Thirty—one years ago this weekend the United States departed, some say fled, South Vietnam. A people we had promised to keep free and protect were soon swallowed by the Communist North of the once—divided country. Whether or not we should have been there in the first place is one question. Whether or not we should have abandoned the South is another question altogether.
The consequences of our having pulled out are, perhaps, more clearly seen when viewed through eyes of one who lived that history as a Vietnamese.
"I am very, very sad," said Bui Tin. Mr. Bui was lamenting the death of retired Army Master Sgt. Max Beilke, 69, who had been killed in a plane crash. Not while the sergeant was in a plane, mind you. He was in the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. After his having survived the rigors of the Vietnam war, that was indeed an ironic stroke of misfortune.
Now, Bui Tin is not exactly a household name in America except, perhaps, for those who've lived through or studied the conflict in Vietnam. You see, he was the North Vietnamese Colonel who led the tank parade onto the grounds of the presidential palace to accept the unconditional surrender of South Vietnam's last president, Gen. Duong Van "Big" Minh on April 30, 1975. 'Why would Mr. Bui be saddened by the death of Sgt. Beilke?' you ask.
Well, as reported ($) in May of 2002 by the Washington Post, they had met back in March of 1973
Grim and hushed, the last U.S. troops filed onto a C—130 at Saigon's Tan Son Nhut Airport.
It was March 29, 1973. Under the terms of the negotiated peace agreement with North Vietnam, all U.S. combat troops were leaving Vietnam, though small numbers of support troops would remain.
Col. Bui Tin, head of the North Vietnamese observer team, attempted to shake hands with the departing soldiers. Most ignored his outstretched hand, and one American spat out an obscenity.
Army Master Sgt. Max Beilke was the last in line.
As Beilke stepped up on the ramp to the plane and news crews recorded the moment, Tin held out a rattan mat adorned with a painting of a pagoda and offered it to the American.
"I hope you return as a tourist. You are certainly welcome," Tin told Beilke, the Vietnamese officer recalled in a recent interview.
Beilke looked at Tin, accepted the present with a quiet word of thanks and climbed into the aircraft, Tin said.
And so, Sgt. Beilke was the very last American combat soldier to leave Vietnam though a few non—combatant U.S. military personnel remained behind until 1975.
But the story doesn't end there. It's just beginning.
Knight—Ridder reported ($) in April of 2000, just in time for the 25th anniversary of the fall of Saigon:
On the morning of April 30, 1975, Bui Tin stepped into history "accidentally."
Then a North Vietnamese colonel, Tin maintains that he was the one who accepted the unconditional surrender from South Vietnam's last president, Gen. Duong Van "Big" Minh.
The highest—ranking officer on one of the first three T—54 tanks that crashed through the gates of the Presidential Palace in Saigon that day, Tin was charged with accepting Minh's surrender and witnessing the fall of the government of South Vietnam.
He was not a field commander, but rather an editor for Quan Doi Nhan Dan, the North Vietnamese military newspaper. He had been filing dispatches from the front.
While Tin's version of history is the one accepted by many Western historians, it is disputed by the Vietnamese government, which now contends that the surrender was in fact accepted by a North Vietnamese infantry officer and a tank commander.
This change of heart may have something to do with the fact that today the 73— year—old former officer lives in exile in Paris and has become one of Hanoi's most outspoken critics.
The euphoria of victory after the fall of Saigon was short—lived, Tin said. He grew disenchanted with the communist leadership almost immediately.
"Unfortunately, this exuberance after the newly found peace did not last," he said. "Before long, the communist winners swallowed their promises for a true national reconciliation."
Disastrous economic policies, including Stalinist—style collectivization, were imposed, he said. About 200,000 former South Vietnamese soldiers and officials were herded into "re—education" camps.
"For the people of the South, it was a regime of slow death," he said.
Disillusioned, the former darling of the Communist Party sought asylum in France in September 1990, leaving behind his wife and daughter. He has since met with "Big" Minh, his former enemy, now living in France.
However, he still is viewed with suspicion by some overseas Vietnamese who believe he is an agent for Hanoi.
In August of 1995 Stephen Young interviewed Bui Tin for the Wall Street Journal. Here are a few excerpts from that interview: [emphasis added]
Question: How did Hanoi intend to defeat the Americans?
Answer: By fighting a long war which would break their will to help South Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh said, "We don't need to win military victories, we only need to hit them until they give up and get out."
Q: Was the American antiwar movement important to Hanoi's victory?
A: It was essential to our strategy. Support of the war from our rear was completely secure while the American rear was vulnerable. Every day our leadership would listen to world news over the radio at 9 a.m. to follow the growth of the American antiwar movement. Visits to Hanoi by people like Jane Fonda, and former Attorney General Ramsey Clark and ministers gave us confidence that we should hold on in the face of battlefield reverses. We were elated when Jane Fonda, wearing a red Vietnamese dress, said at a press conference that she was ashamed of American actions in the war and that she would struggle along with us.
Q: What was the purpose of the 1968 Tet Offensive?
A: To relieve the pressure Gen. Westmoreland was putting on us in late 1966 and 1967 and to weaken American resolve during a presidential election year.
There you have it, folks. Straight from the proverbial horse's mouth. Doesn't sound a whole lot different than the propaganda the Bush—Cheney—Rumsfeld—bashing—it's—all—over—but—the—shouting crowd have been peddling for quite some time. Maybe there's something to the 'quagmire' theory after all. A quagmire of our own creation.
Bui Tin went on to describe the single biggest error the U.S. committed in the prosecution of the war in Vietnam:
Q: How could the Americans have won the war?
A: Cut the Ho Chi Minh trail inside Laos. If Johnson had granted [Gen. William] Westmoreland's requests to enter Laos and block the Ho Chi Minh trail, Hanoi could not have won the war.
Q: Why was the Ho Chi Minh trail so important?
A: It was the only way to bring sufficient military power to bear on the fighting in the South. Building and maintaining the trail was a huge effort, involving tens of thousands of soldiers, drivers, repair teams, medical stations, communication units.
So maybe having a few more 'boots on the ground' in Iraq to keep the Iranians, Syrians and Saudis out of the country and cutting the jihadis' supplies might have been a good idea. If, that is, we could have scrounged the additional troops that were probably required and done it early on. Just a thought.
Now, Iraq isn't Vietnam and 2006 isn't 1968. But determination to keep a promise, made both to ourselves and to others, is and always will be a virtue — and good policy. Vietnam was not a quagmire. It was defeat snatched from the jaws of victory when we gave up and said, 'Goodbye, Saigon.'
If we're not steadfast, so it will also be when we say, 'Goodbye, Baghdad.'
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See also: Scott Johnson on Powerline; Joseph E. Robert Jr. in the Washington Post; David Gelernter in the Weekly Standard; and Victor Davis Hanson in National Review Online
Dennis Sevakis used to fly jet fighters for the USAF.