South Vietnam Falls
After the Tet Offensive of 1968, opponents of the Vietnam War gained the upper hand in the U.S. The 1968 presidential election was dominated by the Vietnam War issue and even Richard Nixon, the staunch Cold Warrior, had to campaign on his "Peace with Honor" slogan and an undisclosed "secret plan" to end the war.
South Vietnamese refugees arriving on a U.S. Navy vessel by helicopter during Operation Frequent Wind, 29 April 1975. These refugees were brought to the Philippines and eventually to Camp Pendleton, CA.
Today in WW II: 21 Sep 1943 In the most bitter combat of the New Georgia campaign [Central Solomons], Japanese lose 600 men in an unsuccessful defense of Arundel Island, withdraw on 22 Sep.
U.S. Political Landscape of the Fall of Vietnam
Richard Nixon narrowly won the 1968 presidential election and proceeded to increase the tempo of Vietnamization along with his conduct of peace negotiations. But Nixon also increased bombing, in secret, and in April 1970 announced the Cambodian Incursion, an invasion that outraged war opponents and increased distrust of the President's plans. As a result, on 24 June 1970 the Senate repealed the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and on 22 December 1970, the Cooper-Church amendment to the U.S. defense appropriations bill banned funding for any and all U.S. ground force operations in Cambodia and Laos. Then in 1973, after the Paris Peace Agreement, Nixon resumed bombing of Cambodia to try to stop Communist advances there. On 19 June 1973, the U.S. Congress passed, by a veto-proof vote, the Case-Church Amendment which forbid any further U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia, effective 15 August 1973. On 7 November 1973 the War Powers Resolution, limiting a U.S. President's power to wage war, was passed by Congress overriding President Nixon's October veto.
The effect of the anti-war legislation, combined with Nixon's credibility collapse as a result of the Watergate scandal, stripped any Presidential authority to act in Southeast Asia. With Congress in the hands of war opponents, reflecting the mood of the American public, there would be no further intervention to help the anti-Communist governments of S. Vietnam, Laos, or Cambodia.
In August 1974, exhausted by the cascading Watergate scandal and facing impeachment, Pres. Nixon resigned. His unelected successor Gerald Ford was in no position to challenge the anti-war Congress who now reigned supreme over further events in Southeast Asia.
Reality of South Vietnam's Strength
At the beginning of 1973, when the Paris Peace Accords were signed ending the U.S. role in Vietnam, South Vietnam looked strong, at least on paper. The country's armed forces numbered over 1 million men, armed with the latest U.S. arms and equipment. They had an air force (VNAF) and a navy (VNN) in addition to ARVN, providing the ability to mount combined operations in the same effective manner as the American armed forces. But, there were deep weaknesses beneath this surface.
Many of the S. Vietnamese military were poorly trained and poorly led. The rapid increase in the size of the Army meant most units were of low quality, excepting only a few elite groups. Many officers held their ranks by means of social connections, not military ability. And, probably most important, the government of Pres. Thieu enjoyed only limited support from the long-neglected and abused Vietnamese people. As long as Thieu had strong U.S. support and funding, he was able to keep S. Vietnam functioning. When the U.S. withdrew, and funding began to dry up, cracks in his support immediately appeared.
The policy of Vietnamization ultimately failed to deliver. Although the S. Vietnamese military made good progress, and won battles, there was not enough time, and not enough broad cultural support, to develop the military traditions and training in depth to create a first class fighting force. In addition, the S. Vietnamese military was expensive and its budget could not be sustained by the natural economy of S. Vietnam, even in prosperous times. In 1973 and later, with the U.S. economy in recession and under the OPEC oil embargo, aid to S. Vietnam began to fall rapidly inducing shortages of fuel, ammunition, spare parts and funds to pay the soldiers.
North Vietnam Tests ARVN Strength
The American bombings of 1972 and 1973 caused a long pause in North Vietnam's operations as they concentrated on rebuilding troop strength, training and logistics. They received increased aid from the Soviet Union and were able to repatriate and rearm POWs released by the South under the Paris Peace Accords. Over 100,000 troops were sent to infiltrate S. Vietnam, and heavy weapons were deployed to the South, actions prohibited by the Accords. Limited battles were fought but no significant change in territory resulted.
