This article will feature in Issue 35: Fractured Nations (March 2020)
Was the fall of Saigon inevitable? Was an independent South Vietnam ever a viable nation?
In 1975, on the 30th of April, Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, was captured by the People’s Army of Vietnam and the Vietcong. This became known as the fall of Saigon, and it marked the end of the Vietnam war. Vietnam was reunited under communist rule and reborn as the socialist republic of Vietnam. This was the outcome, yet the debate remains: Was the fall of Saigon an inevitability? Was there any chance that South Vietnam could have been an independent viable nation free from communist rule? The article argues no.
The idea that South Vietnam could ever become an independent nation was nothing more than an American pipe dream. It was part of a desperate bid to roll back communism and recover as many nations as possible for the Western capitalist system. Communism, as the was always destined to consume Vietnam. Thus, the fall of Saigon was always inevitable.
The South Vietnamese government, under both President Ngo Dinh Diem, who was removed in a 1963 coup, and the military groups that preceded him, were corrupt, undemocratic and fraction-ridden. As a result, the government was unpopular, and proved incapable of rallying its people and the armed forces. As a result, many of the ordinary Vietnamese people began to support the Vietcong. The alienation of the South Vietnamese people is clear when looking at the army. Even before the arrival of American troops in 1965 the south’s army was large enough that it should have been able to deal with the communist forces by themselves. Furthermore, the South was better supplied then the Vietcong. They had access to vastly superior firepower and possessed an enormous advantage in terms of mobility as they had access to transport planes and helicopters. However, they were unable to crush the Vietcong due to their weak will to fight for an independent South Vietnam. The reluctance of the South to fight was ultimately a major reason why the fall of Saigon was inevitable, and it destroyed any chance of independence for South Vietnam.
The corrupt and unpopular government was not the only reason that many of the South Vietnamese began to favour communism. The heavy-handed military tactics of America alienated many of them. The Americans, in a desperate bid to stop the spread of communism, used extreme measures such as chemical weapons. Napalm and Agent Orange were used to clear the foliage in the jungle where the Vietcong hid. Many of the South Vietnamese became unintended victims of the chemicals and suffered horrific injuries. Later the chemicals became linked to cancer, birth defects, and severe psychological and neurological problems. The Americans also tried to bomb strategic targets in North Vietnam to cut off the supply of troops and weapons to the South. However, bombs often missed targets and hit schools and hospitals. Such tactics only increased South Vietnamese peasants’ support for the Vietcong. They, unlike the Americans, had won the ‘hearts and minds’ of the South Vietnamese peasants,many of whom desired the land, wealth, and increased freedom promised to them by the Vietcong. By unintentionally pushing the South Vietnamese peasants towards communism, American tactics helped make the fall of Saigon an inevitability. They also shattered any possibility that the south may have become a viable independent nation as many South Vietnamese appeared to desire unification with the north.
It is apparent that many of the South Vietnamese peasants supported the Vietcong. America, however, was the fly in the ointment preventing the reunification of Vietnam, until their withdrawal in 1973. Many argue that the Tet offensive of 1965, where the Vietcong captured 75 percent of main towns in South Vietnam, was a major turning point in the war. The Americans finally understood just how relentless the Vietcong were and realised that they could not defeat them. Soon after Richard Nixon introduced the policy of Vietnamisation, which saw south Vietnam take greater responsibility for the war while America planned to withdraw. Without American support, the idea of an independent South Vietnam became impossible and the fall of Saigon inevitable. In 1975 the North began its advance South. The South Vietnamese Army rapidly began to collapse, despite the CIA and U.S. Army Intelligence predicting that South Vietnam could hold out until at least 1976. Perhaps this can be seen as another sign of the south’s unwillingness to fight for independence and could even be interpreted as support for communism. Saigon inevitably fell and North and South Vietnam were reunified under a unitary socialist government. Thus, the idea that South Vietnam could ever become an independent, viable nation was lost.
As Saigon’s fall was inevitable it was impossible for South Vietnam to ever be an independent nation. Many of the south Vietnamese people supported the Vietcong as they had had been alienated by their corrupt government and brutal American tactics. Therefore, when America withdrew there was no one left willing to fight for an independent South Vietnam, causing the inevitable fall of Saigon and the birth of the socialist republic of Vietnam.