Black April: The Fall of South Vietnam, 1973–75
by George J. Veith
Encounter Books, 2012, 456 pages, US$29.95
George J. Veith’s Black April tells the story of South Vietnam’s journey into oblivion. His thesis is that the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces (RVNAF) possessed an integrity and pluck its detractors ignore, and would have been even more effective at the end if the post-Watergate Congress had provided the vital resources it had promised, including desperately needed fuel and parts for its air force. By 1975 the Vietnamese communists had lost the ideological and guerrilla warfare they had waged against the people of South Vietnam for more than fifteen years, and so the final showdown between Hanoi and Saigon was settled by a conventional military invasion. South Vietnam’s anti-communist cause, notwithstanding monumental mistakes on the part of its key leaders, was a just one, but in the end betrayed.
Black April, with remarkable scholarship and attention to detail, further undermines the “orthodox” assertion that the Vietnam War was unwinnable by the South and its allies. Nevertheless, Veith begins with the commonsense acknowledgement that even in more favourable circumstances the RVNAF would have been hard put fending off the more numerous and better co-ordinated People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN). The People’s Army that conquered South Vietnam in 1975 was “far superior” to the outfit in 1972 that had failed to get the job done. Soviet training played a part, but so did the “hard-won experience” garnered from 1972, which included “sophisticated logistics planning, improved engineering abilities, and detailed military political analysis”. Veith also makes mention of the communist spies who by 1975 were providing Hanoi with access to Saigon’s military secrets: “This advantage enabled PAVN to draft combat plans with almost real-time insight into RVNAF designs for counterattacks, withdrawals and other manoeuvres.”
No less important to the final outcome was the geography of South Vietnam, which made it difficult to defend the country from a conventional invasion—that is to say, by armoured columns—from the north. The RVNAF had an almost 800-mile western flank to protect, thanks to the now sealed Ho Chi Minh Trail and the cover of relatively unpopulated and rugged terrain. It would prove relatively straightforward for a contingent of the People’s Army to appear seemingly from nowhere and cut the Republic in two, which is exactly what occurred in the Central Highlands at the outset of the 1975 campaign.
Luck—or the absence of it—also played a role in the fall of South Vietnam. When thousands of soldiers and sixty dirty and dented armoured vehicles belonging to the PAVN first turned up on March 10, 1975, at Ban Me Thuot in South Vietnam’s Central Highlands, they quickly overwhelmed the place. The last holdout was the rear headquarters of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam’s (ARVN) 23rd division. As a Soviet-made T-54 entered through the compound gate and came into full view, the South Vietnamese Colonel Nguyen Trong Luat, astride an M-113 armoured personnel carrier, ordered the sergeant crouched beside him to destroy the tank:
“Fire!” The sergeant pulled the trigger. Click. “Misfire!” the sergeant screamed. He pulled apart the breech and discovered the problem: a broken firing pin. And he had no replacement. Luat jumped off the M-113 to rally his troops to stop the advancing enemy.
The consequences of this one incident, according to Veith, were calamitous. If the T-54 had been hit, the North Vietnamese would have needed their infantry to take the camp and that would have taken time. In the interim, South Vietnamese reinforcements could have been brought in to save the day. Instead, the PAVN quickly overran the ARVN’s headquarters and the capture of Ban Me Thuot was complete. President Nguyen Van Thieu exacerbated the problem by withdrawing his regular military forces from the Central Highlands, “setting off the debacle” that eventually resulted in the fall of Saigon a mere fifty-five days later.
Black April provides a graphic account of the retreat of the AVRN from the Highlands to the coast. It is a harrowing tale in which “approximately eighteen thousand AVRN troops were captured or killed from Cheo Reo to Tuy Hoa”. Aptly named “The Road of Blood and Tears”, it constituted the second-worst defeat of the war, only to be outdone in late March when the AVRN’s 1st Corps, during the failed defence of Danang, “disintegrated in one of the most remarkable defeats in modern military history”.
The downfall of the Republic was not a function of “military incompetence or an unjust dictatorship”. Rather, it resulted from these six overriding facts:
complete abrogation of the Paris Peace Accords by the North Vietnamese; dire South Vietnamese economic straits; lack of US firepower to stem a massive assault; the vast reduction of US aid; and President Thieu’s military blunders in the face of a large-scale Communist offensive.
The loss of morale among South Vietnamese forces was a consequence of the above factors; but even then, there were occasions when the RVNAF performed not only courageously but also brilliantly.
From the start of April, according to Veith, the provincial capital of Xuan Loc suddenly became “a critical node on the improvised defensive line the desperate South Vietnamese were trying to form around Saigon”. A victory there was the last, albeit slim, chance of saving the Republic of Vietnam, in one form or another, from being wiped off the map. The rainy season was approaching and if the RVNAF could hold its ground and strike a blow against the communist onslaught, then Saigon and the surrounding provinces might survive to fight another day. A victory would put President Thieu in a better position to rally his panicked nation (or what remained of it). A military success might also improve the likelihood of America at last fulfilling the promise made by Nixon before his resignation (back in 1974) to defend South Vietnam if ever Hanoi repeated its 1972 full-scale invasion.
