Black April: The Fall of South Vietnam, 1973-75
- George J. Veith, Encounter Books, 620 pp.
Reviewed by Tom Glenn
When Saigon fell, Major General Pham Van Phu committed suicide. The day before, a North Vietnamese regiment was en route to attack my location. Five, not two, renegade A-37 aircraft bombed Tan Son Nhat (my location) during the collapse.
These three facts, new to me, are among the many George J. Veith brings to light in his penetrating Black April, the first installment of a projected two-volume set. I started my work in Vietnam in 1962, spent years in the country, and lived there through the Communist conquest of South Vietnam in 1975. I am chagrined to discover that Veith knows more about what happened than I do. He couldn’t have witnessed it firsthand — he was in high school when Saigon fell. Yet his account vibrates with the ring of direct observation.
Black April is the first-class history I’ve been waiting for. Veith’s research has unearthed a trove of newly declassified materials from both the U.S. and North Vietnam. His translator, Merle L. Pribbenow, has for the first time produced English texts of a wealth of North Vietnamese documents, many newly released. Veith worked with Colonel Bill Le Gro, the last military intelligence chief in Vietnam whose 1981 Vietnam from Cease-Fire to Capitulation is a monument to excellence in military history. And Veith interviewed dozens of Vietnamese and Americans who provided him with new information.
Which brings me to the full disclosure: I was among the people Veith interviewed, and he quotes me in the book. I have met or worked with a number of the men Veith writes about — Le Gro, Pribbenow, General Phu, General Nhon, Tom Polgar, Frank Snepp and Graham Martin among many others. And I make no pretense of neutrality. The fall of Vietnam is a matter of profound personal sorrow to me. Caveat lector.
On the plus side, I can offer eyewitness testimony that Veith gets it right. His description of the many battles, studded with fact, is accurate to the limits of my knowledge, and I therefore accept his new data as true. And meticulously detailed data it is. Veith routinely gives us the quantitative facts — the numbers of troops, miles (he translates all kilometers into miles), weapons and equipment, and time of the day. The depth of the research is reflected in the 42 pages of endnotes. My combing of the 600 pages of text came up with not a single factual error.
Nevertheless, the profusion of detail may overwhelm the casual reader. One must study this book with maps at hand (Veith provides dozens) and be prepared to refer regularly to the glossary, the order of battle (listing of names and hierarchy of units on both sides), and list of persons, Vietnamese and U.S., at the beginning of the book. Even with these aids, the array of corps, military regions (corps and military region are sometimes interchangeable), and groups on both sides (the northerners and the southerners used the same name for completely different entities), and fronts (a Vietnamese Communist name for tailored corps-like military organizations) dizzied even me.
Veith devotes the last two-thirds of the text to the events of 1975. Organized chronologically and then by region, the narrative shows how one defeat led to another — first Phuoc Long in January; then Ban Me Thuot on 12 March; then all of the highlands during the following weeks, when more than 100,000 military and panicked civilians clogged a secondary route, now called “The Road of Blood and Tears,” trying to reach the coast while the Communists attacked them. I Corps, the northernmost five provinces of South Vietnam, crumbled by the beginning of April, spawning more waves of refugees. Provinces adjacent to Saigon came next. Finally, Communist tanks rolled in the streets of Saigon on 30 April.
Through it all, Veith dispels the misconception that the South Vietnamese fought poorly and disintegrated in the face of a resolute North Vietnamese onslaught. Unit after unit fought with valor against overwhelming odds. Perhaps the most valiant was the South Vietnamese 18th Division, defending Xuan Loc, 40 miles northeast of Saigon, which withstood the Communist battering from 9 to 21 April and forced the North Vietnamese Army to pay a high price in casualties before succumbing.
At the beginning of the text, Veith deflates one rampant myth — that the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army were independent entities. Nearly all U. S. military leaders bought into the North Vietnamese propaganda that the war was a rebellion by patriotic southerners assisted by a sympathetic northern neighbor. Veith demonstrates that North Vietnam was from the beginning the aggressor, completely in control of its southern subordinates. It violated the Paris Accords almost as soon as they were signed and never flinched in its determination to conquer South Vietnam.
