Magazine article New York Times Upfront

1975: The Fall of Saigon: Why the Vietnam War Still Matters 35 Years after It Ended

Magazine article New York Times Upfront

1975: The Fall of Saigon: Why the Vietnam War Still Matters 35 Years after It Ended

Article excerpt

When the last helicopter lifted off the roof of the American embassy in Saigon on the morning of April 30, 1975, carrying evacuees to nearby U.S. warships, about 400 people--mostly South Vietnamese--were still waiting at the embassy, desperate to escape.

With advancing North Vietnamese forces on the outskirts of the city and a crush of South Vietnamese trying to scale the walls of the embassy compound, time had run out.

In some ways, the chaotic evacuation seemed like a fitting conclusion to a war that had gone badly for the United States. The Vietnam War was a humiliating defeat for one of the world's superpowers at the hands of a small insurgent army.

The war was the longest in U.S. history, and it divided Americans like nothing since the Civil War. More than 58,000 American soldiers died and more than 300,000 were wounded in the fight against Communist North Vietnam and Vietcong guerillas in South Vietnam. The war split families, turned the old against the young, and drove a wedge of mistrust between many Americans and their leaders.

Thirty-five years later, Vietnam still has an authoritarian Communist government, but it has transformed its economy by embracing free markets and private enterprise. It now has diplomatic relations and a flourishing trade with its former enemy.

For the U.S., however, the effects of the war linger.

"Vietnam is still with us," says Henry Kissinger, who was President Richard M. Nixon's Secretary of State and National Security Adviser in the late 1960s and early '70s. "It has created doubts about American judgment, about American credibility, about American power--not only at home, but throughout the world."


Unlike most conflicts, the war in Vietnam didn't begin with an "opening shot." Instead, the U.S. became involved gradually, beginning in 1954, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent military advisers to train and arm the South Vietnamese Army in its fight against the Communists. (Vietnam had been partitioned earlier that year after the French were defeated in their effort to hold on to their century-old colonies in Indochina.)

But Ho Chi Minh, the Communist and nationalist leader, whose forces had defeated the French, wanted all of Vietnam to be a single Communist state.

That raised alarms in Washington at a time when the Cold War was heating up in Asia: In 1949, Communists led by Mao Zedong had taken power in China. A year later, the Korean War began when Communist North Korea, with Soviet and Chinese support, invaded South Korea. Three years and nearly 37,000 American lives later, that war ended in a stalemate.

American officials feared that the rest of Asia could also fall. "You have a row of dominoes set up; you knock over the first one," Eisenhower said in 1954, "and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly." This "domino theory" was essentially the foundation of American policy in Vietnam for the next two decades.

When President John E Kennedy took office in 1961, he too saw Vietnam as a place to prove America's anti-Communist resolve. "Now we have a problem in making our power credible, and Vietnam is the place," he said in a speech that year.

By the time Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, the number of American military advisers in Vietnam had risen from fewer than 700 to 16,000, and the fighting had intensified.

In 1964, after a murky episode in which two North Vietnamese gun boats were said to have attacked an American destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of North Vietnam, President Lyndon B. Johnson asked Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. It gave the President authority to "take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression."

In practice, the resolution gave the President the power to wage a war without a formal declaration of one, which would have required congressional approval. …

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