This article appeared in the April 12, 1975 edition of The Nation.
As the rout of Saigon showed, when it came to Vietnam our “best and the brightest” were, more accurately, the worst and the dumbest.
The disastrous rout of panic-stricken troops in South Vietnam has suddenly and dramatically illuminated the folly of American intervention in that unhappy land. American military advisers on the scene express surprise that troops trained under their supervision should, in a few days and without a fight, have surrendered nearly two-thirds of the country. These troops were not overpowered or out-gunned; they abandoned perhaps $1 billion in American-supplied arms and equipment. They simply lacked the will to fight, which, in the circumstances, should surprise no one. It has been a matter of international notoriety that senior command posts in ARVN have gone to political appointees, that corruption is rampant and that morale has been a problem since the war began. Troops and people alike are utterly weary of a war that has never had much meaning for them.
The Communists seized Ban Me Thuot in three days, and, according to Malcolm Browne in The New York Times, met with almost no resistance; indeed “most of the government troops remained in the town with them.” When it became known in Hud that officers and their families were pulling out, along with civil administrators, panic quickly spread and the great exodus was on. Thousands of soldiers and civilians streamed down Highway 1 toward the presumed safety of Da Nang, only to have the same drama re-enacted there. In effect, Da Nang was captured by Saigon’s own troops, rather than the North Vietnamese. Browne reports: “The reign of terror of government forces in the City cost many lives and effectively kept aid from being sent in and kept refugees from getting out. The government soldiers were prepared to kill anyone, including women and children, to escape the city…. The commander of the whole northern region…spent his final day on a boat off the Da Nang coast watching helplessly as his renegade army roared through the dying city, waiting for the Northern Vietnamese to come in and restore order.”
Nor should there be any surprise about or any misreading of the massive civilian exodus from the Central Highlands. No doubt, some fled from political choice or because they had reason to fear reprisal. The long struggle against the French often took on aspects of a civil war, and left the Vietnamese with a heritage of mutual fears and hatred that cut across even family and village ties; in part, this accounts for the volume of the exodus. But the mass of refugees fled for all kinds of nonpolitical reasons: to quit what might become a battle zone; to escape expected retaliatory air raids from the South that never came; because they feared separation from relatives or followed husbands and fathers in the armed services who were fleeing; some from sheer panic and fright and others because they were caught up in the flood of refugees and were carried along with it.
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