On this day in 1975, Dutch photographer Hubert van Es took one of the most iconic pictures of the last century. It showed hundreds of South Vietnamese scrambling to get aboard a lone American helicopter precariously perched on the roof of an apartment building in Saigon. The Vietnam War was over.
Two years before that moment, in 1973, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Vietnamese communist party official Le Duc Tho had been somewhat prematurely awarded the Nobel Peace Prize following the Paris Peace Accords.
There, they had agreed to a ceasefire and the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam. But Tho turned down the award and indeed, the peace wasn’t to last.
In December 1974, the North Vietnamese Army and communist guerrillas from South Vietnam, the Viet Cong, launched the Spring Offensive. By April 1975, they were bearing down on the South’s capital, Saigon, having taken the cities to the north.
US president Gerald Ford appealed to Congress for $722m in military aid to help the stricken Saigon government. The request fell on deaf ears. Close to 60,000 American soldiers had died during the course of the war, and the financial costs were still mounting.
The evacuation of the remaining American personnel began on 29 April, codenamed Operation Frequent Wind. But despite being the biggest helicopter airlift in history, thousands of South Vietnamese, including those who worked at the US embassy, were left behind.
The next day, a tank flying the Viet Cong flag crashed through the gates of the presidential palace, and the government of South Vietnam surrendered. Saigon was promptly renamed Ho Chi Minh City, in honour of the late communist leader.
Today, offices and schools in Vietnam are closed for the country’s 40th Reunification Day celebrations. But the country’s Coca-Cola billboards, McDonald’s restaurants and Chanel boutiques are a clear sign of how much economic liberalisation has changed Vietnam since that fateful day in 1975.