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Inside America's Massive, Messy Evacuation From Saigon

How the U.S. managed the failure of the Vietnam War 40 years ago

Bettmann / Corbis / AP Images

On April 23, 1975, before a youthful crowd of forty-five hundred at Tulane University, President Gerald R. Ford announced that the Vietnam War was over. “Today,” the president proclaimed, “America can regain the sense of pride that existed before Vietnam, but it cannot be achieved by refighting a war that is finished as far as America is concerned.” The crowd erupted in “a jubilant roar” and “nearly raised the roof with whoops and hollers,” the New Republic’s White House correspondent wrote. In less than a week, thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of Vietnamese would be evacuated from Saigon as the North Vietnamese Army closed in on the capital city.

One hundred and thirty thousand Vietnamese left South Vietnam that April, ten times the number that the State Department had planned for. In the final phase alone, in just over 14 hours’ time, Marine helicopters lifted out almost 8,000 U.S. military personnel, South Vietnamese, and their dependents—about 5,600 from Tan Son Nhut airport, another 2,206 from the roof and courtyard of the U.S. embassy in Saigon, and dozens more from other locations.

Like the Vietnam War itself, the evacuation of Saigon was both a demonstration of extraordinary courage and resolve, and an ignominious failure.  Thousands of Americans and many South Vietnamese acted heroically and selflessly during those final weeks of near chaos, among them State Department, Defense Department, and intelligence officials, Marine Corps soldiers and officers, Marine helicopter pilots and crews, Air America pilots and crews, and many South Vietnamese civilians and military personnel. The United States thereby avoided what could have been a horrible disaster. As National Security Council official Richard Smyser noted, “I can at least say that we did do the decent thing to get the people help.”

At the same time, the evacuation of Saigon was a disaster in some fundamental respects. As Smyser also pointed out: “It was obvious that we couldn’t help them all.” Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese who wanted to leave could not. These were the people who didn’t make it on board USAF transport aircraft or the CIA’s Air America flights, who couldn’t reach the helicopters, who were unable to make it onto the U.S. embassy grounds, or who could not escape by boat. Many simply did not have the political clout, military standing, personal ties, cash and other valuable possessions, good looks—many dancers and bar girls were among those taken out—or other assets that allowed them to get out.

The sheer numbers were daunting. As of mid-April, about 4,000 Americans remained in Saigon, according to the U.S. embassy and NSC’s calculations, and they figured there were another 90,000 relatives of U.S. citizens who likely wanted to leave. There were also 17,000 local employees of the U.S. government and their 120,000 relatives, whom Graham Martin, the U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, had promised he’d evacuate. Martin wrote Brent Scowcroft, then deputy national security advisor, that the United States owed protection to about 175,000 people, among them “local national employees, in-laws of U.S. citizens, Vietnamese employees of American concerns, including the communications media, American foundations, and volunteer agencies, religious leaders, and Western educated professionals” in the employment of the Thieu government. The government of South Vietnam had about 600,000 employees of its own, too, together with their dependents—and all of them would be vulnerable to reprisals after the fall of Saigon. A total of two to three million people thus had a legitimate claim for being evacuated or a good reason to fear for their safety should they stay in South Vietnam.

With the North Vietnamese forces [in late March and early April, 1975] advancing much faster than either Hanoi or Saigon had expected, the situation in South Vietnam became acute. One hundred and twenty-five Vietnamese Air Force planes were able to flee to U-Tapao and other bases in Thailand—many of the aircraft filled with refugees—and much of the Vietnamese navy was also able to escape, eventually making it to Subic Bay in the Philippines. But ARVN personnel, officials of the Thieu government, and others who had worked for the U.S. and South Vietnam governments were trapped. “It was frantic, a mess,” Scowcroft told Newsweek.

Survivors from both the North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese armies have attested to the fact many ARVN units fought vigorously to defend what remained of South Vietnam against the advancing communist divisions, despite their logistical handicaps and waning morale, especially around Xuan Loc. However, that same commitment wasn’t apparent among South Vietnamese government officials or its civilians. “No spirit of support or sacrifice has been summoned,” wrote one reporter. “No crowds of Saigonese collected blood or money or food for the soldiers, or helped care for the sick and wounded in the hospitals, or offered their services for the refugees,” observed another. “No swarms of volunteers appeared at recruiting stations. No civilians built barricades or filled sandbags or dug antitank ditches. Nor were they asked to.” Ultimately, “the Saigon regime could find no reserve of will largely because it had no relation to its own people,” the reporter, Arnold Isaacs, found. “Its leaders could conceive [of] useless appeals to the United States for the return of B-52s, but not to their countrymen for a common effort at survival.”

