Fall of Saigon (1975)
The Fall of Saigon, or the Liberation of Saigon, was the capture of Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, by the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) and the Viet Cong on 30 April 1975. The event marked the end of the Vietnam War and the start of a transition period to the formal reunification of Vietnam into the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
The PAVN, under the command of General Văn Tiến Dũng, began their final attack on Saigon on April 29, 1975, with the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) forces commanded by General Nguyễn Văn Toàn suffering a heavy artillery bombardment. This bombardment at the Tan Son Nhat International Airport killed the last two American servicemen killed in combat in Vietnam, Charles McMahon and Darwin Judge. By the afternoon of the next day, the PAVN had occupied the important points of the city and raised their flag over the South Vietnamese presidential palace. The city was renamed Hồ Chí Minh City, after the late North Vietnamese President Hồ Chí Minh.
The capture of the city was preceded by Operation Frequent Wind, the evacuation of almost all the American civilian and military personnel in Saigon, along with tens of thousands of South Vietnamese civilians who had been associated with the southern regime. The evacuation was the largest helicopter evacuation in history. In addition to the flight of refugees, the end of the war and the institution of new rules by the communists contributed to a decline in the city’s population.
Various names have been applied to these events. The Vietnamese government officially calls it the “Day of liberating the South for national reunification” (Vietnamese: Giải phóng miền Nam, thống nhất đất nước) or “Liberation Day” (Ngày Giải Phóng), but the term “Fall of Saigon” is commonly used in Western accounts. It is called the “Ngày mất nước” (Day we Lost the Country), “Tháng Tư Đen” (Black April), “National Day of Shame” (Ngày Quốc Nhục) or “National Day of Resentment” (Ngày Quốc Hận). by many Overseas Vietnamese who were refugees from communism.
North Vietnamese advance
The rapidity with which the South Vietnamese position collapsed in 1975 was surprising to most American and South Vietnamese observers, and probably to the North Vietnamese and their allies as well. For instance, a memo prepared by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and U.S. Army Intelligence and published on March 5 indicated that South Vietnam could hold out through the current dry season—i.e., at least until 1976. These predictions proved to be grievously in error. Even as that memo was being released, General Dũng was preparing a major offensive in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, which began on 10 March and led to the capture of Buôn Ma Thuột. The ARVN began a disorderly and costly retreat, hoping to redeploy its forces and hold the southern part of South Vietnam, perhaps an enclave south of the 13th parallel.
Supported by artillery and armor, the PAVN continued to march towards Saigon, capturing the major cities of northern South Vietnam at the end of March—Huế on the 25th and Đà Nẵng on the 28th. Along the way, disorderly South Vietnamese retreats and the flight of refugees—there were more than 300,000 in Đà Nẵng—damaged South Vietnamese prospects for a turnaround. After the loss of Đà Nẵng, those prospects had already been dismissed as nonexistent by American CIA officers in Vietnam, who believed that nothing short of B-52 strikes against Hanoi could possibly stop the North Vietnamese.
By April 8, the North Vietnamese Politburo, which in March had recommended caution to Dũng, cabled him to demand “unremitting vigor in the attack all the way to the heart of Saigon.” On April 14, they renamed the campaign the “Hồ Chí Minh campaign”, after revolutionary leader Hồ Chí Minh, in hopes of wrapping it up before his birthday on May 19. Meanwhile, South Vietnam failed to garner any significant increase in military aid from the United States, snuffing out President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu’s hopes for renewed American support.
On April 9, PAVN forces reached Xuân Lộc, the last line of defense before Saigon, where the ARVN 18th Division made a last stand and held the city through fierce fighting for 11 days. The PAVN finally overran Xuân Lộc on April 20 despite heavy losses, and on April 21 President Thiệu resigned in a tearful televised announcement in which he denounced the United States for failing to come to the aid of the South. The North Vietnamese front line was now just 26 miles (42 km) from downtown Saigon. The victory at Xuân Lộc, which had drawn many South Vietnamese troops away from the Mekong Delta area, opened the way for PAVN to encircle Saigon, and they soon did so, moving 100,000 troops in position around the city by April 27. With the ARVN having few defenders, the fate of the city was effectively sealed.
The ARVN III Corps commander, General Toàn, had organized five centers of resistance to defend the city. These fronts were so connected as to form an arc enveloping the entire area west, north, and east of the capital. The Cu Chi front, to the northwest, was defended by the 25th Division; the Binh Duong front, to the north, was the responsibility of the 5th Division; the Bien Hoa front, to the northeast, was defended by the 18th Division; the Vung Tau and 15 Route front, to the southeast, were held by the 1st Airborne Brigade and one battalion of the 3rd Division; and the Long An front, for which the Capital Military District Command was responsible, was defended by elements of the re-formed 22nd Division. South Vietnamese defensive forces around Saigon totaled approximately 60,000 troops. However, as the exodus made it into Saigon, along with them were many ARVN soldiers, which swelled the “men under arms” in the city to over 250,000. These units were mostly battered and leaderless, which threw the city into further anarchy.