Black April closely follows the almost flawless command of General Le Minh Dao as he conjured one inspired tactic after another to keep the overwhelming forces of the PAVN at bay. On April 9 the North Vietnamese opened up with a brutal bombardment of the city centre, but Dao had anticipated this and dispersed his soldiers to the extremities of the city. Perhaps believing that the South Vietnamese forces would simply fold, the PAVN now mounted a conventional frontal attack, followed by a number of other assaults on the city. All in vain—North Vietnamese armoured vehicles were destroyed, as were the infantry that accompanied them. Lethal South Vietnamese counter-attacks organised by Dao followed communist attacks. The urban battlefield that was Xuan Loc has been described as a scene from the Second World War. Day after day, amidst a city increasingly reduced to rubble, the valiant South Vietnamese endured hand-to-hand fighting, grenades thrown at close quarters, and the constant bombardment of their positions. They lost hundreds of their compatriots in the process but accounted for thousands of the enemy. In the end, however, the communist forces were too vast. On the evening of April 20, General Dao masterminded a daring and disciplined retreat under the cover of dark, which included accompanying his troops along a twenty-five-mile dirt track.
On April 14 Henry Kissinger argued to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Xuan Loc proved the South Vietnamese were willing to fight to save their country and deserved the support of Congress. Veith notes that it was not only the majority Democratic senators who remained unmoved by Kissinger’s appeal. The Republican senator for New York, Jacob Javits, declared: “I will give you large sums for evacuation [of American civilians], but not one nickel for military aid to Thieu.” Moreover, on April 17 the Senate Armed Services Committee similarly rejected the White House’s request that a measure of assistance be provided for the Republic of Vietnam, “reflecting an overwhelming desire” on the part of Congress “to be done with Vietnam”. Bitterly denouncing “American perfidy”, Thieu resigned from the presidency on April 21, 1975. No option remained except for the people of South Vietnam, now under the political leadership of the seventy-one-year-old Tran Van Huong, to make their last stand in Saigon.
The battle of Saigon, Black April makes clear, was no “easy affair”. Even the North Vietnamese generals admit there was no warm welcome for the People’s Army. Veith provides estimates of 6000 PAVN killed and wounded, along with “almost 100 … military vehicles … destroyed, including 33 tanks and armoured personnel carriers”. The South Vietnamese authorities officially surrendered after the tanks reached Independence Palace, which Veith argues saved the city of Saigon from being destroyed: “While many South Vietnamese despise Minh for surrendering, at best the RVNAF had twenty-four hours of organized resistance left.”
There was, according to Veith, no “wholesale slaughter” of military personnel of the type that had accompanied the communists’ brief ascendancy in Hue back in 1968. While the communists supposedly forswore organised mass killings—notwithstanding the numerous executions that did occur—a prison system known as “the Bamboo Gulag” sprouted across the countryside. Hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese military prisoners were forced to do “hard labour in the jungle with little food, medicine, or clothing”. The mortality rate ran into the thousands. High-ranking South Vietnamese officers remained in these conditions until 1987 and, in the case of certain recalcitrants, until as late as 1992.
Far from being an act of liberation, the military conquest of the Republic of Vietnam was a nightmare for the vast majority of South Vietnamese people, and this explains why “millions of people fled in terror before the Communist advance”. Add to this figure the estimated 165,000 souls who lost their lives in the communists’ re-education camps. Veith does not go into the details, but perhaps somewhere between 200,000 and 400,000 South Vietnamese died at sea attempting to escape the scourge of communism. In their championing of Ho Chi Minh’s vision for a united Vietnam, the West’s anti-American agitators failed to appreciate that many South Vietnamese had no desire “to be subjected to the deprivations of Communism”. The New Left got most things about the Vietnam War wrong, including the claim that the National Liberation Front was a genuine expression of the will of the South Vietnamese people. The NLF was a political instrument of Hanoi, and after the fall of Saigon nothing stood between the South Vietnamese people and their new North Vietnamese communist overlords.
Veith plans to write a sequel that focuses on the diplomatic factors that facilitated the Republic of Vietnam’s demise, but he does mention in Black April Nguyen Van Thieu’s belief that the United States—more specifically, Nixon and Kissinger—strongarmed him into signing, against his better judgment, the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, a protocol that very much favoured Hanoi. To put it bluntly, “the US had threatened to cut off aid if he did not sign the accords”. In geopolitical terms, the Cold War had entered another stage with the rapprochement between America and the People’s Republic of China, and the survival of South Vietnam no longer appeared important in the Realpolitik of Moscow–Washington relations. Veith nevertheless makes the devastating point that pragmatism should never be the “sole guide” in US foreign policy. America, in the end, overlooked the fact that its intervention in South Vietnam had never been about only the unduly maligned Domino Theory; it was also to help “the South Vietnamese people preserve their freedom”.
Was it naivety or something shoddier that allowed Nixon and Kissinger to believe that the communists would keep to their side of the deal? The North Vietnamese were permitted to disregard virtually every pledge they made in Paris in 1973: “Over two years, the North Vietnamese massed an army in the South in complete contradiction of a solemn agreement.” The North Vietnamese leadership never respected the ostensible purpose of the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, to end the war and promote peace. They feared, amongst other things, that Mao’s re-engagement with the capitalist world might signal a mutually beneficial partnership between South Vietnam and China in the years ahead. Since the failure of their 1968 Tet Offensive, the North Vietnamese understood—as their leftist supporters in the West never did—that the Republic of Vietnam had a long-term future: unless destroyed by a powerful and conventional military assault.
On the subject of that powerful and conventional military invasion, George J. Veith’s Black April is tremendously lucid and always fair-minded. The North Vietnamese possessed not only superior weaponry and manpower, but also a far better command system. Veith is highly critical of Thieu’s “weak” Joint General Staff and independent corps, “which prevented a coordinated response to a countrywide assault”. On the other hand, it would be a mistake to believe the so-called People’s Army had a monopoly on fighting spirit. The South Vietnamese displayed great fighting spirit not only at Xuan Loc, but also Ho Nai, Tan Son Nhut, and other now forgotten corners of what is now, alas, called the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
Daryl McCann wrote on leftist anti-Semitism in the November issue. He has a blogs at darylmccann.blogspot.com.au