From the Death of Ho Chi Minh to Reunification (1969-1976)

Justin Corfield. The History of Vietnam. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2008.

The death of Ho Chi Minh marked a period of great sadness for the North Vietnamese. They had hoped to reunify the country while he was still alive. By early 1970, however, it seemed as though the war was to be long and drawn out, with some Vietnamese Communists expecting that it might last another 10 or 15 years. That situation changed on March 18, 1970, when Prince Norodom Sihanouk was overthrown in Cambodia. He was in the Soviet Union at the time where he was trying to get the Soviet leadership to put pressure the Vietnamese Communists to decrease their use of Cambodian territory. During his absence, the rightwing Cambodian, Prime Minister Lon Nol, seized power with the support of the Cambodian National Assembly and ordered all Vietnamese Communist soldiers to leave the country within 72 hours.

The demand by Lon Nol was clearly impossible. Instead the Communists rallied the Cambodian peasants, who supported the deposed Prince Sihanouk, and, arming them, struck back at the Lon Nol government and destroyed much of the Cambodian army. Richard Nixon then decided that this was an opportunity to destroy the Ho Chi Minh Trail. On April 29, he sent South Vietnamese and U.S. soldiers into Cambodia, destroying the eastern border area of the country and causing the Communists there to flee westward where they were, incidentally, to pose a far greater threat to the pro-U.S. Lon Nol government. The “invasion” of Cambodia—Lon Nol first heard about it on the radio and gave his consent after the U.S. soldiers had already entered Cambodia—led to what became known as the Second Indochina War, although for much of the period the war in Cambodia was separate, militarily, from what was happening in Vietnam.

With the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, protests increased throughout the United States. One such protest was held at Kent State University in Ohio where students had burned down a Reserve Officer Training Corps building. On May 4, with National Guard troops facing students, guardsmen opened fire, killing four students and injuring nine others. In Melbourne, Australia, on May 8, 1970, more than 100,000 people gathered in what was the largest protest in the history of the country, with the same number gathering elsewhere in the country.

Preparations for the Peace Talks

With the peace talks in Paris making progress, in early 1971, Nguyen Van Thieu offered himself for reelection as the president of South Vietnam. To prevent the large number of candidates that had contested the 1967 elections, the rules for the new election were that any candidate needed to get his nomination papers signed by at least 40 of the 197 deputies of the South Vietnamese legislature, or senators; or 100 of the 545 members of the provincial or city councils, countersigned by the relevant provincial chief or mayor. Thieu faced two major opponents. General “Big” Minh, who had overthrown Diem in 1963, and was anxious to contest the election, and ex-Vice President Air Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky. Both Minh and Ky chose Roman Catholic vice presidential running mates, respectively, Ho Van Minh, the deputy speaker of the House of Representatives, and Truong Vinh Le, a former chairman of the National Assembly.

Minh and Ky agreed privately that the former would seek the required number of legislators, and the latter would try to find 100 councilors. When the time came for the nomination papers to be filed, Minh had found 16 senators and 28 deputies to sign his papers, but Thieu’s nomination papers were signed by 15 senators, 89 deputies, and 452 councilors, meaning that only 93 councilors were free to sign Ky’s papers. Thus when Ky filed his nomination papers on August 4, it was supported by 101 signatures, but 39 of the signatories had already signed Thieu’s papers and their signatures were not validated by their provincial chiefs.

Thieu had quite rightly feared that Ky might defeat him, given Ky’s popularity with the war veterans and many other groups. Ky denounced the election procedure in a press conference later on August 4, and the next day the Supreme Court ruled his nomination as invalid. Eight days later Ky denounced the election process as a fraud, and decided that he would not stand. With Thieu looking as though he might be the only candidate in the presidential election, the Supreme Court, with support from the president, decided to revalidate Ky’s nomination papers even though he had not appealed to them. On August 21, the day after Minh’s withdrawal, the Supreme Court declared that as Thieu had the required number of deputies and senators, all the signatories from the councilors were invalid. Accepting Ky’s nomination papers, they then stated that the posting of the final list of candidates be done straight away, in a move to prevent Ky from withdrawing from the race. Ky, however, was able to extricate himself from the election, a move deemed legal by the Supreme Court on September 1.

Thus Thieu remained the only candidate in the presidential elections. So as to ensure that he was not reelected with 100 percent of the vote, Thieu then declared that anybody who wished to oppose his candidacy need only cross his name out on the ballot paper, and indeed any ballot paper that was damaged would be regarded as a vote against him. After the election was held on October 3, Thieu was declared the winner with 94.3 percent of the vote, the turnout being 87.9 percent. In Hue as many as 36 percent of the people cast invalid votes, as did 25 percent in Danang and 16 percent in Saigon.

