Why Vietnam Still Matters: the Great American End and Whitewash in 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 VIII of an eight-part series.

In 2018, it is easier to get out of Saigon than it was for the Americans in 1975.

When I got back from Vietnam, I found my copy of Decent Interval right where I had left it on my shelves, untouched since the 1970s. Nor was it bound with that yellow crime-scene tape or a notice that, should I reread it, I would be obliged send in a royalty check to the CIA.

In thumbing through the pages, I noticed that I had only highlighted one passage. It was in the postscript, which was entitled “Internal Hemorrhaging,” and it reads:

The full impact of CIA loses and failures in Vietnam will probably never be known. There are too many unanswered questions. But based on what can be ascertained, it is not too much to say that in terms of squandered lives, blown secrets and the betrayal of agents, friends and collaborators, our handling of the evacuation was an institutional disgrace. Not since the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961 had the agency put so much on the line, and lost it through stupidity and mismanagement.

No wonder Snepp found himself at the wrong end of a CIA lawsuit. Had he divulged secrets but praised the agency as the majestic guardian of American civilization, I am sure they might have given him a hall pass in Langley. Snepp’s sin was to expose the agency as incompetent.

By failing to understand the coming end game of war in Vietnam, it had left behind code books, weaponry, local agents, and millions of dollars, if not much American innocence about the world.

On one level Decent Intervalis a history of the Nixon-Kissinger policies that, after 1972, were designed to maximize the time between the U.S. withdrawal and the coming collapse of the South Vietnamese regime.

For Nixon and Kissinger, Vietnam was always an election prop. In 1968, Nixon had spoken of “secret plans” to end the war (he had none) and interfered with Lyndon Johnson’s Paris peace talks (before the election), so that the Democrats, and their candidate, Hubert Humphrey, could not claim credit for ending the war.

Nixon’s instrument in the election meddling was President Thieu, who refused the pressure to negotiate in 1968 with the North. Thieu’s hope was that soon-to-be President Nixon would cut him a better deal or at least fill up his favor bag. (During the 1980 election and up to the inauguration Ronald Reagan made similar overtures to the Iranians holding Americans hostage. So if Trump did scheme with the Russians in 2016, he was carrying on a grand American tradition.)

By the time Nixon was running for re-election in autumn 1972, the Vietnam War was supposed to have been outsourced to the government of South Vietnam, which turned out, at least on this occasion, to lack some Churchillian qualities.

Between 1969 and 1972, Nixon and Kissinger had promoted the war (by expanding it into Cambodia and Laos), not so much because they believed in the cause of the South, but as part of their grand plan to reconstruct the balance of power by cozying up to the Chinese and playing hardball with the Russians.

Unfortunately, for Nixon’s re-election campaign, the North Vietnamese government attempted to end the war with its 1972 Easter Offensive, which struck hard into the DMZ and the Central Highlands, and almost broke the wobbly lines of the South Vietnamese army.

Watching South Vietnam fall to the Communists in spring-summer 1972 was not Nixon’s idea of a great photo op, and in response to the offensive, he mined Haiphong harbor and bombed Hanoi—not to mention NVA troop concentrations in the South—to keep up the appearances that Americans had nothing for which to be ashamed about in Vietnam.

When not even the bombings could dispel the impression that something wasn’t right in South Vietnam, in October Kissinger was trotted in front of the television cameras, direct from his secret peace talks with the North, to promise, before the election, that peace really was “at hand.” (The full sentence is: “We believe that peace is at hand.”)

Once the election was over, Nixon and Kissinger could sell out the South Vietnamese any way they pleased and walk away from the war. The peace treaty they signed in January 1973 allowed the North to keep its 200,000 combat troops in the South. Game over, at least for the Thieu gang.

Nixon and Kissinger Gamble With American Lives

After signing the peace treaty in 1973, all Nixon and Kissinger wanted was a “decent interval” before the South collapsed. By deploying air power to back up the ARVN, they hoped they could maintain an independent South Vietnam, at least until the end of Nixon’s second term.

Nixon had written to Thieu in 1973: “You have my assurance that we will respond with full force should the settlement be violated by North Vietnam,” but he might just as well have been the Godfather, eating an orange.

Beginning in 1973, the Watergate affair crippled the Nixon administration, which ended in August 1974, after which South Vietnam should have been on a death watch.

Instead the American embassy in Saigon, to which Snepp was posted as an intelligence analyst, kept beating the drums of America’s endless commitment to freedom and democracy in South Vietnam.

Snepp writes of this period: “For the South Vietnamese themselves, the future, like the past, was a borrowed vision. Having long relied on the Americans for just about everything, they continued to depend on us for their understanding of what was in store for them.”

As Snepp makes clear, what suited the American oligarchy in the State Department (Kissinger was the secretary) and at the CIA was the upbeat assessment that North Vietnam could not in the immediate future takeover the South.

