The picture at the top of this post is the image that comes to my mind when I think of the end of the war in Vietnam 40 years ago today.
As far back as I can remember, the war in Vietnam was a fact of life. To a young boy, it seemed that there had never been a time when U.S. forces were not in Vietnam. Anyway, it seemed that way to me. It was probably different for people who were even a year older than I; I was born at the right time to have no real memory of the pre–Vietnam era, but I know that older brothers and sisters of my contemporaries did know of that time, had memories of it.
I knew nothing of it, and I guess I've always assumed that the others who were my age had no memories of it, either, but I could be wrong about that. I can think of a few people I knew who were probably more aware of the outside world than the rest of us, but they were definitely the exceptions. Anyway, Vietnam influenced everything. It was on the news every night with updated casualty counts. Late in the '60s, if there was a demonstration somewhere or someone important was giving a speech, it was a pretty good bet that it was about the war. It was everywhere.
My father was a religion professor at a small college in my hometown. For a small college, it had some impressive things, though, like an Olympic–sized swimming pool. In the summer, one hour was set aside each weekday for faculty members and their families to have exclusive use of that pool, and my brother and I were regulars there. Anyway, on one of those occasions, I have a vivid memory of swimming in the pool and, for whatever reason, I started to muse about whether the war would still be going on when I got old enough to be drafted. I didn't think about it that much; after all, the prospect still seemed far away, and I was still just a boy, cooling off on a hot summer day in Arkansas. But that moment made enough of an impression on me that I can still remember it all these years later.
I don't remember how I imagined the war would end. I guess I pictured a Hollywoodesque finish with bombs and rockets bursting, and the Americans finding some way to win the thing in the end. I guess I imagined a John Wayne movie. It wasn't like that, of course. The fall of Saigon was far from glamorous. The Viet Cong swept the city, capturing all the important places, and South Vietnamese refugees evacuated.
In fact, the fall of the city actually came after many of the civilians and the Americans there had fled. In that picture, you can see some of the South Vietnamese trying to climb aboard a single helicopter on April 29, 1975. It looks reasonably orderly in the picture, but my memory is of chaos. I guess it was controlled chaos. In 24 hours, American helicopters evacuated about 7,000 people — roughly a dozen at a time — and it was not orderly.
But there were times when I watched the news coverage of helicopters like the one in the picture struggling to get off the ground, so heavy were they with passengers.
Strange as it might have seemed to people at the time — which explains why I never mentioned it to anyone — I found myself sympathizing with Gerald Ford. I liked him when he first became president. He was such a likable guy, a breath of fresh air after the Nixon years, and then he pardoned Nixon and threw away all the good will the American people had given him. In hindsight, I have to grudgingly admit that he was probably right when he said that pardoning Nixon was the only way to close the chapter on Watergate and move on. At the time, I thought it was a flimsy excuse. So, too, apparently, did a lot of people.
The Nixon/Watergate matter wasn't the only challenge Ford faced. The loss of Saigon was another. Ford's approval rating, which had been in the low 70s right after he took office but tumbled after the pardon, had been hovering around 40% since before Christmas in 1974, which was when the North Vietnamese broke the 1973 accords and invaded a South Vietnamese province along the Cambodian border. In Gallup's last survey before the fall of Saigon, Ford's approval stood at 39%.
Ford had a reputation for not being too bright, but I have come to believe that was mostly a facade for him. He used that image to his advantage. It made his adversaries underestimate him, some more than others.
I don't think anything illustrated that quite as well as the Mayaguez incident a couple of weeks after the fall of Saigon. The Mayaguez, a merchant ship, was seized by the Cambodians on May 12. Three days later, a rescue mission was launched, making Ford appear decisive and assertive — qualities he would need in the campaign for the Republican nomination against former Gov. Ronald Reagan; if that was what he was seeking, I'd be inclined to say he got it. In Gallup's next survey, Ford's approval was over 50%.
Ford and his people were products of the Cold War — he had three chiefs of staff while he was president (Alexander Haig, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney), and they almost certainly influenced his actions in Southeast Asia. They were worried about the other Southeast Asian countries, whether they would be more likely to fall prey to communism after the fall of Saigon, and they were determined to make a stand.
At the time, the expectation had been that the South Vietnamese could resist the North Vietnamese until 1976. Obviously, that prediction fell a bit short of the mark.
It is a tricky proposition to see into the future.