“Vietnam [was] falling to pieces,” in the words of David Hume Kennerly, Ford’s prize-winning photographer. Kennerly agreed with the State Department’s William Hyland that Vietnam was a lost cause. “I don’t care what the generals tell you,” Kennerly told the president after visiting Vietnam with Army Chief of Staff Frederick C. Weyand in April, “they’re bullshitting if they say that Vietnam has got more than three or four weeks left.”

Ford, Kissinger, Scowcroft, Schlesinger, Ambassador Martin, and Joint Chiefs Chairman General George S. Brown (who succeeded Admiral Moorer in July, 1974) now [had to decide] how to evacuate Saigon.

In early April the planning began in earnest. “Timing is of utmost importance,” the State Department reported to Scowcroft, adding that “for maximum success the implementation must begin promptly after intelligence sources have indicated Saigon is doomed—and before it is too late to be effective.” Since the evacuation would most likely leave South Vietnam without any effective political and military governing authority, the White House wanted to start the evacuation only when absolutely necessary. Yet the more it delayed, the less the chance that all U.S. officials, American citizens, and high-risk Vietnamese needing to leave Saigon would be able to get out safely. Fundamentally related to the matter of timing was, therefore, the matter of “sufficient speed,” since the logistics of the evacuation depended on which assets—ships, helicopters, cargo planes, commercial aircraft—were available, in what numbers, and when.

The timing and speed of the operation depended, in turn, on more basic questions. Who was to be evacuated? How many were to be taken out? And what was their order of priority? It was assumed that virtually all U.S. citizens would leave (some missionaries, humanitarian volunteers, and contractors excepted), but it wasn’t obvious to U.S. officials which and how many South Vietnamese were to be evacuated. Defense Secretary Schlesinger and some members of Congress wanted to evacuate few, if any, South Vietnamese. In many of his decisions on the evacuation, the president was given the option to leave all South Vietnamese (or those South Vietnamese remaining, as the case may be) behind to face the North Vietnamese.

Another factor Ford’s advisers had to consider was how the U.S. government was going to protect those being evacuated, as well as the flight crews and the soldiers helping get people out, since Congress had prohibited U.S. forces in Vietnam from engaging in further conflict. Would extra forces need to be brought in? How was the U.S. military to respond when attacked by hostile fire? And would some in the South Vietnamese military who opposed the Americans’ departure resist and obstruct the evacuation?

In addition, Ford’s top military and civilian advisers had to decide on a policy for those rescued at sea, since many South Vietnamese were fleeing by boat. What resources should the United States spend on rescuing the boat people, especially if most were not in the high-risk category? How was the administration going to handle the thousands of refugees? Where were these people to be housed, fed, processed, and eventually located?

Scowcroft and his NSC staff, Bud McFarlane in particular, were responsible for overseeing and coordinating almost all phases of the evacuation. They monitored how many Americans and Vietnamese U.S. forces took out each day, using figures from the Saigon embassy and Department of Defense, so as to calculate how many people remained to be evacuated. They coordinated actions with the State Department and the Pacific Command. Mostly, they simply tried to impose a modicum of order on what Scowcroft called a “confusing, crazy” mess.

Under the circumstances, Scowcroft advocated evacuating “as many as possible,” believing the United States had a “moral obligation” to those who worked for the U.S. government and to U.S. contractors. He also believed that Washington’s management of the evacuation would affect the United States’ international reputation: “Other nations will see in our handling of this issue how the U.S. deals with the people of a country which has long been involved with us.”

The administration feared that the Americans still in Saigon would effectively become hostages. DCI [William] Colby and embassy officials warned that some South Vietnamese held the position that the “evacuation of Americans should not be permitted unless guarantees for their own safety [were] made.” Americans might be subject to “reprisals” if the United States attempted to evacuate U.S. citizens “without taking along friendly South Vietnamese.” The South Vietnamese might even “fire on anyone trying to leave.”

