In January 1973, the Paris Peace Accords brought a formal end to the Vietnam War. But in April 1975, the North Vietnamese Army ignored the terms of the treaty and captured Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam.
As the army approached, the U.S. hastily evacuated some 6,000 American citizens and South Vietnamese nationals. Many climbed a ladder on the roof of the American embassy to flee by helicopter. That ladder is on display at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids.
For Henry Kissinger, what the ladder comes to represent is the failure of the peace accords. They didn’t work. We have to leave, and the South is falling to the North. So, Henry Kissinger looks at these staircases and he sees the failure of his work. Brent Scowcroft, however, looks at the staircase and he sees something else. He sees people who fled communism to freedom. This is a staircase that represents a flight to freedom.
Even if this is not “the” staircase, it’s certainly emblematic of that evacuation. It must have been harrowing for the embassy employees to have to crowd onto this thing, and go almost completely vertical into a waiting helicopter. Precarious!
The whole 24 hours from April 28-29, 1975 was precarious. We see the images of what’s going on there as the North Vietnamese Army is moving into Saigon, tanks are rolling down the street as the embassy is assailed; the airport is being shelled and the evacuation spots crumble and it all then coalesces around the American Embassy. And so, the emotions, the fears, the reality that’s playing out for these people at this site...particularly the Vietnamese people who had helped the American army, the American diplomats who had been part of the CIA activities...they know what awaits them if they fall into communist hands. They’re going up this ladder. You’ve got about 6,000 people that you have to get out of Saigon, and it’s just collapsing down to the crucible that is this American embassy.
(There’s) whirling chopper blades, rumbling tanks...and above the din, you hear the crooning baritone of Bing Crosby.
“White Christmas” (played over Armed Forces Radio). Get out of town. That’s what you were waiting for; the signal that tells you to go to those evacuation sites.
In the archives we have the maps that note the evacuation sites. All of that is well and good until the tanks are rolling in, and those evacuation sites are compromised. Again, it all collapses back to the embassy.
You knew President Ford in his later years. Did you ever have a conversation with him about this ladder or any of that era?
No, I was more of a fly on the wall as those conversations were being played out. Certainly, Ford looked upon this as his darkest day. Ford had been a Cold Warrior for a long time. He came into office in 1949. This was when (President Harry S.) Truman is in the process of crafting the “containment” policy that will govern our conduct during the Cold War. How do you contain communism. He’s committed to this process, and yet now (in 1975), he sees himself having to end this process.