Black April: The Fall of South Vietnam, 1973-75
- George J. Veith
- Encounter Books
- 620 pp.
- May 10, 2012
A meticulous, well-researched account of the fall of South Vietnam, this new history offers new details on the fall and the final days of the war.
See Tom Glenn’s Q&A with Black April author George J. Veith here.
Reviewed by Tom Glenn
When Saigon fell, Major General Pham Van Phu committed suicide. The day before, a North Vietnamese regiment was en route to attack my location. Five, not two, renegade A-37 aircraft bombed Tan Son Nhat (my location) during the collapse.
These three facts, new to me, are among the many George J. Veith brings to light in his penetrating Black April, the first installment of a projected two-volume set. I started my work in Vietnam in 1962, spent years in the country, and lived there through the Communist conquest of South Vietnam in 1975. I am chagrined to discover that Veith knows more about what happened than I do. He couldn’t have witnessed it firsthand — he was in high school when Saigon fell. Yet his account vibrates with the ring of direct observation.
Black April is the first-class history I’ve been waiting for. Veith’s research has unearthed a trove of newly declassified materials from both the U.S. and North Vietnam. His translator, Merle L. Pribbenow, has for the first time produced English texts of a wealth of North Vietnamese documents, many newly released. Veith worked with Colonel Bill Le Gro, the last military intelligence chief in Vietnam whose 1981 Vietnam from Cease-Fire to Capitulation is a monument to excellence in military history. And Veith interviewed dozens of Vietnamese and Americans who provided him with new information.
Which brings me to the full disclosure: I was among the people Veith interviewed, and he quotes me in the book. I have met or worked with a number of the men Veith writes about — Le Gro, Pribbenow, General Phu, General Nhon, Tom Polgar, Frank Snepp and Graham Martin among many others. And I make no pretense of neutrality. The fall of Vietnam is a matter of profound personal sorrow to me. Caveat lector.
On the plus side, I can offer eyewitness testimony that Veith gets it right. His description of the many battles, studded with fact, is accurate to the limits of my knowledge, and I therefore accept his new data as true. And meticulously detailed data it is. Veith routinely gives us the quantitative facts — the numbers of troops, miles (he translates all kilometers into miles), weapons and equipment, and time of the day. The depth of the research is reflected in the 42 pages of endnotes. My combing of the 600 pages of text came up with not a single factual error.
Nevertheless, the profusion of detail may overwhelm the casual reader. One must study this book with maps at hand (Veith provides dozens) and be prepared to refer regularly to the glossary, the order of battle (listing of names and hierarchy of units on both sides), and list of persons, Vietnamese and U.S., at the beginning of the book. Even with these aids, the array of corps, military regions (corps and military region are sometimes interchangeable), and groups on both sides (the northerners and the southerners used the same name for completely different entities), and fronts (a Vietnamese Communist name for tailored corps-like military organizations) dizzied even me.
Veith devotes the last two-thirds of the text to the events of 1975. Organized chronologically and then by region, the narrative shows how one defeat led to another — first Phuoc Long in January; then Ban Me Thuot on 12 March; then all of the highlands during the following weeks, when more than 100,000 military and panicked civilians clogged a secondary route, now called “The Road of Blood and Tears,” trying to reach the coast while the Communists attacked them. I Corps, the northernmost five provinces of South Vietnam, crumbled by the beginning of April, spawning more waves of refugees. Provinces adjacent to Saigon came next. Finally, Communist tanks rolled in the streets of Saigon on 30 April.
Through it all, Veith dispels the misconception that the South Vietnamese fought poorly and disintegrated in the face of a resolute North Vietnamese onslaught. Unit after unit fought with valor against overwhelming odds. Perhaps the most valiant was the South Vietnamese 18th Division, defending Xuan Loc, 40 miles northeast of Saigon, which withstood the Communist battering from 9 to 21 April and forced the North Vietnamese Army to pay a high price in casualties before succumbing.
At the beginning of the text, Veith deflates one rampant myth — that the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army were independent entities. Nearly all U. S. military leaders bought into the North Vietnamese propaganda that the war was a rebellion by patriotic southerners assisted by a sympathetic northern neighbor. Veith demonstrates that North Vietnam was from the beginning the aggressor, completely in control of its southern subordinates. It violated the Paris Accords almost as soon as they were signed and never flinched in its determination to conquer South Vietnam.
Veith and I see eye to eye on almost everything he has written. I part company from him only in degree. He assures us, for example, that the corruption and incompetence among the South Vietnamese rulers and military commanders was less severe than it has been portrayed and points to the outstanding leadership of some of South Vietnam’s officers. I see the picture from a different angle. Vietnamese society, from the time of the monarchy on, was historically hierarchical with a clear line between the rulers, the well-to-do, and the ruled, the poor. What we in the West call corruption was accepted practice.
Moreover, rivalry among the elites and the use of force to establish hegemony were common — hence the many coups d’etat in South Vietnam. And selection of commanders by class and allegiance rather than competence encouraged poor leadership. The Communists were far more successful than the government of South Vietnam in rooting out these cultural deficits. Alienation in the southern population, brought on by elitism, contributed to Communist success in recruiting support. I saw the effects close-up during my time in Vietnam, particularly in the highlands where indigenous Vietnamese regularly exploited the Montagnards (the mountain people, ethnically different from the Vietnamese), whom they considered barely human.
With respect to the causes of the fall of South Vietnam, I agree with Veith’s list of six: the Communists’ immediate abrogation of the Paris Accords, South Vietnamese economic woes, withdrawal of U.S. firepower, curtailment of U.S. economic aid, President Thieu’s military blunders, and the collapse of South Vietnamese morale in the face of Communist victories. I would add the cultural tendencies cited in the paragraphs above and the North Vietnamese willingness to fight to the death rather than cede South Vietnam.
Veith lays blame for the withdrawal of U.S. aid and firepower from the South Vietnamese at the feet of the American left. Once again, I appraise the situation from a different point of view. The majority of Americans, not only the left, was sick of the Vietnam War and wanted it to end. That weariness reflects the propensity of Western powers, and especially the United States, to seek short-term solutions and grow impatient with long-term commitments. The experience of France in Indochina and the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan shows a similar inclination. My sense is that we as a nation need to limit our commitments to those we are willing to embrace long term (à la Korea) and avoid others (à la Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam) where a brief war won’t achieve our objectives.
A personal note: I learned for the first time while reading Black April that on the morning of 29 April 1975, the North Vietnamese 28th Regiment was en route to attack Tan Son Nhat, where I awaited evacuation. As the unit’s tanks crossed a river near Saigon, the bridge collapsed. The regiment was forced to take a detour and didn’t arrive at Tan Son Nhat until the morning of 30 April. By then, I was gone. Had the regiment reached its objective on schedule, I would have been at best taken prisoner, at worst killed. Veith confirms that my instinctive dread was well-founded.
Beyond my personal involvement, I can recommend Black April. The story of the fall is here at last, in full detail and well-documented.
Writer Tom Glenn served as an intelligence operative for many years in Vietnam and escaped under fire as Saigon fell. Some of his prize-winning stories about Vietnam are on his web site, http://tom-tells-tales.org