"We Were a Defeated Army"
The reason I went to Saigon was because the designated successor to CIA station chief Ted Shakley, who at that time had been in Saigon for over three years, was a fellow by the name of Joe Smith. At that point in time he was chief of station in Tokyo, one of our most prestigious positions and a former deputy chief of the Far East Division. That is the Far East Division under Bill Colby. A very logical choice. This was all signed, sealed and delivered. Joe Smith will take over from Shakley. At that point Joe Smith's father died. There is a family business in which a lot of people depend. There is nobody else to run it except Joe. So Joe retires and goes to the family business. The successor, which had been planned for two years is suddenly out the window. Joe Smith would have been in terms of background in Asia and background with the Far East Division, a very logical choice.
Now it wasn't exactly that I had been an unknown person. I had known CIA director Richard Helms at that point for some twenty five years and I worked for him in Berlin, I was chief of the German branch which was the apple of both Alan Dulles's and Helms' eye. I was GS-17 which is a pretty high rank. There are actually a lot of similarities between the type of activities I had handled as chief of collection for South America and the situation which confronted us in Vietnam. And perhaps most importantly, I was special assistant for four years to a fellow by the name of Lieutenant General Lucien Truscott, who was the coordinator of intelligence in Germany, among other things. In that capacity I had a great deal of experience working with the U.S. Military. And that had a lot more to do with it than the hijacking. I was chief of station in Buenos Aires when I learned that I had been picked as chief of station in Saigon.
I spoke Spanish. I spoke German. I spoke French. No Asian language. It was a major disadvantage but it was a disadvantage that all of us in the CIA share, because I think above the level of GS-12, which is a major, we had nobody who could speak Vietnamese.
As soon as I got there I made a real effort to meet Vietnamese other than those whom I would have contact with as part of my official responsibilities. I tried to meet people like the head of the bar association, head of the air lines, head of a pharmaceutical company, doctors, dentists, you know, so I would have a little feel for the society. It's a difficult thing. The problem was that I had a job that took eleven, twelve, fourteen hours a day sometimes.
It must look foolish in retrospect, but I had full faith that we would live up to our commitments in Vietnam. I thought that as long as Nixon was president North Vietnam would behave, more or less. I never expected complete cease fire like we had in Europe on May 8, 1945. I never expected that. It never happened either. But we did have for a considerable period, certainly throughout 1973 and the first half of 1974 what we used to call a "less fire." In other words, we had a situation where you didn't have a cease fire but you didn't have major military activity and a level of violence, sabotage, assassination, ambushes and so forth stayed within what we called very cynically "tolerable limits." It was a level of violence that both sides could sustain indefinitely, without any change in the political situation.
I think that had the North lived up to its part of the Paris Agreement there would have been no trouble with it. Even the presence of North Vietnamese troops in the South need not have been a problem. The troops that they were allowed to leave in place in the South had just gone through the Easter Offensive in the spring of 1972 and when you come right down to it, they didn't get anything. So there they were, but they didn't get anywhere. I mean they had some jungle, they had some mountains, but at that point South Vietnam was in control of at least 95 percent of the population. And it was in control of all the economically productive zones of the country. And the fact that you had some North Vietnamese troops sharing the highlands with the tigers and snakes wasn't very exciting. I mean they certainly didn't have anything where they could even think of establishing a provisional capital.
The problem at that time was that Vietnam was simply part of a global problem that the United States was coping with on a continuing basis. Vietnam was one trick Nixon wanted to play out of his relations with the Russians and his relations with the Chinese and his relations with the American electorate. For the Vietnamese, of course, the Vietnam problem was 100 percent of their existence. They couldn't think in terms of anything else. This is exactly the problem we have with the Cubans today. We think about Cuba, you know, maybe five minutes every months. The Cubans think about their relationship to the U.S. all the time. So I don't think that the Americans and the Vietnamese were approaching the ending of the Vietnam War at all from the same or even from a similar perspective.
At the heart of the Paris Agreement was our commitment to replace losses suffered by the South Vietnamese in the post cease-fire period on a one for one basis. And we also had a large air force in Thailand with the explicit purpose of acting as a retaliatory force should that be necessary. And, indeed, I was in the room in San Clemente when President Nixon told President Thieu in April 1973 that should the North Vietnamese violate the essence of the Paris Agreement, our retaliation would be instant and brutal. I had no reason to doubt that. And neither did the North Vietnamese.
When we were in San Clemente in 1973, it was when President Thieu was invited to visit Nixon and he took along his chief of staff and a couple of other people and Ambassador Bunker came from the American side and he took along only two people. I was one of them. This was my first introduction to Erlichman, Haldeman, Ziegler and all that lovely crew. And I had no idea that all these people were going to be fired in a couple of years. And that Nixon would resign, in the end, too. I had no idea. I mean there they were still in all their glory. I had no idea at all during that first week in April that things were going to be as bad as they turned out to be. Nixon had just been reelected with a tremendous majority. Kissinger told me one day when we had breakfast alone, he referred to Haldeman as "a criminal." But because Kissinger was rather free with his insults, particularly when he was speaking to somebody he knew well. Kissinger could call somebody a criminal because he screwed up the seating at a dinner. So I didn't take it all that seriously.
Before I went out to Vietnam in 1972 I went to see the Secretary of Defense and I said, "Well, Mr. Secretary, you know I came to see you because I am really at a very crucial point in my career. I'm just turning fifty, I'm eligible to retire, I have three kids I've got to put through college. I can't take my family to Vietnam. How do you see things evolving there?" "Oh," he said, "you are going to have no problem at all." He said, "Vietnam is going to be just like Germany. We are going to be there with a residual force for forty years." And this was in January, 1972. Sure, we were going to reduce the number of troops there, but the American army certainly at that time proceeded on the assumption that there would be a residual force of between sixty and one hundred thousand people remaining in the country. Like Korea or like Germany.
And in fact Vietnam is the only place from which the American army pulled out once they went in. In Korea we stayed. In Germany we stayed.
The nature of the war in Vietnam was never understood by the American public. It was certainly never made clear by the American media.
