It takes a blissful ignorance of world affairs in 2014 to watch the gripping documentary Last Days in Vietnam and not experience a wave of anxiety. Rory Kennedy’s political thriller also elicits pity, fear, anger, regret, and pride, but the most palpable feeling for me was the dread of the unsaid question simmering under its surface: is this about to happen again in Iraq or Afghanistan?
Director: Rory Kennedy
Producers: Rory Kennedy, Keven McAlester
Writers: Mark Bailey, Keven McAlester
Cinematographer: Joan Churchill
Editor: Don Kleszy
Music: Gary Lionelli
Premiere: January 17, 2014 – Sundance Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: September 5, 2014
US Distributor: American Experience Films
In the spring of 1975, two years after the Paris Peace Accords (“a masterpiece of ambiguity”, as former CIA analyst Frank Snepp recalls) ostensibly ended the conflict between North and South Vietnam, the shaky American control over Saigon fell apart slowly—and then all of a sudden. Nixon’s resignation and growing American opposition to the war emboldened the Viet Cong, who consumed the country on their virtually unimpeded charge toward the South Vietnamese capital. Panic overwhelmed the South in the final weeks as thousands of citizens and soldiers attempted a mass exodus by any means available. The last flight out of Da Nang was chased down the tarmac by cars and mopeds, with desperate South Vietnamese literally grabbing onto the plane as it took off. Almost all American troops had by this time been withdrawn from the country, leaving only a few hundred diplomats and military representatives in Saigon with, as U.S. Army Captain Stuart Herrington recalls, the “terrible moral dilemma” of evacuating themselves while leaving a city full of helpless sympathizers to an unknown fate.
Rory Kennedy (youngest daughter of Bobby) masterfully reveals this drama through a combination of archival news clips, never-before-seen government footage, and illuminating interviews with many of the critical players who were in Saigon at the time: CIA and State Department officials, Army and Marine guards, refugees, and even top-ranking South Vietnamese military officials. As a rather conventional historical documentary (picked up at Sundance by PBS’ American Experience series), Last Days in Vietnam accomplishes the rare trifecta of telling an untold story, offering probing insights for the present day, and entertaining in thrilling fashion.
The first half of the Last Days in Vietnam deftly examines the balancing act the Ford administration attempted in preparing to flee while simultaneously proclaiming confidence in their ability to rebalance the conflict. The impassioned U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam, Graham Martin, had lost his only son in combat during the war and refused to admit the approaching Viet Cong were a legitimate threat. It’s unclear whether Martin was truly in denial or whether he was simply hoping to avoid compounding the growing panic in the streets (Martin died in 1990 and is a missing presence here), but the result was the same. Nervous U.S. Army officers and government officials, some of whom had settled and even started families in Vietnam, began covertly evacuating as many South Vietnamese as possible by air and sea.
As Last Days in Vietnam builds to the actual final days, Kennedy effectively utilizes animated maps to illustrate the metastasizing North Vietnamese threat—and the incredible challenges of getting out of the country. The graphics depict the pitiful inefficiency of the four evacuation options that were considered, including Operation Frequent Wind, the “last resort” that was ultimately needed: using 75 Marine helicopters to transport evacuees from various points in Saigon to aircraft carriers in the South China Sea, 40 people at a time on an hour-long roundtrip flight.
But before that controlled chaos, Kennedy ratchets up the tension on the last day in Vietnam: April 29, 1975. The signal for Americans to immediately report to an evacuation site was Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” broadcast on Armed Forces Radio, and it’s never been more chilling to hear than over the footage of thousands of South Vietnamese stewing in anxiety, unaware their country would no longer exist by the following afternoon. The entire U.S. presence was ordered to be out of the country within 24 hours. As word spread, the Embassy was swarmed by locals claiming to have American friends; many were shepherded in, most were kept out by armed guards.
Last Days in Vietnam features stunning footage from inside the deliberately self-destructing compound, similar to the terrifying but dramatized scene in Argo. Files are frantically destroyed and more than $1 million in cash is incinerated while arriving helicopters begin airlifts from the Embassy’s roof, which was not even one of the original evacuation sites. (Ambassador Martin honorably refused to leave until as many South Vietnamese as possible were evacuated, much to the consternation of the White House monitoring the situation from Washington.)
Just as jaw-dropping are the scenes out at the U.S.S. Kirk and other ships in the Seventh Fleet, where dozens of helicopters begin arriving from all sides, many piloted by South Vietnamese who gathered their families and stole away with the nearest chopper they could find. Too massive to fit—and in some cases even land—on the deck of the aircraft carriers, the tax-funded war machines are discarded in the sea, flotsam from America’s last gasp effort to make right what had gone so terribly wrong the 12 years prior. The last helicopter departed the Embassy (still teeming with people) just before 8:00 AM on April 30. At 10:45 AM, almost exactly 24 hours since “White Christmas” was broadcast, a North Vietnamese tank bulldozed through the front gates of the Independence Palace. Saigon had officially fallen.
The absorbing suspense of Last Days in Vietnam makes it easy to lose sight of the consequential role that so many individuals had in historic, life-saving decisions in the days leading up to and including the 21-hour final evacuation. Many of the subjects Kennedy interviews expedited or assisted in Operation Frequent Wind at great personal risk, and their recollections provide a vibrant color commentary to the nail-biting footage.
Kennedy also gives moments for the interviewees to sit back and reflect on what many consider a deep betrayal of South Vietnamese loyalty to the American effort against the spread of communism. Herrington, the Army captain, considers Operation Frequent Wind a microcosm of the entire war effort: “Promises made in good faith, promises broken, people being hurt because we didn’t get our act together. The whole Vietnam War is a story that kind of sounds like that. But on the other hand, sometimes there are moments when good people rise to the occasion.”
Although Last Days in Vietnam closes on this relatively positive note, it takes only a quick glance at the headlines to see that history is at risk of repeating itself. Although the largest U.S. Embassy in the world is in Baghdad, the American troop withdrawal in 2011 evidently left Iraq’s sovereignty highly vulnerable to threats like ISIS. Meanwhile the situation in Kabul could end up just as tenuous with the clock winding down (December 2014) on the American military presence in Afghanistan. As depicted in the film, Gerald Ford’s request for $722 million in emergency military aid in the weeks before Saigon fell was rejected by Congress, and it’s hard to imagine Barack Obama could convince Washington (and the American public) of the need for another $1 billion for the war effort in Afghanistan two months from now. In the final analysis, how we leave may then end up being more important than when we leave.
The bittersweet aftertaste of Kennedy’s poignant documentary is how much public diplomacy work still needs to be done in Vietnam nearly 40 years after the war ended. Visiting the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (as Saigon is now officially known) last year, I saw no exhibit displaying the heroic efforts of Operation Frequent Wind. The museum’s three impressive floors are primarily dedicated to highlighting the broken promises Herrington describes. As an American I felt generally comfortable walking throughout the city, but I couldn’t escape a nagging sense of sorrow in observing what we left behind on April 30, 1975. In the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, where we could be accused of coming and going, shall we say, less than gracefully, we most hope that even more “good people rise to the occasion” on our way out.