By mid-December 1974, they were ready to try again, hopeful that U.S. politics would prevent any strong American intervention, but not sure. As a test case, they chose a limited attack on Phuoc Long province, almost due north of Saigon on the Cambodian border. The attack commenced 13 December 1974 with heavy firepower and masses of troops thrown against the ARVN defenses that initially held as the ARVN fought bravely and well. However, ARVN was heavily outgunned and fell back giving up the entire province in less than three weeks. This attack obviously violated the Paris Accords and Pres. Thieu made desperate pleas to Washington for help, but no American response was forthcoming. The North Vietnamese leaders learned two lessons in Phuoc Long: 1) ARVN could be beaten, and 2) no matter what N. Vietnam did, the Americans would not return.
The North Vietnamese Invasion
The long predicted final assault on S. Vietnam by the NVA invaders occurred in the early months of 1975. On 10 March Communist forces attacked Ban Me Thuot, the capital of isolated Darlac Province at the western edge of the Central Highlands, the first step to cutting S. Vietnam in half. South Vietnamese troops were routed. The debacle convinced Pres. Thieu that the strategic Military Regions I and II, including Pleiku and Kontum Provinces in the north, could not be held and must be evacuated. He established a defensive line from Tuy Hoa on the coast to Cambodia on the west and ordered a fighting retreat to that position.
On 15 March ARVN troops and thousands of civilian refugees began an exodus toward Tuy Hoa but NVA interdicted the main road with a bombardment. The orderly retreat became a deadly rout in which over 100,000 S. Vietnamese were casualties or were captured and huge quantities of supplies and materiel were abandoned. The enemy dispersed or destroyed many of the South Vietnamese II Corps units in this catastrophe.
These events set off a chain reaction as the demoralized South Vietnamese troops abandoned port after port along the South Vietnamese coast to swiftly advancing North Vietnamese forces. Learning of the disaster in II Corps and confused by contradictory deployment orders from Saigon, the defenders of I Corps also began to crack. On 24 March government units evacuated Tam Ky and Quang Ngai in southern I Corps and also streamed toward Danang. Simultaneously, the navy transported elements of the 2d Division from Chu Lai to Re Island 20 miles offshore. Hue was abandoned on 25 March, with Vietnamese troops retreating in disorder toward Danang. The Vietnamese Navy rescued thousands of men cut off on the coast southeast of Hue, but heavy weather and the general confusion limited the sealift's effectiveness. With five North Vietnamese divisions pressing the remnants of the South Vietnamese armed forces and hundreds of thousands of refugees into Danang, order in the city disintegrated. Looting, arson, and riot ruled the city as over two million people sought a way out of the fast-closing trap.
U.S. Evacuation Effort
During this period of growing chaos in South Vietnam, the U.S. Navy readied for evacuation operations. On 24 March, the Military Sealift Command (MSC) dispatched vessels toward Danang. Noncombatants were chosen for the mission because the Paris Agreement prohibited the entry of U.S. Navy or other military forces into the country. Arriving in Danang on 27 March, the massive U.S. sea evacuation of I and II Corps began. When the larger ships were filled to capacity with 5,000 to 8,000 passengers, they individually sailed for Cam Ranh Bay further down the coast. By 30 March order in the city of Danang and in the harbor had completely broken down. Armed South Vietnamese deserters fired on civilians and each other, the enemy fired on the American vessels and sent sappers ahead to destroy port facilities, and refugees sought to board any boat or craft afloat. The hundreds of vessels traversing the harbor endangered the safety of all. Weighing these factors, the remaining U.S. and Vietnamese Navy ships loaded all the people they could and steamed for the south. MSC ships carried over 30,000 refugees from Danang in the four-day operation. American ships stayed offshore to pick up stragglers until day's end on 30 March, when the North Vietnamese overran Danang. Only about 50,000 of the two million refugees in Danang had escaped.
The speed of the South Vietnamese collapse and the enemy's quick exploitation of it limited the number of refugees rescued from Tuy Hoa and Nha Trang. Before the latter port fell on 2 April, however, two U.S. vessels brought 11,500 passengers on board and put out to sea.
