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Last Days of Vietnam– The Best and Worst of Us

Last Days of Vietnam (2015), a PBS documentary in the American Experience television series, is produced and directed by Rory Kennedy, and was a 2015 Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary Feature.

Forty-five years ago–on April 29, 1975-the US war ceased in South Vietnam. As North Vietnamese army tanks and troops moved into Saigon, the US ambassador fiercely resisted an evacuation.   But a large number of   U.S. diplomats and military operatives argued for an orderly withdrawal.  With no congressional support, the White House ordered American citizens to be evacuated. The order placed the lives of thousands of South Vietnamese at risk.  US military and government officials on the ground in Saigon faced an impossible decision:  which loyal Vietnamese would leave and who would stay behind to face brutality, imprisonment, or death? Whether to obey White House orders to evacuate U.S. citizens only–or to risk treason and save the lives of  some South Vietnamese citizens (some of whom were family members through marriage)–becomes the major theme of Last Days of Vietnam.

President Ford considered withdrawal, but was refused the budget to support the winding down of the war by Congress, some of whom, along with the Ambasador to Vietnam,  stubbornly resisted the reality of the US losing a war.  With the city under fire, American officers on the ground found themselves faceing a “double-doom”: whether to follow official policy and evacuate only U.S. citizens and their dependents, or to defy the order and save the men, women and children they had come to value and love in their years in Vietnam. At the risk of their careers and possible court-martial, a handful of soldiers took matters into their own hands. Engaging in unsanctioned and often makeshift operations, they waged a desperate but heroic effort to save as many South Vietnamese lives as possible,

Astonishing footage of the evacuation from Saigon with contemporary recollections from both Vietnamese and Americans who were there, Last Days in Vietnam films horrific scenes  to supplement the iconic image of desperate Vietnamese women, children, and elderly hanging off the roof of the US embassy fighting for their lives  to escape Saigon.  For those of us who remember the iconic and unforgettable photo of civilians hanging off the last departing helicopter, we see even more tragic moments inside that helicopter on the desperate faces of  Vietnamese families and the dejected US soldiers. That an orderly evacuation could have avoided the turmoil adds to this shameful display. There is no appropriate emotional response.

This should be a mandatory requirement for understanding this dark and iniquitous period of US history.

Note: ” The Vietnam War” by Ken Burns is  an essential companion piece to Last Days of Vietnam. [See my February 12, 2018 review]. For a fictional masterpiece that tells of one Vietnamese soldier’s escape from Saigon and subsequent life as an immigrant in the U.S.,  read the wrenching Pulitzer Prize winner, The Sympathizer, by  Viet Thanh Nguyen.


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