A new book utilizes declassified documents from all sides to shatter the myths of one of the greatest tragedies of our time.
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?
Veith: Well, two answers to this question. First, even though they are commonly called the "anti-war movement," I prefer to call them the "pro-Hanoi,-anti-GVM movement," since that's exactly what they were. After the Paris Accords, many of the pro-Hanoi groups gathered in Germantown, OH in October 1973 to plot their strategy. At that time, they decided to continue to press the Congress to stop aid, to cut off funds for the police, etc., even though the American troops and prisoners had come home They did so by claiming the Thieu government was jailing 200,000 political prisoners, which was an absurd figure, and that the GVN was responsible for continuing the war. So Congress, which was looking for an excuse to get out, fell easily for the pro-Hanoi propaganda line. So, they had an indirect responsibility for the loss of South Vietnam. The direct responsibility, of course, lies with the Communists, who violated virtually every clause in the Paris Accords.
FP: Overall, America could have won the war if it really wanted to, correct?
Veith: If one defines "win" as the continuation of a non-communist, free South Vietnam, then yes. It would have required changes in military strategy--physically cutting the Ho Chi Minh Trail with U.S troops, for example--and closing off the port of Sihanoukville. But once the Communist logistics had been severed, winning the war on the ground in South Vietnam would eventually have occurred.
FP: What were the consequences of the fall of South Vietnam?
Veith: I think two consequences happened, but they played out over ten years. One, the Russians were emboldened to increase their efforts around the globe to supply arms and aid to covert Communist movements, and hence over-extended themselves, with Afghanistan the ultimate debacle. Second, it forced the U.S. to re-evaluate its position in the world, and it wasn't until Ronald Reagan came along that America managed to re-assert itself internationally. The other point that people should always remember is that we took in hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees. Those people today are prosperous, and their children are graduating from our finest colleges. That uniquely American impulse, to help the helpless, should always be a source of pride to us. And let me tell you, you will have to look far and wide to find a group of non-native people who are as pro-American as the former South Vietnamese. They truly appreciate this country and its freedoms. Attending one of their ceremonies is a refreshing course in patriotism.
FP: What are the lessons of the fall of South Vietnam?
Veith: Too often, commentators try to draw an evaluation regarding the tenacity of the American people to prosecute a war far from home and not readily apparent to our national interests. It was one of the longest wars in American history, yet the American people sustained an interest in the conflict despite enormous sacrifices in men and money. If anything, I think one lesson is that the American people will support, for the most part, a strategy that is clearly articulated and pursued with consistency. Lastly, despite the sneering contempt from academics and others, I believe intervening in South Vietnam in 1965 probably saved Indonesia and much of the rest of that part of the world. It is well to remember back then that the Communist bloc was viewed as a monolith, with victory inevitable. The fall of South Vietnam certainly helped spread that view, but the ten years gained helped strengthen the free world enough so that it eventually survived and overcame the challenge from this great evil.
FP: What is the overall message of your book?
Veith: That the South Vietnamese military did not just collapse like a house of cards in 1975, and that the image so prevalent in the U.S. of the South Vietnamese as a bunch of corrupt cowards is simply not true. Vietnamization had worked, and that if we had continued to support South Vietnam with economic and military aid, and helped defend her when attacked (or bombed the infiltration columns in February and March 1973 to show we were serious), the Republic of Vietnam would probably still be a viable entity today. Unfortunately, most of the Americans had left Vietnam by then, and so many of the advisors who had worked so hard to develop the South Vietnamese military weren't around to see the fruits of their labor.
FP: George J. Veith, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.
Veith: My pleasure, always great talking to you.
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