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Crowds of Vietnamese people try to enter the U.S. Embassy. Though about 5,500 were evacuated, many were left behind. Nik Wheeler/Corbis via Getty Images
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South Vietnamese evacuees board a helicopter with the help of CIA agents.
One member of the CIA's team in Saigon later expressed regret that they were not able to evacuate as many Vietnamese people as they'd promised: "Their cries of panic over CIA radios on the last day still tear at my conscience."Bettmann/Getty Images
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South Vietnamese people climb aboard barges in an attempt to escape from Saigon before the arrival of North Vietnamese troops. Nik Wheeler/Corbis via Getty Images
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Uniforms abandoned by South Vietnamese troops scatter the road. April 1975.Jacques Pavlovsky/Sygma/CORBIS/Sygma via Getty Images
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Civilian evacuees board a helicopter during the fall of Saigon.Nik Wheeler/Corbis via Getty Images
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Evacuees wait near a swimming pool at the U.S. Embassy compound in Saigon as a helicopter takes off overhead. Helicopters arrived at 10-minute intervals between April 29 and April 30, 1975, and ferried some 7,000 people out of the city before Saigon was captured.Nik Wheeler/Corbis via Getty Images
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Here, some handguns confiscated from refugees are visible at the bottom of the U.S. embassy swimming pool.Nik Wheeler/Corbis via Getty Images
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Vietnamese civilians climb onto a bus carrying evacuees into the U.S. Embassy in Saigon.Bettmann/Getty Images
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A South Vietnamese soldier helps one of his comrades after fighting against North Vietnamese forces shortly before the fall of Saigon.Bettmann/Getty Images
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An American Marine pushes two Vietnamese men back as they try to climb into the U.S. Embassy to flee Saigon. Nik Wheeler/Corbis via Getty Images
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North Vietnamese troops entering Saigon.Jacques Pavlovsky/Sygma/CORBIS/Sygma via Getty Images
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An American helicopter is dumped off of an aircraft carrier to make room for more evacuees during the fall of Saigon. Dirck Halstead/Getty Images
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A South Vietnamese helicopter pilot and his family on the USS Hancock after their evacuation from Saigon.
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Vietnamese evacuees during a stopover in Thailand. Some 5,500 Vietnamese people were ferried out of Saigon during the evacuation of the city.NATIONAL ARCHIVES/AFP via Getty Images
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A U.S. civilian clutches his son while on a helicopter during the evacuation of Saigon.Dirck Halstead/Getty Images
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A U.S. Marine pushes Vietnamese civilians back as they try to board a bus leaving for an evacuation site. April 29, 1975.Bettmann/Getty Images
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Supporters of the North Vietnamese forces celebrating the fall of Saigon. Jacques Pavlovsky/Sygma via Getty Images
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Women and children run as a compound behind them burns at the edge of Saigon.Bettmann/Getty Images
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South Vietnamese civilians attempt to climb the U.S. Embassy wall in order to flee the country.Nik Wheeler/Corbis via Getty Images
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A boy waves a transitional flag, used for just four months in 1975, during the fall of Saigon.Jacques Pavlovsky/Sygma/CORBIS/Sygma via Getty Images
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North Vietnamese soldiers sit triumphantly upon their tank in front of the presidential palace in Saigon.Bettmann/Getty Images
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Viet Cong soldiers smoke cigarettes in an office that was once occupied by the president of South Vietnam. Bettmann/Getty Images
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North Vietnamese soldiers play guitar on the steps of the Majestic Hotel in Saigon. In the background, a soldier shows off his anti-aircraft gun to a small crowd.Bettmann/Getty Images
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President Gerald Ford, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft during the evacuation of Saigon.