Ford decided to evacuate as many as possible, including the South Vietnamese dependents of American personnel, the high-risk Vietnamese along with their families and other dependents, and others who had assisted or collaborated with the United States.  Scowcroft gave Ford immense credit for this decision, especially since members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had unanimously recommended that the last U.S. forces be withdrawn “as fast as possible.” Ford had “nothing to gain” politically by refusing to abandon the Vietnamese, Scowcroft pointed out, while he had “everything to lose” had the evacuation led to U.S. casualties or a subsequent military engagement with the North Vietnamese. It was, he later wrote, “perhaps Ford’s finest hour. It was a tough, lonely decision made with great courage.”

With the North Vietnamese about to overrun Saigon, Kissinger and Scowcroft depended on Ambassador Martin’s presence on the ground and relied on his judgment of the situation.  Martin nevertheless attempted to stall the evacuation as long as he could and tried to delay the closing of the defense attaché’s office, the withdrawal of U.S. military forces, and the shutting down of the South Vietnamese government.

On April 21, after Martin told Thieu it was time to leave, the South Vietnamese president resigned and was flown to Taipei, where his brother was ambassador (Thieu’s wife had already left for Taiwan). On April 28, after a weeklong interregnum during which the vice president was in charge, Duong Van Minh (known as “Big Minh”) became president of South Vietnam. The next morning, the situation deteriorated further. The South Vietnamese army began to disband and the North Vietnamese shelled Tan Son Nhut airport—the center of the U.S. military presence in South Vietnam—littering the runway with the debris of destroyed aircraft and wrecked trucks.

When [Secretary of Defense James] Schlesinger heard the news that the airport was inoperable, he called Scowcroft, yelling at him, “For Christ’s sake, let’s go to the helos.” Ford checked with Kissinger and agreed: “We have no choice but to send in the helicopters, get our Americans out, and try to save as many friends as we can,” Ford told Scowcroft. Thirty minutes later, Armed Forces Radio in Saigon played “White Christmas,” signaling that the final evacuation was under way. Some South Vietnamese had their own name for the operation: “The Running.”

Over the final two days of April, 71 helicopters made 689 sorties staffed by 865 Marines. As long as Americans remained at the embassy, Martin knew, the helicopters would keep flying. So he used the flights to evacuate dependents and other at-risk Vietnamese, even as hundreds of Americans at the embassy remained to be evacuated. To Kissinger, Scowcroft, and the Joint Chiefs, Martin’s insistence on evacuating Vietnamese against explicit orders to the contrary was insubordinate. “Graham gave me an initial headcount of several hundred that included both Americans and Vietnamese,” McFarlane reports in his memoirs, “and we started the [last set] of sorties.” Once the helicopters lifted off, however, “Graham reported back” and gave McFarlane “a number that was more than we had started with.” Since McFarlane “knew what [Graham] was doing,” and since he agreed with “his desire to evacuate as many Vietnamese as possible,” he didn’t pass anything along. After a while, “Henry caught on,” and he became very upset when his military assistant admitted that Martin “was padding things a bit and bringing out more Vietnamese.”

The usually calm Scowcroft snapped. “Understand there are still about 400 Americans in embassy compound,” he cabled Martin. “You should ensure that all, repeat all, Americans are evacuated in this operation ASAP.”

Furious, the ambassador gave as good as he got:

Perhaps you can tell me how to make some of these Americans abandon their half-Vietnamese children, or how the president would look if he ordered this.  Am well aware of the danger here tomorrow and I want to get out tonight. But I damn well need at least 30 CH-53s [Sikorsky Sea Stallion helicopters] or the equivalent to do that. Do you think you can get president to order CINCPAC [Office of the US Commander in Chief Pacific] to finish job quickly? I repeat, I need 30 ch-53s and I need them now.

As the waves of helicopters scurried back and forth between the U.S. embassy and the U.S. fleet, Martin kept boarding Vietnamese, even though embassy staff, U.S. Marines, and others waited at the mission. “Brent Scowcroft had promised me 50 more of those big helicopters,” Martin recalled. “We had taken the Vietnamese and the Koreans to whom we had made a promise, we carefully counted them and brought them across the wall into the inner compound. We had no intention of bringing the people we had left in the outer compound. We were going to bring these other people out—some of them were cabinet ministers and so on.”

