In a couple of days, many Americans are going to look back four decades at the end of a chapter that turned terribly tragic, not just for the United States, but also for an ally with whom we fought side by side for seemingly forever.
Saigon fell to North Vietnamese Army troops on April 30, 1975. They rolled into the capital city of South Vietnam, took down the defeated nation’s flag at the presidential palace and raised the flag of North Vietnam.
Twenty-five years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Bui Tin in Hanoi, the man who accepted the surrender of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. He was in the tank that had smashed through the gate at the presidential palace and accepted the surrender of South Vietnamese president Duong Van “Big” Minh.
I was among a group of journalists touring the country and Bui Tin was among the dignitaries we got to meet. He told us his memories of the end of the Vietnam War.
Bui Tin, of course, was on the winning side.
His memory is different from that of some of the journalists who questioned him that day. A handful of us had served in Vietnam during the war. But what a marvelous encounter it was to talk candidly with a key player in that long and tragic struggle.
I wrote a blog for Panhandle PBS, which tonight broadcast a special, “The Last Days in Vietnam.” It tells the story of the end of that war. It was inglorious for our side.
For our former enemy, well, it meant something quite different. The “American war” had ended. The enemy outlasted us, even though military historians have noted for decades that we actually prevailed on the battlefield. We inflicted far more casualties on them than they did on us. We scored military victory after military victory against the NVA and the Viet Cong.
Talk about losing the battles but winning the war.
They had the patience we didn’t have.
I ran across this quote, from North Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Van Dong, who in December 1966 said this to New York Times reporter Harrison E. Salisbury:
“How long do you Americans want to fight? … One year? Two years? Three years? Five years? Ten years? Twenty years? We will be glad to accommodate you.”
Yes, they were glad.
It was being fought on their ground, in their homes … and on their terms.
And we haven’t gotten over it yet.