dollars was changing every day, going up, it doubled and then it tripled. People were taking millions upon millions of South Vietnamese currency out of the bank to buy dollars with them. On the very last days the price was 5 or 6000 Dong for a dollar.
I am very happy to say that I am today independent, financially speaking. I got some money by playing the stock market back in the States. I have a small account that I still have now. So I am not touched by corruption or by inflation or by anything. And in those last days in South Vietnam I had the chance to make billions of dollars, which I did not care about. Because in my position as Governor of the Central Bank was offered billions of Dong --not millions but billions --in fact all of my colleagues could testify to that. They always went through intermediaries, and I always kicked them out of my office. It was just like I was saying "the buck stops here."
A domino theory, applies in the case of South Vietnam and what happened after Ban Me Thuot. It was one post by one post that it fell to the communists. And it became clear that we were approaching the end. So until the military situation cleared out and became much better, there was no sense in talking economic policy, since the survival of the flag came first, trade followed the flag, for sure, after this. And if the flag is there then there is something you can do about it, and if it isn't, then there isn't.
The fall of Phuoc Long was to me the beginning of the end. Phuoc Long because we should have regained that province, and since they did not do it, to me that was the sign that things were slowing down.
President Thieu asked me to join his government, way back in 1968. I did go to the U.S. with quite a few others on a sort of person to person diplomatic mission for him. In the United States I went to the Union Club to talk to my friends who were there. To see to what extent they still cared about salvation for Vietnam. But I found out that the die had been cast and that if Vietnam did not help itself, then no one else would help it. And Vietnam, in a sense, I found, was not that crucial to the American sphere of influence, anyway. So if Vietnam could help itself, then you have the chance for other governments to give it aid, more and more. But with no development, no good news from battle, no democracy, no minor good news, then the US Congress thought it was better to relax its support to Vietnam.
Finally, in April of 1975 we told President Thieu to resign. By we I mean myself and a few of the generals, including Tran Van Don. In the very last days before the liberation, as they call it now, Tran Van Don accepted a position as deputy prime minister in charge of defense, and since he a little experience in governmental affairs, I tried to help him out. I told him very clearly that I wanted no part in this government, but as his friend I would help him out. So together we had to do many many things. And one of the things we had to do was to tell Thieu to get out while there was still time to get out because the council of generals had met several times and thought that he should get out. Now Thieu's support, as you know, depended upon the support of the council of generals, so when that news was given to Thieu by Don, Thieu thought that his time was up, and he prepared to resign. So we went to see Mr. Graham Martin with the news and to tell him about that, and he wasn't sure whether we should do it. I think he was badly misinformed about the day to day happenings in the political situation. The council of generals was a loosely constructed organization, and Ky was at one time one of the members of the council. Tran Van Minh was in there and Tran Van Don. It had political strength and it had military strength as well. Thieu was quite afraid of an assassination. And at that moment he was very much unsure of himself. Some of the cronies around him, General Dang Van Quang and others, were loyal. But no good general would support him.
Henry Kissinger also had become quite disillusioned with Thieu. The last time he was in Vietnam, he said to Thieu, "You know Mr. President, I have seen Le Duc Tho cry." And he said that very sincerely. Kissinger was happy about the negotiations and the fact that we were going to end the war. But Thieu's nephew, Hoang Duc Nha said to Kissinger, "These are the tears of a crocodile." Mr. Kissinger was so unhappy about that remark that he swore he would never come back to Vietnam again since Thieu surrounded himself with people like Nha.
The American Congress withdrew its support because there was no sign of democratization and no good economic news and no good military news. And adding these things together there was no reason for Congress to support Vietnam. Then you read the American mind and you see that the pragmatic way of getting out of Vietnam was by Vietnamization. On the other hand Vietnamization killed Vietnam.
I watched Thieu resign on television. It was a terrible speech, added to what he said before, it was illogical. Thanks to his cronies, he did not have a realistic image of the US. He thought that the US was fed up with him, which was in a sense true. But he blamed everyone but himself when he walked away. He was a main actor in all of this tragedy.
I expected him to leave the country after he resigned. All groups wanted him to leave the country, including the new President, Mr. Huong.
