The South Vietnamese military – the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces (RVNAF) – has always figured in the voluminous historical scholarship about the Vietnam War. For a long time and for a host of reasons, however, there was little depth on the topic.
The problem was compounded by an entrenched negative perspective towards this military. “The disdain heaped upon ARVN – the South Vietnamese Army – by American reporters and academics,” states the political scientist Anthony James Joes, “throughout the war and for decades after, is equaled only by their unfamiliarity with that army’s record.” Joes’ recent book Why South Vietnam Fell, where this quote comes from, is provocative in thesis but ultimately does not present a successful argument. (See Edwin Moise’s judicious review in the Journal of Cold War Studies.) Nonetheless, the quotation above reflects, if with a small touch of exaggeration, a major reason behind the relative neglect of historical scholarship on the subject.
Fortunately, the tides have shifted, if slowly, in the past decade. Although they vary in sources and focus and, yes, depth, several scholarly works about the RVNAF have appeared to uncover some of the complexities about this military. Among them are:
- Robert Brigham, ARVN: Life and Death in the South Vietnamese Military (2006)
- Andrew Wiest, Vietnam’s Forgotten Army: Heroism and Betrayal in the ARVN (2009)
- Natalie Huynh Chau Nguyen, South Vietnamese Soldiers: Memories of the Vietnam War and After (2016) – plus a chapter on South Vietnamese military women in another book of hers, Memory Is Another Country: Women of the Vietnamese Diaspora (2009)
- The chapters on former South Vietnamese soldiers in Xiaobing Li, Voices from the Vietnam War: Stories from American, Asian, and Russian Veterans (2010).
Adding to this recent scholarship is the book under discussion – Black April: The Fall of South Vietnam, 1973-1975 (2012) – from the military historian George “Jay” Veith. It is the longest and, by far, the most deeply researched of the lot. A former U.S. Armor officer, Veith began his historical writing career after finding some documents on the U.S. military’s top-secret unit to recover American prisoners during the Vietnam War. Indeed, his first two books are about POW/MIA issues and personalities. In between, he began shifting his interest to the South Vietnamese military. As Veith recalls on his Amazon author’s page,
In April 2001, my friend and translator, Merle Pribbenow, and I visited MG Le Minh Dao, the last commander of the ARVN 18th Division. We interviewed him about the battle of Xuan Loc, which took place in April 1975. His unit stood their ground in some very heavy combat, and our article on the battle was published in January 2004 in the “Journal of Military History.” Dao was so pleased with our efforts that he begged me turn the paper into a book on the final two years of the war. He emphatically told me that the RVNAF had fought well, and they were not the corrupt cowards so often portrayed in the American media. Thus began a ten-year journey of research and writing that finally culminated in “Black April.”
Black April offers not so much a “revisionist” perspective as understood in the long-standing and, in my view, increasingly meaningless “orthodox vs. revisionist” battle of historiography. Rather, it aims for a balanced perspective: one that seeks to understand the complexities of this military on the basis of a large amount of primary and secondary sources in both English and Vietnamese. After reading the book, I came away with the distinct impression that the author has succeeded, more or less, in achieving this balance. (See also the largely positive review by, again, Edwin Moise.) In my opinion, it is a must-read for historians of the Vietnam War, if not also scholars that study first-generation Vietnamese refugees and immigrants to the U.S. and other countries since 1975.
Recently and over several emails, I had the pleasure of interviewing the author about the book, plus his work-in-progress about President Nguyen Van Thieu. Our exchange has been edited slightly for organization and clarity. Since the book doesn’t employ diacritical Vietnamese spellings, the transcript below shows Vietnamese names of people and places as they appear in the book.
Tuan Hoang: How would you characterize the perspectives in American historical scholarship regarding the roles of the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces (RVNAF) prior to the publication of your book? What is your own view of this military?
