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The fall of Saigon

America’s last panic evacuation

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Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, fell to the Communist troops of North Vietnam on 30 April, 1975. Just five days before, the US ambassador and CIA chief were certain they had weeks to negotiate an orderly evacuation. CIA officer Frank Snepp knew otherwise, thanks to a brave spy who told him the North Vietnamese were poised to take Saigon immediately to celebrate the birthday of their leader, Ho Chi Minh, in May. The 31-year-old agent’s superiors wouldn’t believe him, he recalls in the I, Spy podcast. South Vietnam’s president, Nguyen Van Thieu, may have flown out a few days earlier, drunk, with suitcases of gold bars, but it was only when the airport was bombed out of action that Operation Frequent Wind – a helicopter evacuation – was belatedly put into action. White Christmas was played on repeat on Armed Forces Radio as a signal.

The day before the tanks rolled into Saigon, the CIA scrambled to fly out 1,500 Americans and about 6,000 key local collaborators in tiny helicopters from the rooftop of the US embassy and other buildings. Chaos ensued. Marines on the embassy walls battered desperate Vietnamese trying to break in, while American staff, some drunk, burnt secret documents and nearly $2m in cash. Snepp says the famous photograph of people swarming up a ladder to a helicopter in fact records the attempted rescue of the local CIA chief’s girlfriend from an apartment block.

Hours before he flew out, Snepp learnt that his Vietnamese former girlfriend had killed herself and her young child (which she said was his) after he had failed to secure her escape. “It tears at my soul,” he says. More than 400 Vietnamese collaborators were left behind, some of whom were machinegunned to death.

Listen to the full podcast here.