May 1975: The Americans are gone.
As a correspondent for NBC News 40 years ago, the month of May was the busiest time of my years in Vietnam.
Most news correspondents had departed on April 29th - in a panicked and hazardous US Embassy organized evacuation (chronicled recently in Rory Kennedy’s film “Last Days in Vietnam,” (PBS American Experience). I had decided not to join the evacuation. Staying for me was an emotional and purposeful decision.
I had lived in Cambodia and Vietnam as a freelance reporter in the early 1970’s (1970-73). I left in 1973 just after the Paris Peace Accord was signed. I returned first to Cambodia and then to Vietnam in early 1975.
On April 12 1975, I flew out of Phnom Penh on a U.S. Marine helicopter, leaving behind, to my everlasting regret, Cambodian friends and loved ones. (The story of Soc Sinan can be found elsewhere on this website) http://goo.gl/Y7YS1V
A week later, I made a decision that few others would. I returned to Vietnam as the American backed regime was collapsing and decided, come what may, I would not again be “evacuated.” I would witness in whatever way I could the last days of the Vietnam we knew and the first days of whatever kind of nation the Vietnamese would build for themselves.
My decision was largely emotional. I was influenced by the pain of Cambodia.
I was also hugely curious about what lay ahead.
An old mentor aided me in my decision. Neil Davis, 14 years my senior, helped introduce me to Vietnam five years earlier. A photojournalist who had covered Vietnam since 1963, he knew Cambodia and Vietnam better than anyone.
After our Cambodia experience, Neil and I arrived in Saigon from Hong Kong only five days before the dramatic "fall".
I wrote in my diary: "There aren't many on the Air Vietnam flight from Hong Kong to Saigon today. Everyone seems to know the end is near. There is Davis and I and another old friend. Diep Brady, wife of an NBC correspondent, is here... fighting back fear and tears. She is determined to find her brother and get him out of Vietnam before it is too late."
A few days later, when our employer, NBC News, urged us to leave. Davis and I said no.
Neil, born and raised in Tasmania, joked that “we were progressive journalists.” No Vietnamese communists would harm us.”
“If you get in trouble Jim,” said Neil “just tell the “bộ đội giai phong” (‘liberation soldiers), that you are “Úc dai loi” (Australian) and wish them a G’d Die!”
Those who remained did so as volunteers. CBS left its bureau to a British school teacher and freelance writer named Eric Cavaliero. The Washington Post left its Saigon bureau in the hands of a young British freelancer who later became Oxford professor of Poetry James Fenton. American agencies that made clear plans to remain active included the Associated Press which left veteran journalists Peter Arnett, George Esper, and Matt Franjola behind. Competing agency United Press International ensured coverage with the presence of Canadian Alan Dawson, a Vietnamese speaking American reporter Paul Vogle and a seasoned Dutch photojournalist named Hugh Van Es.
About 80 journalists in all remained in Saigon after April 30th.
Some, including 37 Japanese reporters, didn’t intend to. They missed their transportation to helicopter pick up points.
There was solid representation among French and British journalists including Brian Barron and Eric Thirer of the BBC, Sandy Gall of Independent Television News, Stewart Dalby of the FT, and freelancer Julian Manyon. My friends Nayan Chanda of the Far Eastern Economic Review remained as did Tiziano Terzani of Der Spiegel.
For much of the next month Neil Davis with his trusty CP-16 film camera on his shoulder and I witnessed Saigon change. (Neil remained in Vietnam until August 1975. He was killed in Bangkok in 1985.)
ENDANGERED VIETNAMESE LEFT BEHIND
We watched the last American helicopter lift off from the roof of the American Embassy just before eight in the morning on April 30th.
I interviewed distressed Vietnamese in the street below displaying US identification cards pleading with us for help in escaping; help I could not give.
Other Vietnamese staggered to the embassy roof to wait for helicopters that never came.
Frustrated and angry Vietnamese clearly showing emotions of betrayal began looting the US Embassy floor by floor, taking away everything they could.
As the looting continued, I raced to the NBC bureau to report at 10:45 pm New York Time (9:45 am in Saigon) the “unconditional surrender” of Saigon by General Duong Van Minh who had been President of “the Republic of Vietnam” for only two days.
The scratchy live broadcast over what NBC anchor John Chancellor called a “Saigon radio hookup” lasted until a little after ten, when all communications with Vietnam were severed.
In those days we communicated to the Saigon radio station and the Post, Telegraph, and Telephone Company by telex, a form of tele-printer relay which by 1990 had largely disappeared, replaced by fax and e-mail.