Jay Veith: I believe that the general consensus among the first generation of Vietnam scholars was that the South Vietnamese military was an ill-disciplined force led by corrupt officers, and hence incapable of defending the country. Unfortunately, the events of 1975, especially the horrific scenes in Danang, and the quick collapse of the country, solidified that judgment. However, I think in recent years, other scholars are beginning to revise that view.
My own viewpoint has always been one of balance; yes, depending on the time frame and the leadership, there were units that did not fight well. Yet if one looks at the entirety of the South Vietnamese armed forces, and does so with an unbiased position, one can only conclude that many units fought extremely well. On occasion, even the Communist publications admit this, although obliquely and rather grudgingly.
So my position, after extensive discussions with a wide variety of former South Vietnamese officers, from General Cao Van Vien down to company commanders, is that the RVNAF, while weak in many areas, on the whole fought bravely. Ultimately, they were not unlike many militaries; some units were good, some units were bad. One could say the same thing about the majority of armies around the globe.
Hoang: The bibliography of the book shows a very interesting mix of sources. There are archival documents and published collections of documents, as expected of any competent research. There are many secondary sources: book, articles, and dissertations. There are communist sources in Vietnamese, and memoirs and histories from former South Vietnamese. But the most interesting sources struck me to be the “manuscripts” written by former South Vietnamese officers, often at your request. What prompted you to make such requests? And how did you “weigh” the scale of importance among these manuscripts in comparison to more official sources?
Veith: Interviewing former South Vietnamese officers can be challenging on multiple fronts. Language, time, and their health are all issues, not to mention the subtle cross-currents of strong emotions regarding the fall of the country, their own views of their service and the U.S. role in the collapse, not to mention an occasional unspoken lack of trust in an American interlocutor.
So, I often found it easier to ask them to write down their experiences, especially for the more complicated events like the battle for Phan Rang. For the most part, they readily accepted. I also wanted a more detailed testimony rather than a simple Oral History, plus I sought a more permanent record for future historians. Additionally, I would sometimes provide them with the Communist history of a particular battle. Once they read that, they would often want to tell their version of what transpired to counter-balance the Communist account.
As for weighing the account, I always took the approach of carefully checking their version. Once or twice, I received written statements that did not seem particularly exact. Therefore, I would look at the official [North Vietnamese] People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) histories, the U.S. records, and compare those to what they had written. My goal was to use multiple sources to clarify, to the extent possible, what really happened. It took a lot of time, but I believe I was able to accurately understand the actual battlefield actions.
Hoang: Early in the book, there is a short section on President Nguyen Van Thieu. It is the best short description and analysis of Thieu that I have read in English or Vietnamese. I understand that you plan to write a book about him – a biography? – and I think it is a wonderful undertaking. I imagine that there is a lot to say about Thieu, not in the least his political skills and liabilities. I very much look forward to it.
Veith: Thank you. I am currently working on a book that uses Thieu’s career was a corollary to the rise and fall of South Vietnam. His career matches that arc almost perfectly. In many ways it is a political history of the country, with an emphasis on Saigon’s domestic and foreign policies, rather than the usual rehash of the military events. Oddly, there are numerous studies of President Diem, but virtually nothing on President Thieu.
As I write the book, I’m uncovering a tremendous amount of new information on the formation of Saigon’s internal policies, and on Thieu himself. He certainly was a far more complex leader than he has been given credit for. Unfortunately, unlike most politicians, he did not spend much time attempting to gather public support for his domestic policies. Part of that was cultural. The majority of his speeches dealt with the various peace proposals, but he did not spend as much time talking to the people as the U.S. embassy wanted. That was a reflection of our own views on how a politician should “act.”
Ultimately, I believe Thieu’s policies were both evolutionary, meaning he maintained previously established policies of the South Vietnamese government; and revolutionary, meaning he formulated new and at times radical domestic policies than did his predecessors.
Hoang: Let’s shift to Thieu’s military roles… I have two sets of questions. First, how would you characterize him as military leader prior to 1973? What was his style – if it’s an appropriate word – as ultimate commander of the military? Did he have anything comparable to a military strategy?
