Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Last Days in Vietnam - A Review of the Documentary

PBS has been airing Last Days in Vietnam on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War. It was both exciting and heart-wrenching to watch this Academy Award nominated documentary that's now available at the Library.

The war in Vietnam was declared over in 1973 when the Paris Peace Accords was signed. A ceasefire, the dismantling of US bases, and the withdrawal of American troops and advisors within 60 days were part of the agreement. All combat soldiers withdrew by March 29, 1973, leaving behind Embassy personnel and Marine guards to protect US installations - about 5000 people.

The agreement was routinely flouted by both sides. North Vietnam rebuilt its forces over the next two years and violated the Accords by storming into South Vietnam in April 1975 and taking several major cities on the way to Saigon. The war really ended when the North Vietnamese captured Saigon on April 30.

The evacuation of the remaining American personnel and "at risk" South Vietnamese people is the subject of Last Days in Vietnam. We learn that the American Embassy in Saigon had always had evacuation plans in place. The first three would use ships, commercial aircraft, and military aircraft. The fourth or "last resort" was by helicopter. Americans would evacuate, but no South Vietnamese were included.

Evacuation was postponed for fear of starting a panic. When the North Vietnamese Army shelled the airport servicing Saigon on April 29, 1975, it was clear that regular planes could not be used, and the fourth option was all that remained.

As the North Vietnamese advanced on Saigon, many of the Americans had a moral dilemma. How could they leave the men and women who had worked for the Americans and befriended them behind? Many also had wives, girlfriends, and children who were Vietnamese.

Interviews with American personnel reveal the "right" moral decision many  made to disobey the order to leave the South Vietnamese behind. We learn that some of the young officers created "black operations" and were evacuating civilians without the knowledge of their superiors.You'll hear from an Army captain who still feels guilty because he "betrayed" the last group of 450 people who had to be left behind. One of these 450 is a South Vietnamese student who is also interviewed in the documentary. We learn at the end that he was sent to a "re-education" camp.

It's surprising how much footage there is of the evacuation. The mission used 75 military helicopters, picking up and transporting people to ships. Some of the pilots flew for 18 hours. You'll see smaller helicopters being pushed off ships so others can land, and there's an amazing story of a South Vietnamese pilot who flew his family out to a ship in a Chinook - a helicopter too large and heavy to land on the craft.

Last Days in Vietnam makes no judgements. The filmmaker Rory Kennedy wanted to showcase the uplifting stories of bravery and courage that unfolded in those last hours. She succeeds.

Rory Kennedy, the youngest daughter of Robert and Ethel Kennedy, 
makes political and historical documentaries.

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