Last Days in Vietnam
Directed by Rory Kennedy, Moxie Firecracker Films, 2014. American Experience, PBS, April 28, 2015
A documentary directed by Rory Kennedy, daughter of the late Sen. Robert Kennedy, dramatically presents the disorderly and humiliating American evacuation of Saigon as it was falling to North Vietnamese forces in April 1975. Last Days in Vietnam shows how powerful this media can be when talented people dig deep into the often complex history of the Vietnam War. Most compelling in the documentary is its presentation of the moral quandary facing many Americans during their last 24 hours in Saigon, whether to obey White House orders to evacuate only U.S. citizens or risk charges of treason to save the lives of as many South Vietnamese colleagues as they could.
Former U.S. Army Captain Stuart Harrington, who spoke fluent Vietnamese, organized a “black underground” exit for Vietnamese, against orders from the sadly deranged Ambassador Graham Martin. Almost 40 years after the event, Harrington’s memory is precise and his speech articulate. “It was so serious and deep a betrayal,” he recalls.
Former CIA agent Frank Snepp, who documented the final days so well in his books, was shown to be equally articulate in his interview segments, managing not to actually say that Ambassador Martin was crazy but certainly implying it.
The dramatic rescue of 30,000 Vietnamese refugees by the South Vietnamese Navy under the direction of Vietnam navy veteran Richard Armitage is presented through gripping interviews with those who took part and grainy but dramatic 8mm film footage shot by Americans aboard USS Stark.
Following its premiere at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and its appearance at select cinemas in September and October 2014, Last Days in Vietnam will be broadcast on American Experience, the PBS flagship history series, on April 28, 2015, the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. It should be essential viewing for students who have little understanding of Vietnam War history.
However, a group of journalists who covered the Vietnam War have taken issue with some of the film’s narrated background on the fall of Saigon. They dispute the film’s contention that only the North Vietnamese violated the cease-fire and provisions of the Paris agreement, when both sides were to blame. The film also falsely represents the proposed $722 million congressional aid package as a genuine chance to rescue South Vietnam from defeat.
Originally published in the February 2015 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.