Many wouldn’t get out. The word in the White House and in the Pentagon was that Martin was “always going to have 2,000 more.” “No matter how many helicopters left, the estimate of the number of evacuees remaining never changed,” one helicopter squadron commander said. “It was like trying to empty a ‘bottomless pit.’” Military leaders already held Martin responsible for delaying the evacuation, and they now (rightly) suspected that he was deliberately withholding Americans so he could evacuate more Vietnamese.

For his part, Martin blamed Scowcroft for not ordering enough helicopter sorties so he could evacuate all of the Vietnamese still at the embassy. “Actually we very carefully calculated the whole bloody business, taking ninety at a time, and with what Scowcroft had promised me—well, God knows if you can’t count on the President’s National Security Adviser, who the hell do you count on?”

But the decision wasn’t Martin’s to make. The White House and Joint Chiefs had decided that time was up. Recounted Martin, “Suddenly we got this message that everything was off. ‘The next helicopter is coming; please come out.’” After receiving the news, he cabled Scowcroft, “Plan to close mission Saigon approximately 0430…Due to necessity to destroy [communications] gear, this is the last Saigon message to SecState.”

At 4:42 a.m. on April 30, the ambassador, pale, suffering from insomnia, unsteady on his feet, and still recovering from a recent medical operation, was helicoptered from the embassy. Additional helicopters rescued the remaining few Americans. The final CH-46 and its escort of Cobra gunships landed just before 8:00 a.m.—in full daylight—to pick up the last eleven Marines. As the last Marines quickly climbed the stairs up to the embassy roof, desperate South Vietnamese raced up behind them. And as the Marines hastily boarded the one waiting helicopter, the first Vietnamese to reach the roof made a dive for the helicopter as it began to lift off.

About 400 Vietnamese who were crowded in the embassy courtyard and whom Martin or other U.S. officials had promised to evacuate were stranded. For the U.S. officials and Marines taking the last few helicopters, the scene was excruciating: Although orders were orders, many of them had worked for years with the South Vietnamese, and they felt responsible for abandoning them.

At about noon on April 30, the lead tank from the 324th Division of the North Vietnamese army crashed through the gates to the presidential palace in Saigon. Big Minh was placed under arrest, and the U.S. embassy was ransacked not long afterward. All of Vietnam was in communist hands.

The evacuation crisis was the most severe leadership test Brent Scowcroft had faced in his career. Throughout it, he was constantly in touch with Kissinger and frequently with the president. He spoke often with Schlesinger and others in the Department of Defense as well as with Ambassador Martin, Wolfgang Lehmann, [CIA station chief] Tom Polgar, and President Thieu, whether by telephone or cable. He also worked closely with Adm. Noel Gayler, commander in chief of the Pacific Command. And he was “able to knock heads together at CINCPAC and with the fleet commanders when critical bottlenecks showed up,” historian John Prados reported, not losing sight of what the U.S. hoped to achieve.

Scowcroft ran the situation room “for a long, exhausting day of one emergency after another.” And with the twelve-hour time difference between Washington and Vietnam, he was often up most of the night and sometimes all night during those final days. To others in the White House, he appeared “frail and exhausted.” In contrast to Kissinger, who “grew increasingly irate and short-tempered” as the evacuation drew to a climax, Scowcroft kept his poise. Hartmann, who disliked the holdovers from the Nixon White House, especially Kissinger, appreciated Scowcroft’s “tireless and unflappable” personality.

Still, Scowcroft found the end of the Vietnam War greatly disturbing. Having dealt with hundreds of families of POWs and MIAs in his role as military assistant and having himself been confined to military hospitals for two years, he couldn’t view the episode and the suffering it involved from twenty thousand feet.

The end of the Vietnam War was in many ways a microcosm of the multifaceted history of the failed U.S. involvement in Indochina. “It was,” admitted Scowcroft, “a miracle we got out.”

This piece was excerpted from The Strategist: Brent Scowcroft and the Call of National Security. (PublicAffairs Press, 2015)