Frantically typing, trying to restore links to New York just before eleven, I received a final message.
“Sgn Tlx 12 to NBC News Sgn tlx 297. Very sorry. Per sentel Saigon we have to stop transmission. We are standing by the new order. tks. Bibi.”
[My broadcast was the last live report from Vietnam to New York for ten years. In April 1985, Vietnamese authorities permitted live broadcasts once again. For the first time there were live television satellite hook ups from the city known as Ho Chi Minh to mark the tenth anniversary of what they called “Liberation.”]
CUT OFF FROM THE OUTSIDE WORLD
“The new order” was just around the corner. No longer with any way to file my story, I raced down the stairs from the NBC Bureau in the “Passage Eden” into the streets. I ran straight into a North Vietnamese T-54 tank barreling down Tu Do Street, Saigon’s once fashionable main thoroughfare. Running up the stairs to room 104 at the Caravelle Hotel to grab a new roll of film, I snapped a shot of another tank from the balcony of my room.
A few blocks away just before noon, Davis captured T-54 tanks crashing through the gates of the Presidential Palace. Moments later North Vietnamese troops unleashed round after round of celebratory gunfire. Soon the “bộ đội giai phong” spread out across the city - the banner of the “National Liberation Front,” NLF, (what we used to call the Viet Cong flag) held high.
In the afternoon, Davis and I joined North Vietnamese troops as they engaged in ‘mop up” operations not far from the abandoned US Embassy. Having covered the war on the American side, it seemed surreal to be creeping forward into a small park just behind the “bộ đội ”, routing out a pocket of resistance from a few soldiers of what our new companions called “American puppet troops.”
We filmed the body of a South Vietnamese officer lying next to his army jeep. Most “Saigon troops” had shed their uniforms and retreated into civilian life. Scattered uniforms lay strewn along the street.
Over the next few weeks, Davis and I continued to film.
We travelled south into the Mekong Delta.
In the river town of My Tho, we were surprised by how quickly North Vietnamese engineering brigades were put in place re-building bridges and repairing roads.
In the city, apprehensive, even frightened Vietnamese were adapting to a new reality: some, by interacting with their new rulers, others, by going into hiding.
After only two days, the soldiers from the North could be seen wandering in the black market stalls on Le Loi Street. Always hustlers, Saigon merchants were quickly back in business, offering bargains on goods Northern soldiers could only dream of in Hanoi.
Davis and I met a junior Northern commander who marveled at how wealthy Saigon was compared to Hanoi. “What I don’t understand is why the South didn’t fight harder for all these riches,” he said, “Didn’t they realize we were destitute in the North.”
We were struck at first by how slowly the victors tightened their control. Except for the national banks, most shops reopened within a day.
Communications, however, with the outside world were cut for nearly two weeks.
Veteran Correspondent Peter Arnett working away next door to NBC News at the Associated Press remarked: "I never dreamed the war would end this way. The transition has been remarkably peaceful." Arnett felt the frustration, however, of not being able to file his early dispatches.
Davis, journalist Frances Starner, and I sat in Givral’s café opposite the Continental Hotel now filling up with North Vietnamese officers.
On May 4th, we ordered our usual cà phê sữa and croissants and listened to my portable shortwave radio. As we relaxed and enjoyed our breakfast, we heard the BBC World Service newsreader intone: “Four days after the fall of Saigon, there is no word on the fate of more than 70 foreign trapped in the former South Vietnamese capital.”
On May 9th, I interview two Americans, fluent Vietnamese speaking volunteers with the American Friends Service Committee. Sophie Quinn Judge and Julie Forsythe had witnessed events along the central coast of Vietnam. Sophie said she had stayed so that she could go back to the states and “speak with some authority on conditions” in the new Vietnam. Julie remarked on ‘how normal’ things appeared to be.
40 years later, Sophie had become a leading scholar on Vietnamese history at Temple University in Philadelphia while Julie lives in Vermont and for years has focused on issues of war reconciliation and compassion counselling.
Saigon, however, was deceptively peaceful.
On May 10th the new revolutionary authorities announced that all citizens of the city must register with local district committees and receive new identification cards.
The registration process coincided with a crime wave in the city. Foreign currency and passports were being stolen by motorcycle driving street thieves at an alarming rate. Several North Vietnamese soldiers, wandering in local markets had been reported killed.
