Rory Kennedy’s “Last Days in Vietnam,” like so many excellent historical documentaries (think “The Fog of War” and “Harlan County, USA”) clarifies context and reveals critical details that often elude the cursory treatment offered in high-school and college curricula from which most people learn whatever it is they know. Focused specifically on the actions (and inactions) following the March 1975 “Spring Offensive” invasion of South Vietnam by their enemies in the North, “Last Days in Vietnam” lays out the riveting story of how the United States hesitantly and slowly prepared for and eventually executed under pressure an evacuation of U.S. personnel and South Vietnamese contractors from Saigon.
By this time, the Paris Peace Accords had established a type of armistice that had been put in place between the North and South Koreans, setting up a mutual ceasing of hostilities but not a lasting peace. In order to get the South to go along, Richard Nixon guaranteed to reenter the fracas should the North violate the Accords – but after he resigned in 1974, the North believed correctly that a worn-out U.S. would balk (or renege), no longer led by a president “mad” enough to drop the big one.
The story is told mostly by servicemen, CIA station agents, State Department officials and South Vietnamese citizens involved in the evacuation. And the continuing thread throughout most of the movie is the ever-growing frustration of the military men assigned to the U.S. Embassy with the Ambassador to South Vietnam, Graham Martin, who steadfastly refused to accept the inevitability of a North Vietnamese blitzkrieg. Even the mere development of an evacuation plan was anathema to Martin, a man who was perhaps too invested in staying the course after having lost his only son in the Vietnam War conflict.
With the South looking vulnerable, President Gerald Ford appealed to Congress to approve $722 million in military aid for the one-time allies, but it was a futile effort. Virtually no member of Congress wanted to expend (waste?) more treasure and American lives on a war that had dragged on for a decade. That rejection no doubt further emboldened the North.
Given the rapid progress the North was making (within a month they had sacked Hue, Da Nang, and Cam Ranh Bay) it is surprising that wholesale evacuation of Saigon was never fully considered until it was almost too late. But then again, maybe not so surprising given the long history of fatal U.S. hubris and ineptitude in Southeast Asia since the 1950s. Low-level military and State Department officials independently drew up four options for personnel evacuation, the preferred one being C40 airlifts from Tan Son Nhut airport. But after the North bombed the runways rendering them useless, Martin was forced to capitulate; by that time, the only viable option remaining was number four, the least practical: helicopter airlifts of 50 people at a time from the embassy grounds. They would go on to move close to 5,000 out of danger.
Most surreally, the secret clue to the general military personnel that evacuation was being initiated was a radio broadcast stating that “It’s 105 degrees in Saigon and rising” followed by the playing of Bing Crosby’s rendition of “White Christmas.” Bizarre.
It is this part of the movie that is probably most familiar to people. We see footage of South Vietnamese civilians scaling the embassy compound fences, and evacuees clamoring on the rooftop awaiting the next Chinook helicopter to arrive. And of course the famous shots of sailors pushing helicopters off the deck of the ship into the South China Sea to make room for more landings. The chaos is palpable. So is the sense of futility.
For me, the meticulous detail of the evacuation of Saigon portrayed in the movie filled in numerous blank spots in my recollection of the incidents which occurred when I was 18 and about to graduate from high school. By that time, the U.S. had suspended the much-hated draft, and guys my age were looking beyond the fears of going to the other side of the world to fight a pointless war. And the fact that the Congress had thoroughly rejected the idea of handing $722 million more to the South Vietnamese government proved that it wasn’t just me who wanted to move on.
As we know, a day after the last U.S. soldier departed the Embassy, the Communists from the North rolled into Saigon and hence began years of turmoil and despair for many in the South who were sent to “re-education” camps or summarily executed. In some ways, the methods by which the victorious North ran their country parallel those that cretins like Al Qaeda and ISIS would love to inflict upon the defenseless populace in their neck of the woods.
But think about this. Despite the depravity and incompetence of the Communists who took over all of Vietnam, the U.S. refused to go back in and try to save the day. We left the mess behind, allowing the Communists to prove their mettle – and by 1986, they had failed miserably. Things were going so poorly for the country that the ruling and wobbling Communist government changed direction and encouraged private ownership of farms and factories, and pushed for economic deregulation and foreign investment. Today unified Vietnam is an economic engine of growth and a destination location.
Is there a lesson for would-be interlopers into the miasma that is the Middle East? Would it be better in the long run to let ISIS have a go at running the lives of 50 million people who disagree with them, and fail miserably? If ISIS went ahead with their brutal oppression unimpeded by a foreign nation upon which they could lay the blame for all the world’s ills, would the masses rise up and vanquish them on their own?
I’m inclined to believe it to be so.