Martin, Graham

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Graham Martin

Born in 1912
Mars Hill, North Carolina

Died in 1990

U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, 1973–1975

Graham Martin served as U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam during the final years of the Vietnam War. A strong supporter of President Nguyen Van Thieu (see entry), Martin waged a fierce but unsuccessful campaign to increase U.S. military aid for South Vietnam. Martin's ambassadorship to South Vietnam ended in April 1975, when North Vietnamese forces captured the capital city of Saigon to end the war. Since then, his handling of the evacuation of American and Vietnamese personnel from Saigon during the war's final days has become a topic of controversy and debate.

Works as diplomat around the world

Graham A. Martin first made his mark in the world as a newspaperman, but he eventually entered the world of international politics. During the 1940s and 1950s he became a prominent American diplomat, and in 1963 he was named U.S. ambassador to Thailand. He held this post for four years. In 1969 President Richard Nixon (see entry) appointed him ambassador to Italy. Martin served the Nixon administration in Italy for four years before the president asked him to take the same position in South Vietnam.

Martin succeeded Ellsworth Bunker as U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam in 1973. He arrived in Saigon shortly after the signing of the 1973 Paris Peace Accords. This treaty paved the way for the withdrawal of American military forces from Vietnam after nearly eight years of war. The departure of U.S. troops from Vietnam was very troubling to South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu and other members of his regime. Despite U.S. promises of continued military aid, they worried that the American withdrawal meant that they would have to fend off future threats from North Vietnam by themselves. One of Martin's main jobs, then, was to reassure Thieu that the United States would provide military assistance to his government for as long as necessary.

A defender of the South Vietnamese government

Martin worked hard over the next two years on behalf of Thieu's government. He hated the Communist political philosophy of North Vietnam, and he was convinced—as were many other Americans—that a Communist victory over South Vietnam would be a disaster for the Vietnamese people and America's international prestige. As a result, he spent much of his time trying to convince war-weary American lawmakers that the South deserved increased U.S. support.

But Martin's desire to help Thieu became so great that he delivered misleading or false information about the situation in South Vietnam. "Over a long period of time [Martin] practiced a brand of deception designed to try to manipulate Congress," charged former U.S. Information Agency official Alan Carter in The Bad War. "That's not the role of an American ambassador. He was manipulative . . . [and] out-and-out lying [about the situation in South Vietnam]." Many Vietnam War historians have also faulted Martin for his performance during this period. "Like scores of previous U.S. officials in South Vietnam, he insisted the government forces were making progress in their war," wrote Robert Schulzinger in A Time for War. "Martin [also] rejected any criticism of the South as Communist propaganda. A true believer in the cause, he questioned the judgement, motives, and patriotism of anyone who doubted the capacity of the South Vietnamese government."

South Vietnam begins to crumble

Violent conflicts between North and South Vietnam continued to flare throughout 1973 and 1974. In early March 1975 North Vietnam launched a major military offensive into the South in hopes of winning the war once and for all. As the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) marched southward, the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) unexpectedly collapsed. As a result, the Communists were able to capture city after city without bloodshed. Many of the South Vietnamese people, meanwhile, fled in panic. Fearful that the Communists would turn their guns on them, these refugees clogged roadways and boats in their desperate efforts to escape the advancing NVA.

Meanwhile, Martin traveled to the United States in order to lobby Congress for increased military aid to the South. While in Washington, D.C., however, he underwent surgery on his jaw. The operation delayed his return to Saigon until late March. By this time, the entire country of South Vietnam seemed to be on the verge of collapse.

On March 30 the city of Da Nang fell to the rapidly advancing North Vietnamese forces when battered ARVN troops broke into a chaotic retreat. The loss of this major city signaled that South Vietnam was in serious trouble. But Martin was one of few people who did not see the defeat as an absolute catastrophe for the South. In fact, he insisted that "despite journalistic accounts, what happened here [in Da Nang] was a planned military withdrawal." He went on to describe the situation in the rest of South Vietnam as "reasonably stable."

Saigon is surrounded

By mid-April 1975 Communist forces had advanced to within forty miles of Saigon, South Vietnam's capital. On April 17 President Gerald Ford issued an emergency request for $722 million in military assistance to the South. Martin and other officials who supported this request hoped that it would allow South Vietnam to stay alive and persuade the North to negotiate a truce that would leave the nation somewhat independent from the Communists. But U.S. lawmakers rejected the request. They believed that additional military aid would not be able to save South Vietnam, and they knew that the American public was tired of the Vietnam War. These factors convinced Congress to keep the United States on the sidelines during South Vietnam's last days of existence.

On April 21 President Thieu resigned from office. He was replaced by his elderly vice president, Tran Van Huong. Around this same time, U.S. Major General Homer Smith organized a major evacuation of American and Vietnamese personnel out of Saigon's Tan Son Nhut air base. For the next week, hundreds of men and women were evacuated through this operation. But Martin remained hopeful that Saigon could somehow be saved, so he decided to hold off on issuing his own evacuation orders. As a result, hundreds of American and Vietnamese people associated with the U.S. embassy remained in the city.

By April 26 NVA forces had surrounded the capital. A day later, Communist troops launched artillery attacks and air raids against Tan Son Nhut air base, Saigon's main airport. The air raid was carried out by captured American jets that were flown by South Vietnamese pilots who had defected to the North. This attack ruined the runways and made it impossible for fixed-wing aircraft to land. From this point forward, all people fleeing Saigon would have to get out by boat or helicopter.