Veith: I was also curious about his “command style” or “command philosophy.” As a former U.S. Army officer, I was interested in how South Vietnamese officers saw their role versus how an American would act. I found some generalities among them, but also some major differences, mainly based on which military system that had spent more time with, the French or the U.S. Some of those differences were also generational.
Notably, I spoke to Thieu’s chief military aide, plus a host of senior officers. Basically, they noted that South Vietnamese officers expected their subordinates to handle a problem with their own resources and not ask for help until they couldn’t solve it. This is more of a “hands-off” approach than the more closely managed American military. Moreover, they often gave “mission-type” orders (take this hill, defend this town), without going into specifics, expecting the subordinate commander to then make his own plan. Thieu took generally the same approach. He rarely told his commanders how to do it, he just told them what he wanted done. One can debate the merits of that approach.
One interesting story, recounted by Thieu’s chief military aide to me as part of the discussion about Thieu’s command style, came to light about the Easter Offensive. Thieu had summoned Lt. Gen. Ngo Quang Truong to the palace from IV Corps to assume command of the chaotic I Corps. As Truong was leaving, Thieu walked out into the hallway with him. He stopped Truong and told him it was essential to restore military order and discipline to the panicky troops. Grabbing Truong’s arm, he told him that, if necessary, publicly execute a couple of deserters, and Thieu would shoulder any political repercussions.
His aide believed this was an example of Thieu’s willingness to give his subordinates wide latitude to accomplish the mission.
Hoang: Fascinating! I can’t wait to learn more about Thieu as well as the overall “hands-off” approach in the South Vietnamese military. This approach has been alluded to in scholarship, but it has never received anything remotely like an academic investigation.
The second question on Thieu is about the fall of South Vietnam. Were Thieu’s decisions during 1975 consistent to his previous experience as military leader? Much has been made about his fateful decision to withdraw troops from Ban Me Thuot and the Central Highlands in March. Your book notes that most of his senior officers disagreed with the decision to retreat. Leave aside the wisdom (or lack of) regarding the outcome of his decision, what factors played into the decision itself?
Veith: Thieu faced an incredibly difficult decision. Worse, he faced it alone, as his chief advisors were only too willing to let him make the tough call. This points to one of the major weaknesses of the South Vietnamese political and military systems; poor staff work. It’s not a very sexy topic, but in the South Vietnamese system, the chief made all the decisions. Staffs were there to execute decisions, not provide options. It was perhaps their fatal flaw, a lack of coherent planning.
In this instance, Thieu had made a bad choice that was compounded by General Pham Van Phu’s extremely poor decision-making and lack of planning and oversight. Thieu’s gamble might have worked if Phu had actually done some planning, or offered the President some alternatives. However, we don’t know what really transpired in that conference room on March 14, what Thieu really said or didn’t say. The only participant to provide an account is General Vien, and his account is contradicted by others who were nearby or talked to Phu shortly afterwards.
Hoang: Since the end of the war, many Vietnamese refugees and immigrants formerly associated to the Saigon government have blamed the loss of South Vietnam on “sophisticated” Soviet weaponry on the one hand and, on the other hand, less and less American military aid after 1973. Do you find their grievance regarding the U.S. to be justified? If yes, to what extent? If no, why not?
Veith: First, the Communists did not get the top of the line Soviet equipment. They were getting cast-offs or old inventory. Leaving that aside, the cut-backs in American aid created two equally devastating conditions. The aid cut-back badly eroded RVNAF morale, while at the same time encouraged the Politburo to strike. There is absolutely no doubt that the aid cut-backs severely hampered RVNAF operations.
Moreover, it was not just the lack of aid, but the prohibition on the return of American naval and airpower to help stem a future offensive that was a critical factor. Geography also played a very important role, as South Vietnam essentially had to guard a 1000-mile left flank.
However, one cannot blame the loss of South Vietnam solely on American perfidy. The North Vietnamese violated the Paris agreements almost from the very beginning.
