The fall of Saigon was one of the most traumatic events in US history — or it should have been. The images of refugees crowding onto helicopters to escape the North Vietnamese remain shocking today, almost 40 years later. Yet by April 1975 Americans had put the war behind them. The conflict had “officially” ended with the signing of the Paris Peace Accords, in January 1973. Certainly, that’s when the war ended so far as Americans were concerned. They responded to the fall of Saigon more with relief than shame.
The story that Rory Kennedy has to tell in “Last Days in Vietnam” is at once riveting and heartbreaking. This youngest daughter of Robert F. Kennedy has the good sense — far rarer among documentarians than you’d like to think — not to get in the way of her material. The documentary has no voice-over, no experts proffering analytical hindsight, no reenactments (praise heaven!). It does have a doomy-sounding score, from Gary Lionelli. But that’s become quasi-obligatory for documentaries of a certain sort. And the camera does occasionally swoop over a map of South Vietnam and a CGI model of the US embassy in Saigon. Both are welcome visual aids for viewers tying to get a geographic and spatial handle on those awful final days.
Otherwise the documentary consists solely of contemporary news footage, which is gripping in the extreme, and recent interviews with participants: refugees, helicopter pilots, Marine guards at the embassy. Most are American, only a few are South Vietnamese. None are North Vietnamese or Viet Cong. They would offer a very different perspective, of course. But the title tells us that’s not Kennedy’s emphasis: Last days in Vietnam can refer only to Americans and those Vietnamese able to flee, not those left behind.
Starting on March 19, 1975, the North Vietnamese mounted an offensive. The South Vietnamese army crumbled. US intervention was out of the question. The fall of Saigon seemed only a matter of time.
There were several thousand Americans still in the country, and tens of thousands of South Vietnamese who had worked for the United States. There were four plans for an evacuation from Saigon. The easiest to do — by ship, by chartered commercial aircraft, by military transport planes — would all be impossible to conceal. For that reason, US Ambassador Graham Martin rejected them. Implementation would set off uncontrollable panic and turn collapse from likelihood into inevitability. The most difficult option, by far, was the fourth: by helicopter, from the embassy and nearby rooftops.
One of the talking heads is Henry Kissinger, then secretary of state. To hear that familiar Teutonic rumble mutter the words “another horrendous screw-up” is so disconcerting as almost to be funny. Fortunately, the screw-up in question — 11 Marine guards being left behind at the embassy — was corrected by one final helicopter flight. There are a few other well-known interviewees: President Gerald Ford’s press secretary Ron Nessen; former CIA operative Frank Snepp, author of “Decent Interval,” the controversial 1977 account of the fall of Saigon; and Richard Armitage, later deputy secretary of state, who oversaw a semi-comic (and nearly tragic) ragtag evacuation of the South Vietnamese navy to the Philippines.
All the other interviewees are people you don’t know -- and quickly warm to. Stuart Herrington, an Army captain then, figures most prominently. His account of the growing disarray in Saigon is calm, articulate, and increasingly affecting.
Things were getting so desperate that US personnel began organizing smaller, secret evacuations. Finally, Martin agreed to start the evacuation, on April 29. By then, helicopters were the only option.
The signal was “White Christmas” broadcast on Armed Forces Radio. Nearly 3,000 South Vietnamese had been let into the embassy compound. Many more crowded outside. Seventy-five Marine helicopters started ferrying people to US ships offshore: a two-hour round trip.
Martin was supposed to go on the first helicopter. In an act of nobility every bit as remarkable as his stubbornness in postponing the evacuation, Martin refused to leave until everyone else had been evacuated, South Vietnamese and American alike. It took a direct order from President Ford, 20 hours later, to get him on a helicopter. By then, only a contingent of Marine guards were left — along with some 4oo South Vietnamese. The Marines, barricading the rooftop door, got out. The South Vietnamese didn’t. A few hours later, Saigon fell.
Nine months earlier, referring to Watergate, Ford had said, “our long national nightmare is over.” Another one, so much longer and so much worse, was over now, too.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version incorrectly described the score as synth. The scores did not use synthesizers.