Tom Glenn speaks with the author of Black April: The Fall of South Vietnam, 1973-1975.
The defeat of South Vietnam was arguably America’s worst foreign policy disaster of the 20th century. Yet a complete understanding of the endgame — from the January 27, 1973, signing of the Paris Peace Accords to South Vietnam’s surrender on April 30, 1975 — has eluded us. George J. Veith’s Black April addresses that deficit. Ultimately, whatever errors occurred on the American and South Vietnamese side, the simple fact remains that the country was conquered by a North Vietnamese military invasion despite written pledges by Hanoi’s leadership against such action. Hanoi’s momentous choice to destroy the Paris Peace Accords and militarily end the war sent a generation of South Vietnamese into exile and exacerbated a societal trauma in America over our long Vietnam involvement that reverberates to this day.
Tom Glenn’s Q&A with George J. Veith on Black April.
George J. Veith, the author of two earlier books on Vietnam, has testified twice on the POW/MIA issue before Congress. For the review of Black April by Tom Glenn, click here.
Your three books focus on Vietnam, but you grew up after the Vietnam War had ended. Whence the fascination?
Ever since I was a child, I was deeply interested in two aspects of history: military events and historical whodunits. Consequently, I became fascinated by the POW/MIA issue, which combines both. About 20years ago, a friend who knew of my research skills asked me to help him do some digging in the archives at Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania. While looking through files in what was then the “Vietnam Room,” I discovered copies of the original reports from the Joint Personnel Recovery Center, the unit in Vietnam responsible for finding and rescuing American prisoners. Since I knew nothing substantive had ever been published about this unit, and having always wanted to write, I realized that my chance had finally arrived.
Your books speak with the authority of firsthand experience. Have you visited Vietnam? Do you speak Vietnamese?
I have never been to Vietnam, although I have always wanted to visit. After spending so much time studying the war, I feel like it is my second home! I do not speak Vietnamese. However, I have a good friend who did all the translations, which were quite extensive. He served in the U.S. embassy in Saigon from April 1970 until April 29, 1975. Fortunately, for me, he has a deep interest, as I do, in uncovering what really happened during the war. For him, much like you, it is personal. For me, it was simply another great historical mystery to investigate.
Since you don’t speak the language, how did you manage you interview so many Vietnamese who experienced the fall of Vietnam? How many did you interview?
Interviewing Vietnamese is a delicate process. It’s a different procedure than interviewing Americans. Once you’ve identified the Vietnamese officer you want to speak with, it’s generally best to get a formal introduction from someone who is either a family friend, part of their military “family” (same class, same unit, same branch, etc.), or who was at one time their boss or just out-ranks them. Then, after they’ve agreed to the interview, one has to set the stage by explaining who you are, what information you are seeking, and what you intend to do with that information. Often I would begin by asking them where they were born, how they got into the military, etc. After some rapport is built, and depending on their personality and how much English they spoke, we could get into particular aspects of a battle. If their spoken English was not good, I would ask them to write in Vietnamese about their experiences, and then I would have it translated. This aspect often worked quite well. I interviewed quite a few, probably around 45 officers, from General Cao Van Vien, the head of the South Vietnamese military, down to battalion commanders. Many were quite open and not only were surprised that an American was interested in their stories but were thrilled that I wanted to learn about their war experiences. Some, however, were very guarded. Others were clearly suffering from ill health or the mental effects from their post-war incarceration. They were unable to provide many details. A few, mostly senior officers, simply refused to talk. For all of them, it was a painful process, for which I can’t adequately express my gratitude. It’s not an easy thing to watch elderly men with years of combat experience and then hard prison time begin to cry when talking about the loss of their friends or the end of the war.
I know of two South Vietnamese officers who committed suicide when Vietnam fell. How common was suicide?
Well, about five generals committed suicide. Many lower-ranking men and officers also did. One story that’s not in the book has always haunted me. I was interviewing an airborne battalion commander. It was about 1:00 am in the morning, and we were sitting on his front steps. We had almost finished, and he just began talking about the last day. He told me that on the night of April 29, his brigade commander had ordered his unit to help defend Tan Son Nhut airbase. His commander begged him not to leave him. So as the battalion commander was leaving the base to take up defensive positions outside the perimeter, he explained to me he had a choice: He could turn right out of the base gate to his assigned positions, or he could turn left and head to the docks and hopefully try to catch a Navy ship that was escaping. He turned right. Later the next day, after the surrender, he received a radio call from some of his troops who had retreated to a building on Tan Son Nhut airbase. He was delayed for a few minutes, but then he drove his jeep over to where they were located. As he pulled up to the building, a tremendous explosion shook the building. A large number of his men had committed suicide inside. Tears began streaming down his face as he finished. I was, to put it mildly, shaken. What follow-up question can one ask after hearing that story? And to make it worse, as a consequence of turning right instead of left, for doing his duty and not leaving his soldiers and his commander, he spent 10 years in prison.
