American withdrawal and the crumbling of South Vietnam

SR 456
As far as I can recall, beginning in 1973 there were only imperceptible changes in the atmosphere in Saigon. Certainly on the economic plane, life was becoming increasingly difficult, since not only was American aid diminishing, but the Americans themselves were leaving and all the dollars they spent were progressively disappearing. Underneath, life went on. Besides, life always continued in Vietnam, and I believe it will never be interrupted and the Vietnamese, having never known any other life, and having a fatalistic temperament, had become accustomed to living from day to day so that in their daily lives they were not very aware of these changes.
For the observer, since that's a diplomat's function, to observe the surrounding realities, my personal sentiments were that the situation could not remain the same. After the American withdrawal there was in some ways a certain fundamental contradiction at work. On the one hand, the political positions of Mr. Thieu's government and the American government remained the same. That is to say, they refused to make concessions. On the other hand, the military means which would have permitted them to defend these positions were no longer the same.
They had therefore created a kind of progressive disequilibrium between their fixed political positions and constantly diminishing military means. My own personal opinion was that the Republic of Vietnam, South Vietnam- given the position of Thieu's government- was bound to suffer progressive disintegration. Little by little, bit by bit, towards what it was difficult to predict. And in a corner lay a dormant hypothesis to which one could attribute a minimum probability of 10%, 20%.
That was the "snowball" hypothesis. It said that a small incident or a military defeat would provoke a chain reaction, snowball, which would lead to rapid crumbling of the regime. It was an hypothesis that I always had in mind, because without going too far back into the history of South Vietnam, in 1972 there was a communist military offensive, the first of a classic type during which for forty-eight hours we were witness to this snowball phenomenon.
Thanks to a very energetic intervention and thanks to B-52's, the panic was quickly stopped. However, panic still remained possible and became, moreover, increasingly possible as military means diminished. So, we kept this hypothesis in mind, but we didn't consider it the most probable. In my mind, I repeat, the most probable hypothesis was that exhaustion would inevitably lead to a political solution. That was not the case.
He doesn't think he knows anything about it?
Nah, he doesn't think he knows.

The opposition movement in the South

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This will be take 125.
This is October '74. Ok...
Take 125. Slate.
I think that concerning the opposition in South Vietnam, there too there had always been a fundamental contradiction. In theoretical terms, I am personally convinced that the majority of the South Vietnamese people was on the side of the opposition. The South Vietnamese population wanted to live in peace, without foreign interference. They wanted to live under a non Stalinist regime. All of this, I think, I am almost sure that all impartial observers must admit.
In spite of this, and here's the contradiction, the South Vietnamese opposition never played the role that one might have expected. Why? Of course, Thieu's regime was not a pure and perfect democratic regime, and therefore it was not always easy to express oneself in Saigon. Yet I still believe that the opposition didn't always do- if I daresay—its duty... I don't want to criticize anyone, because I had numerous friends in those ranks; but it was somewhat of a traditional and excusable shortcoming of the Vietnamese in general.
And the opposition fell into this category. They always had a bit of a tendency to rely on foreigners. That is to say, they waited for solutions to come from outside; all of a sudden solutions would fall from the sky. It's understandable because for at least thirty or forty years their country suffered incessant foreign intervention, not to mention that from close neighbors. But still the South Vietnamese opposition should have made an effort towards implanting ideas and building towards a real popular base. The sole exception was the Dong Quang Pagoda.
Pardon, did we run out of film? I can’t hear it from here. I can hear it in the other room.
Yeah. We’re out. We’re going to have to back track.
CR 2450.
Take 126
The South Vietnamese opposition in '74, as during the preceding years, seemed to me to suffer a fundamental contradiction. For my part, I am certain that it was supported by the majority. Which is to say that the South Vietnamese wanted to live in peace, sheltered from foreign interference and in a non-authoritarian, or, all the more, Stalinist regime. And I am certain that elections under conditions of total liberty would have upheld the arguments of those who had this point of view.
Unfortunately, in practical terms- this is the contradiction—the men who led the South Vietnamese opposition never succeeded in structuring their movement nor did they succeed in giving it a popular base which could adhere to principles they received from the population. There was one exception to this: the Buddhist movement led by the Dong Quang Pagoda. Particularly in the central regions of Vietnam they had a popular base- but during the '70's this movement was in a decline and didn't have the same clout (trumps) as say, in the mid '60s.
So, who made up the South Vietnamese opposition at the end of the Vietnam War? A certain number of people, some of whom were extremely sympathetic, extremely brilliant, honest, patriotic, yet who along with the rest of their compatriots, shared a fault. I don't want to criticize because, again, I had many friends among them; but this fault consisted of always expecting ready made solutions from outside, abroad- to fall from the sky. There was a reason for this because, throughout its history, the country had never ceased to submit to foreign intervention particularly in the past thirty or forty years.
Yet the fact is that they were unsuccessful in offering a serious alternative to President Thieu's regime. He obviously leaned on an enormous administrative and military apparatus against which it was difficult to fight armed simply with ideas coming out of Saigon cafés The demonstrations in the month of October, which you referred to, during the fall of 1974, in particular demonstrations against corruption, (as far as I recall,) never rallied the Saigon masses. They were important because they directly attacked President Thieu and his family. And from this point of view, naturally, they were invested with a symbolic character because this was, as far as I can remember, the first time that corruption was denounced in such a direct way. However, I maintain- I believe-that it was not a credible threat to the regime.

