China and the Fall of South Vietnam: The Last Great Secret of the Vietnam War
The People’s Republic of China, a long-time ally of North Vietnam, may have sought to create a neutral South Vietnam in 1975 and deny Hanoi its long-sought victory, writes George J. Veith.
The People’s Republic of China, a long-time ally of North Vietnam, may have sought to create a neutral South Vietnam in 1975 and deny Hanoi its long-sought victory.
This revelation was drawn out from over a decade of interviews and email exchanges that I conducted with Nguyen Xuan Phong before his death in July 2017. Phong served as the deputy for the Republic of Vietnam negotiating team in Paris from 1968 until 1975, and he claimed to have been in contact with the Chinese in order to save South Vietnam.
For over 30 years, Phong told no one of his last clandestine mission to save his country. Although no direct documentary proof has been released to substantiate Phong’s claims, considerable tertiary evidence does seem to substantiate his account. If true, this fascinating story upends the accepted history of the war’s final days.
Shortly before Henry Kissinger’s historic trip to Peking in July 1971, Phong had been invited to attend a reception at the Burmese embassy in Paris. There Phong was introduced to a Chinese official from Zhou Enlai’s office who wished to meet with Phong. The man ended their discussion by remarking, “Does President Thieu know who his real friends and foes are?”
According to Phong, various messages from the Chinese were passed to him seeking to establish a dialogue with Thieu, but the South Vietnamese president did not respond.
North Vietnam launched another offensive in March 1975 and quickly shattered South Vietnam’s defenses. By late April, Communist troops were pressing against Saigon, and Thieu had resigned in favor of his vice president, Tran Van Huong.
The French government was strongly recommending that Huong resign in favor of Duong Van Minh, the former general who had led the coup against Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963. The French proposed that a coalition government with the Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG), the Communist front organization in South Vietnam, and headed by Minh would halt Hanoi’s attack. Phong and Huong were old friends, and Huong summoned Phong to Saigon to discuss whether this offer was genuine.
When Phong flew to Saigon, he claims to have carried with him a secret message from the Chinese. When Phong arrived, he immediately went to see Huong. Because he had known the ailing president for years, he confirmed there was no hope for negotiations while he was still in office. The next day, Huong summoned the assembly to begin the process of transferring power to Minh. Phong did not mention the message he was carrying, since he knew that the triggering event for the proposal was for Minh to assume power and accept a coalition with the PRG.
Several days later, Phong met with Minh’s close friend, former general Tran Van Don, and a representative from the PRG to discuss the possible coalition government. Tran Ngoc Lieng, a secret Communist agent, was present as Minh’s representative. Phong subtly informed the PRG official at this meeting that France and other countries would help the new government, but he was deliberately vague about what this meant. This was Phong’s only attempt to pass on his explosive missive.
What message was Phong carrying?
The Chinese, he said, desperately wanted the PRG to assume power via the French formula of a coalition with Minh to prevent a North Vietnamese takeover. After a coalition was formed, Minh would issue an appeal for help. The French would respond that an international force would enter South Vietnam to protect the new government. The initial “muscle,” as Phong termed it, would be “two Chinese Airborne divisions into Bien Hoa.” Beijing asked for four days to marshal their troops and shuttle them to the air base. Phong explains their thinking:
"Beijing could not come forward and do this work directly, but they let people know that they were … letting the French do this work! Because of international politics … Beijing could not blatantly intervene militarily in South Vietnam. France would need to appeal to a few nations to participate in an ‘international force’ (with France serving as the spearhead) in order to allow Beijing to intervene. A number of problems faced Beijing at that time: What number of Chinese military forces should be employed, and how long would they have to stay in South Vietnam to contain and suppress North Vietnam’s army? They promised that they would stay as long as the situation required, but they thought that between three and six months would be the maximum length of time they could participate … because they did not want to be accused of militarily occupying South Vietnam."[i]
Why would China militarily intercede to thwart a North Vietnamese victory, especially after years of supporting Hanoi?