At the end of their game Thieu and his supporters had to leave the country. The Americans would never again give him help. And he had no mandate of any sort to stay, and if he did he might be put in prison or he might be killed.
President Thieu in the end tried to take the gold reserve of Vietnam with him when he left. Yes, he did. This is true. I know it. I had about $250 million in gold in the Central Bank. Despite our position in trade, we always kept a certain amount of gold in the country. We always kept $250 million, about half of it overseas in the central banks of the world, and about half of it was kept in the vault here, so there was at least $100 million in the vault here in Vietnam at that time. For one person -- President Thieu -- that is a lot of money, if not for one country. We figured that we needed about $250 for a short term balancing out of payments.
In 1974 Thieu had a couple of persons try to find out how to smuggle gold out of Vietnam. Then in 1975 one of the things he did was this -- there was a Swiss airplane for charter, which brought medical supplies to Vietnam, and on the way back it had an empty cargo hold. So he asked them if they would take a small cargo back for him. Their headquarters was in Switzerland. They requested the right to do that and they were told no. The problem was the risk was so high and the insurance was so high that they decided not to do it. Thieu knew of the gold and wanted desperately to get it out.
Then you have a fellow who was elevated in the government, Nguyen Van Hao, who said that this gold belonged to Vietnam and nobody could touch it. Given the fact that he was the senior officer of the government, he directed the banks and he said you don't touch that gold without my permission.
In fact Thieu had no right to the gold. But Hao, playing on the fact that he was the senior member of the government, told the Governor of the Bank that Thieu could not touch the gold without his requisition. Hao emphasized the fact that I, as Governor of the Bank, was the guardian of the gold.
So Thieu left the country without the gold. Yet people forget he left not with gold but with the next best thing -- all of the antiques of Vietnam. He had them packed in a huge boat and had them shipped out of the country to Guam. Then very luckily the Guam government kept it there and didn't give it to Thieu. I don't know where it is now. I have no idea. The US government has it, but where, I don't know. Perhaps they should say what happened to those antiques.
Thieu had a small quantity of gold, but it was legal, the kind you can buy on the street. That is what he took. But after he was unable to get the gold deposit of the country, he wanted the antiques of the country. Perhaps he got them.
The government was passed over to big Minh on the evening of the 28th. During the time he was president, Tran Van Huong didn't do much except lose time since he did not know what to do, and events caught up with him. He was too old. In the past I had been his deputy on two different occasions. He was capable and above reproach in terms of corruption or influence. He was completely capable and clean. But he was not qualified to carry out the job in 1975.
I had been his deputy for almost one year before this, and now when he became president I tried to organize everything he tried to do. In the morning I had the press summarize everything for him, then I brought the summary to his home and during his breakfast and read that to him.
Then I went to my office and had the police department and the military make a report to me and then I briefed him on whatever else was going on till that moment.
It was difficult to get a grasp on the situation, since it was very fluent. He was not a military man, so he needed someone to brief him completely. And he had to be briefed on what was new on the international scene. He received dignitaries from overseas and so on after that.
I was his deputy prime minister. He asked me to join him because he knew that I was capable and I knew how to run the office. It was pretty hard to get him to accept a new way of doing things. He had his own way of life that dated back to the previous century, his own way of doing things. He was so weak in his perception of the new things, weak and reluctant to face up to the realities so that he didn't quite know what to do at that moment.
The Assembly forced us to accept someone else as president since Huong could do nothing.
Tran Van Don, a close friend of mine, was working for us at that time. I had him act as the front man in getting information regarding sitting down and talking about what we could do. It was my understanding that the French Ambassador came forward and was helping Don and the NLF to communicate. What was the truth, I do not know. Also, he had some people who sort of knew the Buddhists in the opposition movement in those days, and they seemed to have some contact with the NLF also.
I was not concerned about a coup by General Ky at that time because he did not have much following at the moment. He might have followers in the Air Force and the Army, if he was still in position to get money or resources from the government. Remember now, Ky acted almost like a Mafia type person. He distributed whatever he received to keep people loyal to him, but when that was finished, then he was finished. For people who are driven by idealism or ideology or a high philosophy or anything of that sort, none of these people would be attracted to guys like Nguyen Cao Ky.
