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Interview with Frank Snepp, 1981

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Frank Snepp was the former chief analyst of North Vietnamese strategy for the CIA in Saigon. Snepp recalls the decision of the American forces to pull out of Vietnam. He discusses that Nguyen Van Thieu’s cousin, Hoang Duc Nha was the sole member of the South Vietnamese government who did not believe that the Americans would continue to send support and tried to warn Nguyen Van Thieu not to rely on the Americans. He also recalls the corruption within the South Vietnamese government and how the CIA was told not to report any corruption within South Vietnam. Snepp further discusses the evacuation from Vietnam and how it was organized.
Migration and refugees, War and society, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Aerial operations, American, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Aerial operations, American, Economic assistance--Vietnam, Bombing, Aerial--Vietnam, Capitulations, Military, Intelligence and national security, France--Colonies--Asia, Photography, Military, Radio, Military, International relations, Evacuation of civilians, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Personal narratives, American, Corruption, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Cambodia, Logistics, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Desertions--Vietnam, Military assistance, American, Military intelligence, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Public opinion, Vietnamese reunification question (1954-1976), Morale, Ambassadors
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Consequences of Vietnamization

Snd. Roll 2420
Frank Snepp
Voices in background inaudible.
Cut. Slate six. Clap sticks. Go.
Did the South Vietnamese really believe in January '73 that the Americans would come back the bombers would come back as Nixon promised.
They believed that ah the Americans would come back with bombers as late as ah April, 1975. As a matter of fact, ah, there were several Americans and British observers through Saigon right after the cease-fire assuring Thieu that the War Powers Act could be got around, that the Cambodian bombing ban legislation, ah, wa—was really not so restrictive as as the press was saying and um Thieu believed it, and as a result he didn't constrict his forces ah as he should have. He didn't retrench as, as he should have. Left them overextended.
Was there anyone in the South Vietnamese government who didn't believe it and could you perhaps combine that with talking about the Embassy's role in this also a little bit more?
There was one person in the South Vietnamese government who did not accept US guarantees of continuing assistance. That was Hoang Duc Nha was ah Thieu's cousin. He was also his right hand man. His information minister and ah he tried to persuade Thieu not to rely so heavily on the Americans. The US Embassy, in turn, did its best to shove or elbow Nha aside so that ah there would be no one to gainsay American policy or American wishes in Saigon and, in fact, the US, Embassy did succeed in doing this.
Ah, and our own spokesmen finally were unchallenged inside the South Vietnamese government. So, ah, anyone who might have warned Thieu away from over reliance on the Americans was certainly by 1974... ah 1974 long gone. And, Hoang Duc Nha was no longer a power on the scene. He had been discredited. And, um, again, the people who slavishly believed in the American guarantees were installed at Thieu's elbow.
Cut. Cousin or not.
Turning. Marker. Seven. Clap sticks.
Operation Enhance. Ah, Enhance plus. There was a huge amount of material that flowed into South Vietnam at this time. Why didn't it get to the field?
The main reason it didn't get to the field is because it was not coupled with a a refinement of the South Vietnamese logistics machinery. Ah. Enhance Plus was designed to insure the South Vietnamese could ride out the cease-fire and would not have to rely heavily on continuing US military aid. It was also an effort to buy Thieu's adherence to the Paris Accords and, it, in fact, was effective in that respect. But, ah, as to whether or not the South Vietnamese could effectively used it, well, no, because the US military's attaché's office (was) in Saigon was initially geared not towards streamlining the logistics system but insuring that enough aid was on hand to keep the South Vietnamese military going.
It was also thought among the Americans in Saigon right after the cease-fire, right before the cease-fire, that the attaché, military attaché’s office would remain quite large, that the American presence in Saigon would be sufficient to vitiate the need for ahm any kind of refined South Vietnamese logistics capability. Well, it wasn't. Ah. People ah Congress as time went on became ah ah impatient with the, the large US presence, wanted it drawn down.
The large US presence was also ah absorbing some money which wa—should have been earmarked for the South Vietnamese directly. So, the decision was made to cut back on the US presence, military attaché’s office and to rely on South Vietnamese logisticians to get the material to the troops in the field. And, the problem was their logisticians simply weren't up to the task. They had never been Vietnamized, Vietnamizi, (chuckle) Vietnamized.
Mix up. Let's pick up from that idea.
Back up to the idea that, that wha—it was drawn down to where there was a problem going.
Well, the South Vietnamese logisticians had never been trained to insss, in American military ah logistical arts and crafts, and, consequently, weren't up to the job. They couldn't get the material fast enough to the troops in the field. And, what's more there was a feeling among South Vietnamese military commanders that it would be unwise to establish a logistic system which put a great deal of materiel in the field. The South Vietnamese military commanders were never as confident as Thieu in Saigon, that they could hold all the territory that Thieu had in his palm at the time of the cease-fire.
Consequently, they wanted to keep the material much closer to home base where it could be easily protected. When I say home base I mean Bien Hoa, the Saigon area. So, ah, there was no incentive for them to develop a logistics system which could ah ah supplant the American one and insure the continued flow of arms and everything else to to the boys out in the foxholes or out in ah the rice paddies.

Corruption and its impact on A.R.V.N.

