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 powernot only at home, but throughout the world."
The Domino Theory
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 F. 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.
A War Fought on TV
Full-scale military intervention began in 1965 with the arrival in Da Nang of the first U.S. combat troops. Johnson's war policy initially enjoyed overwhelming popular support, and by the end of the year, more than 200,000 U.S. troops were in Vietnama number that would rise by the end of the decade to more than half a million.
From the start, the administration was relentlessly optimistic: The war was going well and heading toward victory. As Walt Rostow, Johnson's National Security Adviser, put it in 1967: "I see the light at the end of the tunnel."
But Vietnam was the first war in which television gave Americans regular access to relatively uncensored images of battleG.I.s making their way through jungles and rice paddies, villagers huddled in fear, bombs raining down from B-52 warplanes, and gory pictures of the dead and wounded of both sides. The good news from officials in Washington seemed at odds with what people were seeing on their TVs.
"Vietnam was lost in the living rooms of America," media scholar Marshall McLuhan wrote in 1975, "not on the battlefields of Vietnam."
As more young men were drafted to fight in an increasingly unpopular war, an antiwar movement of a sort the country had never seen began to take shape. In 1965, the first mass demonstration, with 20,000 people in Washington, took place, and the protests grew in size and militancy.
In January 1968, North Vietnam and the Vietcong launched the Tet Offensive, a series of attacks during Tet, the lunar New Year. Militarily, the offensive was a terrible defeat for the Communists, but grisly TV imagesand just the idea that the enemy could mount such massive attacks after years of warshook America's confidence.
In March, with support for the war and his popularity plummeting, Johnson announced the start of peace talks in Paris, and that he would not run for a second term.
Faced with mounting turmoil over the war, President Nixon, who succeeded Johnson in 1969, decided to extricate the U.S. from Vietnam. In the fall of 1969, he and Kissinger began the process of "Vietnamization": turning the fighting over to South Vietnamese troops, while withdrawing U.S. forces, whose numbers fell to 220,000 by the end of 1970.
The Paris Peace Accords of January 1973 called for an end to the fighting and for all foreign troops to be withdrawn from Vietnam. The end finally came in 1975: Communist forces overran the South, with Saigon falling in April, forcing the hurried evacuation of the remaining Americans and a fraction of the Vietnamese who wanted to get out.
For the Vietnamese, the war's cost was staggering: At least 3 million people were killed, and more than a million fled after the war, most to the U.S. The Communist government sent hundreds of thousands of those left behind to "re-education camps," where they endured harsh treatment and were forced to do brutal and dangerous labor.
The U.S. imposed a trade embargo on Vietnam, vast swaths of which had been destroyed by bombing and a defoliation chemical known as "Agent Orange." With aid from the Soviet Union, the government tried to create a Soviet-style state-run economy, which led to widespread poverty and hunger. In 1986, party leaders followed China's lead and instituted free-market reforms, known as doi moi, with less state control of the economy and more private enterprise.
Since the 1990s, and especially after President Bill Clinton lifted the U.S. trade embargo in 1993 and restored diplomatic relations in 1995, foreign investors have poured into Vietnam and its economy has boomed. But, like China, Vietnam remains a one-party Communist state, with political dissent forbidden.
To young people in Vietnam today, the "American War," as it is known, is ancient history: 60 percent of the population was born after the Communist victory in 1975, and 25 percent of the population is younger than 15. Many of themespecially those who live in the booming cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon)have a favorable impression of Americans and are familiar with American TV and movies.
"By and large, relations between the U.S. and Vietnam have moved beyond Vietnam War-era conflicts," says William Frasure, a Vietnam expert at Connecticut College. "Relations between our two governments today are much more affected by trade and economic issues."
However, the memory of Vietnam still lingers in the U.S., where it's become a code word for a military quagmire. The U.S. is now fighting two wars in which the enemy uses guerilla tactics similar to those that American troops faced in Vietnam. And as those conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan drag onfor seven and eight years, respectivelycomparisons to Vietnam grow.
Still, the progress between the two nations was on display last November when a U.S. Navy ship, led by the Navy's first Vietnamese-American commander, made a goodwill visit to Vietnam, arriving in the coastal city of Da Nang.
Commander Hung Ba Le, now 39, was returning for the first time to the country he had fled with his parents and three of his siblings on a fishing boat as 5-year-old in 1975. During the war, Le's father had been a commander in the South Vietnamese Navy. But like most people in this young nation, Commander Le has no memory of the war.
"My crew and I are proud to be able to represent our country to the people of Vietnam," he said. "This visit is a symbol of the friendship between our two nations, and we are deeply honored to be a part of it."
(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 142, April 5, 2010)