The fall of South Vietnam

fall of south vietnam
US personnel push helicopters into the sea to make way for evacuees from Saigon.

The fall of South Vietnam came in 1975, almost three years after the United States had withdrawn most of its combat troops. By early 1972 Richard Nixon’s policy of Vietnamisation had transformed the military situation in South Vietnam. More than two-thirds of American servicemen had been withdrawn over the previous two years; fewer than 135,000 US personnel remained ‘in country’. In contrast, the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) and other branches of the military contained more than one million men. In February 1972 Nixon paid a week-long visit to China, where he conducted talks with Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and other Chinese leaders. President Nixon later announced plans to restore diplomatic relations between the United States and China, a move that shocked the world. One of its many consequences was to drive a wedge between China and North Vietnam.

At the end of March 1972, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) began the Nguyen Hue Offensive, also dubbed the Easter Offensive. More than 180,000 NVA troops, armed with massive Russian material support, invaded South Vietnam. The push for a major offensive came mostly from North Vietnam’s defence minister Vo Nguyen Giap and party secretary Le Duan, who had the support of Moscow. They did not expect this offensive would remove Nguyen Van Thieu’s government but they hoped to seize control of around two-thirds of South Vietnam. This gain in territory would improve Hanoi’s bargaining power at the Paris peace conference. The offensive was also intended to fuel the anti-war movement in the US and disrupt Nixon’s campaign for re-election in November 1972.

The North’s invasion of South Vietnam, however, was a fiasco. It was poorly planned and executed and revealed the North’s inexperience in conventional warfare. Hanoi’s invasion plans were broad and ambitious but lacked the required number of men. The North also underestimated the fighting capabilities of the ARVN, which was by now equipped with American tanks, artillery and aircraft. Though US combat troops were long gone, the South Vietnamese still had support from US aerial bombers and naval artillery. NVA armour was trapped in confined areas, where it was pounded and destroyed by ARVN artillery and heavy aerial bombardment. The North Vietnamese infantry, tied down in set-piece battles, was also badly mauled by heavy artillery and bombing raids. By late autumn 1972, the Easter Offensive had slowed to an exhausted stalemate. The North Vietnamese had taken less than one-third of South Vietnam, while the ARVN were unable to expel them back across the border.

As costly as it was, the Easter Offensive still gave Hanoi control of South Vietnam’s northern provinces. This territory would prove valuable as a bargaining chip at the Paris peace talks, as well as a foothold for further incursions into the South. The offensive also demonstrated that invasions of South Vietnam were likely to fail while Saigon was still supported by American air power. The North Vietnamese decided to give ground in negotiations, to encourage the Americans to withdraw completely from Vietnam. In October 1972 Le Duc Tho approached Henry Kissinger with a secret peace deal: the North would recognise the government of Nguyen Van Thieu and commit to free elections, provided the American military withdrew from South Vietnam. The deal was eagerly accepted by Nixon, who suspended all bombing, proclaimed a ceasefire and announced the imminent withdrawal of remaining US personnel.

Nixon had to convince the outraged Thieu to agree to the peace treaty. He did this by promising the resumption of American bombing if North Vietnam breached the agreement and resumed hostilities. Several events in 1973, however, made this unlikely. A massive stock market crash, beginning in January 1973 and continuing for two years, wiped more than 40 per cent off the Dow Jones and stalled business and consumer confidence in the US. In June the United States Congress passed the Case-Church amendment, which explicitly prohibited American military action in south-east Asia after August 1973. A month later Congress passed the War Powers Resolution, which limited the president’s ability to deploy the military without a congressional declaration of war. And in October an oil embargo by Arab states caused oil prices to more than double, greatly increasing the cost of military transport.

“The feeling of many South Vietnamese that they were being abandoned had been growing since the Paris agreement, especially after the US had ignored the North Vietnamese violations of the accords. This feeling had become even more pronounced as a result of the successive cuts in aid. These reductions had been aggravated by the worldwide rise in prices… The constant criticising by the US Congress and press of South Vietnamese corruption, implying that South Vietnam did not really deserve US support, appeared to add insult to injury.”
Guenter Lewy, historian

Though still too weak to launch another full-scale offensive, Hanoi was now aware that it could do so without the threat of American bombing. Smaller Viet Cong operations and sabotage continued; these opened divisions and lowered morale in the ARVN. Through 1974 the North prepared itself for a final invasion of South Vietnam. In American domestic politics, Richard Nixon departed the White House, resigning in August 1974 as a result of the long-running Watergate scandal. Nixon’s successor Gerald Ford went to Congress seeking $1.45 billion in aid for South Vietnam but was given only $700 million. In December Hanoi tested the new president’s mettle by launching an attack in Phuoc Long province, a clear violation of the Paris treaty. Ford protested but took no military action. The path was now clear for North Vietnam to invade the South.

The final North Vietnamese offensive began on March 10th 1975. Hanoi’s military leadership anticipated that the reunification of Vietnam would be a long and bitter struggle, lasting between one and two years. Instead, they were stunned by the rapid collapse of South Vietnam’s military resistance. Without American air support, ARVN divisions scattered and fled or were quickly captured. Within a week Saigon had surrendered two more northern provinces and thousands of ARVN soldiers had deserted. Sensing a rapid victory, Hanoi immediately expanded the offensive. By the end of March, the major cities of Hue and Da Nang had been captured and more than 100,000 ARVN had been taken prisoner. Over the next three weeks, several divisions of NVA and Viet Cong moved south towards Saigon.

On April 21st the upset South Vietnamese president Nguyen Van Thieu appeared on Saigon television to announce his resignation. Thieu gave a long and disjointed speech, much of it lambasting the United States for its treachery and broken promises:

“At the time of the [Paris] peace agreement, the United States agreed to replace equipment on a one-by-one basis. But the United States did not keep its word. Is an American’s word reliable these days? The United States did not keep its promise to help us fight for freedom, and it was in the same fight that the United States lost 50,000 of its young men … The United States has not respected its promises. It is inhumane. It is untrustworthy. It is irresponsible … You ran away and left us to do the job that you could not do.”

Thieu then fled to Taiwan, with the assistance of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), while NVA tanks rumbled closer to Saigon. By April 27th the city was surrounded and under fire from North Vietnamese rockets. There were thousands of ARVN troops in Saigon but they lacked orders and effective leadership. Two days later US forces began Operation Frequent Wind: the evacuation by helicopter of several thousand US and South Vietnamese military, diplomatic and civilian personnel. Fearing a communist massacre, thousands of Saigon residents rushed the US embassy, which was now guarded by a few Marines. They too were airlifted out on the morning of April 30th. By midday, the NVA and Viet Cong controlled Saigon. Thieu’s successor as president, Duong Van Minh, announced the surrender of South Vietnam, effectively bringing the Vietnam War to a close.

1. In March 1972 North Vietnam launched a massive offensive, which aimed to capture one-third of South Vietnam.
2. Hanoi hoped this would strengthen the North’s bargaining position while impacting on US public opinion.
3. The offensive failed, falling short of its objectives due to inadequate numbers, ARVN resistance and US air cover.
4. In 1973 Hanoi signed a peace agreement with the US, which eventually led to the cessation of American bombing.
5. A new offensive began in March 1975, which quickly dissolved ARVN opposition and led to the capture of Saigon.

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This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “The fall of South Vietnam”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date],