Based in Saigon, a diviner of North Vietnam’s strategic intentions, Snepp is a cog in this great shell game. He writes: “My comments and prognostications were hardly as spontaneous or original as I tried to make them sound. In one way or another they had been carefully rehearsed in Administration position papers during the past year and were the basis of Kissinger’s fondest hopes for Vietnam.”

Snepp does his job while wearing institutional blinders. He would have preferred to call out North Vietnamese intentions as he saw them, but not many in CIA, at least in winter 1975, got promoted for telling the CIA station chief, or Henry Kissinger, that he was wrong.

Snepp writes: “I had managed to anticipate much of what the North Vietnamese would do in the next few weeks. There was one blind spot, however, and it was critical, for what I hate failed to foresee was where the Communists could strike first.”

In March 1975, they struck through the Central Highlands and hardly drew a breath before pushing the ARVN back to Saigon.

South Vietnam Collapses

By the end of March, the North Vietnamese had captured Danang, Hue, Quang Tri City, and most of the Central Highlands. Back in Saigon, however, such losses were thought to be manageable. American and South Vietnamese war planners drew lines across maps where the enemy could be held, even though the troops assigned to such fictional Maginot Lines had long since deserted. (It echoed Adolph Hitler in the Battle of Bulge ordering non-existent units to the front or at Gettysburg Robert E. Lee telling General George Pickett, “General, you must look to your Division,” and Pickett responding: “I have no division.”)

In the U.S. embassy compound few were allowed to draft evacuation plans, for fear that if such game-planning was leaked, morale would collapse in the South Vietnamese government and army. Both with the Thieu government and his own in Washington, U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, Graham Martin, had too much at stake to promote any other line than that the future was secure. The loss of half the country was “a setback.”

Everyone remotely connected to making American policy, until the bitter end, dwelled in Neverland. Snepp describes one of his colleagues this way:

Part of the reason for his delay [in putting together an evacuation plan] was his misplaced belief that the U.S. military would come to his aid with helicopters, as promised. But the more basic inhibition was his obviously attachment to all those myths about ARVN strength and Thieu’s survivability, which Ambassador Martin had so carefully nurtured in his own effort to prop up Kissinger’s Vietnam policies—and American credibility elsewhere in the world.

In theory, the CIA was supposed to call the world as it saw it, not as it would like it to be. But Snepp’s bosses in Saigon and Washington were caught up in the office politics of telling Kissinger and CIA Director William Colby whatever they want to hear, and that meant upbeat memos even when the NVA had overrun much of South Vietnam.

Until almost the last day, Snepp’s boss, the CIA Station Chief, Thomas Polgar, believed the fairy tale (spun by KGB operatives and East European diplomats) that the NVA would prefer a negotiated settlement, even a coalition government, as opposed to overrunning Saigon in an all-out invasion.

To the contrary Snepp writes: “As the intelligence of early April had indicated, the Communists were bent on total victory, without even a semblance of political accommodation.”

The other lesson learned during the end game is that no one would ever be reprimanded for leaving behind agency assets, be they computers or collaborators.

Snepp observes, of colleagues promoted, despite having left behind local employees in Hue and Danang: “One of the awful lessons their experience taught was that you could indeed survive bureaucratically even if you could not manage to save your Vietnamese employees. Management would reward you regardless.”

The end came for Saigon and the government of South Vietnam faster than most can imagine. By April 30, 1975, the country had fallen to the NVA, although as late as mid-April Kissinger was trying to push through Congress a $700 aid package for the government of South Vietnam.

It’s not that Kissinger believed that such aid would forestall the coming collapse. He promoted the aid package as a signal to American allies that the U.S. would never “cut and run” from its friends (at least without leaving behind some swag bags in the palace).

Of Kissinger’s last, self-serving press conference to announce that all Americans had gotten safely out of Vietnam, Snepp writes: “Nor was he candid enough to admit that the Soviets, with the help of Hungarians, Poles, and the French, had played him and so many others for fools.”

Evacuating Rooftop Saigon

On one hand, the helicopter evacuation of Americans and their allies from Saigon, carried out by the U.S. army and marines, is impressive. They flew 630 missions on the last day, and took out 1,373 Americans and 5,595 Vietnamese. In all, during April 1975, some 45,000 Vietnamese and 6,763 Americans left the country.

Despite these figures, thousands of other South Vietnamese were abandoned to their fate in the re-education camps of the VC and NVA. Snepp estimates than only about 537 of the CIA’s 1,900 “indigenous employees” got out, and that USAID only evacuated 362 of its 924 employees.

Snepp writes in a follow-up book, Irreparable Harm (about his lawsuit with the CIA): “And when the end came and the helicopters rushed to the rescue, the evacuation degenerated quickly into an improvised experiment in racism: only those with white skin were assured a way out.”