In Vietnam I saw the distinctions very clearly between the individual newspaper reporters. And I saw what they were trying to do. Bob Shaplen was a good friend of mine. And what he was trying to do on the one hand was undone by his editors on the other hand. I have seen enough of the rough copy going out from people in Saigon and I have noticed the difference between what they wrote and what got printed. Shaplen, in particular, I thought tried to find a balance. And he told me at one point while he was there for the New Yorker, that for an entire year not a single one of his articles was published. And the editors explained to him that his articles that were favorable to South Vietnam could not be published. That was about 1973-1974. I know that he and the New Yorker parted company for a while. Some of the other journalists there were pretty bitter. The same thing happened with a correspondent from Time magazine, who felt that certain aspects of the situation in South Vietnam was not printed in the US. Time at one point instructed their man to write a story on the defection problem from the South Vietnamese army. Now certainly the South Vietnamese army had a defection problem. And he came to me for assistance. And I said, "Yes, I will give you the facts. But I will go one better than that. I will also give you the facts that we know about the defection problem in the North Vietnamese army." He said,"Oh, that's wonderful." Well, when the story came out, only the part about the South Vietnamese army was printed by Time.
Television was even worse in the sense that you spend half an hour on a story and they use a minute and a half.
So there were good and there were bad among the news people there. Frances Fitzgerald was about as dishonest as they come, though. I knew her father well. Her father was my boss and she and I saw a bit of each other. She was interesting as a woman. But as a journalist she was another one that if the news didn't fit, she wouldn't print it.
My own opinion that evolved over the period of my involvement in Vietnam is that we had put ourselves in the position of a doctor confronted by a patient who has a lot of rashes and a lot of lesions on his body and you start to treat each little rash and each different lesion and you don't address the question of what's causing it. And the fact is that the problem in South Vietnam was the war making potential of Hanoi. But we never addressed this questions of Hanoi's war making potential.
Let me tell you a story. In May the third or the fourth of 1972, and the South Vietnamese forces took Quang Tri which was the only province capital that fell to the North in the 1972 Easter Offensive. And they retook it and the following day I was at the Japanese Embassy reception honoring the Mikado's birthday and one of the invited guests there was the head of the Polish delegation on the ICC -- not to be confused with the later ICCS. And this Pole happened to be very experienced intelligence operative and also a man of the world. He was also at one time director of the Polish Airlines. So I say, "Well, what do you say to Quang Tri?" And he said, "Well, it's impressive but irrelevant." I said, "Why do you say that?" He said, "It's irrelevant because South Vietnam will lose the war in Washington." He said that in May, 1972.
It was easy to read North Vietnam's intentions because the North Vietnamese did not keep their intentions secret. They kept briefing their own cadre to an astonishing detail as to what they were going to do. And it was a little bit like Hitler and Mein Kampf. They kept saying what they were going to do but we kept not believing them. And our national policy was simply not responsive to the intelligence we were gathering.
For example, we started to get reports from Hanoi in the fall of 1974 stating that now that Nixon was gone and we have a different ball game and we are going to have some tests here in the military sphere. I took that very very seriously. Starting in October 1974 when we got the plan for 1975 I remember I drove up to Bien Hoa to talk with my base chief in whose area this particular document was acquired. And we came to the conclusion that the language in this document was terribly similar to the COSVN 90 directive which came out a couple of months before the 1972 offensive.
One day I had an opportunity to ask Mr. Kissinger what he thought of our intelligence. Not speaking of Vietnam, but generally. He was getting this big flow of intelligence from CIA world wide at the time. What did he think of the value of it? And he thought for a moment and then he said, "Well, when it supports my policy, it's very useful." And I think we are here at the heart of the problem. It is that American policy is not formulated in response to what the intelligence shows. We first formulate the policy and then we try to find the intelligence to support it.
The three principal collectors of intelligence in Vietnam were Military Intelligence, the National Security Agency and the CIA. There was actually very little problem with that. There was no conflict between the intelligence that was being collected. We never had a situation where the DAO-DIA would say something entirely different from everyone else. And we coordinated very closely with Bill LeGro who was the intelligence chief for DAO throughout most of the period after the Paris Agreement. That was not a problem at all. The problem was that American policy was based on the premise that the Vietnam War was finished. The American forces were out and there was no way whatever that President Ford was going to risk his reelection chances by reintroducing American forces into Vietnam.
Already in 1974 we were not delivering supplies on time to the South Vietnamese. We were falling behind on our obligations. And I reported at that time that whenever the South Vietnamese lost their faith in American support, they would collapse. And I put the emphasis more on their faith --that is their morale -- than on the actual level of logistical support.
The Vietnamese could see a few things happening then. I mean a terrible blow to Vietnam, which I think most people will not think of, was the Arab Israeli war of 1973 when so much of what was previously destined for Vietnam went to Israel. And that sort of screwed up the whole Defense Department planning cycle.
Five things happened in 1973 with which Vietnam had nothing to do but which affected it very badly. The first was the Arab Israel War which diverted Defense Department attention and vital military supplies from Vietnam. The ensuing oil embargo and meteoric rise in crude oil prices had a most damaging impact on the South Vietnamese economy. The newly-renewed vulnerability of the US to foreign pressure produced a strong psychological reaction against continuing expensive foreign commitments. The overthrow of Salvador Allende by a military coup in Chile infuriated liberal and leftist opinion which worked off its frustration against South Vietnam. Congress increasingly disgusted with Watergate-related disclosures punished Nixon where it could, including in spheres related to Vietnam.
And I think Thieu knew very well that without the US he could not survive. I knew his nephew, Hoang Duc Nha very well. He was unique in that he was the only one in the entourage of the president who was educated in the United States. And Nha understood that a lot better, having spent four years in college in the US, he appreciated much more the mercurial nature of American politics and the ups and downs as a result of purely domestic pressures which really have nothing to do with the foreign substance but which had an impact on foreign relations. So he knew more than the others in power in Vietnam how our Congress works. After all, how could a man like Thieu appreciate how Congress works when he worked with his own parliament which was always subservient?