Ah. When we talked to you also added another point that that superimposed on their problems with logistics was their problem with corruption.
In addition to ah this lack of logistical training and this disincentive to put material within reach of ah the North Vietnamese forces themselves, there was the problem of corruption. The siphoning off of material destined to troops in the field. The US uh establishment in Saigon never had a very good grasp on the subject of corruption because it was from a an intelligent standpoint strictly off limits. Something verboten. Ah. We couldn't let ourselves admit that the South Vietnamese were any, anything but pristine pure because then we might not be able to persuade Congress to continue filling the aid pipeline. So, we didn't focus on the corruption issue.
Ah. The intelligence people didn't report on it. We were warded off of the subject. Ambassador Graham Martin when he arrived in Saigon lectured us all, told us that he did not want to have us examining ah the South Vietnamese body politic. Engaging in proctological examinations was his term in the South Vietnamese body politic. Well, he didn't need to tell us what that meant. We were not to look at the warts and we didn't look at the warts and any reporting on corruption ah was either discouraged or downgraded out of existence and what I mean by that is it was ah classified in such a way that it had almost no credibility whatsoever.
I want the point brought... We're out of film. So little reporting on the corruption.
Turning. Eight. Clap sticks.
When Martin arrived in Saigon he made it quite clear that he didn't want any reporting on corruption. He told us that we should not, we, the Embassy staff, should not engage in any proctological examinations of the South Vietnamese body politic. Believe me, that sent a message to us all. Ah, and, and, we didn't have to ask any questions ah of the ambassador after that and reporting on corruption dried up. So, we were never in a position to assess the true impact of corruption on the logistics system. We simply knew it was, it was happening. That it did have an impact. Ah. CI Headquarters was ahhh operating on the same wavelength with respect to reporting on corruption.
A large study was done at CI Headquarters right after the cease-fire on the subject and George Carver who was the chief Vietnam watcher for the CI ahm simply ahm, I hate to use the word wrongly, but he caveatted it out of existence. He hedged it out of existence so that the report finally wasn't a report on corruption at all. Ah. We blinded ourselves to the rot that was, in fact, destroying the South Vietnamese Army's capacity to fight, and for that, we have only ourselves to blame. If we had adequately focused on that issue, the issue of corruption, I think, first of all, we would have realized how serious it was and we might have encouraged Thieu to do away with it.
We would also, I think, have been less inclined to encourage Thieu in the belief that ahm ahm he could do just about anything he wanted. We would have known that his, his, ah, his logistical situation, his, his supply situation ah was not sufficient to keep him going and we would have tol—tol—told him look, you've got to get rid of the fellows who are absorbed, the bad apples amongst you, ah, because if you don't your aid is not going to be used effectively. But, we never did that. And, there's another reason we didn't.
It wasn't merely that we, we didn't want to admit that we had created several bad apples or that we had helped set, set up a government which was terribly corrupt. We, of course, realized that if ah the South Vietnamese looked anything but pristine pure, the US Congress would not vote any additional aid ah to Saigon and ahm I think, too, too, there was, there was a sense in Saigon that ah it wasn't our business to tell the South Vietnamese what to do ah to clean up their act.
Martin used to say that ah by most Asian standards the South Vietnamese were not really corrupt and ah that their level, the level of corruption was tolerable. Well, that was a judgmental call that was totally wrong. It wasn't tolerable. Not when the American taxpayer was picking up the bill. And, not when the boys in the field were were lacking for ammunition and hand grenades.
Ahm. Talk about that just a bit. You said to me that there was an effect on morale at one, in, in the armies, but also it meant that they didn't get the hand grenades. I believe you said.
The corruption plus the the craziness of the logistic system did leave ahm the men in the field ah short handed or short of arms material. Most particularly in the outpost in the Delta which ahm were a very ahm disparate, widely spread and had been established in the first place as sort of a trip wire. Ah. And, had to be supplied opulently in order to perform their function. There had to be air strikes or there had to be aircraft available to come in with air strikes once they set up the warning flare and when materiel began to dry up, when corruption began to cripple the army, the boys out there in the rice paddies felt that they had been forsaken by their leaders and morale did begin to crumble.
And, this was particularly so in ah the mid l9... ah mid 1974, as the Communists stepped up their pressure across the country, as, indeed, ah materiel became ah much scarcer at least out on the line. And, as the country began suffering the effects of ahm a worldwide economic pinch. Gasoline prices were becoming so much more expensive. Ergo, you had fewer air strikes ah and the men in the field were left feeling that ah that Thieu really didn't care about them so they began deserting. We began seeing an increase in the desertion rate.
Well, here's something else we wouldn't allow our intelligence people to look at very closely. It wasn't a very complimentary picture of the South Vietnamese, a very flattering portrait. Ah. The notion that the South Vietnamese were leaving their posts wouldn't impress any congressmen. So, we didn't report on that. And, I'll never forget in late 1974 the ambassador and the CIA station chief getting together and doing an estimate, so called estimate, which was no more than a public relations job designed to prove there was no corruption. There were no morale problems in South Vietnam when, in fact, both of these problems were coming to a head in setting the South Vietname—ahm South Vietnamese up for the kill.