The struggle to control chaos during the fall of Saigon

Take 127
I think that in April '75 the situation was dominated by one thing. Realize that since the beginning of March- that is since the fall of Ban Me Thuot- the communist forces had achieved a military victory without the slightest doubt. And since they had the victory in hand, it was up to them to decide upon the political solution. They therefore had a choice between a compromise solution, doubtless temporary, or a total and immediate victory. This is the context.
From the point of view of people like us in Saigon, the perspective was a bit different, because, and I believe this is very important (one can't insist upon this point enough,) the principal danger, the fear we all had, was that there would be scenes of panic, scenes of chaos, scenes of anarchy in Saigon, as there had been in other cities, particularly Da Nang, which had just fallen. In Saigon, at that time a huge city of 5 million inhabitants, full of refugees, people of all sorts and origins... such a situation could have provoked (I really believe this very sincerely) apocalyptic consequences.
Therefore, at the French Embassy, Monsieur Merillon and his colleagues had a strictly humanitarian first objective: to see that in some way the situation in Saigon remained stable, to avoid what I just described. In order to accomplish this it was necessary that there be a certain continuity in the political authority on the one hand; but that the people with political authority should not be those who had decided to engage in useless combat, costly in terms of human lives.
It was therefore necessary to have a change in the political authority because at that moment in Saigon there was a power vacuum. The Americans were leaving, many South Vietnamese in power were trying to do the same, and we therefore were heading towards precisely what we feared: a state of anarchy. We therefore endeavored- and this was our minimal objective, a humanitarian goal- to see that there was no interruption, no hiatus in the exercise of authority in Saigon. To see that the people in power were willing to negotiate and reconcile with the adversary.
We realized that for a variety of reasons, we could help in this direction, and that's what we did. And I want to say that even if General Minh's government only stayed in power for forty-eight hours, the fact that it even existed helped. I deeply believe everything I have just described. I believe it was a final, gigantic misfortune for the people of South Vietnam and of Saigon. So beyond this, we may have had a more ambitious objective... that this temporary authority could last a bit longer. However, we must come back to the first point and realize that the situation was entirely in the hands of the Hanoi government and the communists; no sense fooling yourself.
This authority could remain in power only if they allowed it. And, as I said earlier, the communists had two options: one consisted of leaning towards a compromise solution, and the other was immediately seize victory. The first option had several rational justifications particularly on a psychological level. It was certainly no good vis-à-vis world opinion to bring about the triumph of socialism with tanks. On a political level, the leaders in Hanoi were sufficiently intelligent to realize that the majority of the South Vietnamese population was not on their side. And, on an economic level, the South Vietnamese economy- it must be remembered—was held up by the dollar.
A temporary political solution might have made it possible not to cut this umbilical cord overnight. Therefore, there were quite a few rational motives for the communists, the Northerners, and the PRG to accept a political solution. And moreover, as they said publicly, they wanted Thieu and the Americans to leave... but they wanted to set up their government in Saigon. (or: to install themselves in Saigon.)
Take 128
There was an additional reason, which was precisely what they said in public. They said publicly, of course, that they wanted Thieu's departure, they wanted the Americans' departure, but also they wanted an administration dedicated to national reconciliation installed in Saigon. What they said in private was something else. No, no, it's not that these are really delicate and confidential matters, on which unfortunately I can't elaborate.
They chose another option. In some ways one can understand then. These were people who had fought for thirty years with an extraordinary tenacity, and one can understand that when victory was at hand, they seized it. It's a human reflex. Personally, I don't think it was the most rational choice. Far be it from me to criticize any foreign government. However, it is my personal opinion. It must be recognized that certain of the negative elements of today's situation in Vietnam are consequences of this choice. However, it's a choice, I repeat, I understand from another point of view; that is in the historical continuity of what happened in Vietnam over forty years. I...

