At the height of the Vietnam War, Ralph White tried to join the U.S. Marine Corps but was turned down because of an eye injury he had sustained playing tennis. As the fighting drew to a tumultuous close in April 1975, however, 27-year-old White was in Saigon, acting true to the leatherneck motto “Semper fidelis” – only by civilian means.
By cajoling, twisting arms and cleverly bypassing red tape, White found an ingenious way to rescue 112 Vietnamese employees of Chase National Bank and their family members: he simply adopted all of them in the presence of U.S. justices of the peace on emergency duty at Saigon’s Tan Son Nhat Airport. In the face of an impending defeat of the United States’ South Vietnamese ally, this American civilian who had wanted to be a Marine achieved a small but remarkable victory.
Four days later, on April 30, Soviet-made T-54 tanks completed the communist conquest of South Vietnam by bursting through the gate of the presidential palace in Saigon. Inside, newly appointed South Vietnamese President Duong Van “Big” Minh offered to transfer power. North Vietnamese Col. Bui Tin replied, “There is no question of your transferring power ... You cannot give up what you don’t have.”
To me, a German, these words sounded identical to the terms the Allies imposed on my country in 1945 when I was still a child: unconditional surrender. The irony was that while at the end of World War II a manifestly evil government was forced to surrender this way, the opposite was true 30 years later in Saigon: a totalitarian regime with deeply inhumane features bullied a much more humane – though faulty – opponent into capitulating unconditionally, and the world cheered.
Having covered Vietnam for West Germany’s largest publishing house over a period of five years, I concluded that the wrong side had won. There was no reason to rejoice. Yet when President Gerald Ford proclaimed at Tulane University in New Orleans that the Vietnam War “is finished as far as America is concerned,” one week before South Vietnam was finally crushed, he received a standing ovation.
The reaction should have been more muted given the grim fate to which vast numbers of South Vietnamese had been delivered. For them, the real Calvary only started with the communist victory. Between 200,000 and 400,000 drowned while fleeing their country on fishing boats and makeshift vessels, according to the U.N. High Commission for Refugees. Some 65,000 were executed. One million ended up in concentration camps, where 165,000 were tortured or starved to death. Among those killed were 30,000 whose names had been on lists of CIA informants left behind at the embassy, National Review reported.
Proportionately speaking, Ralph White outperformed the U.S. government: he got all his people out, just as he intended to when he volunteered to be sent from Bangkok to Saigon as acting general manager of Chase’s Vietnam branch two weeks before Saigon fell. In his report to his boss at Chase, he later wrote that “maintaining an American liaison between bank and embassy to ensure maximum coordination with evacuation planning” was the “sole purpose” of his assignment.
“Reading my report makes me pretty proud of that 27-year-old man,” says White, who is now a writer in Litchfield, Conn.
Almost four decades after the collapse of South Vietnam, I came across another moving story about an American civilian acting as bravely and faithfully to her values as any good soldier. Patricia Palermo was a blonde Pan Am stewardess from Nebraska who volunteered to serve as a purser on shuttle flights from Guam to Saigon, flying “fresh-faced, rosy-cheeked and high-spirited young men” to the war zone, as she recalled in a recent interview. “When I saw them again 12 months later, they looked like 50-year-old men. Many were wounded and crippled, some drugged out. They were not allowed to board until after the other ‘returnees’ had been loaded in the cargo bay – those in zinc coffins.”
Palermo, who now lives in New York, said in a telephone interview that she was so emotionally shaken by these flights that she blocked them out of her mind until 1980, when she watched on television a live report of the first parade honoring Vietnam veterans. “I immediately rushed out of my house and joined in,” she recalled.
The most dramatic part of her flying career came during the last days of the war, when Pan Am took at least 2,000 babies, mostly Asian-Americans due for adoption in the United States out of Saigon. “We weren’t allowed to leave the aircraft because of enemy fire, but we could see how some desperate mothers threw their children over the fence at Tan Son Nhat to be brought to safety by our crews. I remember someone handing me two babies hidden in a basket. Once I counted more than 400 babies on our Boeing 747. They were everywhere, even in the luggage racks above the seats, and they were so still, always so still ....”
I watched the fall of Saigon on television in my apartment in Paris with mounting grief and anger. I marveled at the beautiful execution of Operation Frequent Wind, which evacuated the last 1,373 Americans, plus 5,595 Vietnamese and other nationals, in helicopters primarily from a landing pad on top of the U.S. military attache’s office at the U.S. Embassy April 29-30. I had been there seven years earlier during the Tet Offensive and watched from across the street as the communists’ attack on the embassy was defeated. Now they were about to triumph; hence my grief.
My anger, though, was directed primarily at the students and intellectuals cheering the communist victory as an act of liberation. They were doing this everywhere: across the River Seine on the Left Bank; in my own country, West Germany; and in the United States. Watching a sea of red-and-blue Viet Cong flags on TV made me feel nauseated, because to me these colors stood for the heinous massacres I had witnessed in Vietnam.
