Target Saigon: The Fall of South Vietnam by Albert Grandolini

Albert Grandolini’s Target Saigon, Volume 2: The Fall of South Vietnam: The Beginning of the End, January 1974–March 1975 (Helion, 104 pp. $29.95, paper) is a concise history of the final chapters of the decades-long American war in Vietnam. Ironically, it all takes place after the signing of the so-called Paris Peace Accords in January 1973.  

South Vietnam, going into its death spiral, was burdened by several disadvantages—unlike North Vietnam. For one thing, South Vietnam  was competing for munitions with Israel as a result of  the 1973 Yom Kippur War, which all but drained the pipeline of promised U.S. military aid. In contrast, the Soviet Union and China replaced most of the North’s materiel losses from the 1972 Easter Offensive.

It also was Saigon’s misfortune that President Richard Nixon’s impeachment and resignation in 1974 put an end to his promises of aid and support if the North launched a campaign to crush South Vietnam’s government. His successor, Gerald Ford, faced with a Congress opposed to renewed involvement, was not going to re-commit the U.S. to the conflict in order to save the South Vietnamese regime of Nguyen Van Thieu.  

Beyond external factors, there President Thieu’s lack of strategic vision and poor decision making. In contrast, the strategic goal of the North—reunification under a communist regime—always remained the same despite years of horrendous combat losses. With the United States no longer a player in the war, the North totally applied itself to developing and implementing a final campaign.  

Grandolini, a historian and aviation journalist and author who was raised in Vietnam, effectively uses primary source documents to discusses another part of the equation: an unanticipated sideshow that caught the South off balance. In January 1974, South Vietnam suddenly found itself in conflict with the People’s Republic of China over the disputed Paracel Islands. After several naval engagements, China prevailed and took control of the islands.

The North’s leaders relied on a centralized and highly disciplined command structure with combat-experienced generals to form a strategy for ending the war in total victory. The resulting plan called for corps-sized phased regional offensives to begin in 1974 with the aim of probing for exploitable weak points that could be followed by breakthroughs.    

It was of great interest to learn about the successful concealment efforts by the NVA, including the use of bogus transmissions and hidden movements of major units, some advancing well over 300 kilometers. On the other hand, the South Vietnamese Army’s reaction to the Spring 1974 NVA thrust into the Parrot’s Beak must have surprised the North’s planners. In a multi-corps armored counterattack, the ARVN swung through Cambodia to outflank and outmaneuver the NVA while supported by highly effective airstrikes. They mauled the NVA units and sent them into retreat.  

But that would be the last ARVN offensive operation during the war. Although ARVN units often put up heroic resistance to NVA attacks, the fact remains that without American aid the South was forced to fight defensively with limited resources.   

Signing the Paris Peace Accords, January 23, 1973

In 1975 things irreversibly fell apart for the South. The North’s operational plan originally called for two stages, destroying the ARVN in 1975 and victory in 1976. The South’s fate was sealed, however, when in March 1975 Thieu abruptly—and without proper preparation at the tactical level—ordered the evacuation of military forces from northern South Vietnam. The withdrawal soon became a rout swollen with countless thousands of civilians blocking the way.

This well-researched and well written volume closes on that rout and sets the stage for the final battles and the fall of Saigon. I strongly recommend Target Saigon to anyone with an interest in the final two years of the Vietnam War        

–John Cirafici

The War after the War by Johannes Kadura

 

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Four minutes before six o’clock on the morning of January 28, 1973, I awoke in my Tan Son Nhut BOQ room when four mortar rounds hit the base. We were six hours ahead of Greenwich, where it was nearly midnight and the start of the ceasefire designated by the Paris Peace Accords. No further rounds followed, but Big Voice kept ordering people to shelters. I rolled over in bed and smiled.

The North Vietnamese were telling us that they hadn’t quit, I thought with a touch of admiration. Two years and three months later, the NVA rolled into Saigon.

Events that led to that morning and followed it are the subject of The War after the War: The Struggle for Credibility During America’s Exit from Vietnam (Cornell University Press, 231 pp.; $45) by Johannes Kadura. The story revolves around the Indochina endgame strategy employed by Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford with counsel from National Security Adviser/Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

Nixon and Kissinger, Kadura explains, used two basic plans to counterbalance defeat in Indochina and simultaneously preserve presidential credibility as an opponent of communist expansion. They called their plans “equilibrium strategy” and “insurance policy.” Kadura discusses the plans and then offers his “new interpretation” of what occurred during the years immediately before and after the signing of the Peace Agreement in Paris. He focuses on the U.S. perspective and does not attempt to tell the Vietnamese version of the story.

The book is a masterpiece of research that is carefully footnoted. Kadura holds a doctorate in American history. He studied at Yale and Cambridge. He is Managing Director of AKRYL, an Internet company based in Hamburg and Beijing.

After American forces departed Vietnam and our POWs returned home, Nixon and Kissinger “stressed the idea that the war in Vietnam had actually successfully ended,” Kadura says. “The implications were obvious: the United States had fulfilled its basic obligations and could focus on more important things; the South Vietnamese had to figure out the rest on their own.” Nixon and Kissinger soon shifted their attention to more critical international matters, such as the Yom Kippur War, the oil crisis, and relations with the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China.

