Witness to the Fall: A Review of ‘Decent Interval’ by Frank Snepp

Utter chaos. Left behind. Hellish destruction. No hope. Thousands of South Vietnamese civilians and soldiers lived in perpetual agony of whether or not Americans would rescue them from the approaching North Vietnamese Army (NVA). The ensuing battle would be catastrophic if Communists and remnants of the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) fought in the streets of Saigon. Meanwhile, fragile agreements, empty promises, and diplomatic false flags swirled around the globe in negotiating a compromise to save what was left of South Vietnam. To say that there were miscommunications and misunderstandings between parties is a definitively gross understatement. Between October 1972 and April 1975, a CIA analyst worked furiously on deciphering North Vietnamese plans while navigating a labyrinth of bureaucratic stonewalling and intelligence mismanagement. Despite signals of non-negotiable settlements and an almost willful denial of reality by senior leaders, Frank Snepp and others did their best to rescue at-risk Vietnamese civilians and military personnel. In 1977, Frank Snepp published ‘Decent Interval‘ chronicling the events leading up to Saigon’s collapse in 1975 and giving stark, graphic details of how competing military and political ideas created a quagmire of biblical proportions. Controversy surrounded Snepp’s book from the beginning as the CIA sued him over breach of contract, ultimately leading to a Supreme Court decision (United States vs. Frank W. Snepp, III). Despite losing his case, Snepp’s testimony sheds light on the tarnished integrity of CIA and U.S. political actions in South Vietnam. ‘Decent Interval‘ is, therefore, essential reading for anyone desiring to know what transpired in the last days of the Vietnam War.

Before delving into specific features of the book, the title phrase ‘decent interval’ references a theory that the Nixon Administration orchestrated plans to allow for a peaceful withdrawal from South Vietnam and avoid a military defeat. The Republic of Vietnam could not survive according to sources in the administration, including National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, stating:

‘Our terms would eventually destroy him.’ [‘Him’ referring to South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu]

“Richard Nixon and Henry A. Kissinger on 6 October 1972”. Presidential Recordings Digital Edition. University of Virginia.

Presidential, political, military, and Vietnamese scholars debate this practice and while Kissinger denied the ‘decent interval’ concept, the fact remains that while the United States remained committed to South Vietnam in public, a mirage of hope prevailed privately that many Vietnamese clung to but never came to fruition. President Nixon privately pledged to Thieu that if his country was ever threatened again by North Vietnam, U.S. air power would retaliate with full force. Following Nixon’s resignation from the Watergate scandal, Communists reasoning on U.S. re-intervention changed overnight. Without Nixon or the hope of an aerial defense, the NVA could launch a final assault on the south and finally reunify the country. The south’s fate was essentially sealed. Snepp’s accounting chronicles the events and people who took part.

The Paris Peace Accords of 1973 signed for the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops, a repatriation of POWs, and a general ceasefire. POWs returned home, the last regular army troops left in March 1973, but a handful of security and contractors remained behind to guard American consular offices. The ceasefire, however, was never honored and fighting resumed within days of the accords’ ratification (Image courtesy of the New York Times)

Frank Snepp (featured in Ken Burns’ documentary series The Vietnam War and the film Last Days in Vietnam) separates the book into sections; the bloody cease-fire of 1973, the piecemeal conquering of South Vietnam, and the final two days of Saigon’s life. The book reads as a play-by-play recalling actions with startling detail of various CIA, State Department, military, and civilian agency operations. In many ways, Snepp wrote the most complex after-action report one could ask for about the Fall of Saigon. The reader can expect to see familiar names reappear consistently and recognize the increasing anxiety as the enemy inched closer to victory. From the outset, ‘Decent Interval‘ sets a bleak tone on what the CIA did during the Vietnam War. This extends to the challenges faced by the Defense Attaché Office (DAO), the State Department, and the United States Information Agency (USIA). Intelligence gathered by CIA sources and surveillance of the South Vietnamese government painted a bleak picture of the ARVN’s capability to combat a serious invasion from the north. A principle actor who exerted disastrous influence was U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin. Martin entered South Vietnam in June 1973 with the goal of retaining South Vietnamese independence by any means necessary. He was a resolute old guard Cold Warrior determined to keep U.S. aid flowing. As Snepp repeats throughout the book, Martin was more concerned with conforming information and news to his worldview rather than taking facts to heart from trusted sources. His relationship with the media was not stellar either. These facets proved fatal for the South Vietnamese and remaining Americans who became increasingly frustrated with the Ambassadors’ actions. Snepp doesn’t kid gloves in his critique of Martin’s intransigence. Martin refused to even cut down a tamarind tree in the Embassy courtyard to allow for helicopter liftoffs; stating that it would hurt morale and incite panic. By that point, frenzied crowds of frightened Vietnamese should have signaled the oncoming doom. Saving the tamarind tree was akin to throwing furniture off the sinking Titanic.

