Thomas Polgar was the last CIA station chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War; he helped direct the frantic airborne evacuation of US citizens and Vietnamese leaders during the final days. A Hungarian who had served in a US espionage agency during the Second World War, he joined the CIA when it was founded in 1947 and spent years working in Europe and Latin America before going to Saigon in 1972.
When he took over in Saigon, the CIA director was Richard Helms, an old friend from the Office of Strategic Services during the war. “If somebody were to assign Tom Polgar to go after me,” Helms said in 1988, “I would really be worried about it. He gets his man.”
Polgar had command over a network of 550 CIA officers, including 200 who worked undercover. By the time he arrived, support for the war back home was in free fall. Polgar was instructed by the White House to “preserve a non-communist Vietnam”, but as that became increasingly unlikely, he sent a message to Washington: “We are a rudderless ship.”
South Vietnam’s president, Nguyen Van Thieu, resigned on 21 April 1975, and Polgar was in charge of spiriting him and other officials out of the country. Thieu was driven to the airport at night in a car with the headlights turned off.
By 29 April, Saigon was under siege. The US armed forces radio station ran a coded message to begin evacuation: “The temperature in Saigon is 105 degrees and rising,” followed by 30 seconds of Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas”.
On 30 April the North Vietnamese entered Saigon, and the Americans were ordered to leave by nightfall. Polgar stayed behind, his final job to burn the CIA’s files, telegrams, code books, pictures and anything hinting at an employee’s identity. After midnight, he sent his last telegram, a sharply worded message that has entered CIA lore: “It has been a long fight and we have lost... Those who fail to learn from history are forced to repeat it. Let us hope that we will not have another Vietnam experience and that we have learned our lesson.” He then destroyed the machine on which he had sent the telegram and boarded a helicopter.
Polgar retired in 1981. In later years he was an analyst for the Senate select committee investigating the Iran-Contra scandal and worked as a consultant on defence and counter-terrorism. He was often consulted by historians and journalists writing about the CIA and the last days of Saigon.
Thomas Polgar, CIA officer: born Budapest 24 July 1922; twice married (three children); died Winter Park, Florida 22 March 2014.
© The Washington Post