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Johannes Kadura

The book convincingly argues that Nixon and Kissinger foisted the blame on Congress for America’s lack of post-1973 support for the vulnerable nations of Indochina, particularly when Congress reduced military and economic aid to those nations each year.

Nixon’s distraction by Watergate and his eventual resignation forced Kissinger to guide America’s foreign policy for a considerable period, Kadura says. Ford, however, proved to be his own man, no more so than when he pardoned Nixon. Ford, emulating Nixon, continued to blame Congress for Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos ending up under communist rule.

The book presents information that filled gaps in my education. Like many people, I had stopped worrying about Southeast Asia in 1973. Material new to me included the fact that some 207,000 NVA regulars moved into South Vietnam after the signing of the Paris Accords; the North’s paving of the Ho Chi Minh Trail; and its construction of SAM sites at Khe Sanh and A Shau—all in preparation for its final offensive. I also didn’t know about Nixon’s gross failure to take decisive action against cease-fire violations and of the political machinations that led to the fall of Cambodia. Kadura’s history lessons ensure that the reader sees the big picture.

Overall, Kadura convinced me that among Nixon, Ford, and Kissinger, pessimism prevailed throughout the post-peace agreement period. Their goal had been to exit Vietnam without looking like they were running away (“peace with honor”), and they feared being accused of having done exactly that. Kadura barely mentions “peace with honor,” which was a byword of the era. He does discuss the “decent interval,” a goal that might have resulted in more favorable outcomes for Vietnam, Cambodia, and Loas. A two-year interval was not long enough.

The end of South Vietnam triggered a lot of soul searching in this country. Study groups from the State Department, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and National Security Council came up with conflicting summaries of lessons learned. Kissinger’s insistence that “Washington had bought vital time for Southeast Asia’s non-communist nations to develop” became a popular but questionable conclusion because America had not prosecuted the war with that goal in mind, according to Kadura. The “buying vital time” claim, however, reassured other allies that Washington would help them fight communist aggression.

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Nixon in China

Looking “beyond defeat in Indochina,” Kadura shows that America retained post-Agreement influence in Southeast Asia during the Mayaguez incident, as well as with our denial of help to Hanoi, and through worsening relations with China.

Kadura’s conclusion: “The overall effects of Washington’s defeat in Indochina were quite limited. The strategic balance did not shift decisively in favor of the Soviets or Chinese. Washington emerged tarnished yet relatively strong. Nixon, Ford, and Kissinger did manage to control the damage caused by the U.S. defeat.”

The author’s website is johanneskadura.com

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

Last Plane Out of Saigon by Richard Pena and John Hagan

Regardless of a reader’s attitude about the Vietnam War, Richard Pena’s Last Plane Out of Saigon (Story Merchant Books, 136 pp., $12.95, paper), written with John Hagan, offers insights worth reflecting upon four decades after the fact.

Drafted into the Army out of law school, Pena served as an operating room specialist in Vietnam. He ended up among the last American troops to evacuate South Vietnam in 1973. Discharged upon his return to the States, Pena finished college and became a lawyer. During his Vietnam War tour of duty, Pena kept a journal that he stashed away for thirty years. That journal serves as the core of this concise flashback to the life of a wartime draftee.

Pena arrived in Vietnam amid the chaos of the 1972 North Vietnamese Easter Offensive. Upon deplaning at Tan Son Nhut, he wondered why he had been “sentenced to exile in this forsaken land.” He questioned whether America could win the war and worried about people “dying for a policy dictated out of ignorance and falsehood.”

Pena worked as a technician in the operating room of the 3rd Field Hospital in Saigon. Most of the patients came there straight from the battlefield, having received no treatment elsewhere. Pena therefore saw the results of war in human terms every day.

Throughout his tour, one question haunted him: “What does it mean?”

Richard Pena

He tried to answer that question in several ways, and suffered emotionally along with the bloodied, shattered, men he treated. In his journal Pena analyzed his relationships with fellow American soldiers and Vietnamese civilians, the latter of whom he strongly distrusted.

Pena put his thoughts and theories in his journal because “to speak out about the tragedy is said to be anti-American.” To him, Vietnam became a land of lies, betrayals, and corruption that left soldiers and civilians “angry and bitter all the time.”

Despite his emotional turmoil, Pena persevered in his duties. Near the end of his journal, he wrote: “In these last days before departing, I realize that the weight I have carried for the past eleven months will never be lifted from my shoulders.” In other words, his journal tells a story that must never be forgotten.

Having read this short book three times, I believe it has its greatest impact when read uninterrupted. The journal is divided into four parts that are interwoven with chapters by John Hagan that provide background information about the war. I therefore suggest that those familiar with the Vietnam War read Pena’s chapters first. Those unfamiliar with the war should start with Hagan’s chapters.

The collaborators reach two conclusions: First, they agree that wars such as Vietnam are destructive to America’s society and economy. Second, they emphasize the need to learn from foreign policy failures and mistakes.

Neither idea is new, but the thought processes the authors follow to reach them clearly exhume the intellectual conflict of the Vietnam War era.

The author’s website is www.lastplaneoutofsaigon.com

—Henry Zeybel