On the morning of April 30, 1975, South Vietnam’s President Duong Van Minh surrendered to the Vietcong, ending decades of violence between the North and South.
The Fall of Saigon
In a radio address that day, President Minh told the public he would meet with leaders of the Provisional Revolutionary Government to begin an “orderly transfer of power,” and to “avoid unnecessary shedding of the blood of Vietnamese.”
President Minh had been sworn in only two days prior to his announcement. His earlier attempts at a ceasefire agreement were refused. His predecessor, Nguyen Van Thieu, resigned the week before, having failed to protect the country’s northern provinces.
Two hours after Minh’s statement was made, North Vietnam’s flag was raised over the presidential palace. The New York Times reported, “Vietcong soldiers soon walked along the main streets shaking hands with Saigon residents.” Meanwhile, soldiers of South Vietnam’s army marched to prearranged locations to relinquish their weapons.
Only hours before the announcement, the last American soldiers and civilians were evacuated from the U.S. Embassy. Outside the building’s gates, hundreds of South Vietnamese pleaded for a spot in one of the helicopters.
The masses included wealthy Vietnamese who promised hundreds of thousands of dollars, and workers who had served the American government for years. One mother implored soldiers to take her child who was half-American, afraid the Vietcong would kill him.
In spite of rocket fire, others tried to escape through the ocean port of Vung Tau, or via small boats that passed through the Mekong before heading to sea, hopeful that a larger ship would take them.
Video: Eyewitness to Saigon’s Evacuation
On April 29, 1975, journalist Michael Nicholson recalled the struggle to get over the U.S. Embassy gates and into the compound, past the human wall of Vietnamese families. Nicholson credits an unidentified marine for his escape.
“He hauled us up, kicking and punching Vietnamese who were clambering over our bodies. Ashamed and exhausted, we took our turn … and waited for the helicopters to come down for us.”
LIFE magazine has many photos of the fall of Saigon as part of its Vietnam War collection. It also features never-before-published photos by photographer Larry Burrows during his time with the “Yankee Papa 13” helicopter in the spring of 1965.
Historical Context: Vietnam War
The Vietnam War would claim over 50,000 American and millions of Vietnamese lives. The conflict was mainly fought between the American military and guerillas aided by North Vietnam. The war continued until 1975, when U.S. forces withdrew and South Vietnam fell to the communist North Vietnamese.
Related Topic: “Operation Babylift”
Sources in this Story
- The New York Times: Minh Surrenders, Vietcong In Saigon
- Encyclopedia Britannica: Nguyen Van Thieu
- The Times of London: Picture: the fall of Saigon by photographer Hubert Van Es
- PBS: Vietnam Online
- HistoryNet (Vietnam Magazine): Operation Babylift: Evacuating Children Orphaned by the Vietnam War
- Time: Children of the Dust
Just before Saigon fell, thousands of Vietnamese orphans and the children of American soldiers were evacuated in President Gerald Ford’s “Operation Babylift,” with “reluctant agreement” from the South Vietnamese government.
One plane, carrying 243 orphans, crashed just after take-off; “officials feared sabotage.” Kathy Manney writes in Vietnam Magazine, “The pilot managed to turn the plane around and crash-land two miles south of Tan Son Nhut, [airport] skidding 1,000 feet into a rice paddy.” Sadly, 130 people were killed, including 78 children.
Critics of the evacuation doubted that the president’s motives were more than political. The Vietcong called it “kidnaping” (sic) and The International Red Cross said it broke a Geneva Convention statute that war orphans be “educated within their own culture.”
Presidential Assistant Theodore C. Marrs countered that the mission wasn’t designed out of America’s need to scrub clean the nation’s guilt.
Marrs told Time magazine, “I’m fully convinced it is the basic decency of the American people. When they see a child in trouble, they want to help.”
In the end, Operation Babylift oversaw the evacuation and adoption of more than 2,000 babies and children to the United States, and 1,300 to Canada, Europe and Australia.