THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL
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.
BY JOSEPH MCBR I DE
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
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
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-
ON THE FOREIGN SERVICE IN VIETNAM
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.