Orders the final evacuation

By the last days of April it was clear that Saigon was going to fall to the NVA within a matter of days. But Martin—who came down with pneumonia during this time—refused to believe that South Vietnam was entering its final days of existence. On April 28, in fact, he sent a cable to Washington in which he predicted that the United States could maintain a presence in Saigon for "a year or more." He also continued to hold off on giving a final evacuation order, even though the city was crumbling all around him. He later explained that he believed that the evacuation order would set off a panic throughout Saigon. But when President Ford heard about the NVA attack on the air base, he personally ordered an immediate emergency evacuation of all American personnel from Saigon, including Martin and the rest of the embassy personnel.

When Martin received Ford's instructions, he reluctantly ordered the evacuation to begin. At 10:51 A.M. on April 29, Armed Forces Radio began playing the song "White Christmas." This song was the signal to begin the final helicopter evacuation out of Saigon. Throughout the rest of the day, hundreds of Americans and their South Vietnamese friends and coworkers gathered at the U.S. embassy to be airlifted out of Saigon. Embassy officials also worked to destroy U.S. records about the war. But they did not have enough time to burn all the files, so many of these records eventually fell into the hands of the Communists. The North Vietnamese later used these files, which included information on Vietnamese citizens who had helped the Americans during the war, to imprison thousands of people.

Final hours in Saigon

When the people of Saigon realized that the last Americans were fleeing the city, panic erupted in the streets. Some South Vietnamese helicopter pilots flew out to the South China Sea, where a fleet of U.S. warships was waiting to transport the evacuees. American Navy personnel were forced to push a dozen or so South Vietnamese helicopters off the ships and into the sea to keep the decks clear for incoming U.S. helicopters. Thousands of Vietnamese civilians, meanwhile, crowded onto barges and boats to escape the city.

The helicopter lift out of Saigon lasted for about twenty-one hours. About 5,000 people, including 4,100 Vietnamese and 900 Americans, were evacuated from the roof of the embassy during this time. Ambassador Martin was one of the very last to leave. As he was herded onto the helicopter, he clutched the American flag that had flown over the embassy's walls in his hands.

At 8 A.M. on April 30, Ford ordered the evacuation ended. As a result, approximately 420 Vietnamese men and women who had helped the Americans during the war were left behind on the embassy roof. Trapped in the city, they had no choice but to await the arrival of the Communists. One day later, the NVA captured Saigon and renamed it Ho Chi Minh City, after Communist leader Ho Chi Minh (see entry), who had led North Vietnam until his death in 1969. The fall of Saigon marked the end of the Vietnam War.

Retires from public life

Upon returning to the United States, Martin served as a special assistant to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (see entry). In 1977 he retired from government service and settled in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. In 1978 the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) launched an inquiry into Martin's handling of the embassy files in Saigon, but no charges were ever brought against the former ambassador. Martin died in March 1990.


Church, George J. "Saigon: The Final Ten Days." Time, April 24, 1995.

Engelmann, Larry. Tears before the Rain: An Oral History of the Fall of SouthVietnam. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

"Graham Martin: Our Man in Saigon." Time, April 21, 1975.

Schulzinger, Robert D. A Time for War: The United States and Vietnam,1941–1975. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Snepp, Frank. Decent Interval: An Insider's Account of Saigon's Indecent End. New York: Random House, 1977.

Summers, Harry G., Jr. "Final Days of South Vietnam." American History, April 1995.

Willenson, Kim. The Bad War: An Oral History of the Vietnam War. New York: New American Library, 1987.

Operation Babylift

When North Vietnamese forces closed in on Saigon in April 1975, American and South Vietnamese officials organized an operation to rescue hundreds of Vietnamese orphans so they could be adopted in the United States and Australia. This effort—called "Operation Babylift"—called for hundreds of children to be flown out of the city on American military planes.

The first flight of Operation Babylift took place on April 4. At that time, a giant American transport plane known as a C-5A was loaded up with 243 Vietnamese children and several American women to watch over them. As it turned out, not all of the youngsters on the plane were orphans. In fact, many were the children of terrified parents who worried that the Communists would murder them if they remained in Saigon.

Unfortunately, the first flight of Operation Babylift ended in tragedy. Shortly after takeoff, a pressure door at the rear of the plane came loose. The plane subsequently spun out of control and crashed into a swamp a short distance from the airport. A total of 178 children were killed in the fiery crash. "Americans saw it all on television," noted Robert Schulzinger, author of A Time for War. "For many of them the plane crash symbolized much of the horror and futility of the American involvement in Vietnam."

The Last Americans Killed in Vietnam

On April 27, 1975, North Vietnamese rockets and artillery slammed into the Tan Son Nhut air base outside of Saigon. The attack killed two Marines: Corporal Charles McMahon, Jr., of Woburn, Massachusetts, and Lance Corporal Darwin Judge of Marshalltown, Iowa. Two days later, two Marine chopper pilots—Captain William C. Nystul of Coronado, California, and First Lieutenant Michael Shea of El Paso, Texas—died when their helicopter crashed into the South China Sea during evacuation operations. These soldiers were the last four Americans killed in action during the Vietnam War.

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