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Ford's evacuation order

By
RICHARD H. GROWALD

WASHINGTON, April 29, 1975 (UPI) -- Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger chewed and swallowed a piece of candy, picked up a black telephone and asked to be connected to President Ford.

The President, seated in the second-floor family quarters of the White House, listened a moment, then spoke.

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Fourteen years after American troops went into Indochina by presidential order, Mr. Ford ordered the evacuation of Americans remaining in Vietnam. It was shortly after 11 last night.

Kissinger, seated at his desk in his corner office of the White House West Wing office area, picked up the telephone again and called Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger. The President's will was done.

The last act of the what Mr. Ford has called America's Vietnam tragedy began about 6:30 last night in the Cabinet Room where the President was meeting economic and energy advisers.

Mr. Ford had been expecting word from Saigon that Communist military pressure on the South Vietnamese capital was ending the time left for evacuating the remaining 940 Americans plus far larger numbers of South Vietnamese.

He was seated at the Cabinet table, flanked by Commerce Secretary Rogers C. B. Morton and Federal Energy Administrator Frank Zarb, when Lt. Gen. Brent A. Scowcroft slipped into the room with a piece of folded paper.

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Scowcroft, Mr. Ford's deputy national security affairs adviser, a slim and quiet spoken military intellectual, keeps the President informed hour by hour. Mr. Ford unfolded the piece of paper.

The White House had just received details of the North Vietnamese heavy artillery assault on Saigon's Tan Son Nhut Airport. Mr. Ford nodded, refolded the paper and wound up the meeting in which Vice President Nelson A. Rockefeller and 12 other aides were advising him on whether to reimpose oil import fees.

At 7:10, Mr. Ford strode from the Cabinet Room, across the hall and into the Roosevelt Room where his National Security Council was assembling. Kissinger was there. Scowcroft, too. Others included Schlesinger, Gen. George Brown, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and CIA Director William Colby. Mr. Ford asked: Had the time come for the final evacuation?

Fifty-five minutes later, Mr. Ford emerged from the Roosevelt Room, talked with Kissinger and walked to his second-floor living quarters to eat with his wife.

Kissinger's wife Nancy, in a full-length evening gown, arrived to take her husband to the theater. Kissinger shook his head. She noticed he was nibbling candy, a sure sign of Kissinger under stress.

In the White House Situation Room, the most top-secret place in America, Scowcroft's aides gathered in the latest data from Saigon and charted and mapped it. Kissinger picked up a phone and talked to Ambassador Graham Martin in Saigon; Mr. Ford had said he would not order the final evacuation until the diplomat signaled the time had come to leave.

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"We should go with Option 4," Martin told Kissinger.

Option 4 on the President's list of action choices called for a final helicopter evacuation, similar to that carried out earlier in Phnom Penh.

Mr. Ford's chief of staff, Donald Rumsfeld, his deputy, Richard Cheney, and John Marsh, head of congressional relations for Mr. Ford, gathered in the West Wing along with Press Secretary Ron Nessen and his deputy, Bill Greener. Then came Kissinger's 11 p.m. call to Mr. Ford and the President's decision. The rain had stopped by now.

Mr. Ford, his decision made, strode into the West Wing, through his Oval Office, down the tan-carpeted stairs and into the Situation Room. He and Kissinger were briefed on the jump by US Marines and helicopters from off-shore carriers into Saigon for the big pickup.

Mr. Ford neither smiled nor frowned. He thanked the briefers and, walking back to his living quarters, was hailed by a reporter.

"Working late?"

"With good reason," the President replied, walking on.

Marsh and his assistant, Max Friedersdorf, telephoned congressional leaders with news of Mr. Ford's evacuation order until 1 a.m. Then they joined Greener in devouring three large pizzas fetched by Assistant Press Secretary Larry M. Speakes.

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At his desk, Kissinger kept in contact with Schlesinger, who munched a hamburger in the Pentagon command post, listening to the communications traffic, the calm, flat voices crackling half a world away. He heard Adm. Noel Gayler, commander in chief in the Pacific, tell Gen. Homer Smith in Saigon, "the situation is getting out of hand."

Kissinger kept eating candy until 2:05 a.m. when, taking Nancy's arm, he left to get some sleep before joining Mr. Ford in a morning meeting with Jordan's King Hussein.

In the Fords' living quarters, the President kept informed of the evacuation by periodic telephone calls. Lights burned in the White House throughout the night.

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