No one who saw the films and photos of America’s 1975 retreat from Indochina can forget them. America was leaving the country. But they had made little or no accommodation for the people of South Vietnam, many of whom did not want to stay behind. In fact, the whole thing was so haphazard that it did not look like we had planned very carefully for the Americans to get out either. (Which, as we shall see, was the case.)
As a result of all this capriciousness, the media captured the agonizing images of the Vietnamese “boat people” floating on rafts in the Pacific; of helicopters landing atop the American Embassy with refugees packed in like sardines; and above all: a helicopter on top of the CIA building in dramatic silhouette, with an endless line of civilians trying to get on board – until finally, the copter could not take any more people. And the refuges were left behind with arms outstretched trying to hang on. That image was so haunting that it has been used several times since in films about the subject, e.g. The Deer Hunter.
For many people, especially those critical of the war, those searing – and in some ways, humiliating – images seemed to epitomize America’s long involvement in Vietnam. We were now finally leaving a country in the same way we had entered it and occupied it: in the same half-assed, scattershot manner. It appeared that again, no one in charge understood the plan – or even if there was one.
But as bad as that disorganized exit was for the Americans, it was even worse for the people in South Vietnam who actually believed in America’s commitment to the country. Many of them had heard about North Vietnamese atrocities committed during the war. Many had actually worked out of the embassy or the CIA building as agents and/or informants. Yet now, with a collapse imminent, these people were mixed together with the tens of thousands who just wanted out before the fall. As CIA counter-intelligence analyst Frank Snepp later wrote, those people received no special consideration for their past work.
Snepp was so angry at what had happened that he quit the Agency in 1976. He then decided to write a book about America’s disastrous exit. That book was called Decent Interval. From its title on down, the book was an eye-opener as to what had really happened from 1973-75, and what caused the ultimate American embarrassment, one that was, in large part, broadcast on television to millions of people at home.
The power of Snepp’s book was in his insider knowledge of both the inner workings of the CIA station in Saigon, and the American embassy. This allowed Snepp to name names: CIA station chief Tom Polgar, CIA Director Bill Colby, American ambassador Graham Martin, and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. And he laid bare their incredible lack of judgment in allowing what he considered a national disgrace to happen.
But to Snepp, the ultimate betrayal went even further. First of all, neither the CIA nor the embassy had assembled lists of South Vietnamese who had helped America during the war. This would have been necessary in order to give them priority during the evacuation.
What made that even worse was that the exit was done so willy-nilly that neither the embassy nor the CIA had completely shredded their intelligence files before the last helicopter left. Therefore, once the North Vietnamese army entered Saigon, those files could be retrieved, and with Russian or Chinese help, translated. From these translated files, whole networks of CIA informants and collaborators could be rebuilt, and a series of arrests made. Which is what happened.
On the other hand, President Nguyen Van Thieu, who, as we shall see, bears much of the blame for the sudden rout, was treated quite differently. When he was ready to leave, a car arrived at his door. As it did so, a group of assistants appeared out of the nearby woods. They carried large luggage bags with them. When the escort offered his help, they refused. Once the car started on its way to the airport, one could hear the sounds of metal clanging against metal. Thieu was leaving with the last of South Vietnam’s gold bullion. He had gotten the bulk out earlier, and this was just small change. America’s anointed leader was allowed to loot its client state, while those further down the food chain were left for the re-education camps. This is how America said goodbye to South Vietnam: a country it had just about created in 1954.
These events occurred mostly in March and April of 1975. It was part of the controversial, and now thoroughly exposed, “decent interval” strategy. This was the exit plan formulated by the foreign policy leaders of our nation in 1973. That is, President Richard Nixon and his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger. Nixon and Kissinger had been looking for a way to get out of Vietnam by either intimidating the North, or finding what they called “Peace with Honor”. When they discovered neither was possible, they decided on the 1973 Peace Accords, even though they themselves knew the accords would lead to a South Vietnamese defeat in anywhere from two to three years. But they felt that if the defeat occurred with Americans out of the war, and 24-36 months after the 1972 election, they would not be politically impacted by it. Thus originated the decent interval strategy, i.e., announce “Peace with Honor”, knowing that it was a mirage and Saigon had no way of winning once America was out. The evidence for this adduced by scholars like Ken Hughes and Jeff Kimball is overwhelming today. After promising Thieu we would not forsake him, Nixon and President Ford did just that. (See "Exposing Nixon’s Vietnam Lies")
Very few people seemed to realize what exactly Nixon and Kissinger had planned. That is, the 1973 Peace Accords that they so triumphantly announced prior to the 1972 presidential election was simply camouflage to disguise the inevitable American and South Vietnamese defeat. There was no way that Thieu’s army, the ARVN, could stave off defeat from the combined forces of the Viet Cong and the regular army of North Vietnam. But again, it’s hard to imagine that Nixon and Kissinger could have foreseen the disorganized rout that America’s last days in Vietnam became in 1975.