By early 1972, the next U.S. presidential election was starting, with the incumbent president, Richard Nixon, facing a challenge from George McGovern of the Democratic Party. The shooting of George Wallace during the campaign effectively ruled out Wallace as a serious contender. With Vietnam still a major item in the news, on June 8, 1972, a British news cameraman Alan Downes filmed a number of Vietnamese civilians as they fled a napalm attack by the Americans near Trang Bang, which was a village being attacked by the North Vietnamese. The napalm, a flammable liquid used in bombs, had initially been used in Vietnam to clear vegetation for landing areas for helicopters. By this time it was being used against insurgents, inflicting terrible chemical wounds on anybody who survived. The sight of one of the civilian victims, a naked nine-year old girl, later identified as Phan Thi Kim Phuc, became famous around the world. Richard Nixon initially doubted the authenticity of the image, but there was no doubt in many people’s minds that it showed the poor peasants getting horribly injured or killed in war.

At the time Nixon was anxious to win the election, which led to the Watergate incident in which five men were found inside the Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. on June 17, 1972. The men were arrested and charged, with some evidence starting to link them to people in the Nixon White House. It gradually emerged that Nixon had been using agents to damage his political opponents, and that the incident at the Watergate Hotel was only one of many similar events that had been organized by Nixon and his aides, although for the time being there was no evidence directly connecting Nixon to Watergate. By this time a number of foreign antiwar critics were visiting North Vietnam, including author and critic Mary McCarthy, and actress Jane Fonda, who went to Hanoi in July 1972. Nixon and the White House were critical of these actions, and they might have helped him gain support, as it allowed Nixon to portray antiwar critics as supporters of North Vietnam.

To try to show their strength, the North Vietnamese had launched an Easter Offensive in South Vietnam in March and April. The offensive failed to generate the media attention of the Tet Offensive four years earlier, but in Paris the North Vietnamese negotiator Le Duc Tho gradually stepped up his demands knowing how desperate the Americans were for a peace settlement ahead of the elections. Finally Nixon decided that what was offered was dishonorable and broke off negotiations. After a lackluster election campaign, Richard Nixon won a landslide victory carrying every state except for Massachusetts, which went to his rival, George McGovern, along with the District of Columbia. Nixon, with a renewed mandate, then turned to the issue of ending the Vietnam War.

The “Christmas Day” Bombings and the Paris Peace Accord

Fresh from his overwhelming election victory, Richard Nixon, and Henry Kissinger, now his national security advisor, but about to become the secretary of state, decided to launch what was officially known as Operation Linebacker 11. The bombing raids, which lasted from December 18–20, became known as the “Christmas bombings” and were the heaviest bombing raids by the U.S. Air Force since the end of World War 11. The Christmas bombings destroyed parts of Hanoi and other areas of North Vietnam; it also caused the death of several thousand people including those who died when the Bach Mai Hospital, one of the largest hospitals in Vietnam, was destroyed. The objective of the raids was to force the North Vietnamese to concede ground at the negotiations in Paris.

Immediately after the bombing, Henry Kissinger reported that his North Vietnamese counterpart, Le Duc Tho, became more cooperative, and finally, on January 27, 1973, the Paris Peace Accord was reached. The agreement included a ceasefire “in place,” by which there would be a ceasefire, with all soldiers, South Vietnamese, North Vietnamese, and PLAF, remaining where they were. It stipulated that within 60 days, all U.S. forces in Vietnam would be withdrawn, and the North Vietnamese would hand over all prisoners of war held by them. In addition North Vietnam undertook to help with inquiries into the U.S. service personnel who were listed as missing in action.

The Paris Peace Accord also made references to a possible political settlement that would establish a National Council of Reconciliation and Concord to organize “free and democratic general elections” in which people could vote on a new government for South Vietnam. Before the elections were held, however, President Nguyen Van Thieu would remain in office. The United States saw the Peace Accord as the way to extricate itself from the war; the Vietnamese Communists saw it as a staging post on the way to the takeover of the entire country. The South Vietnamese government, however, violently opposed the Peace Accord and had initially refused to sign it. They objected to the ceasefire being “in place,” which allowed as many as 200,000 North Vietnamese troops and their South Vietnamese allies to hold large tracts of the country. Thieu signed the agreement only when faced with massive pressure from the United States, and even then only after two concessions. First, South Vietnam received what became known as Operation Enhance, followed quickly by Operation Enhance Plus. These two operations at the end of 1972 transferred large amounts of U.S. military materiel to the South Vietnamese and handed over U.S. bases in South Vietnam to the South Vietnamese military. In addition, Richard Nixon made a written promise that if the Vietnamese Communists broke the ceasefire, his U.S. government would reintervene militarily, including bombing North Vietnam. It was only after Nixon sent Thieu two letters promising this action that Thieu reluctantly, and under heavy pressure, signed the Peace Accord.