Initially, Cam Ranh Bay was chosen as the safe haven for these South Vietnamese troops and civilians transported by MSC. But, even Cam Ranh Bay was soon in peril. Between 1 and 4 April, many of the refugees just landed were reembarked for further passage south and west to Phu Quoc Island in the Gulf of Siam. U.S. ships each embarked between 7,000 and 8,000 evacuees for the journey and one sailed with 16,700 people filling every conceivable space from stem to stern. By 10 April, the intracoastal sealift of 130,000 U.S. and South Vietnamese citizens was over.
Final Collapse of South Vietnam
The fate of South Vietnam was decided in Hanoi and Washington. On 23 March the Communist military commanders were given orders from Hanoi to capture Saigon with all possible speed. ARVN was to be given no time to recover and extend its resistance into the monsoon season starting in May. Pres. Thieu still commanded a powerful military and the N. Vietnamese wanted to take the capital without delay. In Washington, Pres. Ford and Henry Kissinger lobbied for authority to provide assistance to Pres. Thieu, at least military aid, but the pleas fell on deaf ears. There was no further funding, and certainly no American military intervention, for S. Vietnam.
Before the Communist drive on Saigon could begin, the NVA had to seize Xuan Loc -- 35 miles northeast of Saigon and the key to the city's defense -- where a heroic stand by ARVN took place. On 9 April the ARVN 18th Division under General Le Min Dao was attacked at Xuan Loc by IV NVA Corps consisting of four infantry divisions augmented with tanks and artillery. The 18th held them off until 22 April in ferocious fighting with horrific losses, delaying the NVA advance on the capital. In the end it mattered little. On 21 April Pres. Thieu resigned and went into exile, accusing the United States of betrayal. Thieu's successors either resigned and fled like Thieu or tried to offer terms to North Vietnam, offers that were rejected.
As South Vietnam imploded and Communist victory became certain, the American Embassy in Saigon became the focus of chaos. Ambassador Graham Martin resisted overt preparations for fear of causing panic. The result was the loss of critical days for preparation of the evacuation. At the same time, CIA units and others with independent transport got out who they could. Finally, President Gerald Ford ordered Operation Frequent Wind, the evacuation of Saigon, to begin the morning of 29 April. Military Sealift Command (MSC) had prepared for the contingency with ships offshore loaded with food, water, and medicine along with Marine security detachments on board. Some 44,000 people had been flown out by Air Force fixed-wing aircraft from Saigon's Tan San Nhut air base 21-28 April, but hostile artillery and rocket fire on the 29th closed the runways leaving helicopter evacuation the only option. Marine CH-46 and CH-53 helicopters from the U.S. Seventh Fleet began airlifting refugees from Saigon to the MSC ships offshore. A contingent of Marines had to be brought in to the embassy grounds to use force to control the flood of S. Vietnamese nationals trying to escape. From 29 April until the rescue of the last stragglers a few days later, the MSC ships took on more than 50,000 evacuees.
The last Americans to die on Vietnam's soil were two Marines, killed in a rocket attack while providing security at Tan San Nhut on 29 April. The last two Americans to die in the Vietnam War were lost late on 29 April 1975 when their CH-46 evacuation helicopter crashed at sea near the USS Hancock (CV-19), one of the Navy ships receiving refugees, while making one more trip back to the Vietnam mainland to receive more refugees.
NVA forces entered Saigon on 30 April 1975 to find the capital almost empty. ARVN and S. Vietnamese government officials had fled and foreign delegations had gone home. The last of the remaining American staff was lifted out from the Embassy grounds early in the morning of 30 April and the last members of the Marine security force cleared at 7:46 AM. A Presidential order, based on faulty information, prevented evacuation of 420 refugees who had been assured of safe passage, still waiting on the Embassy stairway, including more than a dozen staff members from the South Korean Embassy. A little after 11:00 AM on 30 April 1975, a T-54 tank bearing a Viet Cong flag burst through the gates of the Presidential Palace, the vanguard of a force that took over the seat of S. Vietnamese government.
Offshore, the MSC ships, the Seventh Fleet contingent, and twenty-six Vietnam Navy ships with 30,000 Vietnamese sailors and their families aboard set sail for the Philippines. The Vietnam War was over.
Recommended Books about the Fall of South Vietnam