“Last Days in Vietnam” a sobering doc

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Over 58,000 American troops were killed in the Vietnam War and approximately triple that number sustained non-fatal casualties. Our military involvement in that faraway Southeast Asian country polarized domestic public sentiment. Decades later, it remains a flashpoint in the ongoing culture wars.“Last Days in Vietnam,” a film from documentarian Rory Kennedy, focuses tightly on a specific aspect of that war, the fall of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). The tragic incident epitomizes the hubris of and gross miscalculation by American governmental officials during the Vietnam War.

A CIA employee helps Vietnamese evacuees onto an Air America helicopter from the top of 22 Gia Long Street, a half mile from the U.S. Embassy. (Copyright Bettmann/Corbis / AP Images)

A CIA employee helps Vietnamese evacuees onto an Air America helicopter from the top of 22 Gia Long Street, a half mile from the U.S. Embassy. (Copyright Bettmann/Corbis / AP Images)

Using a treasure trove of contemporaneous documentary footage and retrospective recollections of those involved, the film recounts the events with dramatic brio. The film cites the Paris Peace Accords of 1973, which tentatively partitioned Vietnam into autonomous northern and southern entities. Following the treaty, American troops withdrew from the theater. After President Nixon was forced to resign in the wake of Watergate, the Communist government in Hanoi was emboldened. They decided that the treaty could be violated with impunity. A campaign to reunify the country by force was launched. President Ford sought congressional authorization to fund the embattled South Vietnamese Army. Recognizing that there was no public appetite for plunging back into the ill-fated Vietnam quagmire, the congress voted down the request from the Oval Office.

With virtually no countervailing resistance, North Vietnamese troops swept through the south. A digitally shaded map demonstrates their stunningly rapid progression. The film includes footage of panic-stricken South Vietnamese soldiers shedding their uniforms to avoid being identified, then parading around in their skivvies.

It seemed inevitable that North Vietnamese troops would eventually occupy Saigon, the capital of the southern republic and the site of the U.S. embassy. The staff of the embassy and remaining American troops were suddenly placed at risk. In addition, Vietnamese civilians, who had loyally served the Americans and the South Vietnamese government, were also imperiled.

A series of contingency evacuation plans had been formulated. Unfortunately, the U.S. ambassador, Graham Martin, ignored the pleas of his diplomatic subordinates and military advisors. Despite mounting CIA counter-intel, Martin quixotically insisted that the advancing enemy troops would somehow be repulsed and that Saigon would remain secure. He forbade the implementation of evacuation plans, insisting that it would constitute defeatism.

What was the basis for the ambassador’s delusional stubbornness? The film notes that Martin’s only son had been killed in Vietnam. It speculates that he refused to recognize that the death of his son and other Americans had all been in vain.
Ignoring the ambassador’s fiat, various embassy staff and U.S. troops began make-shift efforts to spirit out South Vietnamese, who had been loyal allies to the United States. U.S. Army Capt. Stuart Herrington, one of the film’s principal talking heads, describes this clandestine undertaking.

By the time that Martin begrudgingly accepted that the fall of Saigon was imminent, the Tan Son Nhut airport had been shelled and rendered unusable. The only remaining option was the evacuation of the remaining Americans and Vietnamese allies by helicopters, alighting on the embassy roof. From there, they would be flown to U.S.S. Kirk, a destroyer, which was strategically moored off the coast.

Meanwhile, thousands of terrified South Vietnamese rushed to the U.S. embassy. The film includes footage of civilians trying to gain admission to embassy grounds, frantically waving documents at overwhelmed guards. Others climbed over the walls, braving the barbed wire. The Vietnamese were promised that they would all be rescued. However, the helicopters could only carry several dozen passengers at a time.

As North Vietnamese troops approached the embassy, the White House issued an order. Henceforth, only Americans were to be evacuated. The film movingly depicts the principled decision of various individuals to ignore a Presidential order and risk prosecution for treason. “Last Days in Vietnam” focuses on these last ditch efforts to save as many people as possible.
Starting on April 28, 1975, an 18-hour airlift involving 75 helicopters commenced. One embassy guard, Mike Sullivan, describes his departure on the last chopper. He hauntingly recounts that there were 420 Vietnamese remaining on the embassy roof and in the courtyard below. As he observes, “Leaving them behind was a deep betrayal.”

Another moving first-hand account came from Mike Nyuen, who was a six-year old boy at the time of the evacuation. Desperate to save his family, his father commandeered a South Vietnamese Army helicopter and flew it to the U.S.S. Kirk. The chopper was too large to land on the flight deck. Footage shows the parents tossing their children out of cockpit into the outstretched arms of sailors. Then, in an extraordinary act of flying, his dad discarded his flight suit, while simultaneously tipping the chopper sideways before plunging it into the sea, then swimming to the ship.

The film includes former Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, as one of its interview subjects. Kissinger displayed his customary penchant for retrospective historical revisionism. Unfortunately, the filmmaker allows Kissinger to defend his cynical application of realpolitik unchecked. Treating Kissinger in a less deferential manner and challenging his self-serving rationalizations would have enhanced the film.

Richard Armitage is another of the film’s talking heads. He is identified as a one-time naval officer, who was involved with the evacuation in his civilian capacity as a U.S. Defense Department attaché. Armitage is certainly a skilled anecdotalist and provides some carefully-observed details. According to his account, he conspired with South Vietnamese Naval Captain Kiem Do to organize a flotilla, which transported 30,000 refugees out of the country to safe haven in Subic Bay, Phillipines, a thousand miles away.

Arguably, the film is negligent in failing to properly contextualize Armitage. He served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush, then Undersecretary of State in the George W. Bush administration. He is currently a Republican congressman from California. It seems disingenuous that the film fails to provide this salient information to the viewer. Although it is extraneous to the film, it is interesting that Armitage eventually acknowledged that he was the source of the leak that triggered the Valerie Plame affair. He is certainly more than a generic Annapolis graduate.

The demise of the South Vietnam government produced nearly a million refugees. As an end coda indicates, many of them were dispatched to so-called re-education camps, only to die there of malnutrition and disease.
It should be noted that the director is the youngest daughter of Robert F. Kennedy and niece of JFK. As President, her uncle dramatically expanded the role of the U.S. in Vietnam. Her father became a prominent critic of the war in his own aborted run for the presidency. Did the filmmaker’s familial connections to compromise her objectivity? Actually, the film is devoid of a strong point of view and remains a well-balanced work.

Despite some lapses in methodology, “Last Days In Vietnam” is a sobering documentary, replete with compelling, expertly-edited footage. It deserves to be seen as a reminder of a lamentable chapter in U.S. history.

***1/2 No MPAA rating 98 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.

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