The History Behind The Fall Of Saigon, The Tragic Final Chapter Of The Vietnam War

Published June 5, 2023
Updated February 19, 2024

After 20 years of bloodshed, the Vietnam War came to a chaotic end on April 30, 1975, when North Vietnamese forces stormed the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon.

Vietnamese People Outside The US Embassy
Vietnamese Evacuees During The Fall Of Saigon
South Vietnamese People On A Barge During The Fall Of Saigon
Abandoned Uniforms During The Fall Of Saigon
The History Behind The Fall Of Saigon, The Tragic Final Chapter Of The Vietnam War
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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.

Vietnam War Protest

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.

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.

Vietnamese Visa Seekers

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."

Fall Of Saigon

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."

After reading about the fall of Saigon, look through these anti-Vietnam War protest photos. Or, discover the true story of Operation Babylift, the U.S. government's plan to save Vietnamese orphans before the fall of Saigon.

Kaleena Fraga
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 dual degree in American History and French.
Jaclyn Anglis
Jaclyn is the senior managing editor at All That's Interesting. She holds a Master's degree in journalism from the City University of New York and a Bachelor's degree in English writing and history (double major) from DePauw University. She is interested in American history, true crime, modern history, pop culture, and science.