Hoang: One of the most interesting things about the book, at least for me, is the chapter on the battle for the coastal cities. If memory serves, most narratives about the Fall of Saigon that I’ve seen tend to move rapidly from RVNAF’s retreat in mid-March to the Battle of Xuan Loc in late April. In other words, they tend to skip the fights in Nha Trang, Tuy Hoa, Qui Nhon, etc. From the historical records you gather for this book, what could be drawn about the South Vietnamese military from the battle for the coastal cities?
Veith: The RVNAF attempted to put up a defense of Qui Nhon, Tuy Hoa, and Nha Trang, but once Danang fell, morale was badly shaken, and the force ratios became very unfavorable to the South Vietnamese. Still, one has to admire the fighting retreat of part of the 22nd Division along Rt. 19 to the sea, and the attempted defense of the Khanh Duong Pass by the Airborne.
Here though, is where U.S. firepower would have played a decisive role. The PAVN Coastal Column, a massive movement of men and equipment south on Rt. 1, would have been decimated by American firepower as it was strung out on the march south. Yet it was virtually untouched, and when it arrived in Phan Rang, the additional troops and equipment proved decisive in destroying the RVNAF defense plan for the eastern side of the country.
Hoang: Since you note the role of firepower, or lack of… There is a good deal in the book about the South Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF), and one conclusion is that the lack of firepower by VNAF was a major contribution to the fall of South Vietnam. Did communist forces anticipate this lack of firepower at all? Or were they surprised at the relative ease of movement during March and April?
Veith: Communist military planners certainly recognized that the VNAF was the primary source of reserve firepower for the South Vietnamese military. Hence they crafted plans to reduce VNAF effectiveness through sapper attacks or artillery interdiction of airfields.
However, it wasn’t just the VNAF that lacked punch, it was the absence of naval gunfire. The VNN’s capitol ships [VNN means the South Vietnamese Navy] were old WWII Coast Guard cutters, with only one main gun. A typical USN destroyer had four. The VNN simply didn’t have the ships or the firepower to support the ground forces. As for the Communist’s relative ease of movement, I believe they were surprised, but had planned accordingly. Giap had specifically told his commanders to be prepared for a sudden “opportunity” that they could exploit.
Hoang: Briefly on the communist side… A major communist figure in the narrative is General Tran Van Tra, the most prominent military leader of the National Liberation Front (NLF). How would you characterize his significance before and during the events leading to communist victory?
Veith: Tra was certainly an interesting character. His disputes with Van Tien Dung over strategy are quite fascinating. He undoubtedly helped shape the PAVN offensive posture before and during the final assault on Saigon, but he received little credit. His book was basically written to refute some of the Dung’s claims from his book, which is why it was eventually removed from publication. Given that the Communists are often seen as monolithic, I found their internal disputes an intriguing revelation.
Hoang: One major aspect about the collapse of South Vietnam had to do with the flow of refugees after the South Vietnamese military withdrew from the Central Highlands in March 1975. General histories often note this point. Less frequently discussed, though, is what you term the “family syndrome.” Would you explain what it means? And also how did it contribute to the eventual fall of Saigon?
Veith: Although the RVNAF had attempted to create family housing, and to develop programs for widows and children, the harsh reality was that the soldiers’ relatively low wages and the concurrent high inflation made it necessary for the soldier’s families to live close to the bases.
Thus, when the units began to marshal for the move to the coast, the families knew immediately, and also decided to flee. No one wanted to take a chance on the “tender mercies” of the Communist troops. Hue in 1968, and the shelling of the civilians retreating from Quang Tri in 1972 were permanent fixtures in their collective memory.
The VNAF families in Pleiku were first to know, because the air force units made the initial move to the air bases at Nha Trang. At Ban Me Thuot, the journalist Pham Huan notes that before the 45th Regiment/23rd Division was heli-lifted from Pleiku to the city’s outskirts, they had collectively vowed to retake the city. Once they arrived and saw their own families fleeing along Rt. 21 (the regiment’s base area was at BanMe Thuot), many soldiers deserted to locate their families.
I think the quote from VNN Commodore Ho Van Ky Thoai sums it up best: “Could you stay in the bunker and watch your family flee?”
Hoang: The historiography of the war has frequently pointed at the Battle of Xuan Loc as the “high point” for the South Vietnamese military during the spring of 1975, and indeed the book spends a full chapter on this battle. Was there anything “new” about Xuan Loc that you discovered during your research? Put it another way, what is your analysis of this battle, especially on the part of ARVN?
Veith: The only “new” item we learned after the publication of our Journal of Military History article was that PAVN casualties were ever higher than we initially thought. Xuan Loc was probably the largest battle of the 1975 offensive, and hence draws the most attention.
But there are other outstanding examples of ARVN fortitude. The defense of the 53rd Regiment base camp at the airfield outside of Ban Me Thuat for a week, the stalwart defense of Chon Thanh by the Rangers, the 1st Division in the hills near Phu Bai, the fighting retreat by two regiments of the 22nd Division, the incredible efforts of the 92nd Air Wing at Phan Rang, the bravery of many VNN ship crews in trying to rescue civilians, are just a few that I also would like to point out.
Back to Xuan Loc, in terms of the battle it really was a brilliant defensive stand. General Le Minh Dao planned for an attack against the city (highlighting again the lack of planning elsewhere), and his troops stood and fought. He made one tactical error, and that was not clearing Rt. 1 after it was cut. That isolated his one regiment from the rest of his division. He was relying on Khoi’s 3rd Armored Cavalry Brigade to clear the road, but they ran into an entrenched enemy. Dao should have used the Airborne brigade that was sent into XL as reinforcements to clear from the west while Khoi advanced from the east. If he had done that, and held XL, the attack on Saigon from the east would have had to begin from much farther out.
Regardless, his stand at Xuan Loc probably saved Saigon from falling much earlier. Imagine what would have happened if the PAVN 4th Corps had suddenly driven hard along Rt 1 into Saigon in mid-April, a city with thousands of Americans still living there?
Hoang: Since you’ve interviewed and got to know a number of former South Vietnamese military officers over the years, I am curious to hear your observation about their perspective on the fall of Saigon. My own research indicates that decades after the event, many if not most remained unhappy about unconditional surrender on April 30.
Veith: I agree. I’ve interviewed over 100 former [South Vietnamese] officers, including most of the senior officers, and they remain bitter over the fall of their country. Many were in shock, and are still unable to understand how what they had spent their lives defending could collapse so quickly. Some are angry at General Duong Van Minh [aka “Big Minh”] for surrendering, but if one talks to them quietly, and ask them as a military officer to evaluate the RVNAF defensive posture on April 30th, they will conclude they had little choice. So their reaction is more emotional than professional.
Ultimately, Big Minh’s decision saved thousands of lives on both sides. Le Duc Tho was fully prepared to send waves of PAVN infantry into Saigon, and if necessary, fight for it block by block. If the RVNAF had pulled into the city and defended, Saigon would have been a smoking ruin. No one wanted to see a repeat of Berlin, 1945.
Hoang: Is there anything else that you’d add about the book? Or, more generally, about studying the South Vietnamese military, either as a whole or specifically on ARVN, Air Force, Navy, military police, etc.?
Veith: It is my great hope that a new generation of scholars will take a closer look at our former ally, studying them without political blinders. I have gathered a large amount of data on the RVNAF from various sources, data that I hope people will use one day in new studies.
I would also like to take a moment to thank my old friend, Dr. Larry Engelmann, author of “Tears Before the Rain,” who unfortunately passed away last year, who really was the first to begin talking to the former South Vietnamese personnel. He gave me all of his transcripts, and had so much more that never made the light of day. I want to follow in his generous footsteps, hoping that my own small efforts will help future scholars better understand the people whom the war was really about: the South Vietnamese.