History Revisited

Editor's Introduction


On the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese Army and the evacuation of many thousands of Americans and South Vietnamese from the country, we take a look back at the Foreign Service role in Vietnam.

Why revisit Vietnam? After all, the history of the war has been written and rewritten. Yet the civilian side of the story—the work and experiences of Foreign Service personnel who served in Vietnam during the 1960s and 1970s—is not so well known. At the time, all those joining the Foreign Service knew there was more than a good chance they would be sent to Vietnam. That’s what worldwide availability meant.

Service in Vietnam shaped a generation of Foreign Service officers, but do we understand how? As of late 1971, some 600 FSOs—or 20 percent of the Foreign Service—had served in Vietnam, more than half of them with the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support program, or CORDS.

In the following pages, we bring you some of the voices of the FS Vietnam generation, starting with an account of the beginning of the end, the 1968 Tet Offensive. First-person narratives of the final days in Saigon from different vantage points follow. And a critical review of the counterinsurgency effort and an analysis and snapshots of Vietnam today round out the presentation. In these stories you will find plenty of drama and tragedy, but also bravery, hope and inspiration. And, not least, lessons for today.

Expeditionary Diplomacy Redux

The Foreign Service experience in Vietnam, and in particular with CORDS and its predecessor counterinsurgency efforts, was “expeditionary diplomacy” in all but name. Language-trained FSOs serving in the provinces were able to gain a true understanding of the real situation on the ground, not something that was always welcome in Washington, or even at the embassy in Saigon. In addition to reporting, these FSOs were directly involved in leading project work in cooperation with the military. Mortal danger was ever-present. In all, 42 FSOs—most serving with or assigned to USAID—were killed in Vietnam between 1965 and 1975. Their names are inscribed on the AFSA Memorial Plaque at the State Department.

In 1975, out of an extremely tragic situation of a new nation and U.S. ally collapsing, heroes emerged who, collectively, saved thousands of people. The two other U.S. allies in the Indochina war also fell that year. Cambodia fell to the Khmer Rouge on April 17, and Laos collapsed gradually as the Pathet Lao seized power. In subsequent years, the U.S. accepted significant numbers of refugees from both countries.

At the heart of our story is a group of FSOs who, acting largely without instruction (and in some cases without permission) in the face of U.S. government inaction, organized what would become the largest refugee resettlement operation since World War II to rescue at-risk Vietnamese.

Two of them, Lionel Rosenblatt and Craig Johnstone, saw the writing on the wall from Washington and, frustrated that the U.S. government was not planning for the end, set off for Vietnam on their own, helping several hundred Vietnamese get out. In 1976, the two received AFSA dissent awards for their efforts. While Lionel Rosenblatt is not an author in this issue, his insights and recommendations informed our choices for who best to tell the story. For that, I offer this public note of thanks.

In total, some 1.5 million people from Indochina were resettled, approximately one million of them in the United States. Overall, the refugees have done well in their new lands. Today, those same refugees are helping—through all kinds of connections and expanding trade—forging new and peaceful ties between the United States and Vietnam.

The View from Different Vantage Points

Our coverage starts on Jan. 30, 1968, with the first strike of the Tet Offensive. Junior Officer Allan Wendt was on duty at Embassy Saigon that night, and he describes his experience inside the embassy during the attack, keeping up communications with the White House, the State Department and the U.S. military while rockets hit the building. The Tet Offensive was a landmark event that spelled the beginning of the end for the U.S. war effort. The American public and Congress turned against the war effort at that point even though, as Wendt saw it, “pacification was working” and there were signs of progress. But it was too late.

Kenneth Quinn takes us “From Whitehouse to the White House,” from his Vietnam service in the provinces under Chargé Charles Whitehouse to a post inside the National Security Council with a front-row seat to the Washington policy process. He recounts how the diplomatic surge of the early 1970s allowed for extraordinary reporting from the provinces of Vietnam.

Then, in “Mobilizing for South Vietnam’s Last Days,” we follow Parker Borg, who was serving as a seventh-floor staffer in 1975 when he and a few colleagues became concerned about a lack of evacuation planning from Embassy Saigon. The group began meeting in secret to plan. In “Saigon Sayonara,” Joe McBride gives us the ground-floor view from Saigon during the final days before the fall. He describes how, in the absence of leadership from a front office still in denial of the coming fall, FSOs took matters into their own hands to help get people out, by any means possible.

Anne Pham was one of the Vietnamese who was saved by these Americans. In “Finding My Heroes, Finding Myself,” she describes her journey from Vietnam to America, from refugee child to State Department official, and her search to find and thank the FSOs who helped her and her family escape and make new lives in the United States.

In a look at the social impact of more than three million Americans passing through a country of 26 million (think marriage and babies), Lange Schermerhorn describes consular work at Embassy Saigon during that tumultuous period in “Doing Social Work in Southeast Asia.” Taking the view from 1,000 feet, Vietnam expert Rufus Phillips (who served in Vietnam as an Army officer, a CIA officer, a USAID official and consultant to the State Department) describes the counterinsurgency efforts in Vietnam, drawing out the important lessons they offer policymakers today, especially in relation to U.S. assistance to weak and failing states threatened with extremism and disintegration.

CSIS scholar Murray Hiebert then brings us to today’s Vietnam and his take on how much has changed there. And finally, Parker Borg takes us on his 2015 journey to “The New Vietnam.” He returns to the towns in central Vietnam where he had lived and worked in the late 1960s and early 1970s to find a pervasive military presence alongside a friendly and entrepreneurial spirit in the towns and sprawling cities.

In Reflections we revisit Wake Island in 1975. Bruce Beardsley served in Vietnam in the mid-1960s and again in the early-1970s, but was called out of Kabul in April 1975 to help out with the enormous task of refugee processing there.

Learning from the Past

The June 1975 Foreign Service Journal editorial called “Losing” begins: “The Vietnam War is over. … The end of American involvement in Vietnam has been a cause for immediate concern first for practical and then for professional reasons. … The career Service left behind in Vietnam a record of dedication and sacrifice, and in many cases, of courageous reporting and responsible dissent. Yet as an institution, we also made mistakes. AFSA believes a post mortem of the Vietnam era will be useful to the nation, and that the career Service can contribute greatly to that process. We would welcome ideas on how that might best be done.”

There is little to indicate that such an assessment was ever undertaken. Yet the Journal published a number of fascinating articles on Vietnam issues during those years and later. And in reaching out to prepare this issue, we discovered that there is much more remarkable material that Vietnam diplomatic veterans are inspired to share than we could accommodate, even in this expanded focus.

So we have also created a “Vietnam Supplement” on the AFSA website (www.afsa.org/vietnam) as a companion to the April Journal. There you will find photos and stories from AFSA members on their experiences in Vietnam, then and now, as well as previous FSJ articles on the subject. Taken all together, it could be considered a contribution to the reckoning AFSA sensibly proposed 40 years ago.

Please help carry the conversation forward by sending letters in response to what you read here and your thoughts on lessons learned—or not learned—from Vietnam.