Though the U.S. had promised to come to South Vietnam's aid if North Vietnam launched a major attack, there was little political will to extend the conflict further. After the fall of Saigon, Ford announced: "This action closes a chapter in the American experience."NATIONAL ARCHIVES/AFP via Getty Images
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People search for survivors in bombed buildings after the fall of Saigon.Michel LAURENT/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
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An American Marine points his rifle at a South Vietnamese man trying to scale the U.S. Embassy wall in order to evacuate the country.Bettmann/Getty Images
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A South Vietnamese soldier drops to the ground with one of his comrades during an attack on Newport Bridge.Bettmann/Getty Images
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U.S. civilians are ushered onto a helicopter during the fall of Saigon.Nik Wheeler/Corbis via Getty Images
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After the U.S. Embassy was evacuated, looters quickly stormed the building.Bettmann/Getty Images
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North Vietnamese forces enter Saigon — later renamed Ho Chi Minh City — after the American evacuation. April 30, 1975.PhotoQuest/Getty Images
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North Vietnamese troops entering Saigon.Jacques Pavlovsky/Sygma/CORBIS/Sygma via Getty Images
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North Vietnamese troops breach the fence surrounding the South Vietnamese presidential palace in Saigon.VNA/AFP via Getty Images
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Crowds of South Vietnamese people fleeing from Saigon. April 30, 1975.
One refugee, Anne D. Pham, who successfully evacuated Saigon with her family, later recalled, "My father held me close and solemnly said to my eldest brother: 'Take a good look at your country. It will be the last time you see it.'"
Jean-Claude FRANCOLON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
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Vietnamese refugees following the fall of Saigon.Pictures From History/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
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As the evacuation came to an end, helicopters were pushed off American aircraft carriers in order to make room for all the evacuees. Pictures From History/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
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Vietnamese people sift through the rubble of Saigon in search of survivors. Michel LAURENT/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
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Captured South Vietnamese soldiers are guarded by North Vietnamese troops after the fall of the capital city.Jacques Pavlovsky/Sygma/CORBIS/Sygma via Getty Images
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A tank burns during the fall of Saigon.Jacques Pavlovsky/Sygma via Getty Images
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Though scores of South Vietnamese people fled Saigon, others welcomed the arrival of the North Vietnamese. "You have nothing to fear," North Vietnamese Colonel Bui Tin declared. "Between Vietnamese there are no victors and no vanquished. Only the Americans have been beaten. If you are patriots, consider this a moment of joy. The war for our country is over."Jacques Pavlovsky/Sygma/CORBIS/Sygma via Getty Images
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Saigon in 1975, alongside the same city — renamed Ho Chi Minh City — in 2015, 40 years after the former South Vietnamese capital fell to North Vietnamese forces.PhotoQuest/Getty Images/Taylor Weidman/Getty Images
The History Behind The Fall Of Saigon, The Tragic Final Chapter Of The Vietnam War
At the end of April 1975, "White Christmas" suddenly blasted through the streets of Saigon, Vietnam. This was a signal to Americans that the evacuation of the city had begun. With that, so did the fall of Saigon.
For weeks, North Vietnamese forces had been creeping toward the South Vietnamese capital, meeting little resistance as they marched through a number of cities, like Quang Tri, Hue, and Da Nang. By April 29th, it was clear that U.S. forces would not intervene — despite their earlier promises to do so — and that the North Vietnamese would capture Saigon.
As helicopters whirred over the capital, and South Vietnamese civilians crowded outside of the U.S. Embassy in the city, American officials struggled to evacuate as many people as they could. In the end, some 7,000 people, including 5,500 Vietnamese, were whisked from the besieged city.
Then, North Vietnamese tanks rolled in. The fall of Saigon marked the end of the Vietnam War, and stands as one of the most dramatic chapters in the conflict's history. Below, read about how the capture of Saigon came about, and above, look through 40 photos of that chaotic day.
The Final Days Of The Vietnam War
By the time the fall of Saigon took place on April 30, 1975, the Vietnam War had been grinding on for about two decades. Ostensibly between the communist North Vietnam and the non-communist South Vietnam, the war also acted as a conduit for larger Cold War tensions and drew in a number of outside actors, like the United States and the Soviet Union.