When Phuoc Long fell in early 1975 it was important not militarily, but it was terribly important as a symbol. It was a symbol of America's refusal to carry out this "massive and brutal retaliation" that Nixon had promised Thieu. The North was testing the water there and it kept getting more and more favorable and they kept getting in deeper and deeper.
Then the Congressional delegation came out. I thought the performance of Fraser and Abzug in that delegation was inexcusable. Abzug came into the room after they arrived and she asked, "Which one of you is Polgar?" And I identified myself, and she said, "Well, I've been warned against you."
There was a South Vietnamese student leader who was in prison and whose cause had become a bit of a cause celebre in the US. And Abzug said she wanted to interview him. But she first said he was dead and that they had killed him. I said, "No, the South Vietnamese don't do that. They can locate anybody who's in prison." She said, "Well, locate this one. " And we located him and he was in a jail up in MR 3 in Tuy Hoa. So she said she wanted to interview him and it was too far to go by car. It had to be on a helicopter. And the only time she could possibly see him was on a Sunday morning, which would have been an inconvenience for everybody, but all right. We arranged for the helicopter, arranged access to the jail and once it was all arranged, she just said, "Well, I'm no longer interested." And she never went to see him.
Millicent Fenwick was on that trip and she didn't have much sympathy for the Vietnamese war, but she behaved very properly. She went through the motions of listening to the briefings. But Abzug was terrible, and so was Fraser. For example, President Thieu invited the delegation to dinner and they simply failed to show up. Those two didn't show up. They didn't cancel or anything, but they just failed to show up. They came to the Prime Minister's reception which was before the President's dinner. But they didn't come to the President's dinner. The Ambassador invited the whole delegation to dinner the first night they were in Saigon. Everybody except Abzug showed up. And I was really disappointed because I had arranged to sit next to her!
I don't think anybody can say that the attack was expected on Ban Me Thuot on the fifth of March, but everybody in his right mind expected that there was going to be a major North Vietnamese attack in the Central Highlands. We had a prescription for the attack in writing, that is, how they would first cut the roads, which they did, how they would move these various divisions in, which they did, and incidentally that was never accepted by Washington. And it wasn't accepted because --well, we are getting here into an area of sources and methods which I'm not sure I can talk about -- but the fact of the matter is, that the Washington intelligence did not share the estimate that was coming out of Vietnam, both from the DAO and the CIA, that there would be a major offensive in 1975. They refused to believe it.
We had a lot of people telling us what was happening in the Central Highlands. All of them said that there was going to be a major offensive. We had a lot of sources that said that the offensive will kick off in the Central Highlands. But Washington just didn't believe it. And the South Vietnamese had no strategical concept of their own beyond putting a regiment here and a regiment there and a regiment there to defend. And the reinforced regiment that was in Ban Me Thuot was insufficient to cope with the situation. They were also very unlucky.
These forces were very good for local peace keeping and were very good auxiliaries when you were on the offensive. But it is quite right that these were not troops that were trained or equipped to fight main force units reinforced with armor. After the fall of Ban Me Thuot, Thieu met with General Pham Van Phu at the Cam Ranh Bay conference and called for a withdrawal from the Central Highlands. That meeting was held, I believe on a Friday. Phu put the process in the works on Saturday. I got my first word of it Saturday morning. I chased Charles Timmes out to the JGS -- the Joint General Staff and told him, "I don't know what the hell is going on." I sent my other top level assistant to see General Dang Van Quang, Thieu's security advisor and to ask Quang what was going on in Mr2. Quang reported, "You know, the situation isn't good. We don't seem to be able to reopen roads and we are very worried about the situation and will have to shift some troops around, but nothing is going on in MR 2." Quang apparently didn't know Phu was evacuating. Timmes went out to JGS and he couldn't find General Cao Van Vien, chairman of the JGS and on the whole it was a rather Saturday-type of atmosphere out there. But he found General Tran Dinh Tho who was chief of operations and he asked him what was happening in MR2. And Tho said, "Nothing is happening that you don't already know." The JGS apparently had no idea that Phu was evacuating. I got my report directly from Pleiku. Wolf Lehmann was on some errand and Joe Bennett, the political officer, was at the dentist. So I called up the consul general in MR2,Moncrieff Spear, and said, "You better get your people out of Pleiku because I understand they are evacuating." And he said, "You're crazy." He's sitting in Nha Trang, on the coast. I said, "No, I have reason to believe this is happening." And he said, "Are you ordering me to evacuate Pleiku?" And I said, "Now you know I can't do that. But I can conclude that it would be a smart thing to do."
The point I'm making here is that what General Phu did, whatever his previous merits might have been, that morning was totally uncoordinated. He didn't even tell the Consul General to whom he would have to hold an obligation, he was the principal representative of the US in MR2. Quang didn't know about it. I mean had there been something going on Quang would have looked like a busy man that morning but he was just killing time on a Saturday morning. And Tho, the Chief of Operations didn't know.
What happened, in my judgement, is that Phu initiated a course of action misunderstanding what President Thieu had in mind. and without knowing anything about how difficult it was to do actually. The fact is that there is no such thing as a successful evacuation. Every evacuation becomes a tremendous fiasco sooner or later.
Then the North Vietnamese caught up with Phu's evacuation. North Vietnamese tanks were able to come up a side road and to meet the column at Phu Bon. And there was a slaughter.
Before the Cam Ranh conference I already went on record with Washington saying that the game is over. I remember talking to one of my closest contacts in this context, and I will not mention his name, a man in whom I have confidence, and he told me that South Vietnam cannot digest the loss of Ban Me Thuot and the loss of the highlands which he thought was the inevitable consequence of the loss of Ban Me Thuot. He was a general officer.
At that point nothing was happening in MR1. Then disaster there. Thieu made the decision to withdraw both the Marines and the Airborne from MR1. And that of course pulled out the rug from under any plans of General Ngo Quang Truong to make a stand there. And then as it turned out the Marine division was lost and totally useless because first they were ordered to retreat and then they were ordered to turn around and go back, and that was just an impossible military move. So in fact the Marine division lost part of its equipment because it was impossible to extricate the equipment from the refugee stream. By this time of course Thieu was awash in the ocean and is grasping for straws. But it made no difference what he would have done at that point. The game was over.