Veith and I see eye to eye on almost everything he has written. I part company from him only in degree. He assures us, for example, that the corruption and incompetence among the South Vietnamese rulers and military commanders was less severe than it has been portrayed and points to the outstanding leadership of some of South Vietnam’s officers. I see the picture from a different angle. Vietnamese society, from the time of the monarchy on, was historically hierarchical with a clear line between the rulers, the well-to-do, and the ruled, the poor. What we in the West call corruption was accepted practice.
Moreover, rivalry among the elites and the use of force to establish hegemony were common — hence the many coups d’etat in South Vietnam. And selection of commanders by class and allegiance rather than competence encouraged poor leadership. The Communists were far more successful than the government of South Vietnam in rooting out these cultural deficits. Alienation in the southern population, brought on by elitism, contributed to Communist success in recruiting support. I saw the effects close-up during my time in Vietnam, particularly in the highlands where indigenous Vietnamese regularly exploited the Montagnards (the mountain people, ethnically different from the Vietnamese), whom they considered barely human.
With respect to the causes of the fall of South Vietnam, I agree with Veith’s list of six: the Communists’ immediate abrogation of the Paris Accords, South Vietnamese economic woes, withdrawal of U.S. firepower, curtailment of U.S. economic aid, President Thieu’s military blunders, and the collapse of South Vietnamese morale in the face of Communist victories. I would add the cultural tendencies cited in the paragraphs above and the North Vietnamese willingness to fight to the death rather than cede South Vietnam.
Veith lays blame for the withdrawal of U.S. aid and firepower from the South Vietnamese at the feet of the American left. Once again, I appraise the situation from a different point of view. The majority of Americans, not only the left, was sick of the Vietnam War and wanted it to end. That weariness reflects the propensity of Western powers, and especially the United States, to seek short-term solutions and grow impatient with long-term commitments. The experience of France in Indochina and the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan shows a similar inclination. My sense is that we as a nation need to limit our commitments to those we are willing to embrace long term (à la Korea) and avoid others (à la Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam) where a brief war won’t achieve our objectives.
A personal note: I learned for the first time while reading Black April that on the morning of 29 April 1975, the North Vietnamese 28th Regiment was en route to attack Tan Son Nhat, where I awaited evacuation. As the unit’s tanks crossed a river near Saigon, the bridge collapsed. The regiment was forced to take a detour and didn’t arrive at Tan Son Nhat until the morning of 30 April. By then, I was gone. Had the regiment reached its objective on schedule, I would have been at best taken prisoner, at worst killed. Veith confirms that my instinctive dread was well-founded.
Beyond my personal involvement, I can recommend Black April. The story of the fall is here at last, in full detail and well-documented.
Author Q&A: George J. Veith
The defeat of South Vietnam was arguably America’s worst foreign policy disaster of the 20th century. Yet a complete understanding of the endgame — from the January 27, 1973, signing of the Paris Peace Accords to South Vietnam’s surrender on April 30, 1975 — has eluded us. George J. Veith’s Black April addresses that deficit. Ultimately, whatever errors occurred on the American and South Vietnamese side, the simple fact remains that the country was conquered by a North Vietnamese military invasion despite written pledges by Hanoi’s leadership against such action. Hanoi’s momentous choice to destroy the Paris Peace Accords and militarily end the war sent a generation of South Vietnamese into exile and exacerbated a societal trauma in America over our long Vietnam involvement that reverberates to this day.
Tom Glenn’s Q&A with George J. Veith on Black April.
George J. Veith, the author of two earlier books on Vietnam, has testified twice on the POW/MIA issue before Congress. For the review of Black April by Tom Glenn, click here.
Your three books focus on Vietnam, but you grew up after the Vietnam War had ended. Whence the fascination?
