Escape from Saigon (Skyhorse), a novel by Michael Morris and Dick Pirozzolo, explores the month of April, 1975, when North Vietnam achieved its multi-decade objective of conquering South Vietnam and giving Saigon a new name—Ho Chi Minh City.
This is a fast moving, day-by-day account told through the perspective of diplomats, journalists, CIA operatives, a bartender, numerous Vietnamese, military officers, and Washington officials, notably Henry Kissinger.
The central theme of Escape from Saigon is the human cost of war, especially collateral costs to noncombatants. As the French in the 1950s and then the Americans in the 1960s and 70s established and propped up South Vietnam as an independent republic, multitudes of individuals—not just soldiers—came to Saigon and made it a kind of home away from home. There they spawned children of mixed nationalities, established businesses, careers, and reputations, and ran innumerable black and diplomatic operations in the shadows of war. These are the main characters in Escape from Saigon: Sam Esposito and Lisette Vo, young American journalists; Carwood, a ranking CIA officer; Jean Paul Pellerin, proprietor of Le P’tit Bistrot, a journalists’ watering hole; Tuan, Vo’s cameraman; Father André Dessault, archbishop of Saigon; Captain Trung, a South Vietnamese pilot and turncoat…and the list goes on. Let’s call this cast of characters a demimonde typical of embattled capitals: idealists, adventurers, drinkers, sharpsters, adrenalin-addicts, opportunists and lost souls.
The crucial military action is reported more or less as a tightening noose, with the North’s forces swiftly strangling Saigon and its inhabitants. Thus, Escape from Saigon’s opening pages make clear that defeat is near and coming on fast, but this narrative framework is somewhat deceptive. It’s true that Richard Nixon’s resignation stimulated the North Vietnamese to break the cease-fire negotiated in Paris 20 months earlier and strike swiftly with overwhelming force. A month or so was all it took. But it’s also true that this war had been going on for generations. Tragically, its outcome was a foregone conclusion all along. Vietnam never really was a two-state solution of North Vietnam and South Vietnam. At the beginning of the conflict, Vietnam was what it was at the end of the conflict, a single country, Vietnam.
So in April, 1975, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam would disintegrate. President Thieu, who has a cameo role in the novel, would bitterly resign and take flight. Saigon would fall like a rotted tree. And tens of thousands of Vietnamese associated with the US by virtue of employment or family connections would feel—did feel—that they must escape or be subjected to brutal treatment by the North Vietnamese conquerors.
In Escape from Saigon one central figure, US Ambassador Graham Martin, is shown making the evacuation of these endangered thousands worse by insisting that some political arrangement could be worked out between the North and South right up to the final days of the South’s total collapse. Martin’s reasoning is that if he indicates he is thinking of ordering an evacuation too soon, he will cause panic and scuttle last-minute negotiations. That is probably true with regard to panic; with regard to last-minute negotiations, the idea of some modus vivendi between North and South is the kind of fantasy that caused such carnage in Vietnam for decades.
The best account I have read of US misunderstanding of Vietnam is George Allen’s None So Blind, a study of US intelligence failures and frustrations from the early 1950s until the end. Allen makes clear that US policymakers were either incapable or unwilling to deal with the realities of Vietnam after the French departure. Bernard Fall’s extensive writing on Vietnam parallels Allen’s analysis from a journalistic standpoint and was just as available to anyone in authority who wanted to know something about a country and a people that was, to be fair, on the other side of the globe.
In a way, Ambassador Martin was the last man who thought Humpty Dumpty could be put together again, the last holdout against reality. In the novel, he is depicted as tight-lipped and stubborn, quite the ambassador. Kissinger, and then President Ford, have to tell him the game is up. Time to leave.
Escape from Saigon quickens as its characters pursue all the strategies imaginable for getting out—“adopting” former employees, smuggling themselves through checkpoints, crawling over barbed-wire to get onto US embassy grounds in hopes of being ferried out to the 7th Fleet offshore, clutching at each other in dangerously overloaded helicopters.
Most of what is described is awful but probably falls short of the experience itself, the uncertainties, the impotence, the anxiety, the physical discomforts and injuries, the strange alliances made between odd couples on the run.
Truisms are tedious but true: those who decide to wage war generally do so in distant, comfortable circumstances for reasons of state, and those who experience war are brutalized and terrified in ghastly conditions. There is a connection between decision makers and pawns, but it is not direct or obvious in what the two groups go through. In fact, if the decision makers found themselves subjected to the immediate consequences of their decisions, they probably would think twice and three times about their decisions.
War makers produce war victims in wanton abundance. A war maker who does not understand this is a war maker who has read no history or refuses to take it seriously.
Escape from Saigon is largely accurate in historical terms. It is an events-driven narrative wherein the desperate efforts of people with little to no control over their circumstances are vividly presented. Its co-authors, Michael Morris and Dick Pirozzolo, have managed to write with a single voice. This is a compelling, well-researched novel. It’s worth reading.