Morale among Vietnamese soldiers, North and South

During this period you said to me that you had intelligence, you had a colonel from the North Vietnamese Army who was telling you about their problems in recruiting. What were their problems as far as you could tell?
The North Vietnamese themselves were having terrific morale problems too. Ah. Terrific by their own standards. Ah. Nothing to equal the morale problems that finally beset the South Vietnamese. But, they were having morale problems. In part because ah the South ah the cease-fire had been presented to them as the end of the war, and furthermore, they didn't have the United States to kick around anymore. Their morale had always been a function of the US presence. As long as the Americans were around to give them ah ah a foreign devil to rail against ah morale among co... among communist forces, North Vietnamese in particular, remained very high.
When the Americans disappeared, well, the morale began to waiver, waiver a bit, and the North Vietnamese began to suffer defections along the trail system ah leading into South Vietnam. The Ho Chi Minh Trail System. And, don't forget, too, that they had suffered terrific casualties from this war. Every year from 1965 up to the end of the war itself at the very least sixty thousand to a hundred thousand North Vietnamese boys had been sent down that trail system through Laos into South Vietnam and never come back.
Ah. Every year. So, they had suffered... every family in North Vietnam had been touched. A society was not one in which protest was tolerated, but there was an increasing, what, what, what the French would say a malaise really among the North Vietnamese forces ah as they came down the system. Most particularly those I interrogated encountered a number of them in the interrogation chambers in the south and their feelings were... Well, their attitude towards the war was quite a bit less enthusiastic than it had been in 1969 when I arrived and began first interrogating ah North Vietnamese prisoners.
Now, among South Vietnamese Viet Cong morale was awful. The South Vietnamese Communists first of all had been taking the brunt of the war ah for far more many years than had the North Vietnamese. They had suffered terribly in the Tet attack in 1968 for they had been on the cutting edge of those attacks. Their cadre had been decimated by the Phoenix Program.
They were suffering ah more casualties than ah they had really ah at any point in the war. And, I say more casualties during the cease-fire period than they had ah during the war. In part, because medical supplies were beginning to dry up. Aid from the Soviets and the Chinese was beginning to slide off and ah they were not assured, neither the North Vietnamese nor the South Vietnamese Communists were as assured of ah continuing support from their, their socialist brethren as they had been before.

Thieu's fight against the fate of the South

Was some of the problem that Thieu was also making some gains in his, in his support. He was getting more support or or is that not true?
I don't think President Thieu's support at the time of the cease-fire was really substantive support. When I say substantive, I mean I don't feel that people really suddenly looked on Thieu as they did, ah as the Egyptians did on Sadat or or they didn't look on him as a savior. He was just the best there was at the time. He was a force who most people had reconciled themselves to. Thieu was admired for one thing. Ah. Particularly in the wake, immediate aftermath of the cease-fire in 1973.
He had stood up to the United States. He had refused to ah bend to Kissinger's negotiating demands. He had to be bought off in effect with this Enhance Plus Logistics Program. Last minute influx materiel. And, ah, only because President Nixon in December said said ah, December 19 ah 72 said look if you don't sign that cease-fire, we're going to cut you off entirely. Only because of that and only because of the Christmas bombing of Hanoi which assured Thieu or at less, at least strengthened him in the belief that we were still on his side. Only because of that did he finally ah cave in and sign the cease-fire. The South Vietnamese admired his resistance.
Stop. Answers are getting a little...
Beep. Beep. Beep.
End of Snd. Roll 2420. Frank Snepp
Vietnam TVPO13 Snd Roll #2421 Frank Snepp
Can we talk again about was there anyone in the South Vietnamese government who really didn't believe that the American stories?
There was one person in the South Vietnamese government who didn't buy the idea that American aid would be infinite — Hoang Duc Nha, he was a member of Thieu's family. He was Thieu' s information minister. He was young, outspoken, and he was in his own way anti-American. But not because he didn't like the Americans; he had in fact gone to school in the United States. He was a modern Vietnamese. He had studied the Americans at close range and he felt that they were untrustworthy.
That they wouldn't go on supplying and helping the South Vietnamese in the way that Thieu expected, and in the way that the American Embassy encouraged him to believe. Nha told Thieu this. The US Embassy then did its best to discredit Nha so that his power within the South Vietnamese government was really quite diminished by 19— mid 1974. Ah, there was simply nobody to gain, say, US interest and policy protestations in Saigon.
We were speaking to Thieu and he was believing us. And what he was believing that we would be in there with B-52s right up to the very end. Nha tried to explain to Thieu what the War Powers Act meant and that it meant that US troops could not be recommitted. He tried to explain to Thieu what the Cambodian bombing ban legislation meant. The legislation was passed in 19... in mid 1973 in the summer of '73, and Thieu didn't believe him.
Ah, he he accepted in fact what Ambassador Martin told him. And Martin didn't say explicitly that B-52s would be available in the event of a major offensive, but he didn't say they wouldn't be, so that even in April 1975 Thieu was looking forward to the re-introduction of American air power to save him.
The time of the...
Sorry. Um okay.
At the time of the cease-fire, the feeling among the Embassy personnel was that the cease-fire had some chance if 1) the flow of manpower and supplies from North Vietnam could be shut off. Kissinger thought he had a deal with Le Duc Tho which guaranteed this. In effect the demilitarization of Southern Laos and the border areas of Cambodia he didn't have the deal. Le Duc Tho denies it.
So that particular, very important provision never materialized and the North Vietnamese continued to be in a position to re supply the 140,000 troops they had on their doorstep at the time of the cease-fire. Kissinger had hoped and we had hoped in Saigon that the cutting off of the supply flow, and the manpower flow from North Vietnam, would finally cause a drying up of the North Vietnamese presence in the South and it was really that presence that 140,000 troop presence which kept the war going. The Viet Cong, the Southern Communists, were almost non existent at the time.
So if the flow had been cut off it could have been attenuated then possibly the equilibrium between the North and the South, the stalemate that Kissinger was looking towards, could have been accomplished. There was another piece to this puzzle and it had to be put in place too and wasn't. Kissinger hoped that he could encourage the doves in North Vietnam to oppose the continuing war effort in the South encourage them by getting the US Congress to vote economic aid to North Vietnam. That would strengthen the hand of those in the North who believed that economic development as opposed to the liberation of the South was the immediate priority.
Once they were in the saddle, once they had their hands on the levers of power, then Kissinger's hope was that the war effort would be cut back. The problem was that Congress was not alerted to the necessity for voting aid to North Vietnam the importance of that particular piece of the puzzle and didn't do so. And by mid 1973 the prospects of economic aid to Hanoi were dead, and with it, the prospects for equilibrium which could have made for a viable cease-fire.
So was it reasonable to send Graham Martin to Saigon with a mandate of holding up the Thieu government? Did it did it was it reasonable to expect them to hold on?
Well Martin was sent to Saigon with the mandate of insuring Thieu' s survival, and insuring that we were not humiliated by the immediate, or even eventual defeat of our client. I have never believed that Kissinger negotiated the cease-fire cynically. I think he was hoping that the South Vietnamese would be able to hold on. That aid to the South that aid to Hanoi, that this matrix of factors would dampen the war down and create a stalemate and the two sides could finally coexist.
Martin was part of that formula and he was sent there to buck Thieu up, really to encourage Thieu to play his part to encourage Thieu that he could survive the cease-fire. So, yes it was reasonable. It was a reasonable policy move. The problem is that Kissinger quickly lost interest in Vietnam. Congress lost interest in Vietnam, as did the American people. And the various factors which were essential to that cease-fire continuing aid to the South, a cleaning up of South Vietnam's act, doing away with corruption, the modifying aid to Hanoi, none of that came about.
So Martin, like Kissinger's policy, quickly became unreasonable, if you will. There was Martin encouraging Thieu to believe that aid would... that the cornucopia would be there always, that there would be continuing aid from the United States even again B-52s. And he encouraged Thieu to accept this, and as I said before, Thieu believed it with such conviction that he decided not to retrench, not to pull back, until it was so... much too late.
And he tried to imitate the Americans, to imitate their accelerated pacification programs, to hold on to every piece of territory he had at the time on the cease-fire. When in fact if he had known that we were not going to be available with our B-52s, I think he would have perhaps retrenched in the Highlands, pulled back in the Highlands of South Vietnam, where in fact the unraveling of the end began. Where, in fact his forces first began disintegrating.

Failed intelligence gathering

Let's step ahead to the Highlands. Uh, you told me that one of the most serious handicaps of this period was the cutback in surveillance, when surveillance flights, when there was a cutback in aid. Uh, could you talk about this and how it affected your intelligence as we went into March of 1975 Ban Me Thuot?
Because of budgetary constraints in the US because of the cut back in US aid to South Vietnam and also because of changing national priorities in the United States uh intelligence assets like satellites, radio intercept platforms, what have you, were re-targeted, away from Vietnam. So, as we began to move into the crucial period of March and April 1975, the South Vietnamese really, and we in the Embassy, were without the kind of intelligence we'd had even at the time of the cease-fire. We didn't have as sophisticated or refined intelligence as we'd had before.
We didn't have as many radio intercepts, satellite photographs, and what have you, to help us identify where the Communists were. In addition, the Communists had become quite sophisticated in countering these intelligence-gathering techniques and in fact in the Highlands, set up a false transmitter, or I should say, set up a transmitter that beamed false messages about a non-existent military unit or division.
It didn't exist where the radio transmitter was, but we thought it did because we fixed on the transmitter, we thought that the North Vietnamese had their forces concentrated in the Northern Highlands and that's where Thieu decided to keep his forces concentrated. When in fact the Communists were pulling four divisions southward toward the critical city of Ban Me Thuot, which is where their final offensive began. So the cutback in our overhead surveillance machinery, the satellites which were designed to take photographs, radio intercept uh, uh platforms, were very important, as was the Communists’ ability to counter them.
How much did you know oops go ahead...
I'm sorry...
Turning. Marker please. Eleven.
Just a moment.
We're talking about how much you knew.
Right after the cease-fire the North Vietnamese anticipating possibly the loss of their access routes through Laos and Cambodia began building up the border areas of South Vietnam their logistics base in the border areas of South Vietnam. They began establishing a road network right down the edge of South Vietnam and they began using ships to move material into Dong Ha, just below the DMZ. So that they were moving supplies by the late 1973 into South Vietnam much more rapidly than they had before.
They had a logistic system which could field the material and men far faster than the South Vietnamese logistic system. And ah as a token of this, as a measure of their new efficiency, their increased efficiency one should note that they didn't begin infiltrating manpower for the final offensive in South Vietnam until about late November, early December, 1974. That's very late in their infiltration system. And they knew they didn't have to because their road systems were so much better than they had ever been in the history of the war. Now we knew the road systems were better, but we didn't know that the North Vietnamese had also become so sophisticated, again encountering our various intelligence gathering techniques.
They began moving men and complete divisions in radio silence, having realized that we had always been able to determine the movement of their forces by monitoring radio transmissions. And when they prepared for the final offensive around Ban Me Thuot they move in complete radio silence. A complete division to South Vietnam, the 316th Division from Hanoi we didn't know that division was there at Ban Me Thuot. We knew that other divisions had moved about and were shifting about that the Highlands was alive with activity.
But we didn't know that one full division had creeped down the Ho Chi Minh Trail system, the new road through the third Vietnam, as it was called along the border of South Vietnam, their liberated territory. And we were caught by surprise. So much so that an estimate that I wrote right before the Ban Me Thuot battle predicted that the Communists wouldn't go after Ban Me Thuot. That's not how they would launch their final offensive which began in March. Instead the estimate predicted that they would try to interdict the road systems between the Northern Highlands and the Southern Highlands where Ban Me Thuot was located. And perhaps that they would target Pleiku City in the Northern Highlands.
The estimate was totally off the mark in part because we had no intelligence worth talking about in the Highlands. The CI, for instance had cut back its human intelligence gathering effort there in mid 1974, for a variety of reasons for budgetary reasons, also because we didn't think the Communists were really gearing up for a major offensive. And we blinded ourselves in the Highlands. The radio intercept system, as I indicated, was much less efficient, much less comprehensive than it had been earlier in the war. And the Communists so sophisticated, they could mislead us into believing that a division existed h was in place, where in fact it was not in place. So we were caught totally off guard as to their moves and intentions around Ban Me Thuot.

