The Peace That Never Was 19

By late March, more than a million refugees were streaming toward Danang, which was itself being bottled up as Communist forces at¬tacked farther south along the littoral at Chulai and Quangngai. On March 25, the day Hue fell, North Vietnamese rockets crashed into downtown Danang, South Vietnam’s second largest city. Within three days, thirty-five thousand Communists were poised in its suburbs, while terrified citizens jammed the airport, the docks and the beaches, attempting to flee. Thousands waded into the sea, among them moth¬ers clutching babies; many drowned or were trampled to death as they fought to reach barges and fishing boats; sometimes South Vietnamese soldiers shot civilians to make room for themselves. On March 29, Edward Daley, president of World Airways, flew a jumbo jet into Danang. Frenzied mobs crowded the runway, and nearly three hundred Vietnamese clambered aboard in ten minutes, virtually all of them men. Others, clinging to the rear stairway, fell to their deaths. The next day, Easter Sunday, the Communists marched into Danang.
Six days earlier, the Communist leaders in Hanoi had transmitted a secret message to General Dung at his command post near Ban- methuot, informing him of their new timetable: to “liberate” the south before the rains began in May. Their principal concern was to get to Saigon as quickly as possible, before the South Vietnamese forces regrouped to defend the city. They directed Dung to divert his troops from the coast, where they were approaching Nhatrang, and to aim them directly at the southern capital. Dung thereupon transferred his headquarters to Locninh to be closer to Saigon. There, in a bamboo shack on the outskirts of town, he was joined by Tran Van Tra and Pham Hung, the senior politburo member stationed in the south. On April 7, as Dung and his comrades were conducting a planning session, they heard the roar of a motorcycle outside. The rider was a tall figure in a blue shirt and khaki pants, a black leather bag slung over his shoulder. Le Duc Tho had arrived from Hanoi to monitor the final phase, entitled the Ho Chi Minh campaign. Dung would take charge, with Hung as chief political commissar and Tra and Le Duc An, a northern officer, their deputies. The offensive against Saigon was to be launched no later than the last week of April. “From then on,” Tra recalled, “we were racing the clock.”
John Gunther Dean, U.S. ambassador to Cambodia, was by then arranging to evacuate the American embassy staff and selected Cam¬bodians by helicopter to an aircraft carrier in the Gulf of Thailand. The logistics of evacuation in Vietnam were staggering by compari¬son. The potential victims of a Communist takeover numbered, in addition to six thousand Americans, more than a hundred thousand Vietnamese now or previously employed by various American agen¬cies—who, with their kin, swelled the total to nearly a million. An exodus of that magnitude from the north of the country to the south had been carried out with relative smoothness over a three-month period in 1954, but the present circumstances were drastically different. The imminent danger was that frenzied government troops might massacre the Americans and their Vietnamese cohorts to prevent them from departing.
Ambassador Martin was to explain later that his desire to avoid panic had restrained him from ordering rescue operations sooner than the final hour. But he was also paralyzed by a bureaucratic mentality that, for example, denied evacuation to local employees of the Inter¬national Business Machine subsidiary on the grounds that they had to stay to process the Saigon government payroll. Until late April, his procrastination was essentially prompted by a conviction that the Sai¬gon area could be defended. And he believed that the key to holding firm was some seven hundred million dollars in supplemental Amer¬ican aid to mobilize fresh South Vietnamese units, a recommendation advanced by General Fred Weyand, the last U.S. commander in Viet¬nam. Martin telephoned his friends on Capitol Hill from Saigon, begging for the money. Kissinger, in a similar appeal to the Senate Appropriations Committee on April 15, contended that the funds would bolster the Saigon regime’s ability to negotiate with the Com¬munists on terms “more consistent with self-determination.”
Implicit in these pleas was a maneuver to shift the onus to Congress for South Vietnam’s almost certain collapse. And indeed, in subse¬quent years Kissinger, Martin and others did blame the legislature for the catastrophe. Yet the politicians were simply reflecting the opinion of the overwhelming majority of Americans, who favored no further aid to the Saigon government. President Ford, himself a former con¬gressman, probably perceived the national mood better than his administration officials did. On April 23, speaking at Tulane Uni¬versity in New Orleans, he relegated Vietnam to the history books: “Today, Americans can regain the sense of pride that existed before Vietnam. But it cannot be achieved by refighting a war that is fin¬ished. . . . These events, tragic as they are, portend neither the end of the world nor of America’s leadership in the world.”
With their irrepressible appetite for intrigue, prominent South Viet¬namese now became ever more deeply immersed in plots to oust Thieu, in the hope that the Communists might concede to a political accommodation, and assorted foreign intermediaries intruded into the conspiracies. Thomas Polgar, CIA chief in Saigon, suggested a coup, but the idea was flatly rejected by William Colby, the agency’s direc¬tor, who recalled America’s complicity in the downfall of Ngo Dinh Diem as having been a grievous error. General Tran Van Don, the defense minister, was colluding with the French ambassador to install General Duong Van Minh, a figure presumably acceptable to the Communists. Robert Shaplen of the New Yorker, who after decades of reporting from Vietnam had developed a proprietary interest in the country, was urging American officials to support Nguyen Cao Ky. Thieu, not waiting to be booted out, resigned on April 21. He left for Taiwan four days later, after bitterly describing his desertion by the United States ‘‘an inhumane act by an inhumane ally.”

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