This Is Why We Stand: Last Days In Vietnam
By May 1, 1975, Americans everywhere could not escape the news that South Vietnam had fallen. Just a day earlier, North Vietnamese forces had entered South Vietnam’s Capital of Saigon. With no options left, Saigon surrendered, thus bringing the Vietnam War to an end. When South Vietnam fell, many Americans shared in their feelings of pain and anguish. We had committed our bravest and brightest men to the conflict. Over three million Americans served in Southeast Asia between 1964-1975. Over 58,000 of them made the ultimate sacrifice for peace in Vietnam. The war divided our country to its core. Future generations who did not live through that time might look back and wonder if it was all worth it. President Abraham Lincoln once said, “The probability that we may fail in the struggle ought not to deter us from the support of a cause we believe to be just.” When President Lyndon Johnson committed American ground forces to the conflict in 1965, he did so under the belief that South Vietnam should have the freedom to shape its own destiny. Freedom is something that has always been worth fighting for.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund)
Before delving into the story of the American evacuation of Saigon, I want to set some historical background. In the wake of several major events, such as the Tet offensive, public pressure in the United States to end our involvement in the war mounted to extreme levels. When President Richard Nixon entered office in 1969, he announced a strategy called Vietnamization. The goal of this strategic plan was to prepare South Vietnam to handle full combat responsibilities as American troops began to withdraw from the conflict. Andrew Wiest published a book called, "Vietnam’s Forgotten Army: Heroism and Betrayal in the ARVN." In his book, Wiest conveys that while the decision satisfied the American public, it was not in the best interest of South Vietnam. He writes that it was, “A withdrawal based on political considerations in the United States rather than on the military needs of South Vietnam.” The United States had trained the Army of the Republic of Vietnam to function as its equivalent. South Vietnam alone was incapable of surviving without American logistical support. This was evidently clear as more and more American troops were being sent home.
ARVN Rangers fighting in Saigon during the Tet Offensive, 1968. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
In 1973, the United States, South Vietnam, and North Vietnam signed the Paris Peace Accords. On its face, this agreement ended the War in Vietnam. A DMZ was established at the 17th Parallel, acting as a dividing line between North and South Vietnam. The United States agreed to withdraw its final ground troops and advisors and North Vietnam agreed that it would not launch any military actions across the DMZ. While the sincerity of North Vietnam's commitment to honoring the agreement was always in question, President Richard Nixon managed to keep them in check. North Vietnam was terrified of President Nixon, believing that if they did violate the agreement and launch a military action, he would recommit United States forces in response. Following Nixon’s resignation after the Watergate scandal, North Vietnam was poised to strike the South. Without American ground forces, logistical support, and a reduction of financial support, South Vietnam was not prepared to handle large offensives launched by the NVA. Nixon’s resignation was the beginning of the end for South Vietnam.
President Nixon speaking to troops in South Vietnam. (Photo: History News Network)
One can only imagine the paralyzing fear that most in South Vietnam faced as North Vietnam moved in for its final push. In 2014, Rory Kennedy’s documentary film, "Last Days in Vietnam" was released. This powerful documentary tells the story of South Vietnam’s final days from those that were there. At the time of its premier on PBS in 2015, I was a college student who had focused a great deal of my studies on the Vietnam War. We can learn so much about humanity through carefully examining this conflict. There is no greater example of this than the desperate American evacuation of Saigon.
Operation Frequent Wind was the codename for the American evacuation of Saigon. The signal for the green light on the operation was when American Forces Radio broadcast Bing Crosby's song, "White Christmas" and announced, "The temperature is 105 degrees and rising." Once that message was relayed, Americans and important South Vietnamese personnel made their way to predetermined assembly points for evacuation. After enemy forces were three miles from the city center, a “sea of humanity” descended upon the American embassy as crowds by the hundreds gathered to seek refuge. The evacuation of Saigon was a massive undertaking. American citizens, military staff, reporters, and South Vietnamese government officials are just a few of the many types of individuals who needed extraction.
South Vietnamese civilians attempt to enter the U.S. embassy in Saigon during the evacuation. (Photo: WBUR News)
North Vietnamese forces had shelled Tan Son Nhut Air Base, making airplane departures impossible. Without the ability to use the air base, evacuation would have to be made by successive helicopter trips between the U.S. Embassy and ships waiting at sea. According to the History Learning Site, trees in the embassy garden had to be cut down so that the larger helicopters could land. The first chopper to land took off with 70 people, well above its limit. KBPS Public Broadcasting adds, “Helicopters that were built for 10 people were taking five times as many.”
In the U.S. embassy parking lot, civilians board a helicopter headed for safety. (Photo: PBS.org)
According to History.com, "In 19 hours, 81 helicopters had carried more than 1,000 Americans and almost 6,000 Vietnamese to aircraft carriers offshore." More than half of the Vietnamese refugees landed on the USS Midway. So many people and helicopters were landing on the Midway that the crew members were forced to push millions of dollars of military equipment overboard in order to make room.
USS Midway crew members push a helicopter off the flight deck to allow more evacuees to land. (Photo: slightlywarped.com)
The ending of America’s story in South Vietnam was not ideal, but every American that was on the ground saved as many people as they could. U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin refused to leave the embassy until as many people as possible had been evacuated. At 4:00 AM on the morning of April 30, a helicopter landed at the embassy. A Marine exited the chopper and told Ambassador Martin, “Sir, President Ford has given me orders to carry you aboard this helicopter if you don’t go voluntarily. It’s time to leave.” Time to leave it was indeed. Not long after, North Vietnamese tanks were rolling along the streets of Saigon. The war was over.
A helicopter lifts off from the U.S. embassy. (Photo: CGTN America)
The Vietnam War will always be a period of great debate in American history. Mistakes were made along the way, but to say it was all in vain would be wrong. We came, we saw, and we did the best job that we could to give South Vietnam a chance at survival. America was there until the very end. Even if the war wasn't popular, we stood up for what we knew was right. Echoing the eternal words of Abraham Lincoln, " I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live by the light that I have. I must stand with anybody that stands right, and stand with him while he is right, and part with him when he goes wrong." We must never forget the bravery of the Americans who heeded those words and never abandoned their mission to South Vietnam during its final days.