On May 11th, my passport was stolen. I sought out friends at the French Consulate (the last Western diplomatic presence in town). I quickly registered with local ‘revolutionary officials.’ For the remainder of my time in Vietnam, I travelled with a French ‘laissez-passer.’
On May 13th, leaders from Hanoi arrived: top military and civilian officials of the Provisional Revolutionary Government as well as from the North Vietnamese government. With them came Hanoi based journalists: mostly French and Russian.
For the first time since April 30th communications were re-opened. On May 15th , I filed my first telegram dispatch to New York via Hong Kong. A dispatch I wrote for the weekly Far Eastern Economic Review in Hong Kong “A Sense of Relief after the bullets” appeared on May 23rd. Nayan Chanda and I filed a string of reports for the ‘Review.’
No radio transmissions or shipment of film materials however were permitted.
On the 15th, I got a street side viewing spot for a large large victory parade. In the evening I was invited to the Palace for a “cocktail reception.” I had last been in the Palace three years earlier to interview South Vietnam President Nguyen Van Thieu.
This time an NLF General named Tran Van Tra, Chairman of the Saigon Military Administrative Committee scolded us. “The Americans have committed despicable slander against us,” he said, “you will witness no bloodbath here in Vietnam.”
By May 21st, no blood bath, but clear signs emerged of what was to come.
The polite requests that citizens register became more insistent. New orders demanded Saigon citizens report to “revolutionary authorities.” “Violent minorities of counter revolutionaries will be crushed,” the front page of the Giai Phong Daily proclaimed.
These events began some ten years of repression.
RE-EDUCATION AND BOAT PEOPLE
Hundreds of thousands of former South Vietnamese officers and those with American connections were sent off to remote “re-education” camps: scattered ‘gulags’ in the north and in central Vietnam. Some remained in these camps for up to 17 years. Many died in the labor camps.
The harsh round-up provoked a further flood of refugees.
More than 2 million men, women and children fled Vietnam between late 1975 and 1995: the so called ‘boat people’ creating an exodus greater than the permanently displaced of World War 2.
There were other signs of the repressive period that was to descend.
Davis and I ventured down to the Ben Thanh market and discovered a bonfire being lit. North Vietnamese troops were burning hundreds of books: “the literature of the bourgeois capitalists.”
The bộ đội did not like us filming. Two soldiers lowered their AK-47 rifles and marched us the ten blocks back to the Caravelle Hotel.
On May 16th, we learned that 10 men had been executed since May 13th. The revolutionary government said they were thieves (among them perhaps the man who snatched my passport). In factm we did not know who the dead were.
On May 18th, all the Hanoi journalists returned north leaving us alone again.
Davis and I continued shooting film day after day. I became anxious about how we could get the material out.
May 19th was Ho Chi Minh’s birthday. The revolutionary leader who died in 1969 would have been 85 had he lived to see this day – celebrated as one of ‘reunification.’
The day also provided news that my ‘exit visa’ was being processed. Phuong Nam, an NLF cadre told me: “if you want to get your film out of the country, Monsieur Laurie, you will have to go with it.”
FOREIGNERS WHO STAYED BEHIND
Soon, the authorities issued 150 exit visas, including mine. We could soon broadcast a partial video record of “Communist Saigon” nearly one month on.
In all nearly ten thousand foreign passport holders remained in southern Vietnam. Most were French. There were 400 Japanese, 100 Koreans, and about 50 Americans.
Some who stayed behind were colorful characters who had spent years in Indochina.
There were the Corsican restaurant owners who had lived in Saigon since French colonial rule. Air France had a waiting list of 2000 people who wished to fly to Paris. Many were Vietnamese with French passports.
Remarkably, there was a retired French commander named Jean Vanuxem. He and a number of French mercenaries had shown up in April to advise the South Vietnamese on beating back the North Vietnamese offensive.
The French ambassador in Saigon, Jean Merillon recalled that Vanuxem, a close friend of President Thieu, who fled Vietnam on April 21st , was busy visiting the front lines, drawing up battle plans right up until the last days.
Astoundingly the fiery old 71 year old French colonial commander, who I met in early May, showed up at the headquarters of the new foreign affairs office of the National Liberation Front. He proceeded to engage in an argument with senior Vietnamese cadre. As I watched the debate which focused on the rights and wrongs of French rule, I was surprised that the old colonial was not arrested on the spot. Vanuxem returned to France, wrote a book called “The Death of Vietnam” and died four years later.
