Tuesday, April 4, 2023

Q&A with Ralph White


Photo by P. Decker



Ralph White is the author of the new book Getting Out of Saigon: How a 27-Year-Old American Banker Saved 113 Vietnamese Civilians. It focuses on his experiences in Vietnam in 1975. White spent many years working in corporate finance. He also founded the Columbia Fiction Foundry, a workshop for Columbia University alumni. He lives in New York City and in Litchfield, Connecticut.


Q: Why did you decide to write Getting Out of Saigon?


A: Whenever I’ve responded to questions about what was it like during the fall of Saigon, I’d go into an exegesis that typically began with, “We wouldn’t even have the phrase the fall of Saigon in our vocabulary if it hadn’t been for Ambassador Graham Martin’s psychosis.”


Then I’d go on to explain how under mentally sound leadership there would have been a phased withdrawal of the American presence from Vietnam. The outlying consulates in the provincial capitals would have had orderly closings, with all operations concentrated in the embassy compound in Saigon.


Agencies such as the CIA and USAID would have been gradually reduced, with their missions handed over to their Republic of Vietnam counterparts. Retired American servicemen and their Vietnamese families would be encouraged to leave or prepare for the privations of communism.


I might further explain that if the withdrawal process had commenced following the Paris accords in January of 1973, then by early 1975, when the North Vietnamese invaded in strength, the remaining Americans could have enjoyed an orderly departure. No helicopters from rooftops; no orphan airlifts, no 24-hour shredding of diplomatic cables and negotiable instruments.


That all became inevitable only because Ambassador Martin considered contingency planning to be defeatist and disloyal. Even after the South Vietnamese government’s abandonment of the northern provinces, Martin still believed a negotiated settlement was possible. That was a full-throated rejection of reality, which is more or less the definition of psychosis.


But all of the above as well as my central proposition, that the fall of Saigon was wholly due to Martin’s psychosis, was difficult to convey conversationally. I recognized the necessity of a written firsthand account documenting how Martin created the ideal conditions for America’s greatest foreign policy blunder. I also hoped it would better establish me as a credible witness to Saigon’s critical last weeks.


I tried many times over the years to write up my impressions of the fall of Saigon but failed to find my voice. My literary training (at the Columbia Fiction Foundry) was in making fiction appear credible. My breakthrough came when I realized that same craft could be conscripted to make nonfiction sound incredible. Ten months later, I had a 90,000-word manuscript.


Q: Did you need to do much additional research to write the book, or did most of the material come from your memory or your notes from the time?


A: My principal resources were memory, personal notes, and a 1975 calendar. That got me to a completed manuscript.


The main thing I was missing at that point was the deployment of the military units on both sides. That’s not essential to the story itself but the proximity of the enemy forces and the weakness of the defending force served to enhance literary tension, so I needed to be accurate. For that I read George Dunham’s The Marines in Vietnam.


When I interviewed Lucien Kinsolving, the foreign service officer who was on the peace commission, he gave me his own copies of Clarke’s Honorable Exit and Drury and Clavin’s Last Men Out. I mainly used them to fine tune my story.


A search for photographs led me to the David Butler collection at Dartmouth College, and that led me to Butler’s book The Fall of Saigon. Lengthy interviews with former foreign service officers Moorefield and Ellerman helped me more accurately depict their roles.


Only after I submitted the final manuscript did I meet any of the Vietnamese. Their unofficial leader, My Nga Tran, helped me piece together the story from the employees’ perspective, though, as I said, the manuscript had been finalized well before my reunion with them. The Vietnamese Chase Saigon staff are delighted that their saga has been entered into history.

Q: The writer Nelson DeMille said of the book, “Ralph White’s Getting Out of Saigon opens old wounds, but also heals.” What do you think of that description, and what do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: I haven’t spoken with DeMille about that blurb, other than to thank him, so I really can’t say what he meant. Nelson served as an infantry officer in the First Cavalry Division in Vietnam and has written two novels set there, Up Country, and Word of Honor.


Vietnam tore America apart; it tore families apart, and it tore friends apart. Most discussions about Vietnam in the ‘60s and ‘70s ended acrimoniously. I worked as a civilian on a military base in Vietnam and I had military privileges, including transportation, mess halls, and officers’ clubs. Despite my diplomacy, I often ended up in arguments with the active duty personnel.


If pressed to divine the meaning of DeMille’s enigma, I’d say that anything and everything about Vietnam “opens old wounds.”


If my book “also heals” I’d attribute it to my casting Martin as the (ultimately defeated) antagonist, or, I don’t know, perhaps my depiction of my Vietnamese refugees as such decent, bright, attractive people, yearning to be free, who risked everything to escape despotic communism in favor of freedom in America. I offer an inspirational story.


For additional background on Vietnam’s residual impact on America I recommend Haunting Legacy: Vietnam and the American Presidency from Ford to Obama, by Marvin and Deborah Kalb, Brookings Institution Press, 2011.


Takeaways: I sincerely hope to persuade readers that the reason that the fall of Saigon was such a train wreck was Ambassador Graham Martin’s psychopathic resistance to reality and the havoc it wreaked on U.S. foreign policy and America’s reputation.


But I would be less than candid if I didn’t also harbor a hope that my readers come away entertained. I’d like for readers to be thrilled by my creative nonfiction portrayal of the fall of Saigon. Yes, it was a shit-show, but the world’s a stage, and my first person reporting of the drama is meant to be entertaining and ultimately uplifting.


Q: What impact did it have on you to write this book?


A: This story has been struggling to become a book for 48 years. The simple fact is that I didn’t possess the skill to do it justice until very recently. When I landed one of the best nonfiction agents in the business, Laurie Abkemeier, and she landed one of the best editors, Bob Bender, at one of the best publishing houses, Simon and Schuster, I was transformed.


Then the pre-publication editorial reviews started trickling in: Kirkus, The Washington Post, Library Journal, Publishers Weekly.


The New York Post’s reviewer sent a note to my publicist at S&S, Larry Hughes, who forwarded it to me. “Hey, I read a lot of books over here for The Post, but I wanted to say how much I enjoyed Getting Out of Saigon. If you’re in touch with the author, kindly do tell him how much I enjoyed it and how well-written I think it is. I never say this sort of thing, in fact, but I really dug it…”


I don’t care who you are, when a debut author reads professionals saying this kind of thing about his book, it makes him stand taller and step lighter. I’m 75 years old and I honestly believe that my best years lie ahead.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on getting back to nature. My household effects are in a locker in the Connecticut rust belt and I’m sharing a miniscule living space in New York City with a 10-foot view into a neighbor’s apartment.


By the end of this year I’d like to be living on the New Hampshire – Maine border. Ask me this question again in December, when I’ve got a log fire crackling in the fireplace, a venison bourguignon simmering in the pot, and zero state income tax.


I believe I have another book in me. If I do it would key off my experience with refugees.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Thanks for asking. Brief as it was, this Q&A made me think. My innovation (if it is) of using the craft of fiction to make nonfiction incredible debuted in this questionnaire. I’ll be using it again, and often, but you will have reported it first.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

1 comment:

  1. It truly is a remarkable book. I had just finished a three year stint in the Middle East at age 27 and 100% connect with his sense of being "green & junior". I would love to know what he did after Saigon.