Ever since I was a child, I was deeply interested in two aspects of history: military events and historical whodunits. Consequently, I became fascinated by the POW/MIA issue, which combines both. About 20years ago, a friend who knew of my research skills asked me to help him do some digging in the archives at Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania. While looking through files in what was then the “Vietnam Room,” I discovered copies of the original reports from the Joint Personnel Recovery Center, the unit in Vietnam responsible for finding and rescuing American prisoners. Since I knew nothing substantive had ever been published about this unit, and having always wanted to write, I realized that my chance had finally arrived.
Your books speak with the authority of firsthand experience. Have you visited Vietnam? Do you speak Vietnamese?
I have never been to Vietnam, although I have always wanted to visit. After spending so much time studying the war, I feel like it is my second home! I do not speak Vietnamese. However, I have a good friend who did all the translations, which were quite extensive. He served in the U.S. embassy in Saigon from April 1970 until April 29, 1975. Fortunately, for me, he has a deep interest, as I do, in uncovering what really happened during the war. For him, much like you, it is personal. For me, it was simply another great historical mystery to investigate.
Since you don’t speak the language, how did you manage you interview so many Vietnamese who experienced the fall of Vietnam? How many did you interview?
Interviewing Vietnamese is a delicate process. It’s a different procedure than interviewing Americans. Once you’ve identified the Vietnamese officer you want to speak with, it’s generally best to get a formal introduction from someone who is either a family friend, part of their military “family” (same class, same unit, same branch, etc.), or who was at one time their boss or just out-ranks them. Then, after they’ve agreed to the interview, one has to set the stage by explaining who you are, what information you are seeking, and what you intend to do with that information. Often I would begin by asking them where they were born, how they got into the military, etc. After some rapport is built, and depending on their personality and how much English they spoke, we could get into particular aspects of a battle. If their spoken English was not good, I would ask them to write in Vietnamese about their experiences, and then I would have it translated. This aspect often worked quite well. I interviewed quite a few, probably around 45 officers, from General Cao Van Vien, the head of the South Vietnamese military, down to battalion commanders. Many were quite open and not only were surprised that an American was interested in their stories but were thrilled that I wanted to learn about their war experiences. Some, however, were very guarded. Others were clearly suffering from ill health or the mental effects from their post-war incarceration. They were unable to provide many details. A few, mostly senior officers, simply refused to talk. For all of them, it was a painful process, for which I can’t adequately express my gratitude. It’s not an easy thing to watch elderly men with years of combat experience and then hard prison time begin to cry when talking about the loss of their friends or the end of the war.
I know of two South Vietnamese officers who committed suicide when Vietnam fell. How common was suicide?
Well, about five generals committed suicide. Many lower-ranking men and officers also did. One story that’s not in the book has always haunted me. I was interviewing an airborne battalion commander. It was about 1:00 am in the morning, and we were sitting on his front steps. We had almost finished, and he just began talking about the last day. He told me that on the night of April 29, his brigade commander had ordered his unit to help defend Tan Son Nhut airbase. His commander begged him not to leave him. So as the battalion commander was leaving the base to take up defensive positions outside the perimeter, he explained to me he had a choice: He could turn right out of the base gate to his assigned positions, or he could turn left and head to the docks and hopefully try to catch a Navy ship that was escaping. He turned right. Later the next day, after the surrender, he received a radio call from some of his troops who had retreated to a building on Tan Son Nhut airbase. He was delayed for a few minutes, but then he drove his jeep over to where they were located. As he pulled up to the building, a tremendous explosion shook the building. A large number of his men had committed suicide inside. Tears began streaming down his face as he finished. I was, to put it mildly, shaken. What follow-up question can one ask after hearing that story? And to make it worse, as a consequence of turning right instead of left, for doing his duty and not leaving his soldiers and his commander, he spent 10 years in prison.
Black April provides satisfying answers to so many questions I had about the fall of South Vietnam. What questions do you feel still need answering?
The main one revolves around what the Politburo was really thinking right before and right after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords. This is still quite a gap in the Vietnamese literature on this time frame. As for the others, you’ll have to wait until my second volume on this time period comes out! This will deal with the political and diplomatic intrigues.
Because of my background, I’m intrigued by the roles that signals intelligence and communications deception played in the final struggle. How much importance do you attribute to each?
The Communist strategy for each campaign included elaborate deception plans. Most of it was targeted at fooling US/ARVN signals intelligence, which during the war was probably our best source of intelligence. Whether they succeeded remains a matter of opinion. At Ban Me Thuot, it probably played a major role in at least reinforcing Major General Phu’s belief the PAVN would strike at Pleiku, not Ban Me Thuot. In I Corps, I think it was a complete failure. The bigger question, which hopefully one day the NSA will answer, is how much they and the South Vietnamese signal intelligence really did know. I suppose that could also fit under your question on what still needs answering.
Of the many sad stories about people who suffered through the defeat, which ones move you the most?
There are so many. The one I just mentioned is particularly sad. He later told me that while in Communist prison camp, he ate cockroaches to stay alive. A good source of protein he said. How many did you eat, I asked? About 10,000 was his reply. Imagine that for a second. Another battalion commander, this time a Ranger officer, told me his parents followed him around constantly from the day of the surrender until he had to report to prison. They were afraid he would commit suicide because he was so depressed.
I see many parallels between Vietnam and Iraq and particularly Afghanistan. Do you?
Not really. The enemy is totally different, the world political order has been completely reshaped, and one doesn’t see the same anti-war vitriol that occurred during the war. From a broad prospective, I suppose one could make an analogy about an unwinnable war, etc., but I don’t think the historical perspectives are similar.
Black April is the first book of a two-volume set. What will be the subject of the second book? When do expect to see it published?
The second will deal with the political and diplomatic and economic aspects of the fall of South Vietnam. In particular, it discusses the diplomatic machinations at the end as various countries tried to arrange a ceasefire. There is a story there that is perhaps the last great secret of the Vietnam War. As for when it will be published, give me a couple years. The research is done, I just have to find time to write it.
Of all the factors that led to the collapse of South Vietnam, which was the most serious? Could it have been avoided?
Yes, but it would have required a sustained effort of American will and involvement that we would have had a difficult time maintaining.
If all the firepower, manpower and resources that the U.S. brought to bear couldn’t win the war against the North Vietnamese, why did we think the South Vietnamese alone could do it? Did Vietnamization (training and equipping the South Vietnamese to prosecute the war without U.S. ground troops) work?
Vietnamization was working, but no U.S. or South Vietnamese general believed the country could be defended without adequate American airpower. It simply was a matter of geography, not a lack of South Vietnamese will. Plus, which I will outline more precisely in my next book, the Communist supply situation appeared on the surface to be excellent. But what no one knows or understands, this wasn’t the result of massive on-going supplies from China and Russia. In fact, what was coming down the Trail was the North Vietnamese emptying their warehouses. They essentially bet the farm on one last major push to win the war. Unfortunately, this time they guessed right. I’ve only discovered this very recently while reviewing some new Communist publications. So, a scoop for you.
Some believe that the anti-communist effort in Vietnam was doomed from the beginning. Was victory by the North Vietnamese inevitable?
No. If we had physically cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail with U.S. troops, I believe we could have won the war. After the Navy cut off the seaborne supplies, and if we had blockaded Sihanoukville port, without supplies, the revolution in South Vietnam would have essentially degenerated into a small-scale guerrilla war, one that the South Vietnamese would have been able to handle.
Given what we know now, should the U.S. have become involved in Vietnam at all? An extraordinarily delicate question to answer.
I will tap dance out of it by asking you to think about it this way. One hundred years from now, when scholars will be writing histories of America and the world in the 20th century, how will they define that period of American life? Will they begin to lump the post-WWII era into a longer time period, and portray the period as a long fight against Communism? If so, who won that war? If you look at it from a longer historical perspective, I think people will ultimately judge Vietnam more dispassionately.
Many of writer Tom Glenn’s prize-winning stories came from the years he spent on covert assignment in Vietnam. His work has now been declassified (hear his interview at the Spy Museum here). His web sites are http://tom-tells-tales.org and http://vietnam-tragedy.org.