The Fall Of Saigon

1970s | August 19, 2021

South Vietnamese flee Saigon April 1975 with the help of the U.S. military. American involvement in the Vietnam War came to an end when troops from communist North Vietnam invaded Saigon, the capital of the Republic of Vietnam in the South. (Photo by Dirc

The Vietnam War was a complex and costly conflict between the communist North Vietnam and the Western-backed South Vietnam meant to determine the future of the nation after Japan's withdrawal following World War II. However, it quickly escalated on a global scale as a proxy war between the Soviet Union and anti-communist United States, who believed in the "domino theory" that suggested one country falling to communist rule would result in the spread of communism throughout the region. The Vietnam War became the second-longest conflict the U.S. has ever engaged in (the longest being the war in Afghanistan) and its first resounding defeat, resulting in the deaths of more than three million Vietnamese and 58,220 Americans by the war's end.

By 1973, the United States had officially ended its combat activities, as U.S. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger negotiated a peace treaty and ceasefire between Viet Cong leader Nguyễn Thị Bình and South Vietnam President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu. Over the next two years, personnel dwindled and President Gerald Ford worked to begin extracting vulnerable citizens, including thousands of orphaned children during Operation Babylift, which resulted in the extraction of thousands of kids despite the horrific C-5A Galaxy crash that took the lives of 138 people.

A U.S. Marine provides security as American helicopters land at the D.A.O. compound. (Dirck Halstead/Wikimedia Commons)

While a great number of American personnel had gotten out over the previous months, it seemed like the end was very nigh when suddenly, on April 28, 1975, North Vietnamese forces at last closed in around Saigon and attacked the Tan Son Nhut Air Base. The following day, a curious message went out over the local radio: a report that "the temperature in Saigon is 105 degrees and rising" followed by the eerily out-of-season tune "White Christmas" by Irving Berlin. To those in the know, this was the code for a complete and total evacuation of Americans in Saigon, as the United States was pulling out their diplomats, marine guards, and intelligence officers, essentially leaving the South Vietnamese fighters behind for good.

Total mayhem ensued as thousands scrambled to reach the extraction zones, and an estimated 10,000 people stormed the gates of the U.S. embassy, fearing the torture and death the North Vietnamese army might visit upon those who assisted the South Vietnamese and American forces. Unable to safely land their planes, the United States was forced to collect people by helicopter on the roof of the embassy and neighboring buildings in what came to be known as Operation Frequent Wind. After 19 hours and using 81 helicopters, every American was out, but although 6,000 Vietnamese refugees were rescued, hundreds of desperate Vietnamese allies were left behind on the morning of April 30 after running out of aircraft.

South Vietnamese refugees arrive on a U.S. Navy vessel during Operation Frequent Wind. (Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

Many South Vietnamese soldiers simply took off their uniforms and left them in the street as the North Vietnamese entered Saigon and the 20-year conflict finally came to a chaotic end. The sudden refugees scrambled to make their way onto Navy boats along the Saigon River, and panicked people even clung to the outsides of the American Chinook helicopters as they lifted off at full capacity while others took their chances on the highway. Mass looting overcame Saigon as civility collapsed, the abandoned tanks and weapons now the property of the People's Army of Vietnam.

The city was renamed Ho Chi Minh and is today the economic backbone of present-day Vietnam, where April 30 is now celebrated as Reunification Day. To many others, however, the Fall of Saigon is regarded as a dark day in the history of American foreign affairs, even referred to as Black April among Vietnamese Americans, as well as an example of what not to do when pulling out of a decades-long conflict with regard to the safety of Americans and refugees alike.

Tags: 1970s | vietnam | vietnam war

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