The Fall of Vietnam: From the spring of 1975

Final Curtain in Indochina?

The swift and total collapse of South Vietnam's military forces, the consequent political upheaval in Saigon and the departure of Lon Nol as head of government in neighboring Cambodia are brutal reminders, if any are needed, that an era in U. S. foreign relations has ended. It is ending with a massive defeat for the policy pursued in Indochina over 15 years, under four Administrations and several styles of political rhetoric, from the brave summons to a New Frontier with which John F. Kennedy sent his Green Berets to fight a new kind of war to Richard M. Nixon's doctrine of Vietnamization that claimed to have accomplished a "peace with honor." Peace, of course, never really came for the people of Indochina, and there was little honor in the rout of the South Vietnamese military. In Washington, even Administration spokesmen found it hard to continue their criticism of Congressional refusal to fund increased military aid to Saigon when South Vietnamese soldiers were reported to be abandoning weapons and other expensive hardware in their headlong flight from the enemy.

The taste of defeat is always bitter, and there can be little cause for rejoicing over the recent rush of events even for those long opposed to American military involvement. Certainly the hundreds of thousands of refugees who are fleeing the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese armies do not look on the latter as fondly as do those antiwar protestors who insist on romanticizing any adversary of the United States. On the other hand, what is happening in South Vietnam is not the defeat of an army but the collapse of a political society, and the collapse has been so total that it is hard not to believe that the society had become an artificial one. One of the troublesome questions that historians must resolve is the degree to which U. S. policies and decisions, stretching back over 15 years, were responsible for hollowing out the inner political life of South Vietnam even while constructing an expensive military showcase around it.

The immediate claim on our attention, however, cannot be the final judgment of history or the immediate bitterness of defeat, but the very real victims of this savage and endless war. The United States should not only continue its own humanitarian aid to the people of Vietnam and Cambodia but also support the efforts of UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim to organize international assistance. Those nations who have been most critical of U. S. policy in Indochina now have an excellent opportunity for a constructive contribution.

April 12, 1975


Decisions and Distractions

The rapidly deteriorating situation in South Vietnam demands of President Gerald R. Ford that rarest kind of leadership: honest and generous-minded decisions at a moment of defeat and humiliation. Fundamental to these decisions must be the recognition that the United States cannot prevent the eventual victory of the Vietcong and North Vietnamese armies. Our concern, rather, must be the fate of the defeated people of South Vietnam. Military intervention by U. S. forces, even to secure the evacuation of U. S. citizens, would risk greater and more prolonged bloodshed. Instead, the Administration should exert every pressure, private and public, to bring the bloodshed to an end and to arrange the transfer of power in as orderly a manner as possible. Without bitterness but with all candor, we must urge UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim and other international spokesmen to speak out in defense of the war's refugees, even as they once condemned American bombing. We must insist that human needs take priority over political advantage, and we must conflrm this, not only by pledging humanitarian aid and reconstruction assistance, preferably through international organizations, to both North and South Vietnam, but also by renouncing in a convincing way the pursuit of any political advantages ourselves.

In a manner reminiscent of the return of U. S. prisoners of war two years ago, the overpowering darkness of the Indochina tragedy has been pierced by small flashes of human decency and honor in the unusual airlift of Vietnamese children to this country. There are elements, however, even in this dramatic venture that are disturbing. The sudden speed with which the whole operation has been mounted could lead to unfortunate decisions about individual children, and there is the distasteful but inevitable temptation to make the children a propaganda weapon. As one witnesses the reactions of those who wait to receive these children, it is heartening to encounter again the sound human instincts at work within individual American families. Such reassurance, however, should not distract us from the hard realities of our responsibilities for the vastly greater number of Vietnamese left behind.

April 19, 1975

This Question of Dominoes

The sense of inevitability that accompanied the dramatic Communist victories in Cambodia and South Vietnam, coupled with reports of renewed insurgency in Thailand, brought to public attention the once almost forgotten image of tumbling dominoes to describe the Communist advance through Southeast Asia. Indeed, the validity of the image was solemnly intoned by no less a sophisticate than Henry A. Kissinger. Time alone can give the perspective necessary to accurately estimate the truth of the image, but some observations are possible even now.

To the extent that the image suggested the advance of a single adversary with a tightly knit strategy of conquest, it was a destructive delusion. How much of that delusion arose from a misreading of Southeast Asia by U. S. foreign policy experts and how much of it was the result of calculated attempts to direct U. S. public opinion must be another question faced by the historians of the Vietnam war. But it was clear, even in the final weeks of South Vietnam's collapse, that the Communist movement was more complex in its internal relations than the image ever allowed it to be. The Vietcong and the North Vietnamese welcomed economic and military aid from both the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China, using the rivalry between the two Communist giants as a source of material advantage and as a buffer to keep from being dominated by either one. Under the umbrella of the Sino-Soviet competition, other minor hostilities, based on historical feuds and ethnic differences, further divided the Communist leaders of the different peoples of Southeast Asia. Even the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese were expected to enter a stage of wary maneuvering with one another as the reorganization of the South begins.

Yet the image of the falling dominoes did catch one angle of a complex reality: the common sources of unrest at work in Southeast Asia that made it impossible for any corner of that land to remain a pocket of peace. There was an inevitability to the dynamics of change, but it was not dictated by a single Communist conspiracy. Rather, it arose from aspirations commonly shared at the same historical moment by peoples of considerable diversity among themselves--the powerful drive for nationalism and independence and the hunger for economic development where there had been a history of massive poverty.

These forces will continue to operate with a Communist regime in Saigon and Phnom Penh, and the result will be uncertainty and opportunity, a situation in which the United States will still have a role to play. Even as the Americans evacuated Cambodia, Prince Sihanouk was talking of a "rapid normalization" of relations with the United States. In Hanoi there was understandable satisfaction at the final, humiliating flight of the Americans from Saigon, but the satisfaction had to be tempered by the realization of the desperate need of North Vietnamese development plans for the kind of capital investment and technological knowledge the Americans can still provide.

May 10, 1975

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


The latest from america

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., shakes hands with Alabama State Sen. Henry Sanders at the Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma, Ala., on March 19. (Jake Crandall/The Montgomery Advertiser via AP)
Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., responded to a question about his religious views by talking about his own faith and what he sees as a distortion of Christianity among U.S. conservatives.
Since retiring from my job, my husband has found me irritating. We had a talk (after fighting), and he is right: I am mothering him. Smothering him. “I have a mother,” he said. “I want a wife, a partner, a best friend.”
Valerie SchultzMarch 25, 2019
Jesus asks us to be generous with the poor. It’s one of the foundations of his public ministry: caring for the poor himself and asking his disciples to do so.
James Martin, S.J.March 25, 2019
We are invited, today, to listen—and as the psalmist today colorfully puts it, God has even done us the courtesy of digging out our ears so that we can hear.