Critiques about President Thieu’s regime were also harsh and the South Vietnamese army struggled to hold onto to key points in the country. Snepp describes his task to escort Thieu out of the country following his resignation. The unceremonious departure (and potential smuggling of valuables in his luggage) illustrates how reading the writing on the wall came too late. Leaders tried desperately to mount defenses on their own, but over-reliance on the U.S was an Achille’s heel after 1973. The ARVN was plagued with corruption, low morale, and with the evaporation of U.S. financial and military aid, they ran out of money and bullets. That same corruption extended to the government where competing factions constantly jockeyed for power. Disagreements became part of the everyday narrative in South Vietnam, but now with Communists only days away from unifying the country, they assumed larger importance with political settlements. Thieu’s military leadership emphasized a ‘light at the top, heavy at the bottom’ strategy where northern provinces bordering North Vietnam were abandoned in order to reinforce more populous centers in the south. The result was mass panic and confusion as Americans still in those provinces struggled to coordinate evacuations and destroy classified information. Disheartening reports about the collapse of ARVN divisions and hit-and-run tactics by the Viet Cong flooded into Saigon, forcing more Embassy staff to prepare for the worst. Snepp cites the DAO’s Colonel Bill Legro as a principle architect for the Saigon evacuation. Pre-arranged rendezvous points around the city would pick up Americans with proper credentials. South Vietnamese, through a mash-up of bribery and American largess, thrusted themselves into the evacuation even if official policy did not include them. Ambassador Martin and for some time, Thomas Polgar, CIA Station Chief, held out hope for a negotiated settlement arbitrated by the Soviet Union and China. As Snepp describes it, the CIA and U.S. Embassy botched a great deal of the evacuation prep work due to misconceptions on intelligence validity.

A U.S. Marine Security Guard watching as South Vietnamese attempt to enter the U.S. Embassy grounds. By the time the evacuation of Saigon began, many U.S. personnel believed that it was too late to rescue everyone who wanted to flee (Image courtesy of UPI)

Snepp evaluates the actions of many people in the last days of South Vietnam. Throughout the book, his criticisms Thomas Polgar increase exponentially over his handling and interpretations of intelligence sources. For a brief time, Polgar shared similar views as Martin concerning a negotiated settlement with the Communists (a tip from Hungarian associates in the ICCS [International Commission of Control and Supervision]). As time progressed and NVA forces captured Xuan Loc and cut communications out of Saigon, hopes of negotiation evaporated into nothingness. Hovering over the Embassy was the political front centered on the U.S. Congress who had the final say on authorizing military and aid funds to South Vietnam. Martin, Kissinger, and others desperately needed Congress to act. If South Vietnam were to fall, Congress, not the White House, State Department, or CIA, should take the blame. Snepp interprets Congressional machinations and their impacts in the broader context of how the U.S. handled foreign relations with South Vietnam. If the U.S. government was unwilling to move proactively in warding off a disaster, people on the ground needed to act swiftly.

April 1975. The month and year where all hell broke lose in Saigon. ‘Decent Interval‘ is only half of the book’s title, but the latter aptly describes the landscape: ‘An Insider’s Account of Saigon’s Indecent End Told by the CIA’s Chief Strategy Analyst in Vietnam‘. No one who wasn’t there couldn’t have described it as vividly as Snepp did. Between April 6 and April 29, the NVA hit major points around Saigon, including Tan Son Nhut Air Base and Vung Tau. Evacuation plans were still in disarray as senior leaders argued over how many personnel should be lifted out and when. Americans needed to be rescued, but determining at-risk Vietnamese was problematic and time consuming. Peace was still a far-flung hope, but Snepp cites this the principle obstacle in coordinating a withdrawal:

My imbroglio with Polgar left me bitter and frightened. As long as he and Martin refused to accept the inevitability of a Communist assault, it seemed likely they would continued to subordinate the evacuation effort to their peace gambit. In my anxiety I resolved to try to signal to Washington once again (as I had earlier through Moose and Miessner) how far off-trach I though they were.”

Snepp, Decent Interval, ‘Worst Case’, pg. 369
President Ford discusses the worsening situation in South Vietnam with from right to left, Brent Scowcroft, Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs (partially pictured); Graham Martin, United States Ambassador to the Republic of Vietnam; Army Chief of Staff General Frederick Weyand; and Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger. In the weeks leading up to the Fall of Saigon, the White House, Congress, Departments of Defense and State debated the best course of action, all while Snepp and his colleagues clandestinely move vulnerable Vietnamese out of the country (Image courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, White House Photographic Office Collection (Ford Administration), 12/6/1973 – 1/20/1977)

