By GAETANA CALDWELL-SMITH
“The Last Days of Vietnam,” a documentary film produced and directed by Rory Kennedy.
Director Rory Kennedy, daughter of environmental activist Robert F. Kennedy, has created a riveting and heartwarming, yet heartbreaking, full-length documentary film, “The Last Days of Vietnam,” which takes place in South Vietnam from 1973 to 1975, the last years of the war. That said, she gives us a highly shortsighted view of a war that involved the U.S. government’s strategy to stop the spread of “Communism” in Southeast Asia. The U.S. sent over 2,500,000 soldiers to Vietnam, in an ultimately futile attempt to maintain a neo-colonial U.S. puppet government in the South while defeating all attempts to unify the country.
Kennedy artfully skirts taking a political stance, leaving it up the audience to decide whether or not her film is a U.S. mea culpa to the Vietnamese people for destroying much of their country before being compelled to abandon the war effort.
She avoids subjects such as the U.S. forces’ wanton destruction of villages (such as Mai Lai), and their killing of innocent farmers and other civilians. According to the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group Files, atrocities committed by U.S. forces numbered more than 300.
Kennedy’s team interviewed scores of both American and South Vietnamese retired Army men, Marine officers, Embassy guards, CIA agents, and other significant personnel. Unfortunately, the film does not include interviews with people who supported the National Liberation Front or North Vietnam in the conflict, or with any U.S. antiwar activists from the period. The film makes use of well-known, iconic photos as well archival film footage.
“Last Days” focuses mainly on the 24-hour evacuation of many South Vietnamese on April 29-30, 1975, as the People’s Army of Vietnam and National Liberation Front closed in on Saigon. Initially, White House orders were to evacuate only U.S. citizens who worked in the embassy, or provided support services, and other U.S personnel. Kennedy had a difficult time getting the film made because as one interviewee, former U.S. Army Colonel Stuart Herrington, said, “No one wanted to see a film about a bunch of people waiting for airplanes to rescue them.” It appears he was wrong.
In April 1975, President Gerald Ford ordered the 6000 Americans still in Vietnam to leave. Yet, life went on for the people in Saigon. We see footage of people shopping, going about their business as the North Vietnamese army makes its inexorable way south. A college student at the time, Binh Pho, says that classes were being held, but no one was interested in going to school, as many went to work for Americans for up to a thousand dollars. Later, in his interview, he states that he and a naval officer were incarcerated in rebel “re-education” camps, although both eventually made their way to the United States.
U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam Graham Martin denied that the North Vietnamese army was closing in on Saigon, believing that the South Vietnamese AVRN troops could prevail. When Congress refused the funds to evacuate Vietnamese citizens, in-country military officials organized a makeshift plan in opposition to both Martin and prevailing U.S. government policy: Black Operation or BlackOps. Right or wrong, legal or illegal; they risked being charged with treason. Some evacuees were airlifted to the Philippines.
Meanwhile, the South Vietnamese army was eroding. Ford went before Congress asking for enough funds to save as many South Vietnamese collaborators as they could and to “bolster America’s honor.” Kennedy includes the rare clip of him swearing when his plea was denied, calling Congress “those sons of bitches.” As ships waited in the harbor, a four-step plan was drawn up. The last resort was to evacuate by helicopter.
Kennedy utilizes clear, 3D animated graphics and maps to illustrate not only the evacuation plans, but also the rapid march of the People’s Army through South Vietnam. Vivid clips show the destruction of unoccupied ships in Saigon harbor to avoid their falling into enemy hands. .
Evacuations began: All Vietnamese dependants of U.S. officials and military—wives, common-law-wives, children, and relatives. Martin did all he could to slow it down, believing a rush would cause panic. Getting out depended on whether you worked for Americans, who you knew, and money or goods you could trade. The airport was to be kept open as long as possible. Still Martin refused to allow evacuation.
Detailed on-the-spot footage from April 29, 1975, shows North Vietnamese forces bombing and shelling the airport. We see clips of Martin stubbornly boarding a vehicle to inspect the situation with his own eyes. He finally relented. So, it was down to Option 4: Evacuate by helicopter.
Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Ford reluctantly gave the go-ahead—everyone out in 24 hours. To throw off the invading army, the code for the order was, “105 degrees and rising,” weirdly backed by a broadcast of Bing Crosby’s recording of “White Christmas.” Kennedy includes a surreal clip of people going about the streets, and readying for evacuation as Crosby’s soothing warble is heard on every radio and PA system in Saigon. Ten thousand people rushed the embassy, gathering on the rooftops of American-occupied homes and office buildings, waiting for helicopters (hence the iconic photo of hundreds of people climbing a ladder to a roof, then into a helicopter).
All official documents were shredded; and up to one million dollars in U.S. currency was burned to avoid its going to the invaders and/or their collaborators. Helicopters deposited people on ships; one Vietnamese pilot landed a huge Chinook in his front yard and loaded on his family. In a later, amazing scene, we are shown a clip of his Chinook hovering above the deck of a ship with him and his family on board, much too big to land. He hovers low and we see his wife toss their infant daughter from the copter to the deck, where she’s caught by a crewman. She and the others jump to the deck.
The pilot skillfully ditches the Chinook into the sea; he climbs out as it sinks, disappears into the waves, and then re-appears. He’s then rescued. The narrator says that he’s never seen anyone as calm and collected after what he went through for his family.
There are incredible, unforgettable shots on the deck of a ship as hundreds of people push the now empty helicopters overboard. Sadly, we also see the eyes of desperate, hopeful people clinging to the Embassy fences and gates, waving papers or just frantically waving; there are thousands of people, many who claimed to have worked for Americans.
All told, about 17 helicopters brought over 150 people on to the ships, each one holding only 40 evacuees and one or two Americans. As crewmen distribute food, clothing, and toys among them, a camera catches dolphins leaping alongside the bow, in an amazing shot.
A little over 400 were left behind. The last Americans huddled on the roof as roughly a thousand Vietnamese tried to push through the closed hatch. The Americans managed to save half of them. A military officer at the scene felt that he had betrayed them. The evacuation went on for little over eighteen hours straight.
With the Americans gone and many Vietnamese collaborators as well, Saigon was left to the invading North Vietnamese People’s Army and the National Liberation Front. Film clips show the plundering of the city and armed reprisals against South Vietnamese military personnel and anyone thought to be collaborators with them. To avoid identification, South Vietnamese soldiers stripped themselves of their uniforms. There is film footage of them walking away almost naked. We see a deserted street with boots lying helter-skelter. The abandoned American Embassy is looted.
An American military officer asks on film: “Is this what America fought for? I have no answer.” Nor does Kennedy’s film offer any answers. And that’s a pity since the several million soldiers and civilians who became casualties of the brutal American incursion into Vietnam would like to have known why they were sacrificed.
Photo: Residents of Saigon welcome North Vietnamese and National Liberation Front troops as they enter the city.