(Kansas City, Missouri) - The image still haunts: desperate refugees on a Saigon rooftop, snaking up a ladder to a waiting helicopter and escape from the North Vietnamese on April 30, 1975. The Vietnam War was effectively over.
On Tuesday, April 14, 2015, James H. Willbanks, director of the military history department at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, examines the critical decisions and events that precipitated South Vietnam's final collapse. The event at the Central Library, 14 W. 10th St., begins at 6:30 p.m.
Willbanks' presentation, The Fall of Saigon, 1975, marks the 40th anniversary of the chaotic event, which also was the subject of the recent Academy Award-nominated documentary Last Days in Vietnam.
Willbanks discusses the Paris Peace Accords of 1973, the "cease-fire war," Richard Nixon's resignation, the impact of declining U.S. support, and North Vietnam's end-game offensive.
In early March 1975, the North launched the first phase of what was expected to be a two-year offensive to secure South Vietnam. As it turned out, the South's government and army collapsed in less than two months. Thousands of South Vietnamese troops retreated in disorder.
Gerald R. Ford, who had succeeded Nixon as U.S. president, pleaded with Congress for additional military aid but lawmakers were ready to wash their hands of a long and futile war. On April 21, 1975, South Vietnam President Nguyen Van Thieu resigned and fled to Taiwan. What remained of the South Vietnamese government surrendered unconditionally two days later, and North Vietnamese tank columns occupied Saigon without a struggle.
The remaining Americans escaped in a series of frantic air- and sealifts with Vietnamese friends and coworkers.
Willbanks, a leading authority on the Vietnam War, has been on the faculty of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College since retiring from the Army in 1992. He served 23 years as an infantry officer, including a tour as an advisor with a South Vietnamese regiment during the North's 1972 Easter Offensive.
Willbanks holds a bachelor's degree in history from Texas A&M University and master's and doctorate degrees from the University of Kansas, and is the author or editor of 15 books including Abandoning Vietnam: How America Left and South Vietnam Lost Its War.
Admission to the event is free. RSVP at kclibrary.org or call 816.701.3407. Free parking is available in the Library District parking garage at 10th and Baltimore.