TEARS BEFORE THE RAIN

An Oral History of the

Fall of South Vietnam

By Larry Engelmann

Oxford University Press. 375 pp. $22.95

CRUEL APRIL

The Fall of Saigon

By Olivier Todd

Translated from the French

By Stephen Becker

Norton. 470 pp. $24.95

"IF YOU want to win a war, you have to understand the other side," a North Vietnamese journalist and general told oral historian Larry Engelmann. "Maybe the planners in Hanoi could not get the finer details of how the Americans operated, but . . . we had a pretty good idea of how Americans behaved and what we could expect from them." A simple truth -- know your enemy -- but it was one those other planners in Washington and South Vietnam never grasped throughout the long war which ended on the last day of April, 1975, with the capture of Saigon.

They first assumed that Ho Chi Minh and his comrades were Chinese pawns, ignoring two millennia of antagonism between the Asian neighbors as well as the deep nationalist roots of the Vietnamese left. Then they believed massive bombing would destroy the morale of a people ruled by communists only to discover, belatedly, that the blitz only pushed North Vietnamese soldiers and civilians closer to the government that was leading the fight against "the foreign aggressor."

Finally, groping for a pinpoint of light at the end of the notorious tunnel, some American officials believed the enemy forces would stop their swift, almost unchallenged advance and agree to participate in a neutralist, coalition government. Even on the next-to-last day of the war, as North Vietnamese artillery was shooting down planes over Saigon, the CIA station chief continued to hope a compromise peace could be arranged. In his anxiety, he seemed to have forgotten that his enemy viewed the war as the last stage of "the Revolution." And revolutionaries who had been fighting continuously for over 30 years would not willingly settle for less than total victory.

At a time when communism appears nothing but a brutal and inefficient dinosaur, it is tempting to forget that, in some parts of the world, the disciples of Lenin were once viewed as heroes and prophets. Like other revisionist accounts of the American war in Indochina, Larry Englemann's collection of interviews with people who experienced the final days of South Vietnam has its virtues, but a comprehension of why the communists were victorious is not among them.

Many of Englemann's informants are former American officials, Marine guards, and civilians employed by one of the remaining parts of a once giant U.S. war machine. Each inevitably portrays his or her own actions as a rational response to the mass confusion and individual tragedies that attend all military defeats. What made this debacle distinct was the abrupt breakdown of the always uneasy symbiosis between Americans and their South Vietnamese allies. Graham Martin, the last U.S. ambassador, confesses he didn't "particularly like any" Vietnamese. Yet Martin claims he insisted on evacuating as many of them as possible at the end, although the Joint Chiefs were urging him to help only Americans get out. An earthier recounting comes from Clinton J. Harriman, Jr., the unsentimental captain of an ammunition ship, who to escape with his family had to crash an ancient Renault sedan through a barricade manned by hostile ARVN (South Vietnamese Army) troops. Harriman regrets only the "really divine" house he left behind in Tay Ninh and the fact that a top Communist official probably "moved right into" it.

There is an undeniable power to such accounts. Engelmann's subjects testify about horrific events that took only a few days to occur but which permanently changed their lives. Fifteen years ago, a few of those events were splayed, like political homicides, across the television screen: a cargo plane full of orphans bound for the U. S. crashes right after takeoff; thousands of Vietnamese, in a frenzied rush to escape the revenge of the victors, storm the American embassy and cling to the skids of departing helicopters; packed aircraft of all sizes simultaneously descend on giant U. S. carriers and, after expelling their human contents, are shoved into the South China Sea. The oral histories do nothing to alter the impressions drawn from those TV images. But they do convey the determination of Americans to leave the country with some vestige of their personal honor intact.

Not surprisingly, Engelmann's Vietnamese informants remember the same days with far more bitterness than pride. Former ARVN officers defend themselves against charges of corruption and cowardice. Civilians who worked for the U. S. are still angry that the Ford administration, faced with a disillusioned Congress and public, was unable and unwilling to back up with bombers its verbal commitment to their cause. Aside from a handful of military men from the North, Engelmann's Vietnamese subjects were almost all educated, economically comfortable residents of Saigon before they fled. The millions of peasants and menial laborers in the South who may have held different opinions remain a silent majority.OLIVIER TODD's well-informed narrative, Cruel April, is similarly mute about the people upon whom the Vietcong depended to feed their troops and resist the U.S. and ARVN forces. Todd, whose anti-communism comes off more as reflex than conviction, focuses tightly on the various clusters of leaders involved: cynical Americans eager to be rid of the whole affair, South Vietnamese alternately frantic and naive about their fate under a new regime, and confident North Vietnamese commanders amazed that their victory comes so swiftly and so easily. Although his ragged prose, as translated, often resembles the script for a made-for-TV movie (example from the last desperate hours at the U.S. embassy -- "Now and then the Marines club them. There are Japanese and Koreans in the crowd as well. If you're white, someone will help haul you over the walls."), the book brims with detail and distanced insights. Todd abhors the Communist conquest of Vietnam but knows that, by 1975, any other fate was impossible.

To recognize that fact is not, of course, necessarily to applaud it. The Vietnamese Communists were never among the more libertarian of their political breed, and only recently have they begun to creep toward accepting a mixed economy and allowing some writers to stray from the party line. But postwar events should not absolve authors -- and other Americans still plagued by Vietnam -- of the need to respect what those Communists -- and millions of their countrymen and women -- accomplished. With a primitive industrial base and weapons that, until the final offensive, were always far inferior to their opponents', these people defeated the most powerful country in world history to win what they believed was their independence. Someday, a historian not blinded by allegiance to either side will explain how they did it.

Michael Kazin teaches history at American University. He is the author of "Barons of Labor."