Snepp intimately recalls how he and his colleagues worked outside the system and broke convention to get desperate Vietnamese out of the country. Some whom they knew personally. These chapters and sections make ‘Decent Interval‘ a heart-wrenching read. One is immediately placed in the hot, humid, and bullet ridden Saigon city blocks. Snepp intricately weaves descriptions of civilians facing harsh decisions and finding creative ways to escape the country. Americans with proper credentials were collected at pre-arranged rendezvous points, but many Vietnamese were left behind upon realizing that they would be left behind. On April 29 1975, the North Vietnamese initiated the assault on Saigon. Intelligence reports drafted by Snepp revealed how the Communists were determined to drive onto the city and claim it by Ho Chi Minh’s birthday on May 19th. Cargo ships, commercial airplanes, and military airlifts were swamped with frightened civilians carrying their life possessions. The Ford Administration emphasized evacuating all Americans and their Vietnamese dependents, which resulted in an explosion of Americans claiming ‘dependents’. Since no official evacuation order was implemented due to hopes of a settlement, the best way to describe the scenario was haphazard. The worst description was a shit-show. Operation Frequent Wind, the official military directed evacuation, was initiated the day before, but without guidance from Ambassador Martin or the DAO, the military airlift had to improvise flying in helicopters and ferrying them out to Task Force 76 fleet in the South China Sea. CIA pilots and civilian contractors flying their own helicopters rescued Americans and at-risk Vietnamese as well. The famous image of a CIA officer helping civilians up a narrow ladder on top of 22 Gia Long Street into an Air America chopper was a defining image of the Fall of Saigon. Polgar by this point radically changed his view on the military situation. He scrambled to save personal Vietnamese friends and destroyed classified information. Incinerators ran around the clock destroying burn bags filled with shredded documents. His final cable to Washington D.C. resonated with historic implications:

“It has been a long and hard fight and we have lost…This experience unique in the history of the United States does not signal necessarily the demise of the United States as a world power. The severity of the defeat and the circumstances of it, however, would seem to call for a reassessment of the policies of niggardly half measures which have characterized much of our participation here despite the commitment of manpower and resources which were certainly generous. Those who fail to learn from history are forced to repeat it. Les us hope that we will not have another Vietnam experience and that we have learned our lesson.”

Saigon. Signing off.

Final Message of CIA Station Chief Thomas Polgar, April 29th 1975.

Late into the evening of April 29th, Snepp and the last of the CIA personnel made their way to the embassy roof helicopter pad, boarded a CH-47, and swiftly flew out to sea, landing on the USS Denver. Below them were throngs of civilians clamoring for salvation. Time and again they were reassured that helicopters would pick them up, but they were empty promises as only Americans were evacuated. Within 24 hours of landing on the USS Denver, Snepp finally heard the news he knew was coming; Saigon capitulated and was renamed Ho Chi Minh City.

Personally, this massive tome was startling. Snepp’s inside accounts and direct knowledge of Communist operations made me re-think a few things. First, what I was taught in my U.S. and the Vietnam War class in undergraduate was severely watered down and glossed over the finer points of Kissinger’s double-dealing, the sheer stupidity of Graham Martin, and the South Vietnamese government’s practically non-existent democratic institutions. The enormously perplexing situation inside the U.S. Embassy makes no wonder of why evacuation plans were constantly outdated or rendered useless. Above all, Snepp laments for the thousands of left behind Vietnamese who worked for the U.S. and faced prison, re-education, and execution by the Communists. In testimonies before Congress, Martin claimed that the evacuation was an astounding achievement of American planning and execution. Snepp disagreed:

‘Some legislators, however, were not so sure. Although none disputed the difficulties the Ambassador had faced, there lingered widespread suspicion that he had brought a great many of them on himself. Far from expediting the evacuation during the first weeks of April, he had, it seemed, helped to stall if off-partly by fostering the notion (with Kissinger and Weyand’s help) that one more aid appropriation might avert disaster…Even then it was less Martin’s ingenuity than the imagination and initiative of subordinate staffers that kept the operation rolling along. Without General Smith’s “inspirations” there probably would have been no evacuations at all…the improvisatory and haphazard nature of the evacuation of course had its cost.’

Snepp, Decent Interval, ‘Internal Hemorrhaging’, pg. 564, 565

Every bit of intelligence pointed to a non-negotiable Communist victory. Hanoi would not suffer compromise under any circumstances. Why couldn’t Kissinger, Martin, or Polgar understand this notion? Why wait until the last minute to make a crucial decision on saving lives? Snepp points to far flung hopes for negotiated settlements through Soviet channels and constant pressure for Congressional appropriations to foreign aid. Following Watergate and the passage of the War Powers Act, senators and representatives were unwilling to approve any more aid. Reluctance after years of anti-war protests pushed Congress and the White House to focus on domestic issues such as inflation, unemployment, and foreign relations in the Middle East. No one cared for Vietnam any longer.

Decent Interval‘ was an exploration of the mind for any concerned person living in Saigon on April 30th 1975. In later testimonies, Snepp laments the loss of so many Vietnamese who weren’t evacuated. In a way this book memorializes the Vietnamese left behind in the U.S. Embassy. Rescued families were the lucky ones and would always remember the time as ‘Black April’ in their life. ‘Decent Interval‘ set a new bar for my own understanding of the Vietnam War. At great personal sacrifice, Snepp brought to light what many Americans tried to forget and still try to today; so much went wrong with the evacuation of Saigon. Had it not been for a brave, enterprising people, so many more would have lost their lives.

‘Operation Frequent Wind’ – Marine pilots and members of the flight deck crew aboard the USS Hancock, assist Vietnamese refugees from CH-53 helicopters during the evacuation of Saigon (Image courtesy of the National Archives, Records of the U.S. Marine Corps)

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