Nobody expected the Paris Peace Accord to end fighting forever. Indeed, before the Peace Accord was enacted, the South Vietnamese tried to take back crucial territory from the PLAF, with a measure of success. As the Accord came into force, public buildings, shops, and private houses throughout South Vietnam flew the South Vietnamese flag as a sign of support for their government. It was, at best, an extremely uneasy peace. Later that year, Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho were both awarded the Nobel Peace Prize—Le Duc Tho refused to accept the prize, stating that there was still no peace in Vietnam. He became only the second person to decline the prize—the other being Jean-Paul Sartre who declined the Nobel Prize for Literature as he refused all official honors. The U.S. songwriter and satirist Tom Lehrer dryly commented that satire was now obsolete after Kissinger received a prize for peace.

The Paris Peace Accord held until September 1974, although in neighboring Cambodia war continued with increasing ferocity during this entire period. Many of the South Vietnamese elite, however, realized that it was only a matter of time before the Communists came to power and they started sending some of their assets abroad, with a number departing for a new life in the United States, France, Canada, and other countries. Fighting began in September 1974 and increased in October. As a result, the North Vietnamese military high command drew up a plan to attack South Vietnam the next year.

The North Vietnamese plan was also influenced by a change in administration in the United States. Throughout early 1974, the U.S. government had been unable to act because of the Watergate crisis, which linked Richard Nixon to the break-in at the Watergate Hotel in 1972. Finally as the evidence mounted, and several of Nixon’s staff turned on him, on August 9, Nixon resigned the presidency, and Vice President Gerald Ford, appointed by Nixon eight months earlier, was sworn in as president.

Soon after being sworn in, Gerald Ford made a foreign policy speech in which he promised to carry out the policies of the Nixon administration. Henry Kissinger remained as secretary of state, reinforcing the confidence of the South Vietnamese who believed that the United States would honor its commitment to defend their country if attacked. By contrast, the North Vietnamese believed that it was highly unlikely that the United States would want to reintervene in Vietnam and it secretly began to redeploy their soldiers.

The Battle for South Vietnam

With all-out war inevitable, on January 6, 1975, the North Vietnamese and their South Vietnamese allies launched a general offensive against the South Vietnamese government. The aim was to take control of the South in a two-year campaign. With North Vietnam going on the offensive, the dry season, from January until April, was the best time to attack, but few North Vietnamese leaders thought it would possible to capture the whole of South Vietnam in four months. Communist ideologue Le Duan argued that a general uprising in South Vietnam in 1976 would make a Communist victory certain.

The first North Vietnamese attack was at Phuoc Binh in the central highlands, and initially they acted cautiously, unsure what the United States would do. Soon it became obvious that the United States was not prepared to bomb North Vietnam and was certainly not going to send in soldiers. The North Vietnamese leadership then gave General Van Tien Dung, the commander-in-chief of the People’s Army of Vietnam, instructions to try to capture as much of South Vietnam as he could by the end of April when the rainy season would prevent large-scale troop movements.

U.S. Ambassador Graham A. Martin, who had replaced Ellsworth Bunker in 1973, passionately asked the U.S. government to send weapons and financial aid to the South Vietnamese government. A career diplomat and former ambassador to Thailand whose wife’s son had died during the war, Martin was dedicated to supporting the beleaguered Saigon government, but some visiting U.S. politicians felt he was not able to view the conflict dispassionately and rejected his requests. As Republican congresswoman Millicent Fenwick was to say, “we have sent, so to speak, battleship after battleship, and bomber after bomber, and 500,000 or more men, and billions and billions of dollars. If billions and billions did not do at the time when we had all our men there, how can $722 million save the day?”

The North Vietnamese decided to try to capture the central highlands first, as they had attempted in 1965, so they attacked the cities of Pleiku and Ban Me Thuot. The attack on the former was a diversion, with the full force of the North Vietnamese thrown against Ban Me Thuot. Thieu fell for the feint and moved his special forces to Pleiku, weakening the defenses of Ban Me Thuot, which fell on March 13, after a heroic resistance by a vastly outnumbered South Vietnamese garrison. The North Vietnamese, having captured their first major city in South Vietnam, then pushed on to Pleiku.

