During the French colonial period, the city was known as Saigon and was often referred to as the “Paris of the Orient”. Its streets are named after French military leaders and the most famous is rue Catinat, the city’s Champs-Élysées. With the withdrawal of the French, the street was renamed Tu Do or Freedom Street. In 1976, the government of a United Vietnam honored the Vietnamese national hero by giving the city his name. Tu Do has become Dong Khoi.
Saigon holds bittersweet memories for our family. After having been Tourism Commissioner for almost eight years, my father Modesto Farolan was appointed Ambassador to South Vietnam and Cambodia by President Diosdado Macapagal. He replaced Ambassador Trinidad Legarda, one of the first Philippine Foreign Service Ambassadors. During her stay in South Vietnam, one of her granddaughters was born at the Adventist hospital in Saigon; a son is buried in Saigon National Cemetery.
In the early 1960s, many Filipinos were working in South Vietnam. Some were private entrepreneurs, others were contract workers of foreign companies, some were married to Vietnamese women, and a number worked for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) or its front organizations. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book “A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam,” author Neil Sheehan made this observation about the CIA’s use of Filipinos: “The CIA was known to hire Filipinos to staff its Asian operations. because they were so Americanized. Their presence in an office or a maintenance workshop announced that the CIA owned the premises.
In March 1965, the US engagement in Vietnam changed dramatically with the landing of 3,500 US Marines of the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade in Da Nang. Marines in full combat gear were greeted by Vietnamese girls with necklaces, standing alongside a large sign reading: “Welcome, Gallant Marines”. Their mission was to secure the Da Nang air base and thus free more South Vietnamese units for combat operations against the Viet Cong. By the time of the 1968 Tet Offensive, there were believed to be nearly half a million American troops in the country. But as television brought war into the living room of Americans and body bags of dead soldiers arrived in increasing numbers, American public opinion gradually turned against the war.
The 1973 Paris Peace Agreement provided for the withdrawal of US fighting forces from Vietnam. It was the beginning of the end. At the end of April 1975, North Vietnamese tanks were at the gates of the presidential palace in Saigon as the largest helicopter evacuation in history took place at the United States Embassy. In his book “The
Nightingale’s Song, ”Robert Timberg, 1964 US Naval Academy graduate and award-winning journalist, gives a compelling account of the last day of the war:“ On April 29, as North Vietnamese rockets bombarded Saigon airport, US Ambassador Graham Martin ordered the emergency evacuation of Americans and South Vietnamese threatened with imprisonment by enemy troops deployed on the outskirts of the city. The next day and a half ranks among the most ignominious episodes in the history of the nation. Panic gripped Saigon. TV footage shot by intrepid and die-hard cameramen showed Americans and South Vietnamese on the roof of the US Embassy haphazardly climbing aboard helicopters while other Vietnamese clung to the skates as the helicopters were taking off. Crowds of Vietnamese desperately tried to climb the embassy compound wall in hopes of finding a safe haven or joining the general exodus.
Ambassador Martin continued to lead the evacuation, determined to save as many Vietnamese as possible. Eventually, President Gerald Ford ordered him to leave the Embassy aboard the next helicopter. Holding the American flag, he climbs aboard one of the last helicopters to take off for a ship at sea. Robert MacFarlane of the National Security Council has reported to his boss Henry Kissinger that Martin is out. His first thought after the events of the day was that “the United States, by throwing in the towel, had crippled its credibility as a reliable ally.”
In light of what is happening in Kabul now and what happened 46 years earlier in Saigon, the Philippines must understand that we cannot constantly depend on friends and allies for our own security. If we do not take the difficult and demanding path of fending for ourselves, however meager our resources may be, we will never discover the true strength of our people. Autonomy is the key to survival and development.
To subscribe to REQUEST MORE to access The Philippine Daily Inquirer and over 70 other titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download from 4 a.m. and share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.