Saigon, the capital of a decrepit, corrupt South Vietnam fell to North Vietnamese forces by accident on April 30, 1975. Former CIA analyst Frank Snepp’s account, Decent Interval, records how this accident came to pass and how the US failed to act in good time on sound intelligence that disaster was imminent.
The North, to be sure, had designs on Saigon and meant to capture it sometime in 1976. But fortune favours the bold, and a series of preparatory battles that quickly met with unanticipated success quickly led to an improvised campaign that ended with T55 tanks on the streets of Saigon and an US ambassador yanked off the roof of his embassy by helicopter.
The North quickly absorbed the South and billions of dollars worth of military and other equipment as well as masses of files detailing the America as well as the Saigon regime`s friends and foes. This foreseeable and preventable intelligence boon led to thousands of deaths and tens of thousands of arrests as Vietnamese authorities “cleaned up” in the wake of what was in effect a 30 year war of liberation.
Snepp was the CIA`s chief strategy analyst in Saigon from 1972 and witnessed the rot first hand – the delusions and lies on the American side, the stupidity and cupidity on the Vietnamese. And ever remorseless the “communist” cadres closed in…
The end of South Vietnam was the result of several factors, starting with its inherently corrupt nature, as so eloquently articulated by Neil Sheehan in his tale of Vietnam and John Paul Vann, Bright Shining Lie. More to the point, for Snepp was the flawed peace deal brokered by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, one of the most duplicitous diplomats of all time. Succinctly put, Kissinger was too clever by half and got himself and South Vietnam tangled in a web of deceit. Indeed, so close did the German-accented envoy play his cards, that the US Embassy in Saigon was more likely to learn the details of his latest proposals from agents within the Provisional Revolutionary Government (the Viet Cong`s alternative state) than from Washington. President Nguyen Van Thieu was able to use a copy of the Paris Peace Accords so obtained by his own agents to best Kissinger, as he knew exactly when the man was lying.
In preparation for final victory then, the North Vietnamese planned a series of small offensives from December 1974. The first would be a strike on Ban Me Thout, a city in the western Central Highlands. The offensive came just after a decision by Thieu and his generals that to conserve strength and ammunition, they might have to concede further parts of the countryside – the “unimportant” bits to the enemy. That was the plan.
The Ban Me Thout offensive placed the stretched southern forces in the Highlands in check. Unable to retake the city without leaving others vulnerable, the area was abandoned instead, a stream of soldiers and refugees spilling south along a logger`s road that had not been reconnoitred. The route march became a rout; discipline collapsed… and the North Vietnamese arrived. Few made it to the coast.
Always watching for an American reaction, but seeing none coming, the North moved against Hue and Da Nang, the main cities of northern South Vietnam. General Dung Van Tran, the northern commander-in-chief, then started nibbling at the provinces around Saigon, prompting Thieu to recall one of his two mobile divisions, the Airborne, to Saigon. This left his commander in the north with insufficient troops to hold both Hue and Da Nang. He let the former go, but could not hold the latter in the face of Tran and internal collapse. Route followed. Soon the north and centre of the country were in northern hands – as were US local employees and staff lists as well as priceless equipment and intelligence dossiers…