March 8, 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the first time the U.S. ground forces were deployed in the Vietnam War — the beginning of full-scale combat. Before that time, although American forces were involved, the possibility of another solution existed. After that, no chance and the war raged for another 10 years. For me, as for many, the Vietnam War was a pivotal time in life. With an academic background in South and Southeast Asia, it was inevitable that as a staffer of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs I would be sent to Indochina three times during a period from 1970 until just days before the United States abandoned our embassy in 1975 and the North Vietnamese Army took over.
This anniversary caused me to review photos I had taken during that period and decide that they could support a narrative about my memories of that time, now long ago. My first visit to Vietnam was in November 1970 as head of a two-person staff delegation tasked with looking at the recent North Vietnamese incursion into Cambodia that had thrust that small country into the vortex of the Indochina Conflict.
After some days in the country, my partner and I departed for Saigon to discuss the situation, deteriorating daily for the Cambodian army, with U.S. military officials, including General Creighton Abrams, the commander in Vietnam. At that point in the war, Saigon still looked like a city at peace when seen from on top of the Caravel Hotel. From this view no one would know that bloody fighting was taking place not many miles away.
The next photo is of the Continental Hotel, another hostelry across from the Caravel, both of them favorites of visitors. The Continental was made famous by a long term guest in Room 214. It was Novelist Graham Greene whose book “The Quiet American” told of life in post-French colonial Vietnam as American involvement in the country was growing. For each of the trips the custom was quickly upon arrival to go to the Continental to talk to members of the American press corps who often gathered there. In turn, the press people were eager to talk to us on the utterly mistaken assumption we had information.
The final photo from the 1970 trip is of the Roman Catholic Cathedral in downtown Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). While the majority of Vietnamese are animists and without organized religion, the Buddhists make up about 16% of the population and Christians, mostly Catholics, another 8 to 9%. One of the fears about a Communist takeover of South Vietnam was that Christianity would be banned. In Cambodia, for example, the Khmer Rouge tore down the imposing cathedral in Phnom Penh brick by brick and turned the grounds into a cow pasture. That did not happen in Vietnam and one can still hear Mass on Sunday at the cathedral.
Our next staff delegation was in 1974 following the “ceasefire” that had been negotiated by the Nixon Administration that fell far short of a real peace. We spent 10 days in Vietnam and shorter periods in both Cambodia and Laos. During our Vietnam stay we were flown to all four Corps areas of the country to assess the economic and military situation. One stop was in Quang Tri, so close to the ceasefire line that we could see NVA fortifications. The NVA had come across the border with tanks a month earlier and caused considerable damage, including blowing to pieces the cathedral in that city.
The NVA incursion, though eventually beaten back, had left a number of children orphaned or abandoned and we were shown a camp for them in Quang Tri. The Congress earlier had earmarked $5,000,000 for the benefit of war-disadvantaged South Vietnamese children. We found conditions in one camp receiving U.S. assistance, shown here, to be providing only rudimentary services. Yet this was one of the better orphanages; others were operating under deplorable conditions.
In the Mekong Delta region we surveyed the progress of land reform efforts aided and abetted by U.S. money. As part of our review, we watched as a field of rice was being harvested. These kind of demonstrations usually are part of officialdom’s efforts to keep the Congressional investigators busy and away from the real problems. Yet I found this one interesting and land reform the most successful American program. So successful was it that the Communist government kept much of it in place when it took over.
The last visit was just as Cambodia was about to fall to the brutal Khmer Rouge in 1975. My partner and I were tasked with accompanying a group of congressmen (and women) of varying viewpoints on the war as a last-ditch effort of the Ford White House to try to save the situation and convince Congress to approve emergency funds to keep the war going in Southeast Asia. By the time we arrived all food had to be airlifted from Saigon into Cambodian cities. We flew in a small CIA plane that “cork-screwed” into a landing to avoid unfriendly fire.
In South Vietnam the Congressional delegation met with President Thieu and members of his cabinet at the Presidential Palace, shown below. The building now serves the same purpose for the current government. At the time we arrived the ceasefire seemed to be holding in many parts of the country but there had been a troublesome situation in a mid-country province which Viet Cong forces had seized. South Vietnamese troops could not dislodge them.
An unsettling presence in the city was the delegation from North Vietnam, authorized by the settlement, in the person shown here of Colonel Bao. We met him for a propaganda harangue of half a hour, while the media thronged around us. More chilling was an explosion while we were meeting with U.S. military officials at the main U.S. airbase. Nearby the enemy had blown up a police traffic stand, I am sure to send us a message.
Within days of our departure, Cambodia had fallen, the South Vietnamese army had crumbled, and the Pathet Lao had control of Laos. There ensued scenes of American ambassador leaving Vietnam by helicopters from the roof of our embassy, frantic scenes of people trying to escape by plane and boat, and the triumphant march of NVA and Viet Cong troops into Saigon.