Black April provides satisfying answers to so many questions I had about the fall of South Vietnam. What questions do you feel still need answering?
The main one revolves around what the Politburo was really thinking right before and right after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords. This is still quite a gap in the Vietnamese literature on this time frame. As for the others, you’ll have to wait until my second volume on this time period comes out! This will deal with the political and diplomatic intrigues.
Because of my background, I’m intrigued by the roles that signals intelligence and communications deception played in the final struggle. How much importance do you attribute to each?
The Communist strategy for each campaign included elaborate deception plans. Most of it was targeted at fooling US/ARVN signals intelligence, which during the war was probably our best source of intelligence. Whether they succeeded remains a matter of opinion. At Ban Me Thuot, it probably played a major role in at least reinforcing Major General Phu’s belief the PAVN would strike at Pleiku, not Ban Me Thuot. In I Corps, I think it was a complete failure. The bigger question, which hopefully one day the NSA will answer, is how much they and the South Vietnamese signal intelligence really did know. I suppose that could also fit under your question on what still needs answering.
Of the many sad stories about people who suffered through the defeat, which ones move you the most?
There are so many. The one I just mentioned is particularly sad. He later told me that while in Communist prison camp, he ate cockroaches to stay alive. A good source of protein he said. How many did you eat, I asked? About 10,000 was his reply. Imagine that for a second. Another battalion commander, this time a Ranger officer, told me his parents followed him around constantly from the day of the surrender until he had to report to prison. They were afraid he would commit suicide because he was so depressed.
I see many parallels between Vietnam and Iraq and particularly Afghanistan. Do you?
Not really. The enemy is totally different, the world political order has been completely reshaped, and one doesn’t see the same anti-war vitriol that occurred during the war. From a broad prospective, I suppose one could make an analogy about an unwinnable war, etc., but I don’t think the historical perspectives are similar.
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?
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.
Of all the factors that led to the collapse of South Vietnam, which was the most serious? Could it have been avoided?
Yes, but it would have required a sustained effort of American will and involvement that we would have had a difficult time maintaining.
If all the firepower, manpower and resources that the U.S. brought to bear couldn’t win the war against the North Vietnamese, why did we think the South Vietnamese alone could do it? Did Vietnamization (training and equipping the South Vietnamese to prosecute the war without U.S. ground troops) work?
Vietnamization was working, but no U.S. or South Vietnamese general believed the country could be defended without adequate American airpower. It simply was a matter of geography, not a lack of South Vietnamese will. Plus, which I will outline more precisely in my next book, the Communist supply situation appeared on the surface to be excellent. But what no one knows or understands, this wasn’t the result of massive on-going supplies from China and Russia. In fact, what was coming down the Trail was the North Vietnamese emptying their warehouses. They essentially bet the farm on one last major push to win the war. Unfortunately, this time they guessed right. I’ve only discovered this very recently while reviewing some new Communist publications. So, a scoop for you.
Some believe that the anti-communist effort in Vietnam was doomed from the beginning. Was victory by the North Vietnamese inevitable?
No. If we had physically cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail with U.S. troops, I believe we could have won the war. After the Navy cut off the seaborne supplies, and if we had blockaded Sihanoukville port, without supplies, the revolution in South Vietnam would have essentially degenerated into a small-scale guerrilla war, one that the South Vietnamese would have been able to handle.
Given what we know now, should the U.S. have become involved in Vietnam at all? An extraordinarily delicate question to answer.
I will tap dance out of it by asking you to think about it this way. One hundred years from now, when scholars will be writing histories of America and the world in the 20th century, how will they define that period of American life? Will they begin to lump the post-WWII era into a longer time period, and portray the period as a long fight against Communism? If so, who won that war? If you look at it from a longer historical perspective, I think people will ultimately judge Vietnam more dispassionately.
Many of writer Tom Glenn’s prize-winning stories came from the years he spent on covert assignment in Vietnam. His work has now been declassified (hear his interview at the Spy Museum here). His web sites are http://tom-tells-tales.org and http://vietnam-tragedy.org.