One night in the Central Highlands, for example, I happened upon the mutilated corpses of a village chief, his wife and their 12 children, all tortured by communist henchmen. As the villagers told me, the family was killed because the chief had stayed loyal to the Saigon government. That was in 1965. In 1967, an election year, the Viet Cong committed at least 100,000 such acts of terror against civilians to prevent them from going to the polls.
When French newscasters announced the end of South Vietnam, I instinctively reached for a book that had lain on my bedside table in the Continental Palace hotel in Saigon and accompanied me to Paris: “The Two Vietnams.” I had met its author, French political scientist Bernard B. Fall, many times in Saigon and Washington before he was killed by a Viet Cong mine. He was, to me, one of the world’s most astute experts on Indochina. One passage in his book has haunted me ever since. Fall quotes North Vietnam’s chief strategist, Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, who died Oct. 4 at the age of 102, as telling the political commissars of one of his divisions: “The enemy (meaning the West) ... does not possess ... the psychological and political means to fight a long-drawn-out war.”
Giap never doubted America’s military capabilities but believed he had found democracy’s Achilles’ heel, as Fall explained: “In all likelihood, Giap concludes, public opinion in the democracy will demand an end to the ‘useless bloodshed,’ or its legislature will insist on knowing for how long it will have to vote astronomical credits without a clear-cut victory in sight. This is what eternally compels the military leaders of democratic armies to promise a quick end to the war – to ‘bring the boys home by Christmas’ – or forces the democratic politicians to agree to almost any kind of humiliating compromise rather than to accept the idea of a semi-permanent anti-guerrilla operation.”
Was this dire analysis borne out by Washington’s failure to respond, as promised, “with decisive military force” to any North Vietnamese violation of the 1973 Paris accords, I wondered? The accords had allowed Hanoi to keep 80,000 regular troops in the South, but nothing happened when that number increased to 200,000. As the Vietnam drama unfolded so calamitously, I also wondered how we in the media, including the overwhelming majority of us not overtly or tacitly siding with the Viet Cong, failed to make our readers recognize the most incontrovertible evidence that most South Vietnamese never favored the communists: from the start we correspondents had watched them flee the Viet Cong.
They fled neither across the Ben Hai River into North Vietnam nor into the so-called liberated zones – “liberated” by the communists. Until the very end, the refugees gravitated to the shrinking parts of the country controlled by Saigon; 2 million poured into Da Nang. The roads to Saigon were so clogged with fleeing families that they slowed down the North Vietnamese advance, and when it was over, “boat people” not only sailed away from the south in huge numbers but from northern ports as well. Never before in Vietnamese history has there been such a mass exodus from that country – not in Chinese, French or American days. And this was supposed to be liberation? Somehow, I suspected then, and am convinced now, that logic was one of the casualties of the Vietnam War. And so was intellectual honesty.
One image flashing across my TV screen in Paris stayed with me for decades because it punctuated these reflections. It showed South Vietnamese Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky at the controls of an UH-1A (Huey) helicopter landing on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Midway. I had known Ky well and liked him. True, he was a flashy Vietnam Air Force general, a peacock like many a military man throughout history. But he was not the crooked clown he was so often made out to be.
Six years earlier, in May 1969, Ky and I had traveled together to Saigon from Paris, where I had been covering the Vietnam peace talks and he headed Saigon’s delegation. Our conversation was unusually awkward, probably because both of us knew that things were not going well in Paris for his side; it was evident that a flawed perception in the United States and elsewhere of the 1968 Tet Offensive had broken America’s will to bring this conflict to a victorious conclusion.
“But we won Tet!” Ky fumed. “Why do Americans think otherwise?”
“I know, General, I was in Hue when you won,” I answered. “But the public in the United States and in Europe received a different message.”
In Hue I had stood at the rim of a mass grave containing the bodies of at least 1,000 men, women and children murdered by the communists. A U.S. television team wandered about the scene aimlessly. “Why don’t you film this?” my colleague Peter Braestrup of The Washington Post asked them. Their cameraman replied, “We are not here to spread anti-communist propaganda.”
I told Ky this, and he did not comment. He knew that I knew that the military victory of the Americans and South Vietnamese at Tet was turned into a political defeat when Walter Cronkite declared the war unwinnable on CBS in a statement after a brief post-Tet visit. This flew in the face of what many of us combat correspondents had witnessed and reported from Hue. “If I‘ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America,” President Lyndon B. Johnson is reported to have said. I shared his sense of loss and have never forgiven the iconic Cronkite for his act of journalistic malpractice.
Ky kept staring at the door leading to the cockpit of the Air France airliner.
“Why do you keep looking there?” I asked him.
“All I want is to be a pilot again,” he said quietly.
His escape to Midway at the controls of a Huey marked the end of his flying career.