I firmly believed that the moment the Vietnamese got the impression that we were going to run, everything would collapse. I completely agreed with Martin on that point.
The Ambassador had left the country with the Congressional delegation because they had a plane and he could fly for free. He also felt that he could lobby some of the congressmen and then he was going to go back and to testify to Congress. Now it is my understanding that when he was in Washington, they detected a condition that required immediate surgery and this is what delayed his return. And because they didn't want a great production of the fact that he needed surgery, he went down to North Carolina. The State Department didn't even know how to get hold of him. And he was a very secretive man. He returned at the end of March, just prior to the fall of Danang and the C5A crash.
When they sent the orphans out on the C5A, that was strictly a public relations proposition. Mr. Dan, who was a medical doctor, deputy prime minister and minister of health, felt, that they had to do something about the orphans. And Ambassador Martin and some of his advisors felt that having all these orphans arrived in the US en masse would sort of generate public sympathy, a big human interest story. At the same time the Defense Attache Office had a lot of female employees, and they were already in a sort of quasi-evacuation posture, but bureaucratically you couldn't give people travel orders because the US was not in an evacuation posture. And who's going to pay for their air transport from Vietnam? The US? So I thought, well, I could put them on this empty military plane and designate them as escorts for the orphans, you know, and it doesn't involve any transfer of cash. So different people for different reasons decided to take advantage of the availability of this large plane. Now it so happens that my wife went out as an orphan escort, but she happened to go out on a civilian plane. Cathay Pacific. Just about the same day that this C5A crashed.
At that point I had two CIA doctors on my staff and when the plane crashed they took the bodies, all these little babies, and took them to the Seventh Day Adventist Hospital in Saigon. One of my doctors had the presence of mind to take along a camera, and he took a lot of pictures of the mangled bodies. And I showed them to the Ambassador and the Ambassador considered for a long time whether or not to have these pictures published. But he made the conclusion that these terrible pictures, all of them very clear and in beautiful living color showing these mangled bodies of women and children, instead of generating sympathy would cause a reverse and the dropping of morale. That's precisely what was happening in DAO at the time. So they were not published.
A couple of days before Thieu's resignation, one of the senior Hungarian officers with the ICCS came to me and said, "Look, you must be a realist. You must know that this war is lost." I said, "Okay. I admit the war is lost." And he said, "Every lost war must have political consequences." I said, "I agree with you." He said, "These political consequences are obviously going to be bitter. But there is no interest in the side which I represent" -- and he left it open to who he represented, "to unduly humiliate the United States. Maybe something can be worked out not to change the outcome of the war, that's finished, but to permit an ending which would not be" -- again to use his words -- "unduly humiliating to the United States."
I asked, "What have you got in mind?" "Well," he said, "you know we are out at Tan Son Nhut talking to our North Vietnamese colleagues. We have people in Hanoi. I have the impression that perhaps something could be worked out along the following lines. Thieu must resign. The United States must pledge non-intervention in South Vietnamese affairs beyond the maintenance of a normal Embassy structure. And in South Vietnam the government must be created consisting of people that the North Vietnamese find acceptable. These are the essential problems."
I said, "Well, thank you very much." I said, "I will naturally report our conversation. I will discuss it with the Ambassador so we can get it back to Washington. And I will be back to you. And while we are awaiting the answer from Washington, would you be kind enough to talk to your friends again and find out who might be some of the people that they would consider acceptable in the government?"
A couple of days later Thieu resigned. I went back to my Hungarian friend and I said, "Look, I have delivered on your first point. We still don't have a definitive answer. Have you got any suggestion as to people's names."
And he said, "Well, as a matter of fact, I do. But I am very poor on Vietnamese names, he said, "so I wrote them all down. " So he got out the little notebook and he started reading me some names, all of whom registered with me. I said, "That's very interesting. I will of course follow up on our previous conversation and I'll get back to you." But he said, "I have an additional word from my colleagues here and they tell me that when they said you must move fast, they meant within a matter of days, not weeks."
Let me say at this point that the Ambassador was very favorably inclined. He thought that this was something that we could do something with. But we got a very negative reaction from Kissinger. Kissinger did not want to have any negotiations.
Then on the 26th or the 27th of April we saw each other gain, and he said, "Well, I think it's now too late." In other words, the moment that they considered favorable to make some kind of deal had passed. The reason I'm telling you this is because I can't emphasize in strong enough terms that there never was any deal and we never did anything that the other side has asked us to do, because in fact Thieu's resignation came about for reasons totally different from this, except that I pretended to them that we had something to do with it.
They wanted to avoid an undue humiliation of the United States. But the deal was off in the sense that the Hungarians did not feel any longer that they could contribute anything to making a deal.
It was on a Monday that Thieu resigned, the 21st of April. The Ambassador didn't talk Thieu into resigning, but by the 19th of April, when the Ambassador talked to the President, it was perfectly obvious that he had lost the confidence of everybody, that everybody felt that he was in the way of any kind of settlement, of any kind of decent cease fire, that you simply couldn't do any thing with Thieu around.
One day the Ambassador called me to his office and said he had just come from seeing President Huong and the President was very uncomfortable with the continuing presence of Thieu in the country. He thought that Thieu's presence diluted his authority and that he, Huong, was paralyzed in trying to do something as long as Thieu was there. And he urgently turned to Ambassador Martin because the US alone was in a position to do something about this. And getting President Thieu out of the country must be done in total secrecy. Well, Ambassador Martin, very logically, when he hears total secrecy thinks of the CIA, and so he told me this and said, "Can You do it?" I said, "Yes, I can do it, Mr. Ambassador. But under conditions. You leave me alone. You give me the task and let me do it but let's not have a committee approach on this. Okay." This must have been about the 24th.