Also abandoned in the rush for the doors were enough armaments to equip a large army. The Pentagon estimated that it left behind in Vietnam 550 tanks, 73 F-5 fighter jets, 1,300 artillery pieces, and 1.6 million rifles—one reason Vietnam’s military museums have such a bountiful harvest of U.S. weaponry.

Snepp left the Saigon embassy rooftop on one of the last evacuation flights. He was aware that the courtyard of the embassy was still full of local Vietnamese, for whom there would be no rescue. His helicopter was fired upon but not hit while flying over Ba Ria. It landed safely on the deck of the USS Denver, from which, in time, Snepp returned to Washington and the CIA, although not to another slot for his career. He writes: “I went from office to office, asking for permission to do a real ‘damage assessment’ so that the agency could learn from its mistakes. I was told no one was interest in anything so ‘controversial.’”

Snepp resigned from the agency in early 1976, and for a while tried to play by the rules of conformity. It proved difficult, as he writes:

Because of its continued assaults on my integrity, and its reluctance to deal candidly with the Vietnam issue, I eventually stopped meeting with my case officer the agency had assigned to me. I also resolved not to submit my manuscript to the agency for clearance and censorship, as all former employees-turned-author are required to do. In my view, if the CIA could officially leak to the press to whitewash its role in Vietnam, it had forfeited the right to censor me in the name of security or national interest.

Five years later, the Supreme Court awarded his royalties to the CIA. Technically, under the terms of his original employment contract (although not subsequent releases), the U.S. government was correct in its assertions that the Agency had the right to vet his manuscript before publication.

Morally, however, the CIA was shooting the messenger, notably one who described in 580 pages how Kissinger had been “played for a fool” and how Ambassador Martin was willing to gamble with Vietnamese lives to prop up an illusion of America’s global power. Nor did the Agency sue others who published their memoirs without an official review.

Snepp writes in conclusion: “Two Presidents had misled Congress; the Ambassador had overdrawn the prospects of success; and our protégés in Saigon had been tolerated in their most self-defeating policies. It was as if the lessons of the past had already been forgotten at the top levels of the our government.”

Little did Snepp realize at the time, but the case against him and his book were among the opening acts in the political theater that, at least since Ronald Reagan came to the national stage, has been attempting to rewrite the history of the Vietnam War, as one that should have had a happier ending than that which Snepp described.

I had a much easier passage home than did Snepp in spring 1975.  I squeezed myself into the economy sections of successive Air China planes and flew to Europe. I came back with regrets different from those of Snepp or the returning veterans, for whom the war remains an open wound, even forty years after it ended. He would recall his 1975 homecoming: “Vietnam was a relic best forgotten, an ancient piece of hubris that had receded from moral relevance in the three years since the last American boys had come home.”

In my case, I kept wanting to travel down one more road or read one more memoir, in the hope that I might unlock the secrets to a war that clouded my childhood, and the prism through which I have viewed subsequent American politics.

If I learned anything in my travels from Dien Bien Phu to the Mekong Delta, it is that the Vietnam war—in the skillful hands that love nothing more than to rewrite American history—has moved from being a tragedy to a metaphor for the righteousness of American exceptionalism.

Sanitized by the seizure of Snepp’s royalties, and by the crusades of John Rambo among others on the big screen, Vietnam remains with us—at least for many in the political spin business—as enduring proof that U.S. intentions in the rice paddies were noble. It is a delusion that has conferred the same blessings on subsequent U.S. military interventions, from Grenada to the recent missile attacks on Syrian chemical plants.

If anything, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were proof that Americans learned very little in Indochina, and the lawsuit against Snepp and his memoirs might well read as if a dress rehearsal for the U.S.A Patriot Act.

I might not have found what I was looking for in Vietnam. It is still a country where many of the roads lead to nowhere. (I often had in my mind that quotation from a Marine Corps general, who said: “When you’re at Khe Sanh, you’re not really anywhere.” And Khe Sanh was among the finest American moments in the war.)

At least back home I could look through my books and find what I was looking for, such as this passages from American Reckoning, in which the admirable Professor Appy writes:

The Communists won the war, but the victor’s prize was a wrecked land, with thousands of towns and villages damaged or destroyed, millions of acres defoliated, cratered, and holding countless unexploded ordnance and toxins, millions of people dead, wounded, or orphaned. Back in the States, American leaders spoke as if their own nation had suffered just as much.

In Backfire: A History of How American Culture Led Us Into Vietnam and Made Us Fight the Way We Did, author Loren Baritz quotes the novelist Tim O’Brien, who said of his homecoming: “We’ve all adjusted. The whole country. And I fear that we are back where we started. I wish we were more troubled.”

This is Part VIII, the last in the series, Why Vietnam Still Matters. 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.