I was still serving as White House chief of staff on April 29, 1975, when America’s long and vexing involvement in Vietnam came to a close. A few weeks earlier President Ford had implored the Democratic-controlled Congress to authorize aid to our ally, the beleaguered South Vietnamese. He and Kissinger hoped the funds could bolster the South enough so it could arrange some sort of a truce with the North Vietnamese. But the U.S. Congress had had enough of Vietnam.
When Ford heard that Congress had rejected his request, he was furious. “Those bastards,” he snapped. An evacuation of all of our forces was now inevitable.
Vietnam was the first war in our history that the American people were able to watch unfold on television. That fact made a big difference. As such, we were all witnesses to the heartbreaking scene of U.S. forces executing a humiliating exit while our Vietnamese allies of more than a decade of war faced an uncertain future at the hands of the triumphant Viet Cong and North Vietnamese.
Throughout that long, sad day, I was with President Ford at the White House as he monitored the withdrawal. The American ambassador to Vietnam, Graham Martin, updated us on the number of Americans still waiting to evacuate, as well as the number of Vietnamese clamoring to leave. The second number kept growing.
Many of the Vietnamese who had worked with our forces were understandably desperate to flee from the advancing Northern forces, making use of rafts, small boats, whatever they could find to escape. When our Marines temporarily opened the gates to the embassy in Saigon, thousands of local citizens tried to force their way in, only to be physically pushed back. Martin and his team understandably found it difficult to turn our Vietnamese allies away.
As Martin’s wife departed by helicopter, she reportedly abandoned her suitcase so that space could be made for one more South Vietnamese woman to squeeze onboard.
Eventually it was decided that only American citizens could be airlifted in the short time remaining. The indelible image from that day is the heartbreaking photograph of desperate Vietnamese at a building across from the American embassy, trying to crowd aboard a helicopter departing from its roof. Those who had helped America during the war knew what was coming for them. It was an ignominious retreat for the world’s leading superpower.
David Kennerly, the White House photographer who had earned a Pulitzer Prize for his Vietnam War photography and understood the power of images as well as anyone, put it succinctly to those of us gathered in the Oval Office with the President that day. “The good news is the war is over,” he said. “The bad news is we lost.”
Secretary of State Kissinger believed that Ambassador Martin would be the last American to leave the country. After word was received that Martin had been airlifted out of the South Vietnamese capital, Kissinger announced to reporters,“Our ambassador has left, and the evacuation can be said to be completed.”
As it turned out, that wasn’t quite true.
After hearing Kissinger’s statement, Secretary of Defense Schlesinger advised us of the problem. The contingent of U.S. Marines assigned to prevent the panicking Vietnamese from flooding our embassy was still on the ground. Somehow there had been a misunderstanding. Kissinger and Schlesinger each considered the other’s department responsible for the miscommunication. The President felt Schlesinger bore responsibility and said he was “damn mad” about it. The last thing Ford needed was another public disagreement between his two top national security cabinet officials.
I discussed the issue in the Oval Office with Ford, Kissinger, and Ron Nessen, the White House press secretary. A few in the room felt we should not issue a correction because the Marines were expected to be airlifted out soon, at which point Kissinger’s statement would be accurate. I disagreed. What if the Marines were overrun and unable to get out? In any event, what we had told the American people simply was not true. That mattered.
“This war has been marked by so many lies and evasions,” I said, “that it is not right to have the war end with one last lie.”
The President agreed. He sent Nessen down to the press room to issue a statement saying that the evacuation had not been completed after all.
Kissinger was not pleased about the correction and again vented his anger at Schlesinger. He wanted the Defense Department to be blamed publicly for the miscommunication.* So the war in Vietnam ended in much the way it had been carried out—with recriminations and regret.
Since my years in Congress, I had had concerns about our country’s involvement in Vietnam—to the point that both President Nixon and Kissinger viewed me as something of a dove on the subject. I hoped they would find a way to bring the war to an orderly close. It seemed to me that we had lost opportunities to actually win the war. During the Nixon administration, I supported the President’s and Defense Secretary Mel Laird’s policy of Vietnamization, which put the emphasis on enabling the Vietnamese to take charge of their own affairs. Even in the final days of the war, there was at least a possibility that we might have been able to salvage something worthwhile from the effort had Congress approved the resources to support the South Vietnamese government—and particularly to fund its army—for a longer period. But Congress was not ready to go against the strong antiwar sentiment in the country.
With the war’s unfortunate end, a great many in our military and among the American people swore they would never again get involved in the tough, bloody business of counterinsurgency. Many wanted to turn inward, ignoring conflicts waged by the Soviet Union and its proxies. Instead of bringing us peace, I feared the chaotic conclusion of Vietnam could result in an even more deadly escalation of the broader Cold War struggle. The withdrawal from Vietnam became a symbol of American weakness—a weakness our adversaries would highlight for years—and an invitation to further aggression.
Even after the pullout from Vietnam, President Ford pleaded with Congress to at least provide military aid to the anticommunists in the region so they could defend themselves. Those pleas, too, were rebuffed. As such, the victory of the Viet Cong was accompanied by the rise of Communist forces in neighboring Laos and Cambodia.
* By the next day Kissinger had cooled down. After a meeting with the President, he said, “Don, I want you to know that I believe you handled the matter last night just right. . . . We would have ended up in a pissing match within the government, and we don’t need that.” He concluded saying, “I owed you that and wanted you to know it.” Kissinger could be a fierce bureaucratic battler, but he also was a man of integrity who would admit when he had erred.