Last Days in Vietnam

This Oscar-nominated documentary, made by Rory Kennedy (Robert’s posthumous daughter) covers the last few weeks of April 1975, when the North Vietnamese Communists took over South Vietnam.  The principle focus is the evacuation of the remaining Americans and thousands of Vietnamese during the last couple of days of April.

The first surprise is that the famous photo of refugees dangling from the stairs of a helicopter taking off from a rooftop does not depict the US Embassy — it was actually the private residence of the CIA Station Chief.  The helicopter evacuation from the US Embassy was far more extensive.

The US had several highly detailed evacuation plans, involving fixed-wing airplanes and large ships. But the Ambassador waited so long to deliver the evacuation order that the only option available was the hastily organized “Plan D”  — a helicopter airlift.  For 18 hours, a helicopter landed on Embassy grounds every 10 or 15 minutes, each taking 40 or 50 people to American naval vessels offshore.  They were able to evacuate all the Americans, and almost all the Vietnamese who had taken refuge on Embassy grounds.  They continued until a specific order came from DC to end the evacuation, apparently based on incorrect information.  Henry Kissinger, who is using the gift of his longevity to rewrite the history of his many bad decisions, unconvincingly tries to evade responsibility for this one.

One of the most evocative moments comes during an interview of a Marine sergeant, responsible for preventing panic on Embassy grounds.  Recounting how he spoke to the Vietnamese refugees on that fateful day, the old soldier (who is Caucasian) suddenly (and apparently without realizing it) lapses into Vietnamese, the words still seared into his brain after 40 years.

Another segment of the movie deals with the much less well known naval rescue.  Anyone who could reach an American ship just a few miles offshore, by any means (including helicopter) was picked up.  At one point, a young State Department officer joined with the captain of a Naval vessel to shepherd a ragtag fleet, comprising everything from fishing boats to ships of the soon-to-disappear South Vietnamese Navy, leading thousands of refugees to a new life a world away.

The movie is at its best depicting the courage and grace of Americans on the ground, usually junior officers, in enormously trying conditions.  There was no specific authorization for the evacuation of Vietnamese civilians.  So American personnel improvised, commandeering resources to save as many as they could.  As the young State Department officer responsible for the naval rescue said, “I figured I’d rather beg forgiveness than ask permission.”  That fellow’s name, by the way, was Richard Armitage.

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