Black April: The Fall of South Vietnam, 1973-75

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Frontpage Interview’s guest today is George J. Veith, a former Army captain who has written extensively on the Vietnam War and POWs/MIAs. He is the author of Leave No Man Behind: Bill Bell and the Search for American POW/MIAs from the Vietnam War (2004). He has presented papers at major conferences, including the May 2008 conference in Paris on “War, Diplomacy, and Public Opinion: The Paris Peace Talks on Vietnam and the End of the Vietnam War (1968-1975).” He testified twice on the POW/MIA issue before the Congress. He is the author of the new book, Black April: The Fall of South Vietnam, 1973-75.

FP: George J. Veith, welcome to Frontpage Interview.

Thank you for writing “Black April,” which is a history of the fall of South Vietnam. Let’s begin with what inspired you to write it.

Veith: About ten years ago, I visited with ARVN General Le Minh Dao to interview him about the pivotal battle in April 1975 at the town of Xuan Loc. He commanded the ARVN 18th Division, which was defending the town. This was the penultimate battle before the final assault on Saigon. My co-author and I spent about a year working on a major article on the battle, and when we were finished, we showed it to Dao. He was so pleased with how we portrayed the battle–by using resources from all sides–that he begged us to turn the paper into a full length study of the last two years of the war. Too many Americans, he said, looked at the ARVN as a bunch of corrupt cowards. So I accepted the challenge, and then spent the next seven years researching and writing about the last stage of the war.

FP: Was Dao right?

Veith: Absolutely. In many ways, Vietnamization had worked. While the South Vietnamese military still had many faults, some self-inflicted, others that just needed time for improvement, in most cases when they stood toe-to-toe with their Communist enemy, they won. In fact, in 1973 and through much of 1974, the ARVN won more battles than it lost. But the U.S. congressional aid cuts, not to mention the specifics of how the aid bills were written, essentially gutted the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces (RVNAF). The other major issue that badly hamstrung our South Vietnamese allies was the horrible economic conditions in the country. Between the world-wide inflation, which caused major price increases in food, gas, and virtually everything else, and the reduction of U.S. economic aid, the average South Vietnamese soldier couldn’t really feed his family.

FP: You mention using resources from all sides, and in looking at the book, it’s obvious you’ve incorporated a large number of Vietnamese texts and interviews. Do you speak Vietnamese, and if not, how did you translate so much material?

Veith: I don’t speak the language, but my friend and translator, Merle Pribbenow (Note: he served from April 1970 to April 1975 in the U.S. Embassy in Saigon) speaks fluent Vietnamese, and he did all the translations. Not only is he conversant, but since he was there for five years, he knows the slang and the different uses of the language employed by the Communists. Most scholars working on Vietnam are aware of the vast amount of materials the Communists have published, and more and more authors are adding this material into their books. We just dug way beyond the well-known texts and added in memoirs, unit histories, and a few gems not known in the U.S. We had friends who went back and forth to the country who bought the books for us and brought them back. Moreover, I also found a tremendous amount of post-war material written by South Vietnamese participants, and also interviewed many of these guys. But to your point, without Merle, this book would not have anywhere near the level of detail, and I owe him a tremendous debt for his kindness and assistance.

FP: When you looked at all of these North Vietnamese publications, was there anything really surprising or new that you learned?

Veith: We were stunned to read in General Vo Nguyen Giap’s (the head of the Communist military) memoirs that the Politburo in Hanoi had decided very early after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords to return to war. In fact, they decided to return to war in May 1973, much earlier than anyone had ever assumed. Plus, most Western authors had assumed, given the lack of translated North Vietnamese materials, that General Van Tien Dung, who was the senior commander in the South, had devised the plan that conquered South Vietnam. That was also wrong, as it was Giap who had prodded the North Vietnamese Politburo to return to war. Dung had little to do with the initial planning, but his astute command of the war once the attack on Ban Me Thuot was completed was instrumental in sealing the fate of South Vietnam.

FP: If the North Vietnamese decided so soon to return to war, given the withdrawal of American troops, could South Vietnam have survived?

