As Saigon Fell, A Young Banker Went On A Desperate Mission

Author Ralph White, center, joins former Chase Saigon refugees in New Jersey to celebrate Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, in 2022. It was the first time in 47 years that White had seen any of them. Image: Cuong Kim Lam via The Washington Post


Getting Out of Saigon
How a 27-Year-Old American Banker Saved 113 Vietnamese Civilians

By Ralph White
Simon & Schuster. 303 pp. 

The history of America’s war in Vietnam offers a laboratory for the study of dysfunction. For half a century, historians, memoirists and journalists have chronicled no end of misunderstanding, ineptitude and even outright malfeasance on the part of Americans who led a war effort synonymous with failure.

Ralph White’s captivating memoir, “Getting Out of Saigon,” shows that fresh revelations are still possible. Recounting his brief stint as head of the Chase Manhattan Bank’s Saigon branch, White unfolds a rollicking if ultimately depressing tale of American incompetence during the days leading up to the communist takeover of Saigon at the end of April 1975, the final defeat of Washington’s 20-year effort to defend an independent South Vietnam.

Just 27 at the time, White arrived in Saigon on April 14 with a twofold mission: keep the Chase Manhattan office open as long as possible and then, when North Vietnamese tanks were closing in, help the bank’s entire staff and their families escape to another country. The goal was to affirm the bank’s reputation for reliability without jeopardizing the lives of Vietnamese employees likely to be punished, even executed, by a new regime with little fondness for former employees of an American firm.

From the start of his mission, White recognized what many Americans in Saigon did not: the futility of trying to stave off a communist victory and the absurdity of keeping the branch open under such hopeless conditions. The bulk of the book recounts White’s exhausting work to arrange the exodus of 113 Vietnamese despite U.S. and South Vietnamese authorities determined to block his efforts.

Nearly all U.S. forces had been withdrawn from Vietnam under the 1973 Paris peace agreement, and now some Americans hoped that military aid alone would enable the South Vietnamese to defend their nation, a far-fetched scenario exposed as pure fantasy when Saigon finally collapsed on April 30.

White castigates an array of “delusional” American diplomats who refused to throw U.S. resources into a massive airlift of friendly Vietnamese clamoring to get out. But he reserves special venom for the imperious U.S. ambassador, Graham Martin, whose loose hold on reality fed hopes that Washington might still deliver enough weaponry to turn the tide.

“Facts had often been casualties in Vietnam,” White notes of America’s long embroilment in the country, and the war’s final act was no exception. While Martin imagined the cavalry riding to the rescue, White saw only “the next Little Bighorn or Alamo.”

White is at his storytelling best when recounting his frenetic shuttling between the U.S. Embassy, the Saigon airport, hotel cafes and seedy bars in search of clear-eyed American officials who might help. This “pinball odyssey” includes wary encounters with a Viet Cong operative, a run-in with South Vietnamese police and a chaste infatuation with a teenage Vietnamese prostitute, a cast of characters reminiscent of “The Quiet American,” Graham Greene’s classic 1955 novel of wartime Saigon.

White’s peregrinations pay off as he gradually discovers a few mid-ranking U.S. diplomats and military officers — a “gang of mutineers,” he calls them — willing to go behind the ambassador’s back and do the right thing. Tipped off about planes ferrying refugees out of the country, White escorts two clusters of refugees to the airport, enduring blazing heat, hungry waits and the nerve-racking threat of failure. Finally, White and the refugees take off for Guam and later for permanent resettlement in the United States.

White downplays the notion that he was any sort of hero, calling his exertions in Saigon his “fifteen minutes of fame.” But it’s hard not to admire him for his pluckiness in the face of bureaucratic indifference as well as his growth from a risk-taking adventurer into a humanitarian with genuine compassion for the Vietnamese whose lives depended on him. By his final days in Saigon, he observes, he was “no longer the guy on my passport.”

But the book’s tight narration of one man’s exploits is also its main shortcoming. “Getting Out of Saigon,” White’s first book after a long career in international banking, does not examine the larger saga of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who escaped Vietnam after the war or the fates of countless would-be refugees who didn’t manage to get out. Without such context, it’s hard to appreciate the scope of the tragedy that befell Vietnam.

A more curious omission is White’s failure to provide anything more than cursory mention of what happened to his band of refugees once they settled in the United States. After embracing Chase Manhattan’s employees as his “family” and risking his life on their behalf, White misses a chance to round out his story, bring his Vietnamese charges to life and convey the full meaning of his accomplishment.