Decent Interval: An Insider’s Account Of Saigon’s Indecent End Told By The CIA’s Chief Strategy Analyst In Vietnam, Frank Snepp, Random House, New York, 1977
Sometimes a picture is in fact better than one thousand words. In this case the famous, or infamous depending on one’s view, photograph of the last American “refugees” being evacuated from the American Embassy in Saigon (now, mercifully, Ho Chi Minh City) tells more about that episode of American imperial hubris that most books. Still, as is the case with this little gem of a book, ex- CIA man Frank Snepp’s insider account of that fall from the American side, it is nice to have some serious analytical companionship to that photo. Moreover, a book that gives numerous details about what happened to who in those last days in a little over five hundred pages and who the good guys and bad guys really were. Especially now, as two or three later generations only see Vietnam through the hoary eyes of old veterans (both military and radical anti-war) from that period like me to tell the tale.
Naturally, a longtime CIA man who in a fit of his own hubris decides, in effect, to blow the whistle on the American fiasco, has got his own axes to grind, and his own agenda for doing so. Bearing that in mind this is a fascinating look at that last period of American involvement in Vietnam from just after the 1973 cease-fire went into place until that last day of April in 1975 when the red flag flew over Saigon after a thirty plus year struggle for national liberation. For most Americans the period after the withdrawal of the last large contingents of U.S. troops from combat in 1972 kind of put paid to that failed experiment in “nation-building”-American-style.
For the rest of us who wished to see the national liberation struggle victorious we only had a slight glimmer that sometime was afoot until fairly late- say the beginning of 1975, although the rumor mill was running earlier. So Mr. Snepp’s book is invaluable to fill in the blanks for what the U.S., the South Vietnamese and the North Vietnamese were doing, or not doing.
Snepp’s lively account, naturally, centers on the American experience and within that experience the conduct of the last ambassador to Saigon, Graham Martin. Snepp spares no words to go after Martin’s perfidious and maniacal role, especially in the very, very last days when the North Vietnamese were sweeping almost unopposed into Saigon. But there is more, failures of intelligence, some expected, others just plain wrong, some missteps about intentions, some grand-standing and some pure-grade anti-communist that fueled much of the scene.
And, of course, no story of American military involvement anyplace is complete without plenty of material about, well the money. From Thieu’s military needs (and those of his extensive entourage) to the American military (and their insatiable need for military hardware), to various American administrations and their goals just follow the money trail and you won’t be far off the scent. And then that famous, or infamous, photograph of that helicopter exit from the roof of the American Embassy in just a nick of time makes much more sense. Nice work, Frank Snepp. The whistleblower’s art is not appreciated but always needed. Just ask Private (now Chelsea) Bradley Manning.