Saigon April 30, 1975

Millions of people around the world remember this date 40 years ago. Do you? It was the day those millions were changed forever and a day that signified a momentous sea change in American history. Today, April 30, 2015 is the 40th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon.

Last Days

The war that ended then is known as the American War in Vietnam. It ended a string of American  military victories and was the first in a series of subsequent miscalculations and military adventures that were unwinable – Desert Storm, Afghanistan and Iraq – not for lack of effort but because the playing field of war was changed in Vietnam. The official holiday in-coiuntry celebrates the Communist victory, but for those of us who love the South and admire its people it signifies their loss of heritage and homeland.

I’m not an apologist for America’s involvement in the American War, but as someone who has lived there I am deeply touched by the plight of the South Vietnamese who were victimized and persecuted following the fall of Saigon. April 30, 1975 signaled the commencement of what has become known as the Vietnamese Diaspora, the exodus of South Vietnamese people who supported the US government when the North Vietnamese overran their half of the divided country. Rory Kennedy’s documentary, Last Days In Vietnam, shows the chaos, desperation, and danger of those final days.

There are now more than 3 million “overseas Vietnamese,” 1.8 million of them in the US. Last night I watched the Kennedy film on PBS. It was the third time I’ve seen it and it never fails to move me. What moves me is not America’s loss, it’s the South Vietnamese people’s loss, the people who worked for and relied on the US, if not to win the war at least to protect them in the final days.

There are heroes and goats in the story. The US Ambassador, Graham Martin, an old fashioned cold warrior steadfastly refused to consider an exit plan even as the North Vietnamese raced south and encircled Saigon. Many US operatives ignored Martin’s order and began planning for a black ops exit but it was too late.

My friend, John Riordan, who was vice-president of Citibank in Saigon is one of the heroes. Against company and government orders he put himself in danger and saved the lives of 106 Vietnamese Citibank employees and family members by arranging a harrowing escape to the airport and passage to Guam on US government aircraft. There are now more than 250 of John’s “family” and they meet periodically to celebrate their good fortune. He was featured on CBS’s 60 Minutes last year and has recently written a book about how he pulled it off.


If you’re a morning newshound, John is going to tell his story on CBS This Morning with Charlie Rose and Nora O’Donnell today (the 30th). Like so many stories from “the last days” it is a story of courage, honor, and selflessness. That is what this anniversary means to me. It’s not about the war or the mistakes that were made or the tragic deaths of 58,000 Americans, 2 million civilians (on both sides), 1.1 million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers, and 250,000 South Vietnamese soldiers.

This date is a memorial to the dead on both sides, but after 40 years it also reminds us that though war is indeed hell those that survive can heal and prosper. I have never met such an energetic, determined, hard working population as the Vietnamese of the diaspora, people who left with nothing and have succeeded against unimaginable odds

But the wounds of the American War are deep and enduring. There is a new book by Viet Thanh Nguyen, a writer born in Vietnam but raised in America. The Sympathizer’s narrator is a soldier whose story of duplicity, conflicted feelings, and the exhaustion of war mirror the feelings of many first and second generation Vietnamese. Mr. Nguyen’s Op-Ed in the Sunday Review of last week’s New York Times is a harsh indictment of those who think the war ended on April 30, 1975. It’s well worth reading:

The Sympathizer

As someone of the Vietnam War generation I have seen the country from the beginning of the American War to the current growing prosperity. I was a co-pilot on Pan Am’s first flight into Saigon after the Tet Offensive in 1968, and watched as South Vietnamese pilots flying AD Skyraiders bombed and strafed a Viet Cong enclave just north of the runway. From 2009 -2013 I went back as manager of the Saigon office of a large US humanitarian organization called East Meets West Foundation. It was an honor to be there doing good works instead of waging war.

I hope this short piece helps remind us all that we can do better when we energize and appeal to our better selves.

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