Why Vietnam Still Matters: Saigon’s and Frank Snepp’s “Decent Interval”

Hotel Continental : What journalists called The Continental Shelf in downtown Saigon.

Exclusively for CounterPunch, Matthew Stevenson travels from Haiphong and Hanoi, in what was North Vietnam, to the Central Highlands and Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon and the capital, in search of the remnants of the American war in Vietnam.  This is Part VII of an eight-part series.

The night before leaving Saigon, I went out on the town. Well, not so much bar-hopping but on a night bicycle ride through the wild city streets, which even after midnight are a pulsing scrum of taxis, motorbikes, cars, and trucks

Rather than ride on my own, however, I went with my bicycle-riding friend Mark Gibson. Together we hired a guide, who arrived from a local shop with the mandate to navigate us around the city. He gave his name only as the letter V and said that during the day he either worked in a bicycle shop or lead tourists on tours outside the city, often to the Cat Tien National Park, northeast of Saigon. He rode a mountain bike that was easy to track through the downtown, including some of the roundabouts that mix eight lanes of crazy traffic.

By day, Saigon has the sooty feel of a new Asian city prone to gridlock; the weather is hot and humid, and the cars, not to mention the motorbikes on the sidewalks, make it hard to go anywhere, except maybe in a taxi. But at night Saigon turns on its neon lights, which converts the nervous energy of the streets into something more elegant. We cruised past some of the glittering five-star hotels and many cafés and restaurants, although always with both eyes fixed sharply on the traffic spinning through the next intersection.

In my mind, any time I am in Saigon (the name Ho Chi Minh City has really never caught on, except to the airlines and hotel search engines), I think about the great American retreat that took place from the city’s rooftops and parking lots in April 1975.

At least to American war planners, the war’s end came sooner than expected. Invading North Vietnamese division broke through ARVN forces loosely deployed across the Central Highlands, and soon they had cut off the retreating troops and surrounded Saigon.

Had President Nixon still been in office, he might have rallied to the South Vietnamese cause with air strikes against the advancing NVA forces, if not by attacking Hanoi and Haiphong (as he did in 1972, during their previous offensive).

By spring 1975, however, Nixon had been exiled to San Clemente, and the new president, Gerald Ford, had no stomach to refight the war in Vietnam, even if the alternative was the rooftop humiliation of the American empire.

Marshall Ky Discovers Democracy

When the end came in Vietnam, I was a junior in college and studying abroad in Vienna. I had neither television nor radio that spring. To follow South Vietnam into the dustbin of history, all I had was the International Herald Tribune, which in those days was a combination of dispatches from the New York Times, the Washington Post, and various wire services. All told the same story of the retreat from the highlands and the abandonment of many Vietnamese collaborators, for whom there was no room when the helicopters flew away with the last Americans.

After the fall of Saigon, I didn’t think much about Vietnam’s fate. I had no sympathy with the NVA victors, especially as I began traveling behind the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe and could then easily imagine how “liberation” for the South might give it the airs of a tropical Romania.

At the same time, I was pleased that for the first time in my memory, no American forces were engaged in Indochina. And even though I studied international relations in graduate school, very few books or lectures touched on the legacy of the recent war. Academically and otherwise, American was done worrying about the fate of Vietnam, and it would take a few years before Hollywood could rewrite the unhappy ending of the first rushes.

One evening in graduate school I did, out of curiosity, attend a lecture given by the former Vietnamese vice-president, Nguyen Cao Ky, who had been a fixture in the news reports of my childhood. I don’t remember what prompted the invitation for him to speak that evening, but I can only assume he was there for the honorarium and that not all the gold bars from his air ministry had made it into his go-bag when he fled the South in his helicopter. (Ky wasn’t about to go down fighting in the last fox hole.)

Ky’s speech that evening was a variation on one of those German rants, from the 1920s, about how the war’s end had been a “stab in the back.” He made the case for a South Vietnamese Risorgimento, perhaps hoping that Gerald Ford (now that his patrons Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were gone) might “unleash” Ky in much the manner that Dwight Eisenhower was always threatening to unleash GeneralissimoChiang Kai-shek against so-called Red China. (New York Times columnist Russell Baker liked to say about Chiang that he did “too much ‘issimo-ing’ and not enough generaling….”)

The Ky audience, mostly other graduate students, didn’t think much about yet another war of liberation in Vietnam, even as boat people were beginning to appear on the horizon of the South China Sea. In turn, Ky didn’t think much of the booing that his speech his speech was generating, and he turned angrily to the event organizers, demanding that they silence this riffraff opposition.

When the moderators shrugged in the direction of Ky, to indicate that dissent was an American tradition, the air marshal took his right hand and began making slashing gestures under his throat, which was his suggestion on the best way to deal with this unruly crowd.

When no praetorian guards rushed the audience and began cutting dissident throats, Ky walked off the stage in a huff, no doubt before anyone could remember his earlier, infamous quote. He once said: “People ask me who my heroes are. I have only one: Hitler.”

One reason, I am sure, that the Vietnam War came to such a bitter end is because few Americans could ever believe that the South Vietnamese leaders such as Marshal Ky, President Nguyen Van Thieu, or, earlier, Ngo Dinh Diem, were anything more than ballot-stuffing strong men, Asian variations on our man in Havana. They gave off the air of confidence men who might fight to the last American and then line their briefcases with bearer bonds from the central bank and end up in a Honolulu mansion.