It did not take long before panic broke out among the South Vietnamese armed forces and civilians. Those in the north fled to Danang, although those in the south were able to hold their position. Ships were sent to Danang to evacuate troops, their dependents, and other civilians from Danang, while the South Vietnamese government officially stated it had no intention of retreating. Privately it became obvious that the South Vietnamese government was about to prepare for something it had never previously contemplated—a repartition of Vietnam, with the government holding onto only the southern part of the country. The morale of the South Vietnamese was sapped, and it was not long before their forces in the northern part of South Vietnam retreated to Danang and took part in the evacuation. Tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians streamed into the port of Danang where the United States had brought in supplies for its forces on so many occasions. Many of them were able to be evacuated by ship to Saigon, and many soldiers left behind abandoned their weapons and their uniforms and surrendered to the incoming North Vietnamese and PLAF soldiers. On March 29, Danang fell and the North Vietnamese film camerawoman, Thu Van, was able to film desolate groups of South Vietnamese soldiers surrendering to her film crew as she went into the city. She was finally reunited with her mother whom she had not seen since the original partition in 1954.

With the South Vietnamese forces retreating, General Dung then increased his attacks on them, driving them back toward Saigon. The South Vietnamese desperately pleaded to the United States for help, but the Ford administration was noncommittal about sending in military help, and Congress even cut off financial help to South Vietnam. This left the South Vietnamese unable to run many of their vehicles, because the escalating fuel price had made gasoline unaffordable.

In the first week of April, General Le Minh Dao regrouped the South Vietnamese soldiers of his 18th Infantry Division for what was effectively the last place the South Vietnamese could realistically hold back the North Vietnamese. At Xuan Loc, he proudly stated to visiting journalists that he would fight there even if the North Vietnamese outnumbered him—“I will knock them down, even if they bring here two divisions or three divisions.” In well-prepared positions, the South Vietnamese soldiers realized it was their last chance to save their nation. What remained of the South Vietnamese Air Force flew mission after mission against the North Vietnamese, using cluster bombs and inflicting heavy casualties on the attackers. Fighting raged from April 9–16, when the Vietnamese Communists broke through the lines. The South Vietnamese forces had finally been defeated as General Dung threw nearly 50,000 soldiers against them. After a massive weeklong battle, the South Vietnamese army was in tatters, and those who survived the battle of Xuan Loc fled to Saigon.

The Evacuation of Saigon

The U.S. Embassy in Saigon had realized that if the war went badly for them, they would have to evacuate not only their own staff, but all other Americans in Saigon, some of whom were married to Vietnamese, and also people from countries allied to the United States: Australians, British, New Zealanders, South Koreans, Thais, and French (in spite of the French scheming with General Tran Van Don, the South Vietnamese minister of defense, to install his co-conspirator from the 1963 coup, General Duong Van Minh as the new leader of a figurehead Saigon government that might be able to broker an agreement with the Communists). In addition, the U.S. embassy and administration felt duty-bound to evacuate all its South Vietnamese allies—government officials, army leaders, South Vietnamese who had worked for the Americans, and their families. This could amount to as many as 200,000 people.

To achieve an effective evacuation, the U.S. government sent the Seventh Fleet to a position just off the South Vietnamese coast, while aircraft started evacuating as many South Vietnamese as possible. Henry Kissinger later said that he deliberately tried to make it look as though the fleet was there to help the South Vietnamese government in the hopes of dissuading the Communists from attacking Saigon. He was also cautious about ordering the evacuation of all Americans and other foreigners straight way for two reasons. First, he thought that some South Vietnamese might turn on the Americans, and second, he thought that the presence of Americans in Saigon might delay a Communist attack, for the Communists wanted to be careful about endangering Americans, which might lead to a U.S. military response.

With the survivors of the battle of Xuan Loc streaming into Saigon at the news of the terrible defeat, and the Communist victory in neighboring Cambodia on April 17, President Nguyen Van Thieu, persuaded that there was some hope for a coalition government without him, resigned the presidency on April 21 and left Saigon five days later. He took with him a large amount of gold, and retired to a comfortable exile just outside London. Former Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky left for Taiwan four days later, calling the U.S. inaction in failing to defend South Vietnam “an inhumane act by an inhumane ally.”

