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APRIL 2015


With the fall of South Vietnam looming, and an ambassador still in denial,

FSOs on the ground began taking matters into their own hands

to help get people out, by any means possible.


Joseph McBride’s Foreign Service career spanned

37 years. He first joined USAID for assignment to

the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Develop-

ment Support program in 1969. Following five years

with USAID, including a tour in Bangkok, he joined

the State Foreign Service in 1974 and was sent to

Embassy Saigon as a political officer. Other career highlights include

stints in Rome, Bangkok, Lima, Managua, Bogota, Kandahar and 17

years inWashington, D.C. He also served on the AFSA Governing Board

and represented AFSA during negotiations for the Foreign Service Act of

1980. Post-retirement activities include backstopping Afghanistan drug

eradication and Darfur peacekeeping.


outh Vietnam seemed strangely

secure when I reported to Saigon as a

first-tour, political officer in late 1974.

But signs soon suggested that stability

was chimerical.

In early January 1975, I pulled

late duty to report the translation of

President Nguyen VanThieu’s speech

to the nation after the North Vietnam-

ese Army had overrun Phuoc Binh, just 90 miles north of Saigon.

Thieu rationalized that retaking the jungle town was not worth

the cost.

Militarily, he was right, but politically this was a disaster.

Phuoc Binh was the first provincial capital the government per-

manently abandoned after more than a decade of war. Even more

dismaying, Thieu rambled on for three disjointed hours. Viet-

Saigon Sayonara



nam’s president and commander in chief seemed to be losing it.

While the translators worked, I slipped over to the Recreation

Association to grab a sandwich. It was “Luau Night” around the

swimming pool. U.S. contractors were decked out in orchid leis

and served by waitresses in sarongs, all lit by tiki torches. The

incongruity stunned me: partying as usual while the NVA racked

up the score, less than 100 miles to the north. “This cannot last,” I


A Reality Check

But I wanted to see for myself. So in early 1975, I took annual

leave for a four-day bus trip over the Tet (lunar New Year) holiday,

unarmed and unescorted, deep into the Mekong Delta. No travel

clearance was required in those days. (It was a different time and

a different Foreign Service; hard to envision in the current era

of cocoon-like constriction.) My intent was to poke around the

district where I had served with USAID as the sole civilian on a

joint military-civilian pacification advisory team from 1969 to

1971. (USAID was my chosen entrée into the Civil Operations and

Revolutionary Development Support program—the equivalent

of a countrywide Provincial Reconstruction Team on steroids.) I

wanted to gauge how security had changed on the ground, in a

place where I could really judge.

Our former team interpreter, a lasting friend whom I got out

a fewmonths later, went with me. We encountered no problems

on the road. Vietnamese were astonished to see an American on

board, but happy to banter for long hours. Arriving in the district,

the army captain now in command was a different matter. Totally

flummoxed, he wanted us out of there.