The rapid PAVN advances of March and early April led to increased concern in Saigon that the city, which had been fairly peaceful throughout the war and whose people had endured relatively little suffering, was soon to come under direct attack. Many feared that once the communists took control of the city, a bloodbath of reprisals would take place. In 1968, PAVN and VC forces had occupied Huế for close to a month. After the communists were repelled, American and ARVN forces had found mass graves. A study indicated that the VC had targeted ARVN officers, Roman Catholics, intellectuals and businessmen, and other suspected counterrevolutionaries. More recently, eight Americans captured in Buôn Ma Thuột had vanished and reports of beheadings and other executions were filtering through from Huế and Đà Nẵng, mostly spurred on by government propaganda. Most Americans and citizens of other countries allied to the United States wanted to evacuate the city before it fell, and many South Vietnamese, especially those associated with the United States or South Vietnamese government, wanted to leave as well.
As early as the end of March, some Americans were leaving the city, Flights out of Saigon, lightly booked under ordinary circumstances, were full. Throughout April the speed of the evacuation increased, as the Defense Attaché Office (DAO) began to fly out nonessential personnel. Many Americans attached to the DAO refused to leave without their Vietnamese friends and dependents, who included common-law wives and children. It was illegal for the DAO to move these people to American soil, and this initially slowed down the rate of departure, but eventually the DAO began illegally flying undocumented Vietnamese to Clark Air Base in the Philippines.
On April 3, President Gerald Ford announced “Operation Babylift”, which would evacuate about 2,000 orphans from the country. One of the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy planes involved in the operation crashed, killing 155 passengers and crew and seriously reducing the morale of the American staff. In addition to the over 2,500 orphans evacuated by Babylift, Operation New Life resulted in the evacuation of over 110,000 Vietnamese refugees. The final evacuation was Operation Frequent Wind which resulted in 7,000 people being evacuated from Saigon by helicopter.
American administration plans for final evacuation
By this time the Ford administration had also begun planning a complete evacuation of the American presence. The planning was complicated by practical, legal, and strategic concerns. The administration was divided on how swift the evacuations should be. The Pentagon sought to evacuate as fast as possible, to avoid the risk of casualties or other accidents. The U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam, Graham Martin, was technically the field commander for any evacuation since evacuations are part of the purview of the State Department. Martin drew the ire of many in the Pentagon by wishing to keep the evacuation process as quiet and orderly as possible. His desire for this was to prevent total chaos and to deflect the real possibility of South Vietnamese turning against Americans and to keep all-out bloodshed from occurring.
Ford approved a plan between the extremes in which all but 1,250 Americans—few enough to be removed in a single day’s helicopter airlift—would be evacuated quickly; the remaining 1,250 would leave only when the airport was threatened. In between, as many Vietnamese refugees as possible would be flown out.
American evacuation planning was set against other administration policies. Ford still hoped to gain additional military aid for South Vietnam. Throughout April, he attempted to get Congress behind a proposed appropriation of $722 million, which might allow for the reconstitution of some of the South Vietnamese forces that had been destroyed. Kissinger was opposed to a full-scale evacuation as long as the aid option remained on the table because the removal of American forces would signal a loss of faith in Thiệu and severely weaken him.
There was also a concern in the administration over whether the use of military forces to support and carry out the evacuation was permitted under the newly passed War Powers Act. Eventually White House lawyers determined that the use of American forces to rescue citizens in an emergency was unlikely to run afoul of the law, but the legality of using military assets to withdraw refugees was unknown.
While American citizens were generally assured of a simple way to leave the country just by showing up to an evacuation point, South Vietnamese who wanted to leave Saigon before it fell often resorted to independent arrangements. The under-the-table payments required to gain a passport and exit visa jumped sixfold, and the price of seagoing vessels tripled. Those who owned property in the city were often forced to sell it at a substantial loss or abandon it altogether; the asking price of one particularly impressive house was cut 75 percent within a two-week period. American visas were of enormous value, and Vietnamese seeking American sponsors posted advertisements in newspapers. One such ad read: “Seeking adoptive parents. Poor diligent students” followed by names, birthdates, and identity card numbers.
Political movements and attempts at a negotiated solution
As the North Vietnamese chipped away more and more at South Vietnam, internal opposition to President Thiệu continued to accumulate. For instance, in early April, the Senate unanimously voted through a call for new leadership, and some top military commanders were pressing for a coup. In response to this pressure, Thiệu made some changes to his cabinet, and Prime Minister Trần Thiện Khiêm resigned. This did little to reduce the opposition to Thiệu. On April 8 a South Vietnamese pilot and communist spy, Nguyễn Thành Trung, bombed the presidential palace and then flew to a PAVN-controlled airstrip; Thiệu was not hurt.
Many in the American mission—Martin in particular—along with some key figures in Washington, believed that negotiations with the communists were still possible, especially if Saigon could stabilize the military situation. Ambassador Martin’s hope was that North Vietnam’s leaders would be willing to allow a “phased withdrawal” whereby a gradual departure might be achieved in order to allow helpful locals and all Americans to leave (along with full military withdrawal) over a period of months.
Opinions were divided on whether any government headed by Thiệu could effect such a political solution. The Provisional Revolutionary Government’s foreign minister had, on April 2, indicated that the PRG might negotiate with a Saigon government that did not include Thiệu. Thus, even among Thiệu’s supporters, pressure was growing for his ouster.
President Thiệu resigned on April 21. His remarks were particularly hard on the Americans, first for forcing South Vietnam to accede to the Paris Peace Accords, second for failing to support South Vietnam afterwards, and all the while asking South Vietnam “to do an impossible thing, like filling up the oceans with stones.” The presidency was turned over to Vice President Trần Văn Hương. The view of the North Vietnamese government, broadcast by Radio Hanoi, was that the new regime was merely “another puppet regime.” Read More