One American, however, did not get off so easy. The sad case of former CIA agent Tucker Gougleman served as an example of the clearly unforgiving nature of North Vietnamese security forces. Gougleman lived in Thailand. He had retired from the CIA only a short time before the end of the war. Against the advice of everyone around him, he returned to Vietnam in the final days before April 30th. Like a number of Americans, he sought to rescue Vietnamese friends and family members. Gougleman became trapped. Arrested, he was taken to Hanoi and tortured by Communist security forces. A year later he died in captivity.
In the period May 15 to September 30 1975, at least ten Americans were investigated and imprisoned in Vietnam. All were eventually released. Gougleman was the only American I know of who never made it home alive.
JOHNNY CARSON WILL BE 'DELAYED'
On May 25th, I departed Vietnam for the last time that year. I flew to Vientiane Laos on a Russian plane chartered by Vietnam’s national airlines. With colleagues with the BBC, ITN of Britain, French television, the race was on to get on the air with nearly one month’s worth of remarkable and exclusive film. [a link to the remarkable story of chartered planes and the race to air will be posted here soon]
Today we would have been on the air in minutes. In an era where film had to be processed and slowly screened, cut, edited, our first reports appeared on NBC News in America on Monday May 26th. We frantically prepared an 'NBC News Special Report' culling through dozens of hours of film shot over 24 days.
That night a slide went up on NBC at 11:30 announcing that “The Tonight Show” starring Johnny Carson would be delayed in order to present a special half hour “Communist Saigon.” It was the first and last time that Johnny Carson would be preempted for a news broadcast. John Hart, Jack Perkins, Peter Arnett, Don Oliver and I with the film of Neil Davis detailed what we knew of the events of the last month.
Looking back, I am of course pleased that I had the nerve and determination to see the end of the war. I am embarrassed by the naivety of some of what I reported and disappointed that I could not have told more, indeed did not know more of what was really happening in Vietnam.
RETURN TO VIETNAM AND 40 YEARS ON
I returned to Vietnam many times after May 1975. In March 1979, reporting for ABC News, I persuaded a Japanese crew well connected in Hanoi to help me. Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach welcomed me and ordered his people to take me to the Chinese border to report on the aftermath of the three week and six day border war with China. Premier Pham Van Dong lectured me on America's responsibility to help Vietnam rebuild. He expressed fascination with former CIA agent Frank Snepp's book "Decent Interval' which described the 1975 collapse of the south.
Vietnam enjoyed little peace in the years after the Americans left.
In January 1979, Vietnam invaded Cambodia to oust the murderous Khmer Rouge regime. Border skirmishes and dictator Pol Pot’s Chinese backed anti-Vietnamese policies goaded Hanoi into attacking its neighbor. As Nayan Chanda wrote, these onetime, even long time Communist allies – China, Cambodia and Vietnam were now “Brother Enemies.”
China attacked Vietnam for its attack on Cambodia, in the words of Chinese propaganda broadcasts “to teach Vietnam a lesson.”
Vietnam’s troops remained in Cambodia for ten years.
Only in 1988, did Vietnam begin to enjoy the benefits of peace.
My visits to Vietnam in 1979, 1980, 1982, 1985, and 1988 confirmed a sad reality.
The quality of life for most Vietnamese continued to deteriorate for much of the first 15 years after the end of the American backed war.
Only with the death of hardline Communist leader Le Duan in Hanoi in 1986 did conditions begin to slowly improve.
Inspired in part by the policy of “perestroika” in the Soviet Union, Vietnam’s longtime ally, a loosening of economic restrictions dubbed “Doi Moi” by 1990 began to be felt.
By the mid 90’s the nation was growing at 7 percent per year, nearly 30,000 private businesses had been created, and the exodus of refugees slowed to a trickle.
The Vietnam one visits today, (I last travelled south to north in November 2014), bears little resemblance to that of 1975 or 1985 or even 1995. Change is a constant. The vibrancy of the economy and of the people is apparent.
Few Vietnamese today devote much time thinking about the war or the so called “Giai Phong” of 1975. The nation of 93 million people (14th largest country in the world by population) is double the size of 1975. It is a young nation; far too young to remember the war.
There is a deep respect for the memory of war dead and a deep spiritual devotion to what can only be described as ‘ancestor worship.’ Beyond recognizing the sacrifice felt by all Vietnamese families, there is no desire to dwell on events so long ago.
[Watch this space for more reflections on Vietnam 1970 – 2015. Our next visit to Vietnam is scheduled for October 2015]
The debate over the Vietnam War continues in 2015