Collapse of the South

Mid March Ban Me Thuot, Pleiku, Kon Tum, and fall and Thieu unveiled this "light at the top" plan, what you call "light at the top." Did you know at that point that that was going to be, that was it? That the country was coming unraveled? Can you talk a bit about that one?
Well, President Thieu by the time Ban Me Thuot fell, in fact even earlier than that, he realized when Phuoc Long Province fell around the new year, that the United States was not going to come in with B-52s, or with a great deal of air support. At least, he began to suspect it. As I say, he still held out hopes up through April, but he was becoming more cautious in his optimism. And he began to cut back, began to pull back, began to retrench slightly and also, most importantly, began withholding information from us.
Thieu developed an entirely new strategic concept in March 1975 as the Communists began punching away at their major targets in the Highlands. A strategy known as "light at the top, heavy at the bottom", it meant basically, that if necessary, he would abandon certain major population centers in the Northern portion of the country and concentrate his available forces around Saigon and in the the Delta, to protect the southern half of the country.
He never talked to us about this. He never told us that he was really heading in this direction. It was only through an agent that we had, the CIA had in his government, that we learned about the most important switch in his strategy, probably since he had come into office. And that was a token of just how much he had come to mistrust us. But even after we found out about it, and talked to him about the strategy, Thieu continued to think that maybe at the last minute we would intervene even up to mid April 1975.
I think you told me...Let me cut please. I've got to...
Twelve. Marker
That says Twenty-one but it's twelve.
Tell me about Graham Martin returning to the Embassy at the end of March and your telling that Da Nang had fallen.
When Martin came back to Saigon he was he was unfamiliar with the situation, to say the least. He had been in Washington for about two weeks trying to convince Congress to come across with some more aid again, and when he got back to Saigon, he wasn't prepared to accept the Northern half of the country had in fact just been lost, and I was sent down to brief him.
I walked into his office with all my pointers and maps and what have you, and the whole top of the the map was awash with red, as if it were bleeding. I walked in and said, "Mr. Ambassador, the Northern half of the country is lost." And he looked at me with that steely stare of his, and he said, "No, it isn't lost. I have information to the contrary." Well, I was almost bowled over, but I continued to point out to him why I thought the Northern half of the country was lost. Da Nang was just being evacuated. Nha Trang, which was half way down the coast was in imminent jeopardy, because forces from the Highlands North Vietnamese forces were pushing at a mad dash across the country to hit Nha Trang.
At least, oh probably a hundred and fifty thousand South Vietnamese troops had been put out of commission in the past month of fighting. South Vietnamese forces now numbered about six divisions, six to eight divisions. The North Vietnamese forces numbered eighteen divisions. They had a manpower edge of three or four to one over the South Vietnamese. It seemed to me there was no question that what was left of the South was in imminent jeopardy and that there was no way of regaining the Northern half of the country. Well Martin wouldn't believe it. And Martin held to this optimistic view of the military situation, almost to the end. And this was one of the problems in his approach to the evacuation question.
Why... let's see, maybe we should jump ahead to the evacuation. No, let me ask you one more question first, which is...
You haven't asked about the Intelligence.
Go ahead.
In fairness to Martin there were a lot of reasons, I think, it was difficult for him to grasp the gravity of the military situation; the hopelessness of the diplomatic situation. Martin had lost a son in Vietnam and emotionally he was not prepared to give that country up, or to admit to himself that the military situation was irretrievable. There was an emotional content to his reaction to the intelligence. And what was the intelligence?
Well, there was a great deal of it. On March on April 1, right after his return to Saigon, some sources I was talking to in North Vietnam indicated that North Vietnamese had opted for a military solution to the war with no provision for a negotiated settlement. A few days later, our best agent in the Communist command in the South reaffirmed that line. And in the middle of April I was talking again to that agent, and the agent assured me the Communists would not stop for a negotiated settlement.
They were determined to be in Saigon by Ho Chi Minh's birthday, which was May 19th, they indicated that they would, therefore, launch their final attack with an air strike, on Tan Son Nhut no later than the 1st of May. All of this, by the way, came true. He was absolutely dead accurate. So the intelligence was perfect.