China wanted a neutral South Vietnam to prevent being surrounded by a potential Moscow-Hanoi pact. Nayan Chanda, the highly respected correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review, extensively detailed the Chinese dread of a unified Vietnam. He wrote that Beijing has “consistently followed the policy of maintaining by all the means at its disposal a fragmented Indochina free of the major powers. These means included quiet diplomacy, economic persuasion, and, of course, use of its military might.”[ii]
If Phong was the only courier bearing this message, he might be easily dismissed. He was not. Retired French Général de Division Paul Vanuxem was carrying a message similar to Phong’s. Vanuxem had known Thieu and other senior Vietnamese military officers since the First Indochina War. He had visited Thieu occasionally over the years and had returned to Vietnam in the last days of South Vietnam as a correspondent for the French weekly magazine Carrefour.
Vanuxem published a slim book in 1976 detailing the final days of the war. He notes that he went to Independence Palace on April 30 to speak with Minh. While he alluded to his meeting in his book, stating that “all the minds were paralyzed with fear and incapable of receiving the overtures which were then being made and which could have saved everything,” he left out the critical details.[iii]
There are numerous firsthand witnesses confirming that Vanuxem spoke to Minh and relayed a message similar to Phong’s. While these men relate slightly different versions of the conversation, all were in the room, and several were secret Communist agents. ARVN Brigadier General Nguyen Huu Hanh provided the first revelation in 1981 in a recorded interview for the PBS series Vietnam: A Television History. Hanh, whom Minh had called out of retirement, was a long-time Communist penetration agent. He was with Minh in Independence Palace on April 30. Hanh recounted that
"the very first thing Vanuxem said was that he had just come from Paris. Before he came, he met with many personalities, including members of the [Beijing] embassy. He suggested that Minh announce that he would leave the Americans and would come to the side of China. According to him, if we did that China would put pressure on Hanoi to have a ceasefire in the southern part of Vietnam. After having thought it over, Minh rejected the proposal. And when Vanuxem pleaded with Minh to prolong the whole thing for another twenty-four hours, the latter also rejected the idea. After Vanuxem left, we announced the transfer of power."[iv]
Nguyen Van Diep, the South Vietnamese economic minister and who was also an underground mole and at the meeting, agrees that “Vanuxem had come to see Minh to try and encourage Minh and to persuade him that the situation was not yet hopeless. Vanuxem arrived just after General Minh finished tape-recording his surrender statement.” After Minh told him the situation was hopeless, Vanuxem replied that “It is not hopeless. I have already arranged for this in Paris. I request that you publicly ask for Nation C [China] to protect you.” Vanuxem asked Minh to hold out for three days, but Minh refused.[v]
Ly Qui Chung, whom Minh had appointed minister of information, confirms that:
"Vanuxem said that he wanted to offer a plan to Minh to save the hopeless situation that the Saigon regime faced. Vanuxem said that Minh should speak out to appeal for a powerful country to intervene, and that if the South Vietnamese government issued an official request this powerful country would intervene immediately. Minh gave a bitter laugh and said, I thank you for your good intentions, but during my life I have already served as a lackey for the French and then as a lackey for the Americans. That is enough. I do not want to be a lackey again."[vi]
Could Vanuxem have conjured this effort on his own? Vanuxem’s family does not believe that the French government would use him as a messenger. They contend that his involvement in the failed French army coup of April 1961 made him a pariah to the French government. Assuming that Vanuxem’s pariah status with the French government remained intact, it is doubtful he was carrying a message from the French government, especially since it had its own ambassador in Saigon.
What seems more likely is that the Chinese sought another emissary besides Phong. Phong was a civilian diplomat, while Vanuxem had close ties to the ARVN generals, and he had a long history of supporting the republic. He would be the perfect envoy to convince anti-communist ARVN generals to accept Chinese and French help, especially such a bold offer as this. Moreover, as a lone courier, he was also deniable if necessary.
