Bing Crosby croons “White Christmas” on Armed Forced Radio in Vietnam, the same station where Adrian Cronauer bellowed “Good Morning, Vietnam,” as the Robin Williams movie reminded us.
But this wasn’t the holidays. It was a signal. It was time for American contractors, diplomatic and military personnel, and time for the South Vietnamese closely connected to America’s long involvement there, to pack a bag, meet at a pre-designated spot and flee the country.
That’s one of the marvelous details of “Last Days in Vietnam,” an Oscar nominated PBS documentary getting a limited theatrical release before it airs on TV in late April, the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. Director Rory Kennedy’s film is a history lesson, but it plays as a refresher course on long occupations and American military commitments. Because every generation struggles with its own dilemma about where to commit the country and its armed forces, and where to sit back and watch what happens without us.
Kennedy (“Ghosts of Abu Ghraib”) narrows her focus to the war’s End Game, the 1973 treaty trumpeted as “peace with honor” by Richard Nixon, violated within months of Nixon’s resignation from the presidency. The talking heads in Kennedy’s film link the two events, suggesting fear of Nixon and what this “madman” might do kept the North Vietnamese out of the South. They only hint at the fatigue and expense of the war, something that made Congress reluctant to commit more treasure and effort when, in 1975, the North rolled through the South in a dash to conquer Saigon in time to honor the late revolutionary Ho Chi Minh’s birthday.
We see the scramble to get things in motion, logistically, in the face of an ambassador (Graham Martin, of N.C.) who refused to allow such “defeatist” and “alarmist” planning to go on for fear of panicking the South Vietnamese.
After the last minute, he relented, and the panic he’d expected (inevitable) happened, with the vast embassy compound swamped by South Vietnamese trying to flee, with helicopters a last resort escape as the waiting had kept Americans from moving people out by big planes and ships. The movie rightly marvels at the tens of thousands spirited out of the country, heroic efforts by assorted soldiers and intelligence officers, sailors and pilots.
We hear from Vietnamese who escaped and a few of those left behind, facing possible death (Vietcong and North Vietnamese regulars had been slaughtering “collaborators” for decades). It’s good to be reminded of Vietnamese treachery and savagery.
But the Americans chosen to appear on camera come from a very narrow section of opinion from that era. To a one, they’re Republicans — from revisionist dissembler Henry Kissinger (Secretary of State, at the time, architect of the peace treaty) to GOP senators. The context is missing. It’s fine to criticize civilian leadership, but leaving out the years of military blunders and distortions (the reason the ambassador insisted on seeing the airport, under siege, himself) tilts the film toward that discredited “We could have won/arms tied behind our backs” view that prevails, in certain quarters, to this day. Only one journalist — and scores of them were eyewitnesses to the war and its last days — shows up, and Jim Laurie’s arrival, late in the film, doesn’t rectify the sense that “Last Days” is either pandering or afraid of offending.
Details are what “Last Days” manages best, disarming Vietnamese refugees by tossing their guns into the pool at the embassy, other famous photos explained anew. That image of a line of people, streaming down a rooftop, trying to climb on a chopper, was not at the embassy, but an employee’s house. Those helicopters tossed overboard from U.S. Navy vessels assisting in the airlift? South Vietnamese Army and Air Force property, pilots flying their families to safety without permission to land, their vehicles discarded to make room for more aircraft.
A careful viewer might connect that fact to the insistence of South Vietnamese military vets who complain of broken or inadequate equipment during the Army’s collapse, America’s “abandonment” of them. The American-provided helicopters seemed to work, held back by South Vietnamese officers planning their personal exit strategy.
“Last Days” is an important slice of history presented as part of the best documentary series on television. But it’s omissions mean that it’s simply not the last word on the subject.
MPAA Rating: unrated, violent war images
Cast: Stuart Herrington, Henry Kissinger, Dam Pham, Juan Valdez, Pete McCloskey, Jim Laurie, Richard Armitage
Credits: Directed by Rory Kennedy, Mark Bailey, Keven McAlester. An American Experience Films release.
Running time: 1:38