Veith: Yes, but it would have required a more sustained effort than America was willing to provide. The aid reductions were one reason they collapsed, but just as important was the law forbidding the use of American firepower. No American or South Vietnamese general expected South Vietnam to withstand a major assault without U.S. air and naval firepower to help stem the offensive. The geography simply favored the attacker. Plus, the RVNAF had virtually no reserves left, and even if they had, they had no lift capability to move them around the country.

FP: Didn’t President Nixon promise the South Vietnamese that aid would continue, and that America would respond to a military offensive?

Veith: Correct, but Congress cut aid under the guise that it was Thieu’s fault that the war was continuing, so the only way to force a “political solution,” a coalition government, was to diminish the strength of Thieu’s military. This would force him to seek a political compromise. That, of course, assumes that the Communists would have responded and sought a political solution. They instead saw the weakening of South Vietnam, and went for a military victory.

FP: “Black April” is the first book of a two-volume set. What will be the subject of the second book? When do expect to see it published?

Veith: The second will deal with the political and diplomatic and economic aspects of the fall of South Vietnam. In particular, it discusses the diplomatic machinations at the end as various countries tried to arrange a ceasefire. There is a story there that is perhaps the last great secret of the Vietnam War. As for when it will be published, give me a couple years. The research is done, I just have to find time to write it.

FP: The anti-war movement in the U.S. is primarily responsible for the loss of South Vietnam right?

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  • Chezwick

    I've never been one for historical revisionism…."If we had only done this or that, things would have been different…"

    Fact is, the North had the unshakable advantage of being a fully mobilized, militarized society….which is the advantage of all totalitarian regimes in times of war…(an advantage that morphs into liability during peace-time, when economic performance becomes paramount).

    South Vietnam was an artificial construct from its inception in 1954. It was an American creation, negotiated at Geneva out of the ashes of France's defeat….and it was without any real national roots, unlike the Communists, who had spent more than a decade mobilizing the peasantry to fight both the Japanese and the French.

    The Vietnam War was a tragedy on many levels…

    1) The loss of 58,000 of America's finest…and almost 2 million Vietnamese.

    2) America's use of jungle defoliants, which had long-lasting environmental repercussions and was absolutely reprehensible.

    3) The radicalization of America's youth, which has had an enduring, deleterious influence on our educational institutions as these students subsequently came of age, took over academia, and bastardized higher eduction in the USA.

    4) The anti-war movement's despicable depiction of the Vietnamese and the Cambodian Communists as benign actors (much as the Left today carries water for Islam). If one felt compelled to oppose the war back in the late 60s/early 70s for principled or even patriotic reasons, why was it necessary to lionize our Communist enemies and pretend they were something other than what they were, which were Stalinists at best (Vietnam) and genocidal monsters at worst (the Khmer Rouge)?

    If there is any positive in the war, it might be that the decade we engaged in Vietnam bought Thailand the time to begin a modernization process that effectively neutralized the Communist insurgency there that might otherwise have taken over and given life to the oft-ridiculed 'domino theory'.

  • Heinzng1

    "South Vietnam was an artificial construct from its inception in 1954. It was an American creation, negotiated at Geneva out of the ashes of France's defeat….and it was without any real national roots, unlike the Communists, who had spent more than a decade mobilizing the peasantry to fight both the Japanese and the French."

    Under most Vietnamese Ho Chi Minh sneaky took credit of defended country to defeat French and Japan. The only South Vietnam lost the country because we were not treat people a much evil as Ho Chi Minh. That why HCM won the war.
    Beside US felt into the trap of Communist to kill President Diem who made HCM worried and scared to loose power.
    My mother and father village from Nghe An and Ha Tinh in that time. HCM and Truong Chinh brought middle class people buried them alive just up to the neck and used the cow plow to cut people heads. My mother told me when HCM Communist took power they killed all the patriot people who fought against French. Most of them ran away and followed President Diem. (1 million people pledged to the South Vietnam after Geneva Accords).
    American did not know and did not want to know right and wrong, With lack of information and NOT deep thinkers most anti war people were trapped into the picture that Communist supplied to them to see.
    Most US Jewish Congressmen and women voted NO to NOT continue support SVN. They wanted US paid attention to Israel the added to whole scheme end up US and SVN lost what it was not supposed to loose. Then the world lost the trust in US since then.

