The Last Ambassador

The Overlook

By Tom Clavin

“The Overlook” appears every Thursday at tomclavin.substack.com. An overlook is usually a place from which one can see in many if not all directions, including where one has been and where one is going. If you enjoy the column, please "like" it and let me know what you think by commenting (check out previous ones while you're at it).  Likes, comments, and shares help with author discoverability on Substack.com, and all support is appreciated.Don't forget to hit the ‘Subscribe’ button – it’s free!

            After the human toll – including what is to come, as the Taliban prepare to punish the Afghan people for being (again) on the losing side – one of the more disturbing aspects of the latest fall of Afghanistan is how naïve American officials and pundits were about the desire and ability of the native people to fight for their country. And that has me thinking this week of Graham Martin.

          Of all the characters Bob Drury and I have portrayed in our books, beginning with Halsey’s Typhoon and through Blood and Treasure, Martin remains one of my favorites. He was a very complicated man – idealistic, deeply flawed, kind of heroic, and ultimately a tragic symbol of so much of what went wrong in the Vietnam War. Martin was the last U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam. When he left the embassy in the early morning hours of April 30, 1975, the U.S. presence in Vietnam was finally over. For a tick-tock, boots-on-the-ground narrative of those final days and the Kabul-like chaos of Saigon, read Last Men Out. For those who do not have the time or inclination, here are some details about what could be called the Last Stand of Graham Martin.

          It was the view of Major Jim Kean, head of the Marines Security Guard contingent at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, during those last few days that Martin “was clinging like a badger to the embassy, to the American presence in Vietnam. To Kean, Martin represented the old guard – the men who had taken the United States into this country in the first place but had refused to finish the job. Now their misbegotten adventure had reached its inevitable climax, and it was, as usual, left to the Marine Corps to clean up their mess.”

          How did Graham Martin come to be in Saigon at that crucial time in history? Born in 1912, the son of a Baptist minister, he was raised in Mars Hill in western North Carolina. He graduated from Wake Forest College at 20. He was an Army intelligence officer during World War II and was on board the USS Missouri to witness the Japanese surrender in 1945. Martin’s first posting as a diplomat was at the U.S. Embassy in Paris, where he remained into 1955, rising to the level of Chief of Mission. He had other postings, then in 1960 President Eisenhower appointed him as a member of a U.S. delegation to the United Nations based in Geneva.

          His experience with Southeast Asia gained traction when he became U.S. Ambassador to Thailand. He came to the attention of Richard Nixon during a banquet for King Bhumibol Adulyadej at the embassy in Bangkok. The former Vice President was in Thailand acting as a corporate attorney, accompanying then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey. When the King toasted President Lyndon Johnson, Humphrey tried to return the toast with a toast to the King. Martin interceded and gave the toast himself, explaining later to both Humphrey and Nixon that as the Ambassador, he was the President's personal representative. He finished his explanation by saying, "If you become President yourself someday, Mr. Vice President, you can be sure that I will guard your interests as closely as I did President Johnson's tonight.”

          During Martin's tenure in Thailand, he forged close bonds with the local government and the Thai Royal family. President Johnson and Secretary of Defense McNamara heeded the Joint Chiefs' request to escalate bombing runs over North Vietnam and to provide close air support cover for covert missions in the highlands of South Vietnam as well as the secret war in Laos and Cambodian excursions. The U.S. military needed more air bases for staging and to launch B-52 bomber missions. Using his personal relations with Thai royals and government leaders, Martin convinced Thailand to allow more U.S. troops and materiel to be stationed at bases on Thai soil. Martin advised that if Thai commanders were "in charge" these would remain Thai bases and avoid embarrassment or public support for the escalating U.S. war. The U.S. military then worked to expand existing bases and build new ones.

Then next posting for Martin was a very different one, as Ambassador to Italy, then it was back to Southeast Asia in June 1973 when he was appointed Ambassador to South Vietnam. Only a minimum of U.S. troops remained because of a treaty that January that had turned the war over to South Vietnamese forces – and that was not going so well. In early 1975, Martin ignored intelligence and field reports that the North Vietnamese invasion was achieving great success with the fall of provincial capitals. He continued to believe that the American would hold Saigon and the Mekong Delta area after observing South Vietnamese soldiers’ tenacious 12 days of fighting in the Battle of Xuan Loc. His delays in initiating an evacuation meant that only a limited number of people could be evacuated in the final airlift – which was called Operation Frequent Wind.

During the last days of April, to the shock and dismay of the Gerald Ford administration, what transpired in Saigon was catastrophic. Thousands of Vietnamese civilians, fearing reprisals when the North Vietnamese entered the city, besieged the U.S. Embassy and flocked to the airport, which was being shelled by the attackers. Wracked by illness, Graham Martin continued to believe there would be a last-minute negotiated peace and he remained at his post, vowing to die like Gen. “Chinese” Gordon did in Khartoum when it fell to the Muslims 90 years earlier.

Finally, after Ford personally ordered him out, Martin was forced onto a helicopter by Major Kean and his remaining Marine Security Guards. It was close to 5 a.m. on April 30 when that chopper left the U.S. Embassy. Except for the 11 MSGs mistakenly left behind – you’ll find their story in Last Men Out – the nightmare of the Vietnam War was over.

Well, for the U.S. Throughout Southeast Asia during the next few years millions of people died. Despite the Taliban assurances, we can expect a smaller but similar scenario in Afghanistan. Officials in the Trump and Biden administrations did not know or believe history and thus were doomed to repeat it.

For Graham Martin, it was not just hope and ideology that connected him to South Vietnam. While he was serving as Ambassador to Thailand, his adopted nephew, Marine 1st Lt. Glenn Dill Mann, was killed near Chu Lai, in November 1965, while attacking enemy positions with his helicopter gunship. He was buried in Section 3 at Arlington National Ceremony. After Martin died in March 1990, he too was buried in Section 3 at Arlington.

Tom Clavin is the bestselling author/co-author of 18 books, including this latest collaboration with Bob Drury, Blood and Treasure: Daniel Boone and the Fight for America’s First Frontier, published by St. Martin’s Press. Please go to your local bookstore or to Bookshop.org, Amazon.com, or BN.com to purchase a copy.