Thieu’s resignation left Tran Van Huong, the 72-year old vice president as the new president of South Vietnam. He had served in several governments since the overthrow of Diem and was increasingly frail. Although he wanted to negotiate with the Communists, they saw little reason to make a treaty with a government that was about to collapse. On April 28, Tran Van Huong finally resigned—he had apparently told friends that he always wanted to be president for at least a week. On the seventh day, he handed over the office of the presidency to Duong Van Minh. The inauguration of Minh was disturbed by thunderclouds—the North Vietnamese forces were now at the Newport Bridge, ready to enter Saigon, and the rainy season was just about to begin.

On April 29, the Communists blasted Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut Airport, and the United States started the largest helicopter evacuation in history, Operation Frequent Wind. Using 70 helicopters, they managed to evacuate 6,000 Vietnamese and 1,000 Americans and third-country nationals to aircraft carriers offshore. In one of the memorable incidents at the end of the war, helicopters were pushed off U.S. aircraft carriers to provide more room for refugees arriving on them. Although highlighted in popular culture as an act of wastefulness, it was actually a significant humanitarian decision that allowed many more people to be evacuated than would otherwise have been possible.

Remaining in the presidential palace to meet the attacking North Vietnamese and PLAF, Duong Van Minh, president for 44 hours, watched as a tank flying the PRG flag broke through the gates of the presidential palace and drove toward the palace itself, an event filmed by the Australian war reporter Neil Davis. This tank was followed by others, as well as Colonel Bui Tin, the leading North Vietnamese war correspondent. Waving the PRG flag—symbolically not the North Vietnamese flag—the Vietnamese Communists entered the building and President Minh announced to them that he was there to transfer power. Bui Tin replied that he did not have any power to transfer. But he added that “there are no victors and no vanquished … The war for our country is over.”

The Communist Victory

As North Vietnamese and PRG soldiers made their way through the streets of Saigon, a large crowd symbolically gathered around the statue in central Saigon, erected to commemorate the sacrifice of the South Vietnamese soldiers in the war against the Communists. Tying rope around it, it was pulled down and crumbled into dust.

Legally, the Communists maintained the line that it was the PRG, and not the North Vietnamese, who were leading the fight—the North Vietnamese were merely helping their South Vietnamese allies. As a result, Huynh Tan Phat, the leader of the PRG became the titular president of South Vietnam. How much power he actually possessed is debatable. Certainly within hours of the Communist victory, there was retribution against the people who had supported the South Vietnamese government. Some of those who were caught were shot, especially members of the secret police. Many of their files, including their personnel roll, were captured at the fall of Saigon. Many others were also beaten up and/or arrested; however, a number of senior South Vietnamese leaders remained in Saigon. The last two presidents of South Vietnam, Tran Van Huong and Duong Van Minh, were both placed under house arrest. In 1977, Huong was declared to have “reformed” and had his civil rights “restored,” although he rejected this offer, as many South Vietnamese officials were still held in prison. Minh remained in his villa for the next eight years where he grew exotic orchids and raised birds; he finally went to France in 1983.

Many others were not so lucky. Officers in the South Vietnamese armed forces were arrested and sent for lengthy “reeducation,” often lasting many years, with noncommissioned officers also undergoing “reeducation,” albeit for shorter periods. Although privates were generally pardoned, many had no jobs, and were refused employment in the new regime, with many having to survive in menial jobs as wharf laborers, cyclo-drivers (operating cycle rickshaws), and the like. The North Vietnamese were worried that the entrepreneurial nature of the south and greater wealth would overwhelm the north. For that reason, as well as a keenness to punish the losers in the war, the South Vietnamese had their currency massively devalued by the victorious North, effectively wiping out the savings of millions of people. Soon afterwards a new currency was introduced, recognizable by small aluminum coins that contained a hole in the middle of them.

On April 25, 1976, elections were held throughout Vietnam for a new National Assembly. In all, 249 deputies were elected from the north and 243 from the south. Altogether 60 seats were reserved for members of minorities. The new National Assembly met for the first time on June 24, 1976, and on July 2, the body proclaimed the official reunification of Vietnam, with Hanoi becoming the capital of the country, and the Constitution of North Vietnam being the country’s constitution. Furthermore, the North Vietnamese flag, its anthem, and emblems became those of the new country. The president of North Vietnam, Ton Duc Thang, was the new president of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV), and the prime minister of North Vietnam, Pham Van Dong, became the prime minister of the SRV. The only major office to go to a South Vietnamese politician was Huynh Tan Phat of the PRG, who became the vice president.