Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Fall of Saigon: Lessons of Withdrawal.

I've just completed a book of oral interviews by Ron Steinman called "The Soldier's Story: Vietnam in Their Own Words". Of course, the book is exactly what it sounds like- the memoirs of Vietnam War Vets, put down in the language of these soldiers. It's mostly a collection of stories about tactical maneuvers, harrowing battles, methodology and logistics. The book is the outgrowth of a documentary produced by ABC News for the Learning Channel. It is notable for its lack of political or cultural examination of the war and its participants. The book is broken up into six sections, each featuring a different theater of the war- The Ia Drang Valley, Khe Sanh, The Tet Offensive, The Secret War, The Air War, and the Fall of Saigon. I have a rudimentary base of knowledge about Vietnam, so much of the material presented wasn't really that enlightening. However, I was intrigued by the accounts of the evacuation of the US from Saigon in 1975.

By 1975, the final withdrawal of the American presence in Vietnam surprised virtually no one. It was a shockingly anti-climactic ending to a series of failures, bad decisions, and missed opportunities. This is all rather well-tread ground for historians. But it seems that many of the era's commentators and analysts don't find the actual airlift of April 29-30 all that compelling. That's a shame, from my perspective, because I think that a lot can be learned from a close examination of this significant event.

The climate and mood in Saigon was business-as-usual up through much of the early part of 1975. It seems as if many existed in a state of total denial. The North Vietnamese Army was rapidly approaching the capital (a year ahead of their own expectations), but many in Saigon refused to stop and contemplate the imminence of their downfall. The US government tucked their tail between their legs, and began to quietly evacuate American soldiers, third-party nationals, civilians, South Vietnamese leaders and their families. Concerted effort was directed at making sure these operations didn't cause a wave of panic in the city. There was also some well-grounded fear that ARVN (the South Vietnamese army with whom the US had allied) would react poorly to their abandonment, and strike out against the evacuees and the security force protecting them. Finally, a lot of folks wondered how the North Vietnamese regulars would treat them if they were captured.

In a 24-hour period well over 5000 people were evacuated by helicopter from the grounds of the US embassy. These were the last holdouts of an occupation that had been slowly dwindling since the official withdrawal of the US from the war. The marines in charge of providing security were tense with the expectation that events would spiral into mob threat and danger. A growing number of panicked Vietnamese, fearing retribution from the advancing army, made every effort to convince the retreating Americans to take them along. When pleading and bribes finally failed, they stormed the embassy, making the hasty exit of the last evacuees very treacherous. Even as they left a few hundred would-be refugees, the marines of the security force had the opportunity to consider the unfulfilled promises the US government had made to the people of South Vietnam. In that terrible moment, some took away terrific sadness and shame for their country. But the reality is that this process could have been much worse than it was. Ongoing negotiations with North Vietnam led to terms that allowed US troops to leave the country without obstruction. Had this not been arranged, there might have been a need for an intense military operation (with significant losses to all parties) just to achieve the evacuation itself.

Much has been made of perceived parallels between the Vietnam conflict and the current war in Iraq. The failure to set clear objectives has made it an extremely messy affair. The numbers of entrenched insurgents continues to grow as the Iraqi army demonstrates its inability to control events or provide reasonable security for the country. To many observers, it is clear that the US will eventually have to withdraw from the active prosecution of the war. It is also evident that the Iraqi government is not strong enough to stem the rising dissatisfactions and nascent revolution of the people.

Any evacuation of US personnel will be potentially more thorny than it was in Vietnam. There are multiple reasons for this. For one, there are many more civilian contractors working alongside the US military in Iraq than there were in Vietnam. Additionally, the conflict in Iraq has just as much to do with religious tensions as politics. Surely that is going to fuel the animosity toward the Americans, who will be seen as largely responsible for the horrific situation in Iraq. And significantly, Iraq is bordered by a neighbor (Iran) that may seize the opportunity presented by whatever power vacuum arises as a result of the US departure. Therefore, any withdrawal of forces presents some formidable obstacles to the stabilization of the country. Perhaps the lessons of Vietnam will finally inform our leaders... at this operation's ultimate conclusion. But it will have been too late. Anyone with a clear picture of the lessons we learned in Vietnam could have predicted the situation we now find ourselves in. Our sacrifices may intensify as our involvement comes to an end. But eventually that end must come. It is never too early for proactive negotiations with the parties involved.

If you'd like to learn more about the fall of Saigon, from the people who participated in the evacuation... this is a good link.


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