Expectations of a negotiated settlement

Sound Roll #2421 Frank Snepp
Snd. Roll 2422
Frank Snepp
This is the head of Sound Roll number four to go with the head of camera roll number seven for WGBH, the Vietnam Project. TVP 013 and continuing the interview with Frank Snepp.
Turning. Mark it. Fourteen. Clapsticks. Just a moment...Set.
All of that was dead accurate. The agent was absolutely on the mark with everything he said about North Vietnamese intentions. And, yet, the ambassador did not accept ah what we were getting from it. Ah. Given the intelligence one would have thought that Martin would have overcome his emotional involvement in Vietnam, his his problems with his son having been killed there. And, have accepted that the South Vietnamese military situation was, indeed, irretrievable and that there was no chance for a negotiated settlement. That was the key to what the agent was telling us.
The Communists were dead set on a military victory. Why didn't he? Why didn't Martin accept this intelligence? Well, he was getting a lot of conflicting signals. None of the signals were as credible as the agents report. By the way this agent had been reporting accurately every communist move since 1968. He had a marvelous track record. So, his credibility wasn't in question. But, there were other signals and Martin chose to gave that, give them credibility or credence. First, the French. The French saw in the impending collapse of Vietnam a chance to re-establish their lost glory in Indochina.
Ambassador Merillon who was the French Ambassador in Saigon, assured Martin there was a chance for a negotiated settlement, and he claimed to have been in touch with various Vietnamese Communists who said, indeed, there was this chance. So, Merillon reinforced Martin's wishful thinking. Then, there was the CIA station chief Tom Polgar, my boss. Polgar had no illusions about the military situation.
He accepted the analysis that the South Vietnamese were beaten. But, having accepted that, he then became desperate to head off what he felt would be a blood bath if the Communists should move on Saigon. So, he became a dedicated disciple of the notion that a negotiated settlement was possible. And, that put him at odds with the intelligence. Furthermore, he had some context—contacts who encouraged him to ah disbelieve the intelligence. He was in touch regularly with the Hungarian truce team in Saigon, and the Hungarians told Polgar during the final weeks of the war that there was a chance for a negotiated settlement. They knew there was no chance, but ah they misled Polgar into indulging his wishful thinking and Polgar in ti—in turn, encouraged Martin in his.
Finally, we had Henry Kissinger. Henry Kissinger at the time South Vietnam began to come apart in March and April was just coming off of a Middle East shuttle. US credibility was absolutely essential to his efforts to get the Israelis and the Egyptians to accept his proposal for peace in the Middle East and the last thing he needed was for the United States to abandon an ally in Indochina. And, the last thing he needed was the defeat of a US client anywhere in the world because that would blemish our credibility so he was disinclined to believe the intelligence simply from ah a geopolitical or a political standpoint.
But, ah, he was encouraged in his illusions by another third party, the Soviets. The Soviets in mid April just at the time I was getting my apocalyptic report, final report, from my intelligence source saying no chance for a negotiated settlement. The Communists would be in Saigon by the 1st of May. Kissinger received conflicting signals from the Soviets. Ambassador Dobrynin transmitted a message to him from Brezhnev saying ah something to the effect that well, possibly, if Thieu is removed ah the North Vietnamese might accept some kind of accommodation.
The message was so hedged that you could read almost anything into it you wanted to and Kissinger did. He reported to Ambassador Martin in Saigon there was a chance for a negotiated settlement. This squared precisely with Martin wanted to believe and Martin ah began doing something that no ambassador to that point had ever even contemplated. He began elbowing the president of South Vietnam out of office. He went down to the palace, told Thieu his time was up, that his removal or his resignation would help promote a negotiated settlement which ah Martin now fully anticipated.
Thieu resigned under pressure and protest and we sat back, or not I, but the ambassador, the station chief and Kissinger sat back waiting for the negotiated settlement, ah, they all hoped for to materialize. Of course, it didn't. In the meantime, ah as we know from the North Vietnamese's own accounts of this period, they began moving the last of their forces in place for the final assault in Saigon. So, here we have a classic example of how absolutely accurate intelligence can be overridden by political considerations and by a lot of very strong-willed men who want to see ah ah to see US interests served in a particular way.

