Looking closer into the last chapter of the Vietnam War, Oscar-nominated documentary “Last Days in Vietnam”, which was broadcast on PBS in last week, gives us a riveting tale which tells and shows more of what happened during those chaotic and turbulent days before the Fall of Saigon on April 30th, 1975. This is surely a very compelling documentary film to watch, and it also feels all the more resonant mainly because America has been currently going through the consequences of another war as misguided and disastrous as the Vietnam War.
After the First Indochina War (1946-1954) was ended with North Vietnam’s victory over France in 1954, the Second Indochina War, more commonly called the Vietnam War, began in the next year between North Vietnam and South Vietnam. As a part of its Cold War strategy, the US government naturally supported South Vietnam to prevent the spread of communism around the Indochina area, and its involvement escalated especially after the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964. The US government continued to send more troops and armaments to Vietnam over the following years, but North Vietnam remained persistent as ever, and American people became less supportive as they began to see that their government should have not involved in this war from the very beginning.
The US government began to look for a less humiliating way to step out of this long, torturous war which had given it nothing but enormous loss and damage, and that eventually led to the Paris Peace Accords in 1973, which was, as one of the interviewees in the documentary wryly points out, a “masterpiece of ambiguity”. Through the careful negotiations done by the Nixon administration and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, North Vietnam and South Vietnam agreed on the cease-fire which would be followed by the gradual withdrawal of the US troops from Vietnam, but the situation was a lot less stable than it looked on the surface. The cease-fire could be broken at any chance, and the US government certainly did not want to get involved into another war again, though the Nixon administration promised to support South Vietnam in case of emergency.
North Vietnam initially hesitated to attack South Vietnam because President Richard Nixon might respond with total war, so things seemed to be all right in Vietnam for a while, but then there came an abrupt change in Washington D.C. Nixon resigned due to the Watergate scandal in August 1974. North Vietnam wasted no time in grabbing its chance; it commenced the invasion into South Vietnam in March 1975, and South Vietnam got rapidly crumbled like a house of cards as the North Vietnam forces continued to occupy its main areas and cities one by one as ominously reflected by the occasional map scenes in the film.
From Henry Kissinger and Ron Nessen, who was the White House Press Secretary for President Gerald Ford, we hear about how the US government was as helpless as South Vietnam in this unstoppable emergency. President Ford tried hard to get the aid of 722 million dollar which might save South Vietnam, but the anti-war sentiment was prevalent in the Congress around that point. Regardless of their political inclination, none of congressmen was willing to vote for that aid mainly because they and their American people had been tired of the war and its devastating outcomes, and their adamant opposition frustrated Ford and his people a lot as it became more and more apparent that the end was really coming to South Vietnam.
Although many people in the US Embassy clearly perceived in advance that they had to start the evacuation as soon as possible, Graham Martin, the US Ambassador to South Vietnam, was reluctant about that due to his serious misjudgment on the ongoing circumstance. Even when the North Vietnamese troops began to surround Saigon step by step with no sign of cease, he still believed that there could be a way to save South Vietnam, but then he belatedly realized later how much close the danger was to him and other Americans in Saigon – and thousands of South Vietnamese associated with them.
While Ambassador Martin hesitated on evacuation, “black ops” were already started behind his back. US Army Captain Stuart Herrington and other people in the US Embassy frequently slipped their South Vietnamese friends into cargo planes leaving for Philippine, and we hear about a number of episodes on how they helped several South Vietnamese officials and military officers leave the country along with their families. This covert process was continued for a while, but then the airport near Saigon was heavily attacked by North Vietnam during the early morning of April 29th, and the city was quickly thrown into panic as many of its citizens tried to escape by any means necessary. Lots of people gathered around the US Embassy, and some of them managed to get inside it, but they could only hope that they would be lucky enough to be evacuated along with Americans.
As explained in details, there were initially four possible options for the evacuation plan, but they had to choose the least favorable one which is not so recommendable unless it is really, really urgent. A bunch of helicopters had to fly back and forth between the US Embassy building and the US navy ships waiting on the sea outside Saigon, and there were only around 24 hours left for them. Refusing to go first, Ambassador Martin allowed more chances for many Vietnamese to be evacuated, and other US Embassy people also tried their best, but, sadly, they eventually had to accept that they could not help all of these desperate refugees. Herrington, who was one of the few remaining Americans during the final hours, recollects when he had no choice but to lie to the people he and his colleagues would abandon, and you can sense from his voice how that regretful but necessary deed still haunts him even after many years.
The director Rory Kennedy, who is the youngest daughter of Robert F. Kennedy, did a terrific job of generating a gripping narrative through the deft mix of archival footage and interview clips. It is fascinating to hear directly from a group of American and Vietnamese interviewees who were at the center of the growing chaos in Saigon, and their tales become more vivid as we watch many striking images presented through the archival footage from various sources. We see a number of photos which palpably capture the sense of urgency and desperation around the US Embassy during its last days, and we also learn that a certain famous photo was actually taken at the other spot in the city, not the US Embassy as widely believed. At one point, we get a sad sight of big ships full of refugees, and the fact that these desperate people had no option besides waiting for help makes it look a lot more tragic.
One of the most memorable parts in the documentary is about the USS Kirk, a US navy ship which happened to function as a landing spot for many helicopters fleeing from the country with lots of refugees. Because the USS Kirk was a small ship with only one landing space, its crew had to push each helicopter overboard as soon as possible once it served its purpose. In one particular case, the helicopter turned out to be too big to land on the ship, but its pilot tried a daring way to solve his difficult situation, and this unbelievably dramatic moment almost feels like a scene from Hollywood action movie (and nobody got hurt, by the way).
“Last Days in Vietnam” is both informative and revealing in its calm but ultimately powerful presentation of a historical moment and the people inside its frustrating turmoil, and we come to see how desperate it was for many people during that time – and how messy the Vietnam War was from the beginning to the end. A sad thing is, as many of you know, America has not learned much from that.
Sidenote: The “American Experience” version broadcast on PBS is around 15 minutes longer than the theatrical version. The additional scenes are mainly involved with another evacuation in Can Tho, which was led by Consul General Francis Terry McNamara. This part feels redundant at least in my opinion, and I see why they did not include it in the theatrical version, but it does not hurt the overall picture.