Evacuation of Saigon by the U.S.

Take 129
I'll repeat it because this seems very important to me, the predominant fear felt by all reasonable people in Saigon was that a situation would develop comparable to what we had witnessed in the other big cities in Vietnam, like Da Nang or Nhatrang before the arrival of the communist troops. There were scenes there... which were really horrible... of anarchy, of chaos, of panic.
And it was necessary at all costs to avoid such things in Saigon, where everyone agreed that it could only be worse given that for one thing, Saigon was the largest city in Vietnam, five million inhabitants, and for another it was the last refuge. After Saigon there was nowhere else to go. And from this point of view I believe... I don't want to pass judgment as to the American policy, particularly in the area of the evacuation; perhaps some errors or some omissions were committed.
However, that is for someone who saw things from the inside to say. For someone on the outside, like myself, I must say that it was completely justified to believe that a premature and visible evacuation of Americans and their Vietnamese associates could have entailed very grave consequences, especially given the psychological atmosphere in Saigon. The people in the American embassy or elsewhere who had to make these decisions, in my opinion, were completely justified in not precipitating matters.
[inaudible]...such an important point...
Take 130
During these final days, these final hours, the sad truth is... was that the South Vietnamese were abandoned by everyone. They were abandoned by their American allies, and they were abandoned by their leader, their so called leader. And I think it is to France's credit to have made an effort during this general retreat, even if the results, in my opinion beneficial, were only temporary. I think that the South Vietnamese appreciated it; and I also believe that it is to the credit of my country to have tried.
Take 131
One criticism often leveled at the French attitude during these final weeks, or final months... oh la la I've lost the thread.
Take 132
The final hours of the evacuation will always be an unforgettable memory, since the French embassy happened to be situated right next to the American embassy. I think it was in the middle of the day, Tuesday, when I saw the arrival of the first enormous helicopters, coming from the aircraft carriers. I could never have imagined what was to come. These gigantic machines were arriving one after another, every few minutes; sometimes seconds. And they landed, the smaller ones on the roof of the embassy, and the larger ones in the embassy rear courtyard.
An area that obviously was not made to be a helicopter landing pad. And under the most dangerous conditions. You see, these enormous insects were balancing over our heads; no sooner had they arrived than they tried to touch down, take off again, then try again. I must say the pilots were technically speaking, admirable. They did their job remarkably because there weren't any accidents. During this time, of course, the embassy was surrounded by thousands and thousands of Vietnamese trying to climb, to scale the walls, on top of which the Marines were pushing them back with their rifle butts. Sometimes they tried to climb our walls to get through the French embassy in order to enter the American embassy.
Scenes of despair, of misery, of insanity—scenes of generosity too. These scenes had their culminating point, I must say, during the night because this aerial bridge went on uninterrupted all night with helicopters coming one after another more and more rapidly. Maybe every two or three minutes. With smoke from the flares on the landing area it made quite a spectacle. "Magnificent" isn't inappropriate; the impression was superb. And during this time we, on our side, who had to continue working in the middle of the night, thought of big issues as well as little ones. Can we cut here? I was going to say something that I shouldn't.
Take 133
That morning, I remember, very early... I don't recall exactly what time, but I think it was very early... it was a beautiful day in April, very clear sky... and I remember seeing a helicopter take off from the roof of the embassy and I believe it was the last because afterward I didn't hear any others. And, as I remember, a period of calm, a bit supernatural, settled over Saigon. I went out of the embassy because I had spent the night there, to go home and see what had happened. Because I lived in a house that was not far away- maybe 3 or 400 meters. At the corner there was a pile of bodies of people who had been killed. I'm not sure in what circumstances.
I went by the Grave Hospital which was the French hospital where some of the French had gathered, joined by many Vietnamese. And I remember, just before I arrived at my home, I remember a scene I will never forget. A tall building, seven or eight stories, which was tall for Saigon, next to the villa where I lived. On the roof of the building there was a little terrace with a stairway leading to it. And on this terrace were a dozen Vietnamese lined up single file, with suitcase in hand, waiting for a helicopter... which would never come. And I will keep this scene, I believe, in my memory infinitely, indefinitely.
That'll do it.
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