    • KarshiKhanabad

      I flew helicopters in Vietnam, 1971-72. I wear a South Vietnamese flag on my vet's cap. It is a tragedy to this day, the fall of the Republic of Vietnam. At least many Vietnamese refugees & their children are American citizens. It did not have to end the way it did. Giap is alive in his nineties, is that just? The RVN flag was first flown more than a century ago. I was privileged to fly over and see a beautiful country then.

  • objtec

    Nobody seems to remember LBJ said, "I have no intention of winning the Vietnam war. I have to prosecute the war or the conservatives will say I am soft on communism. But I can't win because the Liberals would never forgive me." From the Hart-Hank newspaper chain.

  • Mo_

    I was born in '68. I was too young to know anything about the war at the time. I learned about through the years through Hollywood. It's been only in the past few years that I've begun to learn the truth. It's left me horrified.

    It looks like this is a book I will be reading. I can't imagine it will be an easy one. I was lied to my entire life.

  • al222

    to this day, the left considers the fall of South Vietnam one of their "great victories." I suppose it is, as long as one can willfully ignore the 2-3 million Asians slaughtered by the Communists in the aftermath of our withdrawal. you NEVER hear the left take any "credit" for that part of the equation.

  • jemaasjr

    Somebody on our side, I forget who, asked why it was that all the "good Vietnamese" were on the other side." Of course there were good people on both sides, but what he was referring to was lack of commitment on our side by the local population. From the little I saw of the war, this was essentially correct. The North was all in and the South just sort of went along because we bought them off. Too bad they ended up with that creepy communist system, and the death toll was kind of heavy also.

  • Ron

    The first mistake we made in Vietnam was not to have south Vietnam build their own munitions plant. The second mistake in Vietnam was not to have south Vietnam build their own munitions plant.

  • kutzukid

    The biggest thing we did wrong was after TET we did not “right soldier arms” and march to Hanoi. We killed so many of them they were devastated as a combat efficient army, that it took them months to rebuild. We could have won the war then, but for politicians and the likes of Walter Concite and Dan Rather…thank for nothing. Did you know that after TET marine units reconning went 30 miles into North Vietnam and never saw a soldier, but were called back…..check it out. BTDT

    • LoboSolo

      The problem with that thought is that we had tried that in Korea and it had brought an onslaught of Chinese troops. China and the Soviet Union were strongly backing NVN. They, huru the Chinese, would not had stood passivly by.

      However, we could and should hav led guerrilla ops north of the DMZ. I think we could hav found enuff folk living north of the DMZ that would hav fought against the communists as guerillas.

  • LoboSolo

    Most of what Veith says seems here seems to be right but I will disagree on one thing:

    “That the South Vietnamese military did not just collapse like a house of cards in 1975, …”

    That is blatantly wrong. Thru a string of bad planning, bad reactions, bad intelligence, conflicting orders, bad leadership (civilian and military), lack of a mobilie reserv, bad rumors of a deal being cut, and many other things that happen’d in a short timeframe the ARVN melted away.

    It began with the fall of Hue and rumors of deal being cut set off a flood of refugees. ARVN forces found the roads making troop movement almost impossible. North Vietnamese forces swiftly took the gift of the growing instability, and with the abandon’d equipment of the ARVN, they launcht strong attacks on all fronts.

    Many ARVN generals abandoned their troops to fend for themselves and ARVN soldiers deserted “en masse” as morale fell.

    Aside from the heroic stand by the 18th Division at Xuân Lộc and the fighting about Saigon, ARVN resistance all but stoppt. Less than a month after Hue, Saigon fell and South Vietnam was no more.

    The sudden and utter downfall of the ARVN shockt the world. Even North Vietnam was amaz’d at how quickly South Vietnam fell asunder.