Frank Snepp, who was stationed in Vietnam for the entire downfall, was one of the few who did realize what Nixon and Kissinger had done. Hence the title of his 1977 book. Since he knew the people involved and watched it all happen – he drove the car that got Thieu out of Saigon – he was able to name names and relate the actual events that caused the embarrassing mess it all ended up as. In other words, the book provided the back story to the pictures.
CIA Director Stansfield Turner decided not to try and stop the book prior to its publication. He recalled what happened in the Pentagon Papers case. So the CIA sued Snepp afterwards on the basis that he had violated his non-disclosure agreement. The CIA won the case on the (humorous) grounds that the author had caused irreparable harm to national security. As a result, Snepp had to forfeit all royalties to the Agency, and clear any future books in advance with them.
But the problem did not go away. Snepp’s book sold well. Plus, it was packed with information that showed just how badly the upper levels of government had performed during a crisis moment, one which it should have been well prepared to surmount. Other authors have since built on the exposure of this decent interval strategy. Documentary director Rory Kennedy decided she wanted to make a film about the decent interval concept after she saw how George W. Bush had ended American involvement in Iraq: that is, without a real exit strategy.
Rory Kennedy made Snepp one of the main talking heads in her documentary film Last Days in Vietnam. This fascinating film has now come to Netflix, and is available on Amazon. When the film was originally released theatrically, it was attacked from both the right and left. The LA Times wanted to know if Kennedy – a child of Bobby Kennedy – thought her uncle would have withdrawn from Vietnam had he lived. The review in The Nation, by Nick Turse, wasn’t really a review. It was essentially a polemic against Kennedy for making a film that tried to find any heroism in the American effort in Vietnam. According to Turse, the war was too awful for that. Therefore the film was not worth discussing or analyzing.
The problem with both of these approaches is that they violate the central function of criticism, which is to describe and illuminate the work in front of the reviewer. Rory Kennedy was not making a film about the Kennedy years in Vietnam. Neither was she making an overall examination of why America was there and what went wrong with the war effort. (The latter would take an extended series to even superficially explore.) Her subject is the last two years of American involvement in Vietnam. A time when, in fact, American soldiers were not involved in combat operations. They had left in 1973.
To be sure, there are some problems with the film, and this review will discuss those faults. But they should be analyzed in the context of the documentary in front of us, not some non-existent film that the reviewer wishes had been made.
Last Days in Vietnam begins with a brief flash forward to 1975. As we watch the aimless. confused, overpopulated streets of Saigon, we hear the voice of then Captain Stuart Herrington. He describes his predicament at that time: How to get men who had helped military intelligence out of Saigon before the city collapsed before the North Vietnamese onslaught.
After setting this topic sentence, the film flashes backward. We now see a newsreel of President Nixon announcing the signing of the 1973 Paris Peace Accords ending American combat involvement in Vietnam.
Director Kennedy then introduces four of the main characters who will fill in the story line of her film. In addition to Herrington, we also see embassy guard Juan Valdez, Frank Snepp, and most importantly and intriguingly, Graham Martin, the last American ambassador in South Vietnam. This montage begins to describe the central problem the film will try to comprehend, namely: in addition to perhaps as many as 7,000 Americans still in country, there were well over a 100,000 Vietnamese who did not want to stay behind under a communist regime. Yet there was no formal evacuation plan presented by Martin, or announced by him – ever. This includes the last two days of the collapse.
As she should, Kennedy spends some time on the enigma of Graham Martin (who died in 1990). Martin was a veteran State Department employee. He had served as ambassador to both Thailand and Italy before Nixon appointed him to head the Saigon embassy in 1973. For reasons stated above, Martin clearly carries a large part of the responsibility for this final American debacle in Vietnam. Some of those who knew him try and explain his inexplicable reluctance to prepare, announce and arrange the evacuation in various ways. He is described as a classic Cold Warrior, who also had lost a son in Vietnam. Therefore, he simply could not bring himself to admit that America had lost the war on his watch. Others say he completely overrated the power and dedication of the Army of South Vietnam (ARVN). Others try and explain it by saying he did not want to announce an evacuation because it may have caused a stampede. If the last was his reason, then his silence did little to ameliorate such a stampede. Martin comes across in this film as a man who never should have been in charge of the Saigon embassy. But further, under these circumstances, he should have been removed.