Mayhem of the evacuation

Jump ahead to the evacuation. Ah. The lists. Who made lists? Who didn't make lists? Who did who did good evacuation and who didn't?
In the beginning of April, the military attaché’s office, I should say the defense attaché’s office in Saigon, was ready to concede that the South Vietnamese Army was, was on the ropes. At the very least something should be done to begin planning for an evacuation. Ambassador Martin was totally against this. There had been a long standing—there is in every embassy in the world a standing evacuation plan and it had been in Saigon updated ah but not updated in view of the the possibility or the prospect of the loss of the whole northern half of South Vietnam.
Nor had it been updated to take account of the possibility that we might have to evacuate a million South Vietnamese. That was the estimate in Saigon of the number of Vietnamese that we had some kind of obligation to because of their service to us throughout the war. So, the standing evacuation plan was totally inadequate. The defense attaché’s office realized this and in early April began an improvisatory evacuation, began sneaking Vietnamese out of the country on empty cargo planes headed for the Philippines. Martin didn't know about this initially.
He found out about it and fired the deputy defense attaché because there were already protests by this time from the Philippines government ah against the stacking up, up, of of undocumented Vietnamese on Philippines soil. So, ahm, by mid April we really had no evacuation, effective evacuation program underway except for this haphazard and improvisatory effort undertaken by the defense attaché’s office. Each mission in the Embassy was instructed by the defense attaché’s office to begin putting together lists of Vietnamese we should look to in the case, in case we had to get out of the country.
And, that we did so, each mission, each agency in the Embassy began putting together such a list. But Martin, hooked on this idea of a negotiated settlement never pulled the lists together. On the final day of the war there was not a master list in the Embassy of the Vietnamese we were responsible for. And, in the meantime, the improvisatory airlift mounted by the defense attaché’s office had ah expanded, was moving out more and more Vietnamese, but they were the wrong Vietnamese.
They were Vietnamese girlfriends of Embassy officers. Ah, they were members of the extended families of American officers who were married to Vietnamese. Martin claims now that the main reason he did not authorize ah the pulling together of these lists, the creation of an overall ah machine—some overall machinery to coordinate the evacuation is that he didn't have authority from Washington to move aliens in large numbers to the United States. He claimed that the Immigration Naturalization Service did not until the last minute give him authority to to move undocumented aliens to the United States, emergency authority to immigrate ah large numbers.
Well, the argument is fair in one sense. He's right. He didn't have that authority. And one reason he didn't have the authority is is because ah he had he had convinced Washington with Kissinger's help a negotiated settlement was possible making a large scale evacuation unnecessary. So, all of these forces ah conspired ah to prevent the Embassy from putting together the kind of plumbing that could have insured a a rational evacuation in the end.
What about his panic theory? That he was... cut...
Camera roll number eight. Fifteen. Tilt it. Marker. Clap sticks. Fine. Hang on a second. Ya.
One of the reasons Martin says he didn't order up the evacuation earlier is that he was afraid that any move in that direction would precipitate panic in Saigon and that panic would make any evacuation impossible. Well, that is a red herring. The panic theory. And, Martin didn't believe it. On about April 17 he cabled Washington repudiating the theory saying that even if aid was not voted by Congress at this, this late hour that the South Vietnamese troops would not turn on the Americans.
So in that cable, right in that cable, he he threw out the panic theory. But there were people who believed it. I didn't, for a lot of reasons. I didn't think the South Vietnamese would turn on us because Saigon was the last springboard. If the South Vietnamese turned on us, they had no place to go and no way to get out, and they knew that. And Saigon, therefore, remained very calm during the last few days of the war.
What's more, Saigon, unlike the other cities that had been evacuated earlier, in March and in April, had its air base isolated. It was surrounded by a military encampment. It would have been impossible for hordes of people to pour onto the runways, as happened in Da Nang and Nha Trang. So, panic didn't pose the danger to the airlift, even if there had been ah real panic. It wouldn't have posed such a danger as Martin thought.
What groups of people that you consider "high risk" didn't get out? Could you give me a list of the kind of failures we had?
The South Vietnamese Special Police were trained by the CI. Most of their middle-ranking cadre did not get out at least 400 of their top-ranking cadre in Saigon. They were in imminent jeopardy. There were numbers of people who had worked with us in the Phoenix Program probably 30,000 South Vietnamese had worked with us in the Phoenix Program during the war and very few of them got out. The Montagnards who had worked with the CI throughout the war these hill people in the mountainous highlands of Vietnam were in imminent jeopardy and almost none of them got out, and their numbers are incalculable.
Many of our CIA translators didn't get out. In fact 70 of them were abandoned on the final day. A group of 70 translators and their families, in imminent jeopardy. They dealt with our top-level intelligence. Left behind virtually outside the walls of the Embassy screaming over the radios for help. We just couldn't reach for them at that particular point. Their evacuation should have been provided for weeks in advance. Propagandists who worked for us didn't get out.
One group did, but those who worked the Radio Saigon, for instance, not directly for the Americans, but Radio Saigon was set up with American money. They were left behind. One particular individual was tied to a tree and when the North Vietnamese moved into Saigon. And had her tongue cut out and she drowned in her own blood. Propagandists next to spies were most hated by the North Vietnamese at the top of their blood list and we made no special effort to get them out.
What finally kicked the evacuation into high gear? This is your story, I think, about Dick Moose and sending him back.
In mid-April 1975, after I talked to my primary agent, the one who said no chance for a negotiated settlement, I returned to the Embassy and went to the station chief and said, "Look we're getting confirmation from the highest source now, of all of our worst fears, let's send this immediately back to Washington." The station chief said, "no." I said, “what I can't believe this, we're not going send back this this report which brings together all the strands?" He said, "no." "Well," I said, "then please let's send it back through a low level channel, in any event."
And he finally acquiesced and that meant it took a lot longer to get to the president. It finally did. And I knew it was gonna take longer, so I decided to circumvent the station chief. There were two congressional staffers in Saigon at the time working for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. I'd known them a long time. I went to them, spoke to them about the intelligence, and said, for heavens sakes get the word back to Washington.
They were out on a fact finding tour, they cut the tour short, immediately flew back to Washington and by the way decided not to use the communication system of the Embassy to send back their impressions of what I told them, because they were fearful Martin would censor it. So they sent back their first reports to their superiors I believe from Honolulu, and then finally arrived back in Washington. Went immediately to Senator Humphrey and said look the situation is quite desperate. The evacuation an evacuation is imminent, but it's not being planned for and we've got to do something about it.
And they persuaded a number of senators to go down to the White House, speak to Ford about this and Ford finally relented and began creating in Washington the machinery that should have been existed in Saigon an evacuation team or task force was set up at the State Department to begin pushing Martin in the direction of a full scale pullout. But even by then, and this was about the 17th or the 18th of April, was really too late.
The machinery had to be set up in Saigon and Martin wasn't doing it. A lot of people in the task force wanted Martin removed and one of their numbers sent out to Saigon to handle the planning for the evacuation. But Ford decided that that was impractical. That did set the evacuation, however, in motion this creation of the task force in Washington. More and more cables began pouring into Saigon and Martin was nudged by Kissinger into stepping up his own evacuation planning.
Martin managed to side step the orders, to circumvent them, ah, he had one evacuation scheme which was totally impractical he kept throwing out to Washington as a sop. He said, look in the event of a desperate breakdown in the military situation, we'll send all of our Vietnamese charges down the road to Vung Tau to the coast and they can be evacuated by sea, where the North Vietnamese were already preparing to interdict the highway to the coast so the plan was impractical.
But Martin was using it again to keep Washington at bay this new task force at bay. But I would say if there was a point in which Washington became seized of this problem it was when ah the senators went down to the White House and said, "Look we've gotten from our boys, from Saigon, word that Martin isn't doing his job."