Things went very fast after that. I knew where I could get the right airplane. I used General Timmes as the principal point of contact. By this time Thieu was staying out at his villa at the Joint General Staff compound. The senior Vietnamese generals had a villa compound at Tan Son Nhut. And we agreed on a plan of action. At this point we had a couple of things to worry about. We had to worry about public opinion. We also had to worry about some undisciplined South Vietnamese military interference, some junior officer taking into his head to make history. And we also had to worry about the presence of the police blocks all along the road leading to Tan Son Nhut which had nothing to do with Thieu, but they were always there, so we cooked up a story that we were going to pretend to go to a party at the JGS compound. We organized a couple of standard black American sedans, including the Ambassador's car, my car, my deputy's car, enough to carry ten or twelve people plus drivers plus Timmes plus myself plus luggage. Although we specified that everybody could carry only one piece of luggage. And we made arrangements that everybody was going to meet at the prime minister's house, prime minister Khiem. We agreed to meet at Khiem's house in the villa compound because first it was the biggest house and second less attention would be paid to him than to Thieu. And it was agreed that we were going to fly a plane to Taiwan, where Thieu's brother was ambassador, so he could make a deal with the Taiwan authorities to let everybody in. And prime minister Khiem was a former ambassador to Taiwan so he had his own connections. And picking Taiwan as a destination, I was also influenced by the fact that this was a DC-6 and this was about as far as it could go without refueling.
So I picked what I considered my best and most reliable and steadiest people as drivers. Obviously, I don't want to use any Vietnamese drivers in this. And Frank Snepp was one of the drivers. Timmes was one of the passengers because his rank prevented him from driving a car and my rank prevented me from driving a car. Then I arranged to get a police colonel who was also a military colonel and I said, "I want a guy with a commanding presence " just in case there were any questions from the guards. I didn't think there would be because when people see four American sedans driven by Americans they say this is a big deal and they recognize the Ambassador's car they say the Ambassador's coming to a meeting here. So sure enough we never had any trouble, but I had this police/army colonel just in case and then we loaded the cars up. We didn't know who Thieu was going to bring. We knew that Thieu himself was going to go and that Khiem was going to go, but we didn't know who the others were going to be. So we brought along a lot of blind documentation and Charlie Timmes was filling them out by hand, you know, writing in people's names on the documents, which we kept and gave to the plane's captain and said, "When you arrive in Taiwan we are going to notify US military authorities and you have to ask to speak to the senior US military and give him this envelope which has all the documentation."
In the meantime another car took the Ambassador directly to the plane because he wanted to say goodbye to Thieu. I said to the Ambassador, "I don't want to drive with you around town. That's an additional risk." So I think in fact we changed cars. I gave my car to the Ambassador and I took the Ambassador's car with me. And so everything worked like a Swiss watch as was usually the case when we decided to run an operation on our own. And we delivered everybody safely to the aircraft, loaded them up, and they took off.
I rode with the Prime Minister. I didn't ride with Thieu. I think General Timmes rode with Thieu. It was very subdued, no crying. The families had already gone. In fact I was surprised. I was surprised because of all the people who were closely associated with Thieu, only one he took with him on the flight was the former prime minister, Khiem, which was particularly funny because for a couple of years before you could hear in any Saigon coffee house rumors about how Thieu and Khiem had parted ways, one was going to throw the other out, and so forth. Of course, I never credited that because in fact I had a very good relationship with the Prime Minister and I always considered him a loyal servant of Thieu. There were a total of 14 people that night for the flight, all of them men.
I was concerned that an unpleasant incident could happen if somebody knew that Thieu was in the motorcade. But I figured that the Vietnamese know the difference between the four important looking American embassy vehicles and Thieu's normal method of moving around town, which was in an old Mercedes. It was after dark and I thought that for people to interfere with four American vehicles would be very unlikely. The lead vehicle was the Ambassador's armored Chevrolet Caprice, in which I rode. But I had this police colonel with me. My biggest problem was what happens if a police blockade asks people to identify themselves and turn their floodlights on us. Because at that point they would recognize Thieu and the Prime Minister. But as it happens, when the four important looking cars came to the police block, you know, everybody came to attention and saluted; that's what I expected would happen. As a matter of fact, knowing a little bit about this kind of psychology I once brought out a very important defector from East Berlin in a big car like that, figuring that when the Soviets see this car they will salute. And they did.
Thieu didn't take any gold out with him that night. That story is just bullshit. Of course he didn't. Nobody in his right mind packs gold in such a way that it is loose in a suitcase, for gosh sake, I mean, I've had a Vietnamese friend who took out gold and I know this gold is packed very tightly and surrounded with all kinds of clothing and rubber bands and tape. Nobody wants to hear coins loosely rattling around in a bag.
In fact the Vietnamese gold reserve stayed in the country and was still there when the North Vietnamese Army arrived. The Vietnamese National Bank had the gold reserve and this was valued at eighteen to twenty million dollars. But in fact it was a lot more, because for reasons of their own, the gold price was stated in terms of thirty five dollars to the ounce, which was the price at which the Vietnamese got it before Nixon devalued the dollar in 1971. But at that point gold was about $170 to the ounce. So you could say it was probably worth three or four times as much as the stated value. Now here we were in a period when credit of South Vietnam around the world was nonexistent, and Congress was slowing up the aid requests or denying them altogether. And, as usual, when it came to a hot idea, Ambassador Martin came up with one. He thought that South Vietnam should send its gold to the United States Federal Reserve and pledge this gold as a collateral against arms purchases on credit. Well, Thieu accepted the idea. So at that point the Swiss Air Freight trade carrier, Basel Air, which is a subsidiary of Swiss Air, happened to have a plane in Saigon. The South Vietnamese went to Basel Air and said, "We have this gold that we intend to ship to the Federal Reserve. Will you take it as a regular commercial consignment?" And the Swiss thought about it for a day or two and said, no, they would not take it. And they wouldn't take it for insurance reasons. They said there's no way they could get insurance to cover $70 million dollars of gold coming out of Saigon. So then they went to the U.S. Air Force. It was discussed at the National Security Council. The U.S. Air force can easily take out a ton and a half of gold, but you cannot get commercial insurance if it goes on a military plane, period.