The film then proceeds with Frank Snepp describing how flimsy the 1973 Paris Accords were. By 1974, when Nixon was forced to resign due to the Watergate scandal, Hanoi was encouraged to mount a major offensive, since they felt America was in a weak position to reply to it. As Snepp says, the 1973 accords were riddled with so many loopholes that there were dozens of violations. By late 1974, when the North Vietnamese decided to make their push, they had more than doubled the amount of troops they had in the south: from approximately 155,00 to around 370,000.
Hence the North Vietnamese attack was already fairly successful at the outset. But it became even more successful when, in March of 1975, Thieu decided to abandon the Central Highlands area and ordered a disorganized retreat to defend the southernmost regions.
Thieu made this even worse by changing his mind about the defense of the ancient city of Hue. He first said that he wanted to make a stand there. He then announced that it was not a priority. This caused a decline in morale of the ARVN, and the clogging of roads and highways by civilians caught headlong between the advancing army of North Vietnam and Thieu’s indecisiveness. The film does not mention Thieu’s reversals, but I think they would have helped explain the sudden rout, because all of this led to the disorganized spectacle that ended up taking place in Saigon on April 30, 1975, and which now included soldiers deserting from the ARVN. (Kennedy includes a memorable shot of a soldier extending outward from a raft to get on a boat and falling into the water.)
As the retreat began to assume a momentum of its own, there were inevitable appeals to Washington for aid. These were directly presented by President Ford to Congress. Kennedy cuts here to interviews with GOP Representatives Pete McCloskey and the late Millicent Fenwick, to explain why these requests for aid were not honored. No one could accept spending hundreds of millions of dollars in 1975, when tens of billions had not done the job in the previous twenty years.
I think the film missed another opportunity here. If Ford had presented a plan to just finance the evacuation itself, that would have been one thing. But the proposal for 722 million also included funds for renewed military operations. And that is what sunk it. Secondly, if Ford was really interested in an orderly evacuation, why could he have not scraped together the funds for that – which would have been much less than the amount he was asking – from other emergency accounts?
The film now cuts back to Snepp. The CIA officer says that, from a reliable source, he found out that the target date for the taking of Saigon was early May. The idea was for the North Vietnamese army to celebrate Ho Chi Minh’s birthday in Saigon. In early April, with the ARVN in complete disarray, there were about 500,000 refugees crowding the highways south into Saigon; they were being followed by an army of about 140,000 regulars from North Vietnam. Even at this point, Martin denied to the press that Vietnam was now lost. Snepp tried to deal with Martin, so he could begin to face the facts of what to do about the impending collapse. Martin told Snepp he did not want to hear any more of this negative chatter.
At this point in the film, Kennedy introduces her real topic, and her real theme. The former is the decision of certain people on the ground level to take matters into their own hands. Realizing that the upper echelons had committed a FUBAR of giant proportions, they decided to do whatever they could to help set things right, even though these attempts were in violation of accepted policy. In other words, the work done by men like Herrington to help South Vietnamese escape was done in the dark. The film actually uses the words “black operations” in regards to them. In fact, Martin began firing people when he heard the target was to get their allies in South Vietnam to Clark Air Base in the Philippines.
An example would be Richard Armitage. Most people know Armitage as a State Department employee who – according to him – inadvertently leaked Valerie Plame’s name to reporter Robert Novak. Back then, Armitage was assigned as the Defense Attaché to the Saigon embassy. His last orders were to make sure that none of the many ships the USA had given to South Vietnam would fall into the hands of the enemy. His plan was to have them manned by their usual sailors, take them to a point in the South China Sea, evacuate the personnel, and then destroy them.
But when Armitage went out to sea to count the ships, they had approximately 30,000 people on board. And they weren’t all navy ships. Some of them were fishing vessels. Aboard the USS Kirk, Armitage decided the only thing to do was to disobey orders and lead the flotilla over a thousand miles to Subic Bay in the Philippines.
But to delineate further why this had to be done, it is important to note the appearance of Gerald Berry in the film. In 1975, Captain Berry was a helicopter pilot in the Marines. Whether or not he wanted to hear them, it was the military’s job to outline avenues of evacuation to Martin. Berry and his colleagues put together four different options for the ambassador to choose from. The first was to float the mass of people down the Saigon River to the docks near the Pacific Ocean. The second was to use commercial aircraft at Tan Son Nhut airport to fly out the mass of refugees through the main air base outside of Saigon. The third option was to use the same airport, but in this case, to mobilize a fleet of military aircraft for the evacuation.
The final option, and the one Berry only offered to Graham as a last resort, was a helicopter evacuation. Berry noted two serious shortcomings with this alternative: 1) Helicopters could only handle small amounts of people per flight; 2) Choppers were much slower than fixed wing aircraft, thus requiring many more sorties to ferry everyone out.
Martin’s intransigence forced Berry to utilize the last option. As the film explains, option (1) had to be prepared in advance, since it was a long haul floating tens of thousands of people down the river. Options (2) and (3) were also wiped out by the ambassador’s delays. Because Martin waited so long to begin his impromptu escape, the North Vietnamese were on the outskirts of Saigon. Realizing what the best exit strategy was, they began to bombard Tan Son Nhut airport with artillery and rockets. Therefore, out of necessity, the Marines used the helicopter option. Berry himself flew an amazing 34 sorties in a bit over 18 hours. His last flight got Martin out. He asked for more pilots to prepare a rest rotation. That request was denied.
But there were so many helicopter flights coming in that they would back up into each other. As Snepp notes, the security guards had to cut down a tree in the compound to make way for another helipad. What further made it all so difficult was that the ships used to land on were not aircraft carriers. Some, like the Kirk, were destroyers, whose space for landing was very limited and which could only handle medium sized choppers. This explains one of the most memorable images from the evacuation. Because of the limited space, and the number of flights, at times it became necessary to simply push a helicopter off the deck into the sea so another one could land. As we see in the film, this did not happen just once. It happened three times.
This directly relates to one of the high points of this riveting film. A South Vietnamese pilot was using a Chinook helicopter to get his brother and his family out of Saigon. But the ship he was trying to land on could not accommodate a Chinook, which is a twin engine, long, troop transport type of chopper. So the sailors on board came out on deck and yelled at him, waving him off. Since he was low on fuel and had nowhere to go, he decided to hover over the deck. He then began dropping his family members to the sailors below. This included little children who were actually caught in the air. When the pilot was the only one left, he flew the chopper out about 25 feet away from the ship. He stayed at the controls as he began to strip out of his flight suit. (As one American sailor says on screen, he still doesn’t know how the heck he did that.) Once he was out of his suit he then ditched the chopper into the water, jumped out, and swam to the ship. This gripping sequence is not described. It is shown.
This is a good point to accent just how well made this documentary is. It is very clear that the producers of the picture really went through just about every bit of film they could find on the subject. It is that complete. But beyond that, it is what they have done with this footage that makes the film so remarkable to see. For many decades, and in many schools, documentaries were simply that: a recorded film of an event. One plopped down the camera in front of, say, a parade, and that was it. There were exceptions, of course; e.g., Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog, and Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympiad and Triumph of the Will. But, by and large, most documentaries did not use the techniques available to film to add to or alter what we saw on screen.
With the introduction of modern technology, including CGI, that has changed today. This film uses digital imaging very well to illustrate things like escape routes out of Saigon to the airport, or to the docks. In one particularly telling image, Kennedy irises into the airport digital image – that is, she encloses it with a narrow circle effect – but then explodes the circle into the live action of the North Vietnamese bombing. She also uses the device of cross-cutting between films and photos adroitly. And she also uses the photographic effect of zooming in on a still photograph to accent a person in it. In one case, it is Martin, and the device accents his isolation from circumstances. The editing by Don Kleszy is also very skillful. In his montages of crowd confusion, it is notable how he cuts between one shot of people running in one direction, and the next shot of people running the opposite way, thus capturing the chaos and confusion of those final days.
But amid the good things in this film, I would be remiss if I did not note a serious flaw. Namely, the presence of Henry Kissinger. To put it simply: No film made by any member of the Kennedy family should have Kissinger in it. Especially a film that deals with Vietnam. As time goes on, and more documents are declassified, the better President Kennedy looks, and the worse Nixon, Ford and Kissinger look. We now understand better why Kissinger never advanced in the Kennedy White House, but rose to the top under Nixon and Ford. Today, Kissinger stands exposed as one of the worst foreign policy practitioners in recent memory. From Vietnam, to Cambodia, to the Middle East, to the Pakistan/India dispute, the Kissinger/Nixon policies all proved disastrously wrong. It was only through their manipulation of the press that their failures had been disguised, e.g., as in the Kalb brothers’ fawning 1974 biography. Today, most authorities agree that the Nixon-Kissinger years are more aptly characterized in William Bundy’s 1998 volume A Tangled Web. That coruscating study was so pungent that Kissinger himself replied to a positive review of it in The New York Review of Books (see here).
Near the beginning of the film, Kissinger actually states that, with the 1973 Peace Accords, he and Nixon were attempting to achieve a co-existence between North and South Vietnam, somewhat like that between North and South Korea.
This is completely wrong. And Ken Hughes demonstrates its falsity in his book Fatal Politics. He does it with transcribed tapes from the Nixon library. Hughes shows that Kissinger, in his own words, never believed for a moment that the cease-fire of 1973 would hold, or that Hanoi would have any real problem in conquering the south.
This leads to another false statement that Kissinger makes in the film. He says that the USA had three goals in the final days: to get as many people out as possible, to ensure that South Vietnam was not stabbed in the back, and to preserve the honor of America. This statement is not just flatulent, it is incomprehensible.
As the film shows, if the objective was to get out as many as possible, the official US effort was a complete and utter failure. And Kissinger, as Secretary of State, carries a lot of the blame for that. Tens of thousands were evacuated not because of what he did, but in spite of it. And this film honors those who were actually responsible.
As per stabbing South Vietnam in the back, again, the work of authors like Ken Hughes and Jeffrey Kimball belies that. As does the title of Snepp’s book. Kissinger and Nixon’s cease-fire was a device to delay the fall of South Vietnam until after the 1972 election when, the two felt, most people would have forgotten about the subject. One can also look at Jerrold L. Schecter’s 1986 book, The Palace File, which contains a series of 31 letters from Presidents Nixon and Ford to Thieu. In those letters, among other things, Ford and Nixon promised South Vietnam full diplomatic and military support, before and after the signing of the peace accords. Needless to say, the support never materialized.
The film includes another false statement by Kissinger. Ford’s White House – with Kissinger on stage during the press conference – made a premature announcement that all the Americans who wanted to leave Saigon, were now out. This was not true. The final platoon of security guards had not left the embassy at that time. The film shows the platoon leader recalling his problem during departure: he kept on counting the men who should have been there. He was one short. He would not leave anyone behind. The last man was Valdez, who we saw at the beginning. He was pulled onto the helicopter by those on board, and the film contains a photo of him after he was just inside the open tailgate. After Kissinger’s false statement, this is a nice thematic closing to the film.
Kissinger’s presence here, and his continuing duplicity, mar the sterling work Rory Kennedy has done. She has assembled a finely textured, intricately planned salute to those in the lower ranks. Those who had to live with the horrible mistakes people like Henry Kissinger made.
Except they decided not to live with them. They did something about it. And they succeeded in spite of the huge odds arrayed against them.
Overall, the Vietnam War was, at first , a huge mistake. It then became a terrible epic tragedy. For both the USA and Vietnam. Nixon and Kissinger senselessly expanded that tragedy into Cambodia. The whole time, both men knew that – as they were dropping thousands of tons of bombs over Indochina – America could not win the war.
They then decided on their “decent interval” masquerade: The war would not actually be lost by America, but by a combination of Thieu’s incompetence and a lack of support by Congress. This was nothing but an empty, and terribly destructive, charade. And Kissinger was a major part of it. In fact, as Ken Hughes shows, he essentially pushed Nixon into it.
It would have been nice to see a film about that. Just as it would be nice to see a film about the difference between President Kennedy’s strategy on Vietnam, and those who followed him in the White House. A film on the latter could have shown why Kissinger did not advance under Kennedy, but rose to the top under Nixon and Ford.
After this, maybe Rory Kennedy will make a film with that kind of epic scope. But for now, she has decided to do a well wrought, smaller piece of chamber music. James Joyce once gave his hero , Stephen Dedalus the memorable line, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” This film tells the story of how part of that Vietnam nightmare was constructed. And it chronicles the efforts of those who did what they could to try and correct that nightmare.