Debacle of Saigon

Tell me what it was like in the Embassy as they started the helicopter lift. If you could start perhaps with the signal for the lift, just a bit about that.
Well, the evening before the final day, the North Vietnamese brought in the predicted air strikes on Saigon, the ones that had been forecast by the agent I talked to a week and a half before. This threw not Saigon into a panic, but it certainly threw the Embassy into a panic. Secretaries spent half the night up throwing typewriters down the stairwells. Ah we were shredding secret documents like crazy because Martin had been unwilling to evacuate a number of our secret files.
He felt this would send the wrong signal to the South Vietnamese. The generators, or I should say the incinerators on the roof of the Embassy were going full blast and reverberations could be felt throughout the building. And we could hardly hear ourselves talk on the top floor of the Embassy. I stayed up most of that night and then returned to my apartment for what I hoped would be uninterrupted rest none of us had been sleeping in the Embassy for weeks and weeks.
I probably had been going on about two-three hours of sleep a night. I climbed into bed and about two hours later was thrown out of bed by what I first thought was an uncommonly loud thunderclap. In fact, it was the Communist artillery opening up on the South Vietnamese air base at Tan Son Nhut. At that point, I rushed to the Embassy through the deserted streets of Saigon. The streets at that point were still deserted. This was just after dawn. I got to the Embassy and there was absolute pandemonium there among officials.
The ambassador was on his hands and knees pulling together his own classified files which had not been destroyed that particular point. And right after my arrival at the Embassy, we received an intelligence report from one of our few remaining sources that the Communists were going to shell the heart of Saigon directly at six in the evening if we weren't out by then. Well in Washington this message was received with a great deal of hand wringing, and at that point, the decision was made to pull the plug to order Ambassador Martin to go to Frequent Wind that is, the use of helicopters to pull out the Americans and the Vietnamese who needed to be evacuated, whom we wanted to evacuate at that point. About eleven in the morning, a little after, Martin received word from the White House to move ahead.
We were still shredding, and as the helicopters, we were still shredding our secret documents, and as the helicopters came in they had to fight their way through billows of smoke from the incinerators and bags of shredded material were blown open and you had classified material flying about the Embassy grounds like confetti. There were scuff marks along the floor of the Embassy as people moved boxes here and there fruitlessly as it turned out, 'cause we'd never be able to evacuate all the office equipment that was still there.
END SR 2423
Vietnam Project
SR 2423
Frank Snepp (cont.)
By mid morning the helicopters were beginning to beat their way through the clouds of smoke from the incinerators which continued to work at top capacity. The Vietnamese generals were crowding into the Embassy hoping that they would be the first ones we would lift out. And again the secretaries were at work with the hammers destroying the last of their equipment. It was a very interesting time because I found that most of the women who were still there secretaries, the CIA and State Department officers, women among them, were far braver and more relaxed than the men.
The men began drinking and by afternoon had been through bottles of cognac that we ordinarily reserved for our South Vietnamese contacts, and by late afternoon I had taken over the function of secretary, phone answerer, coordinator of our front office, because the CIA station chief was at that time trying to rescue thirty Vietnamese, friends of his own who were trapped outside the walls of the Embassy. I had been told that I would be one of those Americans who would stay behind even after the Communists took over the city. But when finally Kissinger ordered up the evacuation, the full scale heli lift, the word came through from Washington that nobody no official American would be left behind.
It was a bizarre Kafkaesque time because as those helicopters came into the Embassy one could hear wafting in over the walls of that that citadel the strains of Bing Crosby's “I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas" That was a code. It was beamed out over Saigon radio and over the official American station in Saigon. It was supposed to summon all Americans to various staging points. What a bizarre code it was.
And I remember amidst all this chaos that totally incongruous note "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas". The Vietnamese outside the walls in the Embassy were for the most part well behaved very calm. Because they knew if they prevented us from continuing the evacuation that none of them would get out. By afternoon, by late afternoon, however, they were beginning to get very anxious. Some were trying to get over the walls of the Embassy and the Marines were beginning, at that point, to use their rifle butts to keep them away. Some Americans were outside the Embassy, I wasn't. I was, as I say, manning the radios and trying to maintain some kind of order among the few CI people still there.
At six o'clock, I remember sitting in the front office of the CI station waiting for the bombs to fall on Saigon that our intelligence source had predicted. They didn't. Apparently Washington having read the same intelligence got in touch with the Soviets and the Soviets Hanoi, indicating that that was simply unacceptable and they had better not bomb the center or shell the center of Saigon. Well, as the, as the day waned and nightfall came on, uh, I felt trapped in the Embassy itself. All this intelligence coming in, radios blaring with calls for help from our Vietnamese friends and contacts and knowing there was no way we could help them then.
The halls of the Embassy were filling up at this point with Vietnamese. They had been moved inside so that they could be more easily and more quickly gotten onto helicopters which were landing on the roof as well as in the courtyard of the Embassy. And I remember walking out amongst them and handing out water and some food that we had on hand. Some of the Vietnamese had dogs with them, they had of course their children, and lying about on the floor were all sorts of weapons that the Americans had suddenly produced in anticipation of a final Communist push on the city. None of the Vietnamese in line bothered even to pick them up.
Heavens if there had been a Communist among them they could have certainly done away with all of us in the Embassy. They didn't. Come about 9:30, I was told that I was to get out of Saigon. The last CI men in the Embassy were to leave except for the station chief who had remained with the Ambassador 'til the Ambassador's own evacuation. The Marine guards pushed the Vietnamese out of the way and the twelve CI men with whom I was evacuated stumbled up to the helicopter pad on the roof, and we climbed aboard, and I felt shamed and shame that there were still Vietnamese on the steps waiting to be evacuated.
The helicopter began to corkscrew off the roof of the Embassy and through the porthole I could see the faces of Vietnamese in the courtyard below and outside the walls of the Embassy. My shame was felt all the more. The helicopter arched up over the city and for a moment I could see from the porthole the hotel where I first stayed when I arrived in Saigon in 1969. The streets were deserted, everybody was either indoors or at the Embassy itself all the Saigonese.
The helicopter moved out over the perimeters of Saigon out towards Bien Hoa which was the main military depots South Vietnamese military depot, and it was going up in miniature atomic explosion, and out on the spider web of highways beyond Bien Hoa, you could see thousands of trucks with their lights on moving into the city the North Vietnamese Army, moving in on Saigon, closing on the city.
The helicopter gained altitude, and as we reached the coast suddenly in one porthole, I saw the tattoo of artillery fire. South—the North Vietnamese gunners were firing on us. The helicopter quickly gained altitude and I thought, oh my heavens, to be shot down on the way out, what irony that would have been! At last the helicopter reached the evacuation fleet and as my helicopter descended onto the deck of the USS Denver, I felt as though I was being enclosed in a metallic cocoon as the ship came up to embrace us. I was so weary I hardly even felt the jolt of touchdown.
END SR 2423
Frank Snepp
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