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'We played God': Saigon's chaotic fall still haunts CIA strategist

Forty years after Saigon fell, the CIA’s former chief strategist in Vietnam is haunted that more lives weren't saved

LOS ANGELES – On the morning of April 29, 1975, Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” blared on the radio. The holiday classic was secret code for the start of the evacuation, dubbed “Operation Frequent Wind,” the largest airlift of its kind.

Those final moments before the fall of Saigon are seared into the memory of Frank Snepp, the CIA’s former chief strategist in Vietnam and one of the last Americans to get out. Snepp says Marine guards beat back the Vietnamese on the rooftop, so he could get a seat on the helicopter.

“It arched up and I could see on the edge of the city 140,000 North Vietnamese troops moving in with the lights on,” said Snepp. “We move out toward the coastline and we suddenly began taking ground fire … and the helicopter pilot wrenched the controls and we gained altitude and got out.”

More than 60 military and Air America choppers took part in the operation. Pilots flew more than 600 flights, airlifting 7,000 people out on that final day, including 900 from the U.S. Embassy alone.

On the last day, Snepp said, the Embassy was shaking, as the incinerators on the roof rumbled on full blast turning tons of classified material to ash. In the last stretch, he and others blew up NSA communications equipment with hand grenades.

As word got out that the Americans were leaving, thousands of South Vietnamese swarmed the Embassy gates, desperate to flee. Many had worked directly for the U.S. mission in Vietnam and were considered “high risk.”

Frank Snepp right before the fall of Saigon.
America Tonight

“During the last day, we played God,” said Snepp, now a journalist in Los Angeles. “We determined who would be saved and who wouldn’t, and it was heart-wrenching. You would get one person in the family, but not the child, not the mother, not the father. We separated families in a wink … because we hadn’t planned adequately.”

That sense of betrayal has haunted Snepp for four decades – with one wound deeper than the others.

Snepp had a relationship with a Vietnamese woman, who he hadn't heard from for many months before the fall. Then, in those final hours, she found him, told him that she had his child, and that if he didn't get her out she'd kill herself. Snepp says he told her that he had to do something for the ambassador and to call him in an hour. He missed her call.

"It is my fear that she killed herself and that child,” he said.

It’s estimated that more than 750,000 Vietnamese fled their homeland in the 20 years following the fall of Saigon, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. More than half resettled in the United States.

I’m always saying goodbye to the Vietnamese. And when I see people here, I’m always saying goodbye to the memory that I carry with me.

Frank Snepp

Many wound up in Orange County, California. Some 200,000 Vietnamese-Americans live in and around the cities of Garden Grove and Westminster, giving it the nickname Little Saigon. Snepp lives just an hour away, but when he met America Tonight in a Little Saigon mall recently, he admitted it's a rare visit. He says it feels like walking through “a hall of ghosts.”

“I look around at these faces … and I’m always unconsciously trying to identify somebody I know – a face, an expression, a smile,” Snepp said. “…I’m always saying goodbye to the Vietnamese. And when I see people here, I’m always saying goodbye to the memory that I carry with me.”

South Vietnamese civilians try to climb the wall of the U.S. embassy in Saigon, trying to reach evacuation helicopters.

Snepp says the United States, specifically the State Department and the U.S. Embassy, squandered an opportunity to rescue more South Vietnamese, especially ones who helped American efforts.

“We had a human tsunami rolling south toward Saigon in the last two months of the war,” Snepp said.

But Ambassador Graham Martin was "a Cold Warrior of the old stripe," who had lost an adopted son in the fight, and Snepp says he wouldn’t even discuss a possible evacuation.

"He would not surrender to the Godless communists," Snepp said.

But the communists were intent on taking Saigon. North Vietnamese artillery and armor units pounded South Vietnamese targets around the clock. The violent barrage cleared the way for ground forces to capture key cities like Hue and Da Nang in late March. The North Vietnamese Army had achieved the unthinkable: In just weeks, they captured the northern half of the country and obliterated half of the South Vietnamese Army.

“I flew into the embattled areas soon after the worst began to happen and I saw the South Vietnamese Army retreating into the sea, throwing away its uniforms,” Snepp said. “It was a horrifying sight. Bad soldiering. Bad leadership.”

Frank Snepp at his home last month.
America Tonight

Even with the frenzied attempt to destroy classified material on that last day, Snepp said it wasn't enough. In 1977, Snepp published the controversial memoir “Decent Interval,” revealing that sensitive documents had been left behind in the rush to leave Saigon. He said the CIA’s operatives were named in the files. Many of them were put into "re-education camps," he said, and it's impossible to know how many were killed.

“It’s futile to try and figure out or measure the tragedy in terms of numbers," Snepp said. "One Vietnamese lost because we left one secret behind is all you need to know about betrayal."

Snepp carries the guilt to this day that he failed to advocate for a larger, more organized evacuation effort.

"I should have grabbed the ambassador by the neck and said, 'Will you start an evacuation? Will you start the planning at least for one?'" Snepp said. "But I was good Southern boy. I had good manners and I sat on my anger. And I think about that all the bloody time … If only I had the guts to say to the ambassador, 'Get going, sir! We've got all the information we need.'"

Forty years after the fall of Saigon, Snepp spends a lot of time on the Southern California bluffs, gazing at the Pacific, exorcising the demons he brought home from the war.

“The Vietnam I knew fled into the sea during that evacuation, and the waters washed over all the terrible images I brought with me, and began to soothe me – beginning the healing process,” Snepp said. “So I come here to be reminded that there was an end to the horror. This is a moment away from Vietnam.”

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