WASHINGTON - After almost two decades of moldering in obscure warehouses, the vast $5 billion arsenal that the U.S. abandoned in Vietnam is up for sale. And one customer that is not interested is the Pentagon.
The weapons, many in original packing crates, were intended to help save South Vietnam from Communist domination. Instead they were seized by victorious North Vietnamese troops who swept into Saigon as the last Americans were evacuated by helicopter from the roof of the U.S. Embassy on April 30, 1975.
The booty, according to Pentagon records, included 1.6 million M-16 rifles and other carbines, 50,000 machine guns, 130,000 tons of ammunition and other gear ranging from tanks to jet fighters.
Today, with the U.S. easing terms of the trade embargo against Vietnam, an ex-CIA officer who is one of the world's largest private arms merchants is negotiating to buy many of the weapons for resale to other military forces.
"I tried to get the Pentagon interested in buying some of the M-16 rifles, at my cost plus a dollar per weapon," says Sam Cummings, president of the Virginia- and London-based Interarms Ltd., which controls much of the world's private arms trade. "They didn't want to have anything to do with it."
Cummings, a courtly 65-year-old, shuttles among his farm in Virginia, a chalet in Switzerland and a home in Monaco, and happens to be brother-in-law of the late Sen. John Tower. Cummings has bought and sold weapons "to legitimate governments only," he says, for four decades. Cummings once boasted that he had enough weapons in stock to equip 500,000 men with small arms.
But the Vietnam deal may be his last and crowning achievement.
Despite the voracious appetite for weapons in places like Bosnia and Somalia, there is actually a glut of military hardware on the market.
Since 1989, weapons have flooded out of the former Soviet bloc, as new states like Russia demobilize soldiers and sell off AK-47 rifles, grenade launchers, tanks and even top-line jet fighters to earn precious hard currency.
"Glasnost killed us," Cummings says with a chuckle.
Nevertheless, American arms and ammunition are prized in many parts of the world, particularly as replacements in U.S.-supplied military forces in places like El Salvador, Turkey and Zaire.
Thus, the ever-optimistic Cummings went to Vietnam in 1990 to look over what was left from the United States' 10-year involvement in Vietnam, a conflict that cost $220 billion and took the lives of more than 2 million people, including 58,152 Americans.
Sampling newly opened packing crates, Cummings figured at a minimum he could market half a million M-16 rifles, "easily" a billion rounds of M-16 ammunition, and about 80,000 .45-caliber semiautomatic pistols.
"We're talking in the region of $50 million to $100 million worth of arms," Cummings says.
Some of this cornucopia of weapons has turned up around the world. During the 1980s, for example, U.S. agents intercepted shipments of about 3,000 M-16s en route from Cuba to Nicaragua. The weapons were traced by serial numbers to Vietnam, according to Ed Ezell, head of the private Institute for Research in Small Arms and International Security.
In the waning days of the war in 1975 - two years after most U.S. troops were withdrawn, the Pentagon tried to destroy some of the stockpile of weapons.
"We didn't want the North to capture all that stuff," says retired Col. William Legro, who was a U.S. intelligence officer in Saigon. "But in the collapse, you couldn't do anything systematically - it just went so fast."
Eighteen years later, Cummings' deal has been tied up by the trade embargo, implemented in the late 1970s to pressure Vietnam for a full accounting of missing U.S. servicemen.
But on Dec. 15, the White House announced a partial lifting of the embargo.
Cummings' blue eyes dance merrily at the delicious irony of wringing a profit from America's costly error in Vietnam. He was against the war from the very start; his friends in the French army, then smarting from the humiliating 1954 French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, warned him that the United States couldn't win.
"At the time, all I was hearing from the Pentagon was, `We'll fix those (guys) in 90 days,"' Cummings recalls. "Instead, it was us that got fixed."
------------------------------------- WHAT THE U.S. LEFT BEHIND ------------------------------------- Some of the booty in Vietnam that arms dealer Sam Cummings hopes to market:
At least 500,000 M-16 rifles A billion rounds of M-16 ammo 80,000 .45-caliber pistols 50,000 machine guns 47,000 grenade launchers 12,000 mortars 63,000 light anti-tank rockets 1,330 heavy howitzers 48,000 tactical radios 550 tanks 1,200 armored personnel cars
Scratch-and-dent sale - some arms have deteriorated or are unaccounted for: 466 helicopters 109 jet fighters, attack planes 126 cargo planes 42,000 trucks 940 ships