A few years ago, I taught an advanced journalism class at Concordia University Irvine in California. We focused on the large and successful Vietnamese refugee community in Orange County. Student Kellie Kotraba, now a successful journalist in Missouri, came across a study by a group of eight renowned researchers headed by Harvard psychiatrist Richard F. Mollica, titled “Brain Structural Abnormalities and Mental Health Sequelae in South Vietnamese Ex-Political Detainees Who Survived Traumatic Head Injury and Torture.”
The study, published by the American Medical Association, showed that thousands of former political detainees now living in the United States still suffer severely from the aftereffects of torture inflicted on them during their captivity decades ago. “There must be over 100,000 of them,” Mollica told Kotraba, who then asked the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington for a comment. She received a denial in the form of an email from the embassy’s press attache, Tung Pham, which read, “Information saying that inmates of reeducation camp (sic) was (sic) tortured is totally untrue.”
This was to be expected. More surprising was the fact that the Mollica study received little attention in the U.S. media when it came out in 2009, and when I offered Kotraba’s fascinating stories to several publications their editors weren’t interested.
Why did U.S. editors ignore information about suffering at such a massive scale in their midst as a consequence of the Vietnam War, I wondered? There exists a strong analogy between what happened in some of the 300 communist gulags in Vietnam and the concentration camps in Nazi-occupied Europe. I just finished reading a French translation of the account by Father Andrew Nguyen Huu Le, a Catholic priest now living in New Zealand, of his 13 years in communist captivity, 2,020 days of which he spent in leg irons – causing festering wounds where maggots bred.
In “Je dois vivre” (“I must live”), Le describes in gruesome detail how his friend Dang Van Tiep, a former South Vietnamese Army major and member of Parliament, was killed to the merriment of a crowd of communist functionaries and their wives screaming with delight. He was made to drink large amounts of water. Then prison trusty Bui Thi Dinh, the most sadistic official in the Thanh Cam penal camp, jumped on Tiep’s abdomen until it burst and his intestines spilled out. Tiep died.
Dinh had been a captain in the South Vietnamese Army. The captives at Thanh Cam referred to him as “Kapo,” a term used for trusties in Nazi concentration camps. Like some former Nazi Kapos, he made it to the United States. He was discovered in Garden Grove, Calif., arrested and ordered deported. At last report, he lived in the Marshall Islands.
In his book, Le describes his frequent flashbacks, which include severe abdominal pains. Flashbacks are a condition many U.S. veterans know all too well. When I worked as a chaplain intern among these men at the VA medical center in St. Cloud, Minn., I met a baker from St. Paul who had a recurring nightmare. Every day he dreamed of an incident near Da Nang. He was riding shotgun at the back of a military truck and saw a little boy pull the pin of a hand grenade, ready to lob it onto the truck where it would probably have killed an entire platoon.
The soldier killed the child. But then, night after night, he saw the distorted face of the dying boy. “He was about 8 years old,” said the veteran, “and now I have twins and in my dreams his face takes on their features.” This was one of the saddest stories I heard during my internship that was part of the theological education I began mid-career, probably in response to my experiences as a reporter in Vietnam.
But there was something worse I found among those former Vietnam warriors: almost every member of the three pastoral care groups I led together with a psychologist had been called a baby killer within the first 24 hours of his return from the war. One was even asked not to return to his church until his hair had grown again, and would he please turn up in civilian clothes.
Most men in my groups believed in God but thought he had deserted them in Vietnam. So they had “flipped God off,” as they called it. I wrote a theology for Vietnam veterans titled “The Acquittal of God,” reminding them of the insight by the martyred German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who said that man is called to “suffer with God in a godless world,” which in their case implied that God is suffering with them and was always with them in their suffering – both in Vietnam and after their return. Therefore, God was not a deserter but their fellow sufferer. Many of the patients found this thought compelling.
To this day, I hear Vietnam veterans ask, “Was our sacrifice in vain?” As an old war correspondent, I am unable to respond to this question intelligently. But as a theologian I do have an answer. In his famous treatise “Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved,” Martin Luther compared the vocation of a warrior with that of a surgeon who might have to amputate a patient’s limb in order to save the rest of his body. Often patients die in the days or months after surgery. But does this mean that the operation was futile?
As a war correspondent, I saw the vast majority of GIs and South Vietnamese soldiers faithfully act out their vocation in the service of others. The wrong side won; this is true. As a theologian,
I must add: humans are not the lords of history, and history is always open to the future. It might take many more decades until we see the soldiers’ sacrifice in Vietnam bear fruit and the communist regime vanish, just as other tyrannies have disappeared in the past. Perhaps then the world will discover that the blood Americans and their allies shed in Vietnam has been the seed of a victory much more profound than the one they were denied April 30, 1975.
Uwe Siemon-Netto’s latest book is “Duc: A Reporter’s Love for the Wounded People of Vietnam.”