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Stripping the Mask from Uncle Ho : CRUEL APRIL By Olivier Todd (W. W. Norton: $24.95; 451 pp.)

December 02, 1990|William Shawcross | Shawcross is a journalist who has covered Southeast Asia for various American and British publications. His latest books are "Dubcek" (Simon & Schuster) and "The Shah's Last Ride" (Simon & Schuster)

The capture of a city can cast a shadow over an epoch. The sack of Corinth, the fall of Rome, the taking of Berlin--all marked ends of eras or empires. But to French journalist Olivier Todd, America's retreat from Saigon looks very different from the "moral triumph" he observed in 1975.

In this important and provocative book--a racy, episodic account of Saigon's fall--Todd admits that he may have fallen victim to "the totalitarian temptation" during the war. "I had at any rate (campaigned) to establish a regime in Saigon that I condemned in Prague or Budapest. . . . We did not think of Uncle Ho as the Holy Ghost, but Thieu was Lucifer. We were dreaming, you see, of 'socialism with a human face' in southern Asia."

For Todd, the mask slipped on a visit in 1973 to the communist zone of South Vietnam. The Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG), which he had seen as "a movement of national liberation," as communist propaganda portrayed it, turned out to be "the secular and ideological arm of the communist government in Hanoi."

Todd points out that personal chronicles, never pure or incorrupt, are bound to be selective, for "events are not altogether reducible to words." But he makes a fine selection of documents, diaries, interviews, letters, broadcasts, dispatches--even classified ads--to re-create the atmosphere in Vietnam and Washington as North Vietnamese tanks rushed toward Saigon in early 1975. His evocation of the cruel and impoverished purity of the North--its "monolithic will, demented obstinacy"--is compelling, especially set against the chaotic uncertainties of the South.

Todd is unsympathetic toward President Gerald Ford, who, he writes, kept a cool distance from the melee: "When Ford speaks, on television and after banquets, it feels as if music is blurring his remarks, a medley of religious hymns and department-store elevator music." Ford's advisers anxiously insulate him from the collapse of Vietnam and try instead to taint Henry Kissinger with the stain of failure. Kissinger, in turn, tries to shift the blame from himself to Congress.

To Kissinger, indeed, Todd is kinder. He suggests that it was Kissinger more than anyone else who argued to the end that the South Vietnamese should not be denied the arms with which to defend themselves. Of course, there were those, including perceptive CIA analyst Frank Snepp, who believed that the South Vietnamese army had quite enough ammunition but had lost the will to use it to defend the country.

The concern of the South Vietnamese about the northerner's brutality was palpable nevertheless. Describing the chaotic rout of the South Vietnamese troops in the Central Highlands and the awful flight of the refugees who followed them, Todd asks: "Why are they fleeing? They're afraid. They dread socialist discipline." And socialist murder, too. In 1968, the Communists had briefly taken the old imperial capital, Hue, and when they were driven out, the Americans and South Vietnamese had found "charnel houses" where people had been murdered by the Communists.

The Saigon regime had made no provision for refugees; there was mayhem as soldiers and civilians fled the advance of northern infantry and tanks, which appeared invincible.

When Thieu was compelled by his allies to sign the Paris Peace Agreement, Richard Nixon had written him reassuring letters in which he promised the toughest response to any North Vietnamese violations. Thieu had taken this literally and expected the return of the B-52s in the event of any real threat. Now, however, he had to be content with much milder letters from Ford, bemoaning the fact that the North Vietnamese had clearly abrogated the agreement by force, but not promising to do anything about it.

After the Central Highlands, the Communists rolled the map of South Vietnam all the way down to Saigon. No one dared to speculate on what their final intentions were; everyone hoped that they would still negotiate a compromise and allow a coalition, or at least a staged and dignified American withdrawal. Right until the end, some hoped that there could still be an independent, or even an autonmous, federated South Vietnam, ruled by the PRG.

The North's inexorable march on Saigon led to the panicked and humiliating flight of Americans and some Vietnamese from the U.S. Embassy. Then, as silence fell in the months ahead, came the brutal (and ultimately ineffectual) attempt to impose communism on the South. Gone was all pretense at reconciliation with a separate southern entity. In its place came cruel and incompetent domination by Hanoi. Within three years, there were gulags all over South Vietnam; the boat people came flooding out to sea, and they never stopped. Still, today, poor Vietnamese from both north and south prefer to languish in awful camps in Southeast Asia rather than return to the greater awfulness of Vietnam.

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