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Opinion: The fall of Saigon

Thirty-five years later, what have we learned? Not much, it turns out.

Military honor guards, in airforce uniforms, march before a ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi, April 26, 2010. Vietnam plans to celebrate on Friday the 35th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, one of the 20th century's bloodiest wars. (Nguyen Huy Kham/reuters)

BOSTON — April 29th, 35 years ago, was a day of fear, sorrow, uncertainty in what would be the last day of the Republic of South Vietnam.

People milled through the streets, many wailing and in tears. Crowds surrounded the American Embassy as helicopters began the final and humiliating American evacuation after 35 years of effort — first supporting the French, and then on our own.

That day began for me with the sound of artillery rounds landing in the city shortly before dawn. My colleagues were gathering in the hallway of Saigon’s old Continental Hotel. One had a radio tuned to the U.S. embassy frequency, and there we would learn of the last Americans to die in the Vietnam War — two marines who were killed while guarding the airport.

The embassy was reporting that the airport would soon no longer be usable as it was being shelled, and so we made our way to the U.S. embassy to await the helicopters that would take us away to Navy ships in the South China Sea.

Hysterical Vietnamese whom we were leaving behind would press pathetic notes through the wire. “I am working for the Americans. Please tell Mr. Jacobson I am here,” read one. American marines, manning the wall, would step on the fingers of Vietnamese trying to climb over to safety.

And when the helicopters came, we rose above the city in a sudden rain. I could see panicked people trying to force their way aboard crowded boats in the Saigon River. Away to the northeast ammunition dumps were blowing up and fires raged in the distance.

We crossed the coast in the gathering dark. South Vietnamese army helicopters, like butterflies borne on an off-shore wind, landed briefly on the waiting ships before being tossed over the side to make room for more. All about us lay a flotilla of helplessly overcrowded boats. These were the first of the boat people who in the year to come would account for a great hemorrhaging of Vietnam’s population. On the following day North Vietnamese tanks would enter Saigon.

What was it all for? Henry Cabot Lodge,  a former American ambassador to Saigon, later wrote: “Was the United States engaged in an imperialist adventure far from our own shores? Or were we defending a small nation, pledged to democratic government from naked aggression? Did limitations placed on our use of military force keep us from a swift and decisive victory? Or were we engaged in a war that could not be won even with the most sophisticated and lethal weapons? Were the Vietcong freedom fighters seeking to liberate their country from centuries of foreign domination? Or were they simply terrorists, willing to use any means to gain power?

“Did the ultimate collapse of South Vietnam signify a loss of will on the part of the American people? Or were we fighting the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time? ”

My answer to this last question would be yes.