So then the hot potato was passed into the lap of the State Department lawyers. All this time the gold is sitting in the National Bank in Saigon. How can we get insurance for this shipment if it goes by military plane? Now this is a kind of topic that can keep lawyers busy for many a day. In the meantime, Thieu resigned, and we got a new crew in, and Huong at first said, well, let's ship it -- one day he says let's ship it but the next day he says let's not ship it, and then finally he comes down on the advice of his minister of economic affairs, Mr. Nguyen Van Hao, Denny Ellerman's friend. He came down to the conclusion that it was best to keep the gold there because the situation was now changed since Ambassador Martin first happened to talk about it and even if we got more American military aid with the help of this gold it cannot arrive here in time to do any good, and we look better if we keep the gold in the country. So the gold stayed in the country.
And Thieu didn't take any of it out and didn't carry gold in his suitcase either. It was completely dark when we got to the plane. The aircraft only had its running light on. The only lights that we had were the running lights of the cars and we drove to the plane that night without headlights.
The plane was a propeller driven American DC-6, the latest American propeller driven plane. It had been used in happier times and I had flown on it and that is why I remembered it existed. When Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker married Ambassador Carol Lace, who was at that time ambassador in Nepal, Bunker at that point was in his seventies, and he broke the news to President Lyndon Johnson and he said, "You know, I'm going to have a problem, I don't want to resign the ambassadorship in Saigon and Carol who is a career FSO is getting this appointment as ambassador, which is very rare for a woman to be an ambassador, she doesn't want to pass that up? How can you help us?" And Johnson said, "By golly, if a man your age is still interested in keeping contact on a regular basis with his new wife, I'm going to get you an airplane." So Johnson dug up this old DC 6 and gave it to Bunker and he indeed used it to fly up to Katmandu. And on one occasion he took me with him. It was a nicely furnished plane inside, but very slow, a prop plane. It belonged to the U.S. Air Force and when Ambassador Bunker and Carol Lace left Nepal they stationed it in Thailand for the use of the Air Force brass. I remembered that the plane existed and I said, "Well, that's the plane that we are going to get because if you bring in a big jet it causes too much commotion."
The last big international cocktail party I went to in Saigon was that night. It as held at the residence of the Polish Ambassador and the occasion was to introduce the newly arrived head of the Polish political section to the Saigon diplomatic corps. And everybody was there. All the Ambassadors were invited who were still in Saigon, and the newly arrived Pole said he was very anxious to meet me. He was very anxious to get together, he said, obviously we are in a changing situation. He would like to have my views on the situation and we made a luncheon date for a week from that day. That would have been on the first of May. He said first he had to do this and in a week he wanted to have lunch. And that's the way it was left. I fully expected to be there on the first of May to meet my Polish colleague, among other things.
Ambassador Martin was not much of a party goer, but he said that night because of everything and the nervousness of the city, "I am going to go to the party, too, but let's go in separate cars. So at the airport we switched cars and I first went back to the office to file a cable --I wrote the cable before and then just radioed in saying a code word that my deputy and I agreed on. Everything is in a day's work, that's how I felt about sending Thieu out.
On the day we left Saigon I was about as depressed as you can get without suffering a sort of collapse.
The final act opened on a Monday. Monday evening was bad. Duong Van Minh got inaugurated on that night, and just as he was giving his acceptance speech, this tremendous storm broke over Saigon. And it rained heavily. It was a little early because we were not yet in the rainy season. Then came the converted planes. You know, the American planes with the fifty gallon extra gasoline tanks, flown by pilots under North Vietnamese control, and they bombed Tan Son Nhut. At that point we were all still in the office, although it was maybe about seven o clock. We were all in the office because there wasn't all that much to do in Saigon by that time, in the evening. Second because of the time differences, at that point, I think it was exactly twelve hours, when it was evening in Saigon, it was just morning in Washington. So we wanted to get out the maximum amount of message traffic to keep Washington informed as they opened for business.
There we were, all still in the office when we heard all this shooting and took a dive under the desks and tables, and I remember I was at that particular point in the room of the chief reports officer. And the reports officers are the people who prepare the intelligence reports which then go in the telegraphic form. But we pride ourselves that these things, even in an emergency, must be properly edited and in good English, you know, like a good newspaper. And there we are under the tables, I met several people under the tables and I'll never forget this, there was an attractive young lady reports officer there and from under the tables she reached out and brought down her typewriter and she started typing, you know, "To Washington from Saigon, situation report as of 1900 hours local. Explosions of unknown origin rocked downtown. While it's still going on around us, nobody knows what's happening."
Pretty soon it was established what was happening, which we properly took as the North Vietnamese answer to Minh's inauguration speech. You know, he said he's going to fight on and says all kinds of stupidity that he wouldn't have said a month ago. I think it was a real illustration of the Peter Principle. Everybody rises to his ultimate level of incompetence.
Despite the raid, everything in Saigon was functioning beautifully at that time. It was one of the paradoxes in that last week that really everything was functioning. Electricity was functioning, the telephone was working, the food supply was o.k., except for maybe a shortage of some lettuce.
I went to bed late that night only to be awakened around four thirty by the sound of explosions again. And this sounded like pretty heavy incoming stuff. I called my duty officer at the Embassy -- this was a CIA duty officer. We had separate duty officers at the Embassy. The Embassy duty officer had to be on call and of course we had Marines there all the time. But in the CIA traditionally,and in Saigon in particular, we always had two officers who were physically present in the Embassy at all times. Not on call, but there. So I figured he would be the logical person to call. And I said, "What do you know?" And he said he didn't know much at that point, but that artillery was hitting Tan Son Nhut, that the Marines had gone up on the roof, and from the roof they could see fires burning and that he was in touch with his counterpart at the DAO but it was too dark yet, they didn't know anything definitive. But the first thing was that the damage was considerable. And that two Marines had been killed.
So I said, "All right, it sounds pretty bad to me. It's a good thing you're on duty." He happened to be our chief finance officer. I said, "Prepare departure envelopes." Departure envelopes were envelopes with some instructions or maybe telephone numbers of American Embassies and other places in East Asia. And in each departure envelope was supposed to be stuffed fifteen hundred dollars in American currency and some other currencies we had on hand. The idea was that everybody gets one of those envelopes, and somehow he will make his way out if he gets separated, he will make his way somewhere safe. I said, "You better start stuffing those envelopes." And I told him I would come to the Embassy.
