Pierre Asselin is the author of “Vietnam’s American War: A History.”
The American war in Vietnam was a tragic outcome of misguided decisions by capable men with questionable aspirations. In “Honorable Exit: How a Few Brave Americans Risked All to Save Our Vietnamese Allies at the End of the War,” journalist and historian Thurston Clarke demonstrates how U.S. policymakers mismanaged the conflict to its very end, bungling even the extrication of the last Americans and at-risk Vietnamese before the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975.
Despite its unfortunate subtitle, “Honorable Exit” is a serious, well-researched and engaging attempt to relate the story of the last days of South Vietnam, or the Republic of Vietnam. Clarke spent countless hours conducting and listening to interviews with those who tried to get themselves — and others — out of the country. He contextualizes their experiences using declassified U.S. government documents that shed revealing light on the dismal failure of the Ford administration and the ambassador to South Vietnam, Graham Martin, in particular, to prepare for the repatriation of U.S. personnel and the extraction of Vietnamese whose lives would be in danger if they stayed behind. The latter included the spouses, lovers and children of Americans, as well as interpreters, fixers, and upper-echelon government, military and intelligence personnel. Clarke excels at balancing captivating oral history and illuminating political history.
The author’s work as a novelist is evident in the way he delineates key players. The good are very good and the bad, well, very bad. Their actions are set against the backdrop of an ugly reality: the imminent final triumph of communist armies and the bloodbath likely to ensue as they exacted revenge on “traitorous” compatriots, a precedent set in Hue in 1968 (fortunately never replicated).
The protagonists in this story are a handful of Americans, mostly men but also some women, who defied orders and facilitated the escape by aircraft or ship of Vietnamese with close personal or professional ties to the United States. These civilian and military employees effectively mutinied against the passivity and foolhardiness of their superiors. They clandestinely compiled lists of endangered Vietnamese and their relatives before arranging rendezvous points and transportation for their extraction. They had the idea of converting suitable downtown Saigon rooftops into helipads, as shown in the iconic photo by Dutch photojournalist Hubert Van Es (contrary to popular belief, that is not the U.S. Embassy rooftop).
Boldly assuming that the U.S. government would not leave them behind, these daring Americans refused to board rescue ships and helicopters until most if not all the Vietnamese for whom they felt responsible had departed. Risking their careers and lives, they collectively saved more than 130,000 men, women and children. “America’s first helicopter war,” Clarke writes, ended with “the largest helicopter evacuation in military history.” Sanctioned by neither the White House nor Ambassador Martin, the effort constituted the biggest wartime evacuation since Dunkirk in 1940 and the largest humanitarian operation in American history to date.
According to Clarke, the sum of these individual, surreptitious endeavors amounted to nothing less than the creation of an “underground railroad,” a reference to the secret network of routes, places and people who helped runaways from U.S. slave states reach safer havens during the first half of the 19th century. The risks taken in South Vietnam not only saved lives; they also offered countless people the prospect of a brighter future in the United States, where the overwhelming majority of this first wave of refugees resettled. For the Americans who orchestrated the extractions, the “railroad” was a way to atone for their country’s perceived betrayal of South Vietnam and its people. It was also a means to preserve and restore the American credibility and honor squandered by decision-makers in Washington.
The chief antagonist is Martin. It was his charge as ambassador to coordinate the evacuation of personnel with political and military authorities. However, he refused to take timely and essential steps because he feared sounding alarm bells. “Panic in Saigon arising from our actions” was “a far greater worry to me than North Vietnamese capabilities,” he told Secretary of State Henry Kissinger two weeks before the South fell. Convinced that Hanoi favored negotiating the surrender of Saigon over directly assaulting it — deceitfully insinuated by North Vietnamese policymakers and relayed by the Soviets — Martin disregarded requests from Washington for evacuation lists and contingencies, and even discouraged his staff from engaging in such planning. Despite repeated warnings from in-country subordinates, he obdurately refused to believe that the situation below the 17th parallel was calamitous.
In the dramatic closing days of the war, Martin proved variously intransigent, self-serving, devious, demanding, insubordinate and “nutty” — suggesting as late as April 9 that the Ford administration promote private-sector investment in South Vietnam to prop up the regime of President Nguyen Van Thieu. The large-scale evacuation plan he eventually submitted was wholly inadequate and illogical. Martin was nothing less than “spectacularly wrong” about how the war would end. His pride and stubbornness turned the final phase of Operation Frequent Wind, the evacuation from the South Vietnamese capital, into pandemonium.
Martin was not only unprepared to extract his own people; he made no allowance for the safe passage of Vietnamese, except Thieu and his close entourage. He had no qualms about condemning tens of thousands “tainted” by intimate association with the United States to a sordid fate under new masters. Martin’s bosses in Washington were no nobler. President Gerald Ford and Kissinger had long since decided to put Vietnam behind them to focus on more pressing problems. As Saigon’s collapse loomed, each became more concerned about protecting his good name than helping refugees. The United States had to “make a show” of trying to assist fleeing Vietnamese, Kissinger told an aide; it did not actually have to save them.
In its final chapters, “Honorable Exit” expertly captures the mayhem of South Vietnam’s dying days. Clarke vividly renders the “Convoy of Tears” resulting from Thieu’s decision to precipitously withdraw his forces from the central highlands; the terror perpetrated against civilians by frantic and heavily armed deserters from the South Vietnamese army; and the crash — among the most lethal in U.S. aviation history — of a plane carrying Vietnamese orphans to the United States as part of Operation Babylift. The period remembered in certain circles as “Black April” was indeed a dark chapter in the history of the United States and for those Vietnamese who abetted its mission in Vietnam. A few good Americans made it a little brighter.
Correction: An earlier version of this review said that the crash of a plane carrying Vietnamese orphans to the United States in 1975 ranks as the most lethal in U.S. aviation history. It ranks among the most lethal in U.S. aviation history. The text has been corrected.
By Thurston Clarke
430 pp. $30