Given its spies at the meeting with Minh, Hanoi learned of Vanuxem’s proposal. On the tenth anniversary of the fall of Saigon, Hanoi finally acknowledged China’s attempted intervention. An official stated that:
"the Chinese authorities nursed an extremely sinister scheme. As Duong Van Minh, the puppet regime’s last president revealed: On the morning of 30 April 1975, through the intermediary of Vanuxem … China requested that Minh carry on the fighting for at least another 24 hours so as to have enough time to announce a disassociation from the U.S. and an alliance with China. China would then bring pressure to bear, including introduction of troops into Vietnam to end the hostilities to China’s advantage."[vii]
The Chinese also allegedly approached former South Vietnamese vice president Nguyen Cao Ky. In an interview with William Buckley on Firing Line in September 1975, Ky claimed that sometime in late 1972, Chinese agents had come to his house in Saigon. Ky said they asked him to overthrow Thieu and “declare South Vietnam neutral, not siding with the Russians or the Americans.” If he did that, “the Chinese will support you because we already have trouble on our northern border with the Russians. We do not want to see our south flank occupied by a Russian satellite.”[viii]
Ky repeated this story in a speech in December 1975 in the US, claiming that “a group of Chinese agents came to his home … and proposed a Chinese-supported coup to overthrow Thieu.”[ix] Why Ky never mentions this incident in either of his books, however, is troubling.
That Vanuxem made the statement seems indisputable. Whether his or Phong’s information was actually China’s true intent is unresolved. Could this have been another diplomatic smokescreen? Forging a coalition government to remove Thieu during the last days was certainly Hanoi’s ploy. Thieu’s close assistant, Hoang Duc Nha, believes that it was. He confirms that the French ambassador had told him, as part of a plea for Nha to become the new prime minister, that “the Chinese are going to bring in some divisions to stop the North Vietnamese.” Nha suspected this was a Chinese trick to sell them on a coalition government.[x] Given all the diplomatic maneuvers to remove Thieu, the idea cannot be discounted.
Vanuxem died in 1979, leaving his actions unexamined, while Phong never discussed the possibility that he was being used. Moreover, while Hanoi has apparently accepted the Vanuxem story, it cannot be confirmed without documentary evidence or an official Chinese or French government admission. Whether China and France, each for its own national interests, had colluded to create a neutral South Vietnam and deny Hanoi its long-sought victory remains an intriguing possibility, but one that, for now, remains the last great secret of the Vietnam War.
[i] Interview with Nguyen Xuan Phong, November 30, 2006, and email from Phong, November 22, 2008.
[ii] Nayan Chanda, Brother Enemy: The War After the War (New York: Collier Books, 1986), 127.
[iii] Paul Vanuxem, La Mort du Vietnam [The Death of Vietnam] (Paris: Editions Nouvelle Aurore, 1975), 22, 61
[iv] Interview of Nguyen Huu Hanh, March 16, 1981, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HU-eWGEGvL0, from 7:55 to 9:45, accessed May 5, 2016.
[v] Ha Binh Nhuong, Vo bọc nhiem mau [The Miraculous Cover] (Hanoi: People’s Public Security Publishing House, 2005).
[vi] Ly Qui Chung, Untitled Memoirs, 403.
[vii] “History of PRC’s ‘Hostile Policy’ Reviewed,” FBIS Asia and Pacific, May 8, 1985, K4.
[viii] “Why We Lost the War in South Vietnam,” transcript of PBS Firing Line, October 4, 1975, 8.
[ix] “China Proposed Coup, Said Ky,” Baltimore Sun, December 6, 1975, A2.
[x] Nha interview, Falls Church, VA, June 4, 2009.
About the Author
George J. Veith
George J. Veith is the author of four books on the Vietnam War, including Code Name Bright Light: The Untold Story of U.S. POW Rescue Efforts during the Vietnam War (1998), Black April: The Fall of South Vietnam, 1973-1975 (2012), and Drawn Swords in a Distant Land: South Vietnam’s Shattered Dreams (2021). He has written extensively on the Vietnam War, spoken at many conferences, and testified on the POW/MIA issue before Congress. His fourth book is a political, social, and economic history of the rise and fall of South Vietnam. He recently completed his PhD at Monash University and lives in Delaware.Read More
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