And I then went to the Embassy. In fact, I was the first officer there. By then the Marines had more reports from the DAO. And based on that I felt the Embassy should be mobilized. I called the Ambassador and I said, "I'm terribly sorry to call you at this time in the morning -- he couldn't have been sleeping for more than three hours --"I'm terribly sorry to call you but I really think you ought to come in." Well, he said, he would. And meanwhile we had a mechanism where you call one man and he's supposed to call four people and those people are supposed to call four people and so on. So we put that system into motion. And the Ambassador was in very bad shape that morning. I mean bad shape physically. He had an extreme case of bronchitis, which once we got to the warship we found out was bronchial pneumonia. And he was very hoarse and he could hardly talk. He could whisper, but the whisper wouldn't carry. He was mentally 100 percent alert. He just couldn't talk, so when Kissinger called us on the telephone, he couldn't make himself understood over those scrambled telephones, so he would whisper something and I would tell it to Kissinger. But he could hear Kissinger perfectly well.
So that's how the day started. And it went on like that. He went out to Tan Son Nhut because being Graham Martin, you know, he only had a couple of Air Force Generals at the air field, but he wouldn't accept their version of whether or not you could land planes. He had to see for himself.
When the morning started, the pilots with the Seventh Fleet were ready, the helicopters were fueled, everything was set to go. Then that morning around 8:30 or close to that, we got the instruction that we were not going to evacuate. That we were going to reduce the size of the Embassy, that we were going to keep an Embassy in Saigon, that the Embassy was going to number about a hundred and eighty people and fifty of those hundred and eighty should be CIA. But that CIA in that group should assume the responsibility for all Embassy communications. And other Embassy section chiefs would get their orders --economic section, eight people, political section, sixteen people, medical people, finance section, administrative section -- from Washington. Presumably from Kissinger to the Ambassador. I've never seen it in writing but I got my instructions delivered to me orally by the Ambassador that morning. Fifty CIA people including responsibility for Embassy communications. So I go back to my office, called a meeting of my senior people, and at this point I still had something like over 200 CIA people on the premises. I said, "Fellows, we have to reduce to fifty and we've got to have a bigger than normal slice for communications to handle Embassy traffic. Now let's figure out which fifty people we want. Start with me," I said. And now this is not a simple matter because unlike naval officers, CIA officers are not interchangeable. People have different specialties. One is a reports officers, one is an operations officer, one is an analyst, I got to have a mixture of linguistic talent. I got to keep some Vietnamese speakers. I got to keep a couple of Polish speakers to deal with the Poles at the ICCS. I wouldn't have any problem with Hungarian speakers because we didn't have any other than myself. So for a couple of hours I was out of circulation, working on this. I had to consider whose tour was about up anyway, because if a man is supposed to go home the first of May, I'm not going to keep him. Or even if he's supposed to go home on the first of July, I'm not going to keep him. And we had people's family situations to consider, since we may be in a bad situation, like we were in Hanoi in 1954 when we had an American consulate up there and the people were kept for a couple of months in effect incommunicado, although not as hostages. They were effectively locked up and in the compound but nobody bothered them.
The same word went to the fleet, too, you know, that the Embassy's staying. Well, there was this commander of the fleet, Admiral Noel Geyler. He is not a political analyst. He said, "Well, the Embassy's staying. Pilots go back to bed." The gasoline was taken out of the helicopters because you don't store aircraft on a ship with gasoline in them. They got taken off the flight deck and put down below.
This was nine o clock in the morning. Or maybe a little later. So then the order finally came at 11:30 that we were in fact going to evacuate everybody. I didn't know when the order went to this Admiral. Ambassador Martin got it about 11:30. Brent Scowcroft must have notified the Pentagon, presumably, but this is night time in Washington, you know, maybe the guy who was supposed to get it was out. I don't know when the Admiral got it. But I talked to him on the ship later and I asked, "What happened?" He said, "Nothing happened. The moment I got the order there was going to be an evacuation, I ordered the planes fueled. I ordered up the pilots, but then we got this request that there must be a Marine security force landed in Saigon to help with the evacuation. Well, the Marines don't happen to be on the copter carrier. So we had to start ferrying these Marines from all the different ships to where they can get into the choppers. All this takes time."
So, you know, if you ask me was I surprised by what happened, I wasn't surprised. I have very skeptical opinion of the American military's ability to operate on short-notice emergency. It's a very bureaucratic set up. Now you would have thought that given everything that happened in Saigon in the previous twenty-four hours the Marines would have been near the choppers, not spread out over the ocean in different ships.
Then another thing happened that was perhaps not foreseeable. Once the word got around in Saigon that the Americans were leaving such a mass of people formed around the Embassy that surface travel became impossible around the Embassy. It was possible in other parts of town, but not around the Embassy. So the idea that we are going to have convoys of buses leaving the Embassy and ferrying people out to DAO was out of the question, because had we opened the gates wide enough to let the buses out, these people would have just stormed the Embassy.
We had to start to destroy files long before that morning. Systematically destroy files. In CIA we had a very good rule that anything that is in the field must have a duplicate in the US. So at any time if a CIA station loses all its files, it's not more than a small inconvenience. So we destroyed all those and as a matter of fact, in the last hours that we had there, we went through offices very methodically destroying anything that would suggest that certain Vietnamese shall we say had a close relationship with us. I had a Vietnamese friend who painted a picture and signed it. We made sure that all such things were destroyed. And also the Vietnamese were very enthusiastic about handing out plaques to commemorate your visit. Well we made sure that all those things were destroyed.
As for the famous Tamarind tree, in all the meetings I attended in the Embassy, I never heard any discussion about the Tamarind tree coming down. Now I felt very sentimental about that Tamarind tree because it was proof of absolute rank in the Embassy. There was a parking space under the tree, which meant that your car was in the shade all day instead of sitting out, which some did, and getting furnace-like temperatures. So having had a parking space under the tamarind tree -- and the Ambassador's car was parked there -- was a proof of rank in the Embassy. Naturally we felt very strongly about the tamarind tree because it performed a valuable function. But seriously, in connection with the evacuation, never once have I heard anybody say anything about it. But it was perfectly obvious that if we were going to land large helicopters in the Embassy parking lot, the tree that stands in the middle of the parking lot has to come down. That's so obvious that it isn't subject to any discussion.
Once the Ambassador had left the Embassy, the next morning, there was no point in my staying there. And my communicators couldn't leave as long as I was there. And my deputy said he wouldn't leave as long as I was there. And a couple of people would say, "Well, we won't leave as long as you are here." Well, you try to send people out in reverse order of essentiality. At that particular point. And when I say at that point they were not essential, this was no derogatory connotation. I mean, obviously, certain people's jobs ended before other people's jobs. Really, at that point we could send most of our reports officers home because they didn't have anything more to do. I could send everybody home whose responsibility was MR1, 2, or 3. They had nothing else to do. I would still have my people in the Delta, because I didn't know what was going to happen in the Delta. I would send the administrative people home. I didn't need a personnel officer any more.
And that is how we decided who left and when It went very smoothly. We never felt that there was any risk of being overrun. Absolutely not.
Perhaps the last big incident that happened concerning myself and my people was when we lifted these Vietnamese across the wall.
At that point the Embassy was surrounded, literally, by tens of thousands of people and it was very difficult to even approach the Embassy because of the masses there. But we had some people on the outside that we desperately felt we needed to evacuate, such people as the chief of communications intelligence, the deputy chief of special police, which was in fact the political police. We had the wife and children of a lieutenant general in charge of psychological warfare. We had the Defense Minister, Tran Van Don, in the group. We had the chief of protocol and his family, all outside the Embassy. How are we going to get them evacuated?
I was able to communicate with them. Don managed to load on a helicopter off the roof of an apartment building that was not a designated helicopter site and that's a story, too. At that point when you say who were the people who stayed to the last, at that point I still had with me in Saigon, a couple of pretty determined and brawny types with whom I was able to get on the Embassy fence and we physically were lifting these people across. And we had a couple of military officers in the crowd with whom we had a deal that if they pick out of the crowd the people that we want, then in the end we will lift them in and they can go too. Well we did that. We made deals like that with the police all through the day. We were able to move people through the city of Saigon by making deals with police officers and saying, "Put your families in among these people and when we safely put them on the plane or safely put them on the bus then we are going to take you too. That worked very well.
Our arrangements with the police were more friendly because we knew these people and we trusted them and they trusted us. But it was very funny because on that last day some of the people that we were able to evacuate were escorted to their evacuation points in convoys run by these white motor bikes of the presidential security force. They were escorting the people to various gathering points.
In the Embassy courtyard, we had our embassy sedans, and we faced them toward the center of the parking lot when it got dark and they ran their engines and turned on their headlights and as long as there was gasoline, or as long as the battery held out they had lights there.
Then we got word to go, the Ambassador was finally told, "You must be on this plane." But the first word we got told us that we were going to go on a chopper in the parking lot so we all went downstairs and found out that was wrong. And they subsequently changed their plan and said, "No, it's going to be from the roof after all."
I was not one of the people who was wedded to Vietnam. I didn't have a great emotional attachment to it like some of my colleagues who really fell in love with the country. But in the end, seeing how it ended, I thought that we really did a miserable job for these people and they would have been much better off if we had never gone there in the first place.
It was really quite dark when we left. Out toward Tan Son Nhut you could see a few fires, but basically the city had its normal night time picture. The street lights were on, the traffic lights were working. It was a very eerie thing and this was what so unusual about those last days. I'm not speaking only for the last night, but any of the last weeks in Saigon. They were so unreal because everything appeared to be so normal. It wasn't like the long siege of Warsaw, you know. A day before the collapse you could still go to restaurants and get a very nice meal and a good wine.
Nobody fired at us on the way out. And that's another thing. The North Vietnamese are a rational people. They are not like Shiite Muslims. The North Vietnamese are rational. And the last thing in the world they wanted to do was to create an incident that would provide a peg for American intervention. Because if they had killed the Ambassador that would have been maybe a little too much even for Congress.
Our reception on the Blue Ridge showed the American military at its worst. They started out by searching everybody. I think the Ambassador was the only one who was not searched. They searched us and they searched our belongings. And in normal peace time I far outranked the admiral commanding the ship.
Nobody objected, though. We were tired. We were pretty placid. And we were a defeated army.
Marius Burke, Air America, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam 1963-1975. As part of our duties we carried the ICCS teams (Poles, Hungarians, Indonesians and Iranians) all over the country including denied areas. We had two of our helicopters shot down in the process; all aboard one were lost and the other group were captured but released a few days later. I remember flying out of Pleiku. We would overnight at the base where the Poles and Hungarians also were housed and would see them at the club at night. The Poles were generally standoffish but for the most part the Hungarians were quite friendly. In fact, we were invited to the head of their delegation’s quarters on a few occasions. I am sure they were looking for information but we stayed with mundane subjects such as stamp collecting, etc. But he was very hospitable.
Fast forward to mid April, ’75. I was busy working on setting up roof top landing areas based on my experiences during the evacuations in Danang and Nha Trang. Concerned about having adequate fuel supplies, we located an abandoned USAID apartment building in Saigon and removed all access to the roof top so we could position drummed fuel for emergency use should our supply at the airport be lost. I had just finished dropping off one load when the tower called me and said orders had been given to shoot me down if I went back there. A day or so later, while attending a meeting at the Embassy, Ambassador Martin came up to me and said, I was unnecessarily upsetting folks with what I was doing and if it didn’t stop he would have me thrown out of the country. He went on further to say that he had information that Saigon was off limits to the North Vietnamese and they would never come in. Learning that Polgar was Hungarian and of the understanding that he was on good terms with the head of the Hungarian delegation, I suspected that Martin’s comments emanated from Polgar. Did not realize that he was living only about an hour away here in Florida. Would have liked to have been able to sit down and chat with him about that.