Posts Tagged ‘Fall of Saigon’



New Republic    April 29, 2015

On April 23, 1975, before a youthful crowd of forty-five hundred at Tulane University, President Gerald R. Ford announced that the Vietnam War was over. “Today,” the president proclaimed, “America can regain the sense of pride that existed before Vietnam, but it cannot be achieved by refighting a war that is finished as far as America is concerned.” The crowd erupted in “a jubilant roar” and “nearly raised the roof with whoops and hollers,” the New Republic’s White House correspondent wrote. In less than a week, thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of Vietnamese would be evacuated from Saigon as the North Vietnamese Army closed in on the capital city.

One hundred and thirty thousand Vietnamese left South Vietnam that April, ten times the number that the State Department had planned for. In the final phase alone, in just over 14 hours’ time, Marine helicopters lifted out almost 8,000 U.S. military personnel, South Vietnamese, and their dependents—about 5,600 from Tan Son Nhut airport, another 2,206 from the roof and courtyard of the U.S. embassy in Saigon, and dozens more from other locations.

Like the Vietnam War itself, the evacuation of Saigon was both a demonstration of extraordinary courage and resolve, and an ignominious failure.  Thousands of Americans and many South Vietnamese acted heroically and selflessly during those final weeks of near chaos, among them State Department, Defense Department, and intelligence officials, Marine Corps soldiers and officers, Marine helicopter pilots and crews, Air America pilots and crews, and many South Vietnamese civilians and military personnel. The United States thereby avoided what could have been a horrible disaster. As National Security Council official Richard Smyser noted, “I can at least say that we did do the decent thing to get the people help.”

At the same time, the evacuation of Saigon was a disaster in some fundamental respects. As Smyser also pointed out: “It was obvious that we couldn’t help them all.” Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese who wanted to leave could not. These were the people who didn’t make it on board USAF transport aircraft or the CIA’s Air America flights, who couldn’t reach the helicopters, who were unable to make it onto the U.S. embassy grounds, or who could not escape by boat. Many simply did not have the political clout, military standing, personal ties, cash and other valuable possessions, good looks—many dancers and bar girls were among those taken out—or other assets that allowed them to get out.

The sheer numbers were daunting. As of mid-April, about 4,000 Americans remained in Saigon, according to the U.S. embassy and NSC’s calculations, and they figured there were another 90,000 relatives of U.S. citizens who likely wanted to leave. There were also 17,000 local employees of the U.S. government and their 120,000 relatives, whom Graham Martin, the U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, had promised he’d evacuate. Martin wrote Brent Scowcroft, then deputy national security advisor, that the United States owed protection to about 175,000 people, among them “local national employees, in-laws of U.S. citizens, Vietnamese employees of American concerns, including the communications media, American foundations, and volunteer agencies, religious leaders, and Western educated professionals” in the employment of the Thieu government. The government of South Vietnam had about 600,000 employees of its own, too, together with their dependents—and all of them would be vulnerable to reprisals after the fall of Saigon. A total of two to three million people thus had a legitimate claim for being evacuated or a good reason to fear for their safety should they stay in South Vietnam.

With the North Vietnamese forces [in late March and early April, 1975] advancing much faster than either Hanoi or Saigon had expected, the situation in South Vietnam became acute. One hundred and twenty-five Vietnamese Air Force planes were able to flee to U-Tapao and other bases in Thailand—many of the aircraft filled with refugees—and much of the Vietnamese navy was also able to escape, eventually making it to Subic Bay in the Philippines. But ARVN personnel, officials of the Thieu government, and others who had worked for the U.S. and South Vietnam governments were trapped. “It was frantic, a mess,” Scowcroft told Newsweek.

Survivors from both the North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese armies have attested to the fact many ARVN units fought vigorously to defend what remained of South Vietnam against the advancing communist divisions, despite their logistical handicaps and waning morale, especially around Xuan Loc. However, that same commitment wasn’t apparent among South Vietnamese government officials or its civilians. “No spirit of support or sacrifice has been summoned,” wrote one reporter. “No crowds of Saigonese collected blood or money or food for the soldiers, or helped care for the sick and wounded in the hospitals, or offered their services for the refugees,” observed another. “No swarms of volunteers appeared at recruiting stations. No civilians built barricades or filled sandbags or dug antitank ditches. Nor were they asked to.” Ultimately, “the Saigon regime could find no reserve of will largely because it had no relation to its own people,” the reporter, Arnold Isaacs, found. “Its leaders could conceive [of] useless appeals to the United States for the return of B-52s, but not to their countrymen for a common effort at survival.”

“Vietnam [was] falling to pieces,” in the words of David Hume Kennerly, Ford’s prize-winning photographer. Kennerly agreed with the State Department’s William Hyland that Vietnam was a lost cause. “I don’t care what the generals tell you,” Kennerly told the president after visiting Vietnam with Army Chief of Staff Frederick C. Weyand in April, “they’re bullshitting if they say that Vietnam has got more than three or four weeks left.”