You see, they were drug traffickers also. There have been books about these things, of course. But we were aware of it. This is how it happened. Those who engaged in the drug traffic were those who had access to aerial transportation. Ky had many colleagues in the Air Force and they flew planes in and out of Laos and in and out of Cambodia. Sometimes they sent trucks to carry the drugs, but these things were harder. The plane was more efficient and was used by these guys.
He had to get cash to spend to keep his people loyal and that is all that he cared about. He had no ideology and no ideals. None at all. He went day by day in his life, just like Mafia- type people. These drugs that he smuggled were for the American market and they were very easy to get. There were no other generals who did this that I know about.
By 1975 many people in Vietnam were very angry at the Americans who had been their main source of living. Once the Americans reduced their help and withdrew their men then these people's own fortunes began to change. There was a sort of disillusionment among the people and among the soldiers.
The Americans in the Embassy told every one to watch out for the blood bath that the Vietcong would bring with them. There was no way of saying what would happen. Most people had no way out and were just left to their own fate. There was no way of stopping the communists and there was no help from the outside. People were just resigned to take whatever history dealt them.
Duong Van Minh waited for contacts to materialize before taking office. The French played the game very well. They said that they were the ones who held the cards. And they said that if he wanted them to carry the message out from Minh's government to the communists so there could be negotiations in the last days of the country, they would do it. The French trump card in the last days was this: they wanted very badly to get the Chinese to come in. They believed that if they could get the Chinese consent you could get the war to end in perhaps a very satisfactory way. Then Minh said, "No, we don't care about those things. The end is here, I have done everything I can so let's just forget about it." So he went on radio and dispatched a sort of message saying that it was time to lay down the arms and to rebuild the country.
Minh had been contacted by the Vietcong and had contacts with them. One of his brothers was a colonel in the North Vietnamese Army approaching Saigon. But when that battalion was outside the city, the Communists had them withdraw and go back to the North, so there was no contact between Minh and his brother.
On the evening of April 28th Minh decided to take over. And he had to set up a new cabinet. Vu Van Mau was to be the prime minister. But he did not have all of the other men he wanted. While he was waiting to assemble his cabinet, the straw that broke the camel's back was the bombardment of Tan Son Nhut. That was the evening when he was sworn in as President.
On the next day he issued a request to the US government to leave within 24 hours. It was impressed upon him by the communists. The Americans had to pull out or there might be bloodshed.
So in a sense, all of the promises had failed, there was no time to act and it was already all over when he came in.
My home was on Highway Number One within the city on the east side toward Cambodia. On the 29th I could see soldiers coming down that highway. Then there was a B40 rocket that struck my gate. And left a big hole in my gate and about 10 or 15 people died right there. So knowing that they were coming down that way with tanks and other equipment, I could not stay there. So we went down to the Caravelle Hotel and stayed there for almost one month in a room. We stayed there thinking that perhaps in that area we would be safe and not much would happen to us.
They came to the front of the Caravelle. We had the press corps there in the hotel and the Australian embassy staff was there and most of the radio people were there, and so I felt I would be safe there. I knew the manager there very well. So no one from the North came into the hotel and I went out once and drove around but I heard gunfire so I came back to the hotel I went home to see how things were there and told the servants to watch out for themselves and to lock the doors and not let anyone in. I was almost one month in the Caravelle. When everything seemed to have settled down, I went home.
And then one beautiful morning a police major with quite a few of his troops came to my home and didn't threaten me, but he just said that I had to talk with him. We conversed. I identified myself as a former deputy prime minister. He asked me why I had not registered myself as a member of the previous government. I said I had quit the government and I had nothing to do with the government now. Then he said, I am from the interior department and he said "Mr Le Duc Tho wants to see you." Then he said it might take a few days and so I should bring some things with me.
I got next to him in his car in the back seat, and a policeman drove the car, and we went to the interior department which is the police department here. Then he told me that I had to wait for him there until I saw him tomorrow. They put me in a room and I knew that the end was near.
I didn't really care at all what would happen to me by that time. I was far away from getting any help from anywhere, so I had just given up by that time. I had always felt that freedom was the dearest thing one could have. And when they take that away from you, you have nothing left. I know their game. So I had to accept it because there was nothing I could do about it.
We had lost the war. And now it was their turn.

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