Prisoners of the past

Brian Barron returns to Vietnam
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The Independent Online

Even now, a quarter of a century later, the general shakes his head, chuckling in disbelief at the way Saigon surrendered: just think of it, a country and its capital handed on a plate to him and his North Vietnamese army. Unlike many battles in earlier years, Operation Ho Chi Minh, launched by Hanoi in spring 1975, lasted just 51 days and resulted in total victory, with surprisingly low casualties for the Communist forces.

Even now, a quarter of a century later, the general shakes his head, chuckling in disbelief at the way Saigon surrendered: just think of it, a country and its capital handed on a plate to him and his North Vietnamese army. Unlike many battles in earlier years, Operation Ho Chi Minh, launched by Hanoi in spring 1975, lasted just 51 days and resulted in total victory, with surprisingly low casualties for the Communist forces.

The general, Vu Xuan Vinh, now a benign-looking grandfather in his 70s, commandedrocket and anti-aircraft units in the final assault that brought about the enforced unification of Vietnam. Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in honour of the revolutionary leader who had died in 1969.

General Vu is retired but remains one of the revered veterans who triumphed against the French colonial army and then the Americans and their South Vietnamese protégés. "At the start of 1975," he says, "our high command reckoned it would take two years to liberate the South. But then, when the Saigon force began collapsing, we cut the forecast to one year. Then suddenly the army of the South was panicking and on the run and we realised we could win in a matter of weeks, not months."

The general's forces exercised restraint as the last few hundred Americans scrambled away by helicopter to a fleet in the South China Sea. "Their helicopters were easy targets but we held back ... because they were carrying harmless people who just wanted to get out and we didn't want to provoke the Americans into a military response when Saigon was all but in our grasp."

The speed of Saigon's fall also stunned the United States and resulted in tens of thousands of South Vietnamese military and civilian personnel being left behind to be captured, despite promises of evacuation. Today, in Los Angeles, Frank Snepp, a key CIA official in the embassy who took one of the last helicopters out, says Washington betrayed its allies.

"I was terrified not for myself but for my Vietnamese friends, because all during that last day we received calls in the CIA operations room. I called them 'sound-mares' - nightmares in sound. Hundreds of our Vietnamese staff called ... desperate to be rescued as they waited for our helicopters on rooftops. We in the CIA got on the radios and assured them we'd be back for them but it was never going to happen." On the day Saigon surrendered, a Vietnamese friend of Mr Snepp killed herself and her child - which she said was his - when he failed to get them a flight out.

The South Vietnamese who did escape were the élite: from President Nguyen Van Thieu, whose military blunders brought defeat, to most of his generals, who abandoned their men and fled to the American fleet. Many discredited southern commanders now live comfortably in America, having amassed black-market fortunes during the war.

Like others of his generation who volunteered for Vietnam, Frank Snepp is haunted by Saigon's surrender after a war in which 58,000 Americans died.

Another battle-scarred veteran is James Keane, a Marine Corps major who volunteered for several tours of combat duty and survived a sniper's bullet in the head. As Saigon fell, he was in charge of US marines guarding the embassy, the focal point of the helicopter evacuation. Throwing tear-gas canisters behind them, the last 12 marines were chased up the embassy stairs by Vietnamese desperate to escape themselves. The major and his men barricaded themselves on the roof and had a grandstand view of Hanoi's tanks seizing Saigon. At this time I was in the street outside, filming the mob looting the embassy's lower floors.

When the last helicopter plucked the marines from the embassy roof, Mr Keane recalls: "I was crying and I think all the marines were ... But most of all we were embarrassed as to how the United States had got itself in a position where it had to tuck tail and run - and leave so many of our friends behind."

Since the end of the war, Mr Keane has become wealthy as a pioneer investor in Microsoft but Vietnam is never far from his mind. "There were loyal southerners who fought hard and died if necessary on their guns. But most of the military leaders ... were corrupt. Without the United States they couldn't hack it against the superior motivation of the north."

Old Saigon has been stripped of its power and prestige. A few enormous hotels dot the centre but development overall has been meagre. The US embassy has been pulled down on Washington's orders to symbolise a fresh start with Vietnam. Only the rocket-proof outer wall and its unmanned watch towers remain. Inside the compound there is a single-storey consulate.

Down the road, at the Independence Palace, are the ornamental gates through which North Vietnamese tanks crashed as we watched on 30 April 1975. The palace is the Communist state's ultimate war trophy and every day hundreds of Vietnamese tourists are shown round. In the garden, its gun pointing at the palace front door, is one of the original conquering tanks.

Compared with my last visit to Vietnam 10 years ago, the atmosphere in north and south is markedly more relaxed. The worst excesses of the state security apparatus's human- rights abuses are well in the past. But there is a palpablesense of stagnation. Western and Asian executives who poured into Vietnam in the mid-Nineties, spending nearly $2bn on projects, have staged their own retreat. Nearly all lost money and left, complaining of Communist bureaucracy and endemic corruption.

Politically, a siege mentality has taken root. The leaders are isolated, especially internationally. They have backed away from signing a US trade deal. The assumption is that politburo hardliners supported by the military old guard objected to any concessions to their old enemy; after all, Vietnamese children today are taught about what is called "the American War".

There has been progress in health care and education but Vietnam suffers from a lack of imagination about solutions to problems, social and economic. It has not met the reasonable aspirations of the rural poor, especially in the south. In the cities, the one-party state is unwilling to open the minds of its talented young.

A telling example is the authorities' determination to retain control of the internet. In the six years I covered the war in Vietnam I saw the Communists and nationalists prepared to sacrifice themselves, creating one of the most potent warrior myths of our time. In those days, in the final act of a war against a superpower and its sleazy protégé, they had seized the moral high ground. But now the élite in Hanoi have become prisoners of the past. Twenty-five years after achieving total victory, the old excuse of blaming the war for their continuing troubles is no longer adequate. Vietnam's rulers are afraid of new ideas and anything that might undermine their absolute control.

Brian Barron has been a BBC foreign correspondent for 33 years. Currently he is moving from New York to Rome to report for BBC TV News.

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