REVIEW: Honorable Exit by Thurston Clarke
A groundbreaking revisionist history of the last days of the Vietnam War that reveals the acts of American heroism that saved more than one hundred thousand South Vietnamese from communist revenge
In 1973 U.S. participation in the Vietnam War ended in a cease-fire and a withdrawal that included promises by President Nixon to assist the South in the event of invasion by the North. But in early 1975, when North Vietnamese forces began a full-scale assault, Congress refused to send arms or aid. By early April that year, the South was on the brink of a defeat that threatened execution or years in a concentration camp for the untold number of South Vietnamese who had supported the government in Saigon or worked with Americans.
Thurston Clarke begins Honorable Exit by describing the iconic photograph of the Fall of Saigon: desperate Vietnamese scrambling to board a helicopter evacuating the last American personnel from Vietnam. It is an image of U.S. failure and shame. Or is it? By unpacking the surprising story of heroism that the photograph actually tells, Clarke launches into a narrative that is both a thrilling race against time and an important corrective to the historical record. For what is less known is that during those final days, scores of Americans–diplomats, businessmen, soldiers, missionaries, contractors, and spies–risked their lives to assist their current and former translators, drivers, colleagues, neighbors, friends, and even perfect strangers in escape. By the time the last U.S. helicopter left Vietnam on April 30, 1975, these righteous Americans had helped to spirit 130,000 South Vietnamese to U.S. bases in Guam and the Philippines. From there, the evacuees were resettled in the U.S. and became American citizens, the leading edge of one of America’s most successful immigrant groups.
Into this tale of heroism on the ground Clarke weaves the political machinations of Henry Kissinger advising President Ford in the White House while reinforcing the delusions of the U.S. Ambassador in Saigon, who, at the last minute, refused to depart. Groundbreaking, page-turning, and authoritative, Honorable Exit is a deeply moving history of Americans at a little-known finest hour.
Dear Mr. Clarke,
I will go ahead and date myself by saying that I grew up during the 1960s and 1970s when the nightly news would list the body counts from Vietnam. But I was too young to know anyone there so it remained more or less in my consciousness but not something that impacted me personally. I do remember bits about the “fall of Saigon” but it wasn’t until much later that I began to educate myself about the details and started looking for books about the last days of the war and the evacuation.
Surprisingly – or maybe not surprisingly given how for decades America seemed to want to forget it ever happened – I could only find one book from a journalist’s point of view. But then this was pre-internet and it wasn’t so easy then as it is now to find things. Still, a recounting of the nitty gritty details of April 1975 in South Vietnam eluded me. Then I saw this book and thought “maybe this will be it.” And it is.
Beginning in January 1975, many Americans in South Vietnam started to see signs that the “decent interval” between the US military departure and the fall of South Vietnam that Henry Kissinger had wanted after the Paris Peace Treaty was signed was over. Getting most officials in Washington or Saigon to believe this proved almost impossible. The Party Line was still being toed complete with diplomatic and CIA versions of the famous Army “Five O’clock Follies” which proclaimed that everything was fine. Rank and file level Americans in South Vietnam listened in disbelief. They wondered what these people were smoking.
Realizing that nothing was being done to prepare any type of evacuation of American citizens much less vulnerable South Vietnamese, many began to plan in secret. As the writing appeared on the wall, plans were sped up. The fall of Ban Me Thuot and then Da Nang (complete with the harrowing account of wild Ed Daly’s attempt to fly out women and children on his World Airways planes that turned into a debacle and was shown on the evening news in the US) accelerated their efforts. Lists of vulnerable people were made and when they ran up against official roadblocks, they got creative.
One South Vietnamese man married to a New Zealander who was already home, was told to paint a sedan black, put a Japanese flag on it, have someone drive him to the airport wearing a black homburg and suit and drive straight up to the Royal Australian Air Force planes that were flying anyone out. He did and got out. Pan Am sent a 747 to Saigon to evacuate all their South Vietnamese employees including baggage handlers, ticket agents, mechanics, and a ground traffic controller who directed the plane to the runway and then crawled into it through the wheel well.
Diplomats “adopted” first children and then later the adults trying to flee the country – signing forms guaranteeing to be financially responsible for their resettlement in the US. Hospital employees working with Amerasian orphans got them out and then “doctored” themselves up with bloody bandages and IVs before riding ambulances to the airports.
The consul director hatched plans for a mass flotilla on landing crafts from Can Tho out to the US Seventh fleet steaming offshore. A US navy officer arrived (on that last flight that Pan Am flew to Saigon) with directions to get the naval ships that the US had given South Vietnam sailed down the Saigon River to the fleet. Those ships also carried almost 30,000 South Vietnamese.
Black Ops were running out of Tan Son Nhut Air Base with the US Air Force turning a blind eye to the immigration illegalities and flying thousands of people out to the Philippines and Guam. Several former military men who had become close to the South Vietnamese they worked and fought with returned to the country to try and get their friends and their families out then often stayed to help total strangers escape. State department employees also risked shit-canning their careers by coming back without permission and working to arrange unauthorized operations.
I’ve never quite understood the actions – or in-actions – of Ambassador Graham Martin and it appears that President Ford, Henry Kissinger, and many of the personnel at the embassy in Saigon were just as puzzled. I know I’m looking back at events with 20/20 hindsight but this book made me want to conk him over the head before offering something that might explain – at least a little – why he appeared so calm and dismissive of the need for immediate action and planning before everything went to hell in the last few days. Yet he does deserve to be given credit for ensuring that the airlift from the embassy continued for as long as it did by trickling out Americans in the helicopter trips thus allowing thousands more South Vietnamese to escape and it did take a direct order from President Ford to finally get Martin to leave.
Finally I’ve read the overall account of what happened during those last months that I’ve been searching for. The book does not delve into the war itself but focuses on the efforts of those who felt that the US owed a moral debt to evacuate those who would suffer for their affiliations with the US during the war or had worked with the Saigon government. Though far more should have been, almost 130,000 were helped in those last months who have gone on to make lives for themselves in the US. B+