Though the Paris Peace Accords of 1973 had struck an uneasy peace between the two sides — resulting in a ceasefire, the release of American POWs, and the withdrawal of U.S. military forces — the truce wouldn't last. At the end of 1974, the North Vietnamese launched an offensive attack.
Bettmann/Getty ImagesSome 250,000 anti-Vietnam War protesters converge on the U.S. Capitol in 1971. During the Fall of Saigon, there was no political appetite among most Americans to extend the conflict.
American policymakers had promised to defend the South Vietnamese in such a scenario but the conflict had become deeply unpopular with the American public. According to the National Museum of American Diplomacy, this lack of support — as well as the fallout from the Watergate scandal that had toppled President Richard Nixon in 1974 — meant that the U.S. chose to do nothing as North Vietnamese troops marched steadily south.
One by one, cities started to fall to the People's Army of Vietnam and Viet Cong troops. Confident that the U.S. would not intervene, the North Vietnamese forces continued on toward the South Vietnamese capital.
The Dramatic Fall Of Saigon
In the days leading up to the fall of Saigon, it became clear that North Vietnamese troops would soon take the South Vietnamese capital. On April 25th, South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu fled after resigning and transferring power to his vice president, Tran Van Huong. By April 27th, North Vietnamese forces had completely encircled the capital city.
Two days later, the North Vietnamese forces bombed Saigon's Tan Son Nhut Air Base — and the American evacuation of the city began in earnest. Because planes could not land in Saigon, the Americans turned to helicopters to ferry out U.S. diplomats and any other U.S. citizens.
As the Associated Press reports, the Bing Crosby song "White Christmas" blared across the city to alert Americans that the evacuation of Saigon had begun. Though the Americans had originally planned to only evacuate other Americans, the National Museum of American Diplomacy reports that U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin insisted that at-risk South Vietnamese people — especially government officials — should be evacuated as well.
Jacques Pavlovsky/Sygma/CORBIS/Sygma via Getty ImagesVietnamese visa seekers line up in front of the U.S. Embassy before the fall of Saigon.
But many more also wanted to flee. As helicopters took off from the U.S. Embassy, thousands of South Vietnamese people crowded the embassy gates. Some tried to scale the embassy walls. But embassy officials would only allow in those with the right credentials, according to The Guardian.
"We had to push and shove our way through a crowd of several hundred Vietnamese trying to scale the walls, only to be knocked back by U.S. Marines," reported CBS News correspondent Ed Bradley.
Bradley continued: "Once inside the compound, for the Americans and those Vietnamese who managed to get in with legal documents and the many who managed entrance without, the rest was easy. It was just a matter of waiting your turn for a helicopter to take you to one of the ships on station off the Vietnamese coast."
Dirck Halstead/LiaisonAmericans and Vietnamese people dash toward a helicopter during the fall of Saigon in April 1975.
Between April 29th and April 30th, helicopters came and went every 10 minutes, airlifting out evacuees. In the end, some 7,000 people were evacuated — including 5,500 Vietnamese people — during the fall of Saigon. But many more were left behind as the city swiftly surrendered.
"You have nothing to fear," North Vietnamese Colonel Bui Tin reassured South Vietnamese General Duong Van Minh. "Between Vietnamese there are no victors and no vanquished. Only the Americans have been beaten. If you are patriots, consider this a moment of joy. The war for our country is over."
Indeed, the Vietnam War was effectively over about 20 years after it had begun. In the United States, President Gerald Ford acknowledged as much.
"This action closes a chapter in the American experience," the president said in a statement. "I ask all Americans to close ranks, to avoid recrimination about the past, to look ahead to the many goals we share and to work together on the great tasks that remain to be accomplished."
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a double degree in American History and French.