This American Banker Adopted His Adult Coworkers to Rescue Them From Saigon
There has been no shortage of literature about the North Vietnamese Army’s final advance on Saigon and the many and varied means by which the last withdrawing Americans got various South Vietnamese out of town before the Presidential Palace sprouted the gold star on a red and blue field of the Viet Cong (soon to be permanently replaced by the gold star on red of a united Socialist Republic of Vietnam). Each is about as personal as every participant’s story. Ralph White’s memoir Getting Out of Saigon is no exception—which is to say that it’s its own sort of exceptional.
White was an employee at Chase Manhattan Bank’s Bangkok branch when higher-ups gave him a special assignment in April 1975: Keep Chase’s Saigon branch open as long as possible and, if (well, when really) the communists prevailed, get out with all the senior staff he could. White had been in Vietnam before, in 1971, but his principal assets for this assignment were that he was young (27), competent, single, and most of all expendable. Fortunately for him, he also seems to have been open minded, resourceful and, when it came to sorting out the right people to assist him from among what he called “delusionals,” “pilgrims,” and “realists,” he was a quick study.
While the American ambassador to South Vietnam and chief “delusional” Graham Martin clung to the illusion that Saigon could never fall to the communists—who were a few days’ march away—White got a different perspective from the brother of a teenaged prostitute who greatly appreciated his efforts to get her out of the country and into a better life. Her brother happened to be a Viet Cong and he gave White all the help he could as well as a summation of the “bloodbath” to come: “Not happening. They just want us to leave. They want their country back. As far as they’re concerned their choices have narrowed to capitalist occupation or communist independence. This day has been inevitable since President Truman turned down Uncle Ho’s pleas for help against the French.”
Even with that cold comfort, White faced obstacles aplenty on his own side when he took it upon himself to get all the Vietnamese Chase employees out of the country—a challenge that came down to knowing the right “realists” and finding the right vehicles for passage by water or air (both, as it turned out). In the course of an intriguing tale worthy of Graham Greene—which White fully realized he was now living—the author learned as he went and got by with a little help from his friends. While admitting that he took some artistic license with the dialogue, White adds that, “The events related herein are entirely true.” What emerges from his memory is a bona fide page-turner. —Jon Guttman
Getting Out of Saigon: How a 27-Year-Old American Banker Saved 113
by Ralph White.Simon & Schuster, 2023, $28.99
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This book review appeared in the 2023 Summer issue of Vietnam magazine.
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