SOUTH VIET NAM: The End of a Thirty Years' War

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The tricolored flag of the Communist Provisional Revolutionary Government fluttered over the presidential palace in Saigon. On the open-air terrace of the Continental Hotel, where Americans drank Saigon's infamous "33" beer and vodka tonics and ogled slender Vietnamese girls for more than a decade, Viet Cong troops lounged self-consciously and sipped orange juice. Soviet-built tanks and Chinese-made trucks rumbled through the streets of Saigon to cheers from the populace.

With incredible suddenness it was over, not only Viet Nam's agonizing Thirty Years' War but also a century of Western domination. The massive, 20-year American struggle to build a stable non-Communist government in South Viet Nam was finally and definitively ended, an all but total failure. When Communist soldiers in Saigon fired salvos into the air and shouted, "Victory! Victory!" the stubborn, inextinguishable dreams of Ho Chi Minh and his heirs in Hanoi were fully realized.

It would take some time for almost everybody, even the victors, to get used to the unexpected new reality. It had taken a bare seven weeks for the Saigon government to slide precipitately to abject defeat. The collapse had begun with a Communist attack on the provincial capital of Ban Me Thuot in the Central Highlands, 160 miles north of Saigon. Then followed President Nguyen Van Thieu's disastrous strategic withdrawal, which turned into a rout. Within weeks, Communist forces had advanced virtually unopposed to the very outskirts of Saigon. Forced to resign and flee the country, Thieu was replaced by his aging, ineffectual Vice President, Tran Van Huong, who in turn gave way after just six days to the only man thought to have a chance of negotiating a ceasefire: Buddhist opposition leader Duong Van ("Big") Minh. His presidential tenure proved the briefest of all and set the stage for the final Communist triumph.

THE RESIGNATION. Huong, under pressure from U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin and Saigon leaders to resign, capitulated at about 4:30 Sunday afternoon, saying that he would transfer the presidency to the "personality" chosen by South Viet Nam's legislature—and "the sooner the better." Hours later, the National Assembly voted 134 to 2 to give the job to Big Minh.

The night before, an overwhelming force of 16 Communist divisions had tightened its vise around Saigon, moving to cut Route 15, the city's only escape to the sea. Sunday night there was heavy fighting at several points around the capital, including a murderous artillery assault against the airbase at Bien Hoa. Poised on the outskirts of the city, the Communist troops faced virtually no resistance. Most of the top ARVN military leaders had already fled or were making plans to do so; the regular troops were leaderless, demoralized and overpowered.

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