Lore Baritz writes in Backfire: A History of How American Culture Led Us into Vietnam and Made Us Fight the Way We Did:

One respected local journalist told Daniel Ellsberg, then stationed in Saigon, that Ky’s political power was an “insult to the people.” “Why,” he asked, “do you have to humiliate us by hiring a man of this caliber for us?” It was not merely that Ky was perceived as a puppet: “We could live with a puppet—we’re on your side—we could work with you with much more self-respect if you had someone more representative of Vietnamese values.”

When Lyndon Johnson went to South Vietnam in 1961—on a flag-waving exercise—he compared President Diem to Winston Churchill. In American Reckoning, Professor Christian Appy writes: “When a journalist asked Johnson if he really believed in that comparison, LBJ replied, ‘Shit, Diem’s the only boy we got out there.’” Then there was Thieu and Ky.

Frank Snepp’s (and Saigon’s) Decent Interval

Biking around Saigon that evening reminded me Frank Snepp’s Decent Interval: An Insider’s Account of Saigon’s Indecent End Told by the CIA’s Chief Strategy Analyst in Vietnam, which was published in late 1977. That Christmas, a family friend gave me a copy, with the inscription: “Perhaps this will help you in your selection of a career, if only on the negative side.”

In winter 1977, few wanted the take of a CIA analyst on the last days of the Saigon regime, although I remember reading the account, in the days after Christmas, in several long gulps. Before taking the plunge I remember wondering if I really needed to read 580 pages about the CIA Station in Saigon in winter-spring 1974-75. Was I not full on the subject of the Vietnam War? When I was done with the book I felt the reward of having read an engaging, first-person narrative that captured a key moment in history.

At the very least Snepp had written the definitive history of the final days of the American imperium—in Vietnam anyway—in a gripping, page-turning style. The rooftop escape defined so much about the blundering American experience in Vietnam, and Snepp was the only witness to the tawdry retreat who wrote it all down as if a modern-day Xenophon, on the payroll of the CIA, retreating from the Asian wars.

Before reading the book, I had never heard about Frank Snepp, although when I opened the gift, my father mentioned having been in the same undergraduate class with his father (who had the same name).

From the flap copy, I figured out that I was attending the same Columbia graduate school, from which Snepp had graduated in 1968, before joining the CIA. I graduated ten years later, when few then had any interest in a career in intelligence. This was after the revelations of the Church Committee in the U.S. Senate, which portrayed the CIA as a hit squad.

Although I never met Snepp in person, I did admire him from a distance and later took an interest when a lawsuit against him, brought by the U.S. government on behalf of the CIA, went to the Supreme Court.

The issue was a clause in Snepp’s CIA employment contract that prohibited him from publishing material about the agency, without it first having vetted the manuscript for any compromises of national or CIA security. Angry at how the agency had left Vietnam and about its refusal to consider an after-action investigation into what had gone wrong, Snepp had quit the CIA and published his memoir without its blessing.

In 1981, the CIA had dragged him into the Supreme Court, to block his earnings from the book and to teach other agents in the field that there were costs associated with tell-all books about the failings within agency. I remember being shocked that Snepp lost his appeal to the Supreme Court and that he had been forced to pay $300,000 in book royalties to his former CIA handlers.

In the court case, no one alleged that Snepp had compromised the identities of agents in the field or divulged national secrets that could have aided or abetted the enemy. He wasn’t charged with treason—simply that he had failed to honor the clause in his employment contract that bound him, before publishing something about the agency, to clear the manuscript with it.

Snepp felt—keep in mind it was the late 1970s—that the agency had forfeited the right to such a review by the shabby way it had treated him on his return from Saigon and by its refusal to consider a serious internal study on what went wrong at the end of the American war.

The courts disagreed, and suddenly he was an intelligence officer without a career and an author whose earnings were pledged to those he had criticized. The only consolation was that Decent Intervalremained in print. I am sure many in the CIA would have loved to seen it ordered to the pulp mills.

Snepp on the Firing Line with William F. Buckley Jr.

That night back in my hotel room, having survived the Saigon traffic, I watched on YouTube a rebroadcast of William Buckley’s Firing Line(from 1981), in which his guests were the former CIA top official Cord Meyer Jr. and Snepp. Lurking in the wings of the program, as an “interrogator,” was the McCarthyite lawyer, Roy Cohn, who has since been remembered as a mentor and lawyer to the aspiring and on-the-make hotelier Donald Trump.

Buckley, Meyer, and Cohn were on air as if CIA Vestal Virgins, there to remind viewers that Snepp had shamed himself and the agency, for failing to have his book vetted. (Snepp reminded ex-CIA man Buckley (aka Blackford Oakes) that he also should have had his books and articles vetted. Buckley’s response was a dismissive Latin citation, “de minimus.I was a little surprised that he did not break into a Gregorian Chant.)

By the 1980s, however, Cohn was spending less time chasing subversives out from under Washington beds and more billable hours for Donald Trump, drafting up things such a prenuptial agreements, which might have amounted to full-time work.

On the TV program, Cohn went after the Senate investigations of the Church Committee, as if it had attacked all that was sacred about the CIA and the American way of life. In his raspy Bronx accent, one can hear the antecedents of Trump’s paranoid style of American politics.

All three members of the panel seemed to take pleasure in what Buckley called Snepp’s “impoverishment” at the hands of the courts and the CIA. None was remotely interested in discussing the terms on which the U.S. departed from the rooftops of Saigon. At least for this episode of Firing Line, the American imperium had held off a challenger. Too bad it was not as lucky in Vietnam.

Up Next:  The last Americans leave Saigon in 1975. To read earlier installments in the series, please click here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.