The Peace That Never Was 20

By now, forty thousand North Vietnamese troops had overrun Xuanloc, thirty-five miles northeast of Saigon on the road to Bienhoa airfield. The battle had raged for two weeks—the only engagement during the government’s last phase in which its forces fought well, as their aircraft inflicted heavy casualties on the Communists with such devastating weapons as cluster bombs. Speeding forward after the breakthrough, the North Vietnamese divisions turned the corner at Bienhoa and headed south for Saigon.
There, under intense pressure from Washington, the U.S. mission had finally set in motion its emergency withdrawal plans. Some fifty thousand Americans and Vietnamese had departed during the previous weeks. On April 29, with the Communists rocketing the Saigon air¬port, the ultimate alternative was Option IV—the largest helicopter evacuation on record. Over a span of eighteen hours, shuttling back and forth between the city and aircraft carriers riding offshore, a fleet of seventy marine choppers lifted more than a thousand Americans and nearly six thousand Vietnamese out of the beleaguered capital— two thousand of them from the U.S. embassy compound.
The operation, conducted in an atmosphere of desperation, was close to miraculous. The original plan had been for buses to pick up the Americans and Vietnamese designated for departure at appointed places around the city and to deliver them to various helicopter pads. But the procedure quickly broke down. Mobs of hysterical Viet¬namese, clamoring to be evacuated, blocked the buses. Thousands surged toward the takeoff spots, screaming to be saved. Rumors of impending Communist shelling swept through the crowd and exac¬erbated the panic; in fact, the North Vietnamese were deliberately holding their fire, no longer seeing any gain in gratuitous slaughter. Martin, sanguine to the end, had declined to ship out his personal belongings, including his collection of Asian curios. Now, feverish with pneumonia, he no longer mattered. Admiral Noel Gayler, the commander for the Pacific, had flown in to take charge. Accompanied by his wife, clutching the embassy flag, Martin climbed to the chancery roof to board a helicopter. By dawn on April 30, its streets deserted, Saigon awaited the Communists.
Thieu had abdicated to Tran Van Huong, his decrepit vice-president, who swiftly shunted his tattered authority to General Minh, suppos¬edly the man to placate the Communists. But the Communists were not to be appeased. On the night of April 29, sweeping down from Bienhoa, their forward columns had driven into the outskirts of Sai¬gon, clashing along the way with a few South Vietnamese units. By morning, they were inside the capital, headed for the government army garrison, the police headquarters, the radio station and other vital targets. An armored squadron, coming in from the north, rum¬bled down Hong Thap Tu Street and turned left onto Thong Nhut Boulevard to face the presidential palace. As the tanks rolled through the gates into the spacious courtyard, one of the crew rushed up the stairs to unfurl the red and yellow Vietcong flag from a balcony. General Minh and his improvised cabinet, dressed in business suits, were gathered in an ornate reception chamber on the second floor. It was eleven o’clock, and they had been there for hours.
Colonel Bui Tin, then deputy editor of Quan Doi Nhan Dan, the North Vietnamese army newspaper, was covering the campaign as a correspondent. Having reported the capture of Banmethuot, Danang and Xuanloc, he was eager to witness the “liberation” of Saigon and had joined the armored spearhead at Bienhoa. Now, riding a tank into the palace grounds, he prepared to play a dual role. As a journalist, he wanted to record the capitulation. But as the ranking officer with the unit, his first duty was to take the surrender.
“I have been waiting since early this morning to transfer power to you,” announced General Minh as Bui Tin entered the room.
“There is no question of your transferring power,” replied Bui Tin. “Your power has crumbled. You cannot give up what you do not have.”
A burst of gunfire erupted outside, and several of Minh’s ministers ducked. Their nervousness provided Bui Tin with the pretext to de¬liver a short speech: “Our men are merely celebrating. You have nothing to fear. Between Vietnamese, there are no victors and no vanquished. Only the Americans have been beaten. If you are patriots, consider this a moment of joy. The war for our country is over.” Leaving the chamber, Bui Tin roamed through the building until he found Thieu’s private office. He sat down at the desk and composed his dispatch, datelining it “The Puppet Presidential Palace.” Now in his fifties, he had enlisted in the Vietminh just thirty years before. He had fought as a regular in the Red River valley and at Dienbienphu, and he had trekked the length of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, shuddering under the American bombing. Twelve hours earlier, on a bridge at the entrance to Saigon, he had survived a tank skirmish. He finished his article and strolled into the park behind the palace. Stretching out on the grass, he gazed at the sky, exalted.

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