Rory Kennedy’s Last Days in Vietnam is a wonderful documentary, with an engaging mix of period video, talking head remarks, contemporaneous cassette letters home, and some judicious computer graphics.
The film depicts the chaotic evacuation of Americans and some Vietnamese as Saigon fell, ending the Viet Nam War in 1975. Rory Kennedy focuses on how a few Americans under extremely desperate time pressure managed to evacuate many (unfortunately not all) of the South Vietnamese who feared reprisal once North Vietnam completed its victory. Those Americans did well, and they deserve our admiration.
This documentary will be broadcast on PBS as part of the “The American Experience” series. This seems appropriate, as the film is about how various Americans (and a few Vietnamese who later became Americans) experienced the evacuation.
Expect a Hollywood dramatization
This documentary is also American in another way: it appeals to our desire to hear the stories of ordinary people who act heroically in times of crisis (especially against the odds and in defeats) and who defy authority when those in power prove inept or corrupt.
Ordinary Americans are the protagonists of this film, and interestingly enough the primary antagonist is a patrician American (the well intentioned but out of touch and brooding Ambassador Graham Martin). The antagonist is not the North Vietnamese army rushing to seize Saigon.
I watched this film as part of the 2014 Napa Valley Film Festival, whose audience quickly started making those audience performance noises that showed they understood that Ambassador Graham Martin imperiled many lives by ignoring the obvious. His reluctance to acknowledge the obvious impending fall of Saigon might well symbolize America’s having resisted that news for years, although the film is not about such larger political issues.
As an aside, I think that Shakespeare could have worked wonders with Ambassador Graham Martin as a tragic figure, and I hope that some playwright makes a go of it.
The Washington Post gets the film wrong
Ann Hornaday, the Washington Post film critic, utterly misses the point of the film, but she sure does understand what American audiences want in a film. She wrote that The Last Days in Vietnam “at its core, is about moral courage — the bravery to confront the question of who goes and who gets left behind.”
That is nonsense.
The film clearly demonstrates that the question of who was evacuated and who was left behind was overwhelmingly decided by chaotic circumstances as hampered by the ambassador’s delays, not by the orderly result of a collective moral decision.
One person interviewed in the film explicitly rues the Americans’ inability (because of intense time pressure and the ambassador’s directives) to select the most worthy and most endangered Vietnamese for priority evacuation. The evacuation becomes a matter of who is at the head of the line, a process saved from chaos only by the remarkable and admirable patience of the Vietnamese.
In the absence of a careful plan to prioritize evacuees, among the first Vietnamese actually rescued were Americans’ mistresses, the young Vietnamese men best able to scale the embassy walls, and monied Vietnamese with CIA connections. In 1975, wealthy South Vietnamese were probably not those morally most worthy of prioritized evacuation.
If a CIA agent arranged the escape of a friend or one of his favorite agents, that seems a matter of personal and professional loyalty rather than bravery. I admire personal and professional loyalty, but let’s not confuse that with bravery.
For bravery, we have the helicopter pilots and embassy guards. Now that is bravery. The marines brought in by helicopter to the embassy to help evacuate others when so many people were desperate to get out? That’s bravery. Watching those marines hustle off the helicopter would make Chester Puller proud. I thought of the New York fire fighters going up the twin towers’ stairways while other people ran down, as immortalized in Tom Paxton’s song.
The Vietnamese showed bravery, too. Their courage, trust, and patience should not be ignored. They were far more orderly than some Christmas shopping crowds at our malls.
One dark, clear theme in this documentary is the sense that several of the Americans had that they were betraying South Vietnamese who had worked with and for the Americans, especially in the final hours when Americans had to use lies and tricks to keep hundreds of Vietnamese waiting quietly.
This trickery was unavoidable crowd control to permit the relatively orderly evacuation of the last Americans, but iron necessity surely did not ease the guilt of the last Americans who helicoptered away from the embassy without telling the Vietnamese that there would be no more helicopters for them.
The video at this point in the film, shot from a helicopter as it heads out to safety, is wrenching.
Two historic misstatements
The film makes two extraordinary historical claims that the Washington Post reviewer apparently accepts as truth.
The first claim is about Richard Nixon’s promise to the South Vietnamese to re-introduce in “full force” American power should the North Vietnamese violate the 1973 Peace Accords by sending more troops south. The film implies and the Washington Post review says that this promise was a “moot point” once Nixon resigned. In fact, it was a moot point, just empty rhetoric, from the moment it was typed out.
No one at the time believed that Nixon would or even could send American troops back. His own party, the Congress as a whole, the Pentagon, the American people — none of them would have wanted the United States to send troops back to Vietnam. Nixon’s promise was a decent-interval lie meant to provide political cover for President Thieu in Vietnam and for Nixon himself in the United States. The promise of “Full force” was meant to ease public acceptance, like “peace in our time” and “peace with honor.”
The second claim is that the North Vietnamese surged new troops into South Vietnam and drove to Saigon in violation of the accords because Nixon resigned, and so could not fulfill his promise. Again, no one considered his promise real, and I have yet to find an historian of the war who thinks that North Vietnam ever planned to honor the accord.
North Vietnam considered itself the only legitimate representatives of the Vietnamese people, and was determined to unite the country free of foreign influence.
North Vietnam used the accord (as did the United States) as a convenience to get American troops out of Vietnam. They made it easier for President Nixon to get the troops out without damaging his own image or his party. His call for “peace with honor” might be translated into “peace without Republicans being blamed for losing a war, without embarrassing myself too much, and without frightening our allies.”
How veterans reacted to the news
A title card in Last Days in Vietnam says that news of the fall of Saigon distressed many American veterans who were unhappy to see that their efforts and all those American casualties were in vain. That is certainly true.
Not mentioned in a title card, but also true, is that some of us veterans wept with relief that the war was finally over. No more napalm, artillery, rockets. We knew that the Vietnamese people would go through a period of hardship, dictatorship, and poverty (not that those would be new experiences for them), but we also knew that the sooner their post-war era began, the sooner it would be over, giving way eventually to relaxed central government control, economic development, higher standards of living, normalized involvement in the world community, and all of the ordinary daily pleasures afforded by peace.