Ford, Kissinger, Scowcroft, Schlesinger, Ambassador Martin, and Joint Chiefs Chairman General George S. Brown (who succeeded Admiral Moorer in July, 1974) now [had to decide] how to evacuate Saigon.

In early April the planning began in earnest. “Timing is of utmost importance,” the State Department reported to Scowcroft, adding that “for maximum success the implementation must begin promptly after intelligence sources have indicated Saigon is doomed—and before it is too late to be effective.” Since the evacuation would most likely leave South Vietnam without any effective political and military governing authority, the White House wanted to start the evacuation only when absolutely necessary. Yet the more it delayed, the less the chance that all U.S. officials, American citizens, and high-risk Vietnamese needing to leave Saigon would be able to get out safely. Fundamentally related to the matter of timing was, therefore, the matter of “sufficient speed,” since the logistics of the evacuation depended on which assets—ships, helicopters, cargo planes, commercial aircraft—were available, in what numbers, and when.

The timing and speed of the operation depended, in turn, on more basic questions. Who was to be evacuated? How many were to be taken out? And what was their order of priority? It was assumed that virtually all U.S. citizens would leave (some missionaries, humanitarian volunteers, and contractors excepted), but it wasn’t obvious to U.S. officials which and how many South Vietnamese were to be evacuated. Defense Secretary Schlesinger and some members of Congress wanted to evacuate few, if any, South Vietnamese. In many of his decisions on the evacuation, the president was given the option to leave all South Vietnamese (or those South Vietnamese remaining, as the case may be) behind to face the North Vietnamese.

Another factor Ford’s advisers had to consider was how the U.S. government was going to protect those being evacuated, as well as the flight crews and the soldiers helping get people out, since Congress had prohibited U.S. forces in Vietnam from engaging in further conflict. Would extra forces need to be brought in? How was the U.S. military to respond when attacked by hostile fire? And would some in the South Vietnamese military who opposed the Americans’ departure resist and obstruct the evacuation?

In addition, Ford’s top military and civilian advisers had to decide on a policy for those rescued at sea, since many South Vietnamese were fleeing by boat. What resources should the United States spend on rescuing the boat people, especially if most were not in the high-risk category? How was the administration going to handle the thousands of refugees? Where were these people to be housed, fed, processed, and eventually located?

Scowcroft and his NSC staff, Bud McFarlane in particular, were responsible for overseeing and coordinating almost all phases of the evacuation. They monitored how many Americans and Vietnamese U.S. forces took out each day, using figures from the Saigon embassy and Department of Defense, so as to calculate how many people remained to be evacuated. They coordinated actions with the State Department and the Pacific Command. Mostly, they simply tried to impose a modicum of order on what Scowcroft called a “confusing, crazy” mess.

Under the circumstances, Scowcroft advocated evacuating “as many as possible,” believing the United States had a “moral obligation” to those who worked for the U.S. government and to U.S. contractors. He also believed that Washington’s management of the evacuation would affect the United States’ international reputation: “Other nations will see in our handling of this issue how the U.S. deals with the people of a country which has long been involved with us.”

The administration feared that the Americans still in Saigon would effectively become hostages. DCI [William] Colby and embassy officials warned that some South Vietnamese held the position that the “evacuation of Americans should not be permitted unless guarantees for their own safety [were] made.” Americans might be subject to “reprisals” if the United States attempted to evacuate U.S. citizens “without taking along friendly South Vietnamese.” The South Vietnamese might even “fire on anyone trying to leave.”

Ford decided to evacuate as many as possible, including the South Vietnamese dependents of American personnel, the high-risk Vietnamese along with their families and other dependents, and others who had assisted or collaborated with the United States.  Scowcroft gave Ford immense credit for this decision, especially since members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had unanimously recommended that the last U.S. forces be withdrawn “as fast as possible.” Ford had “nothing to gain” politically by refusing to abandon the Vietnamese, Scowcroft pointed out, while he had “everything to lose” had the evacuation led to U.S. casualties or a subsequent military engagement with the North Vietnamese. It was, he later wrote, “perhaps Ford’s finest hour. It was a tough, lonely decision made with great courage.”

With the North Vietnamese about to overrun Saigon, Kissinger and Scowcroft depended on Ambassador Martin’s presence on the ground and relied on his judgment of the situation.  Martin nevertheless attempted to stall the evacuation as long as he could and tried to delay the closing of the defense attaché’s office, the withdrawal of U.S. military forces, and the shutting down of the South Vietnamese government.

On April 21, after Martin told Thieu it was time to leave, the South Vietnamese president resigned and was flown to Taipei, where his brother was ambassador (Thieu’s wife had already left for Taiwan). On April 28, after a weeklong interregnum during which the vice president was in charge, Duong Van Minh (known as “Big Minh”) became president of South Vietnam. The next morning, the situation deteriorated further. The South Vietnamese army began to disband and the North Vietnamese shelled Tan Son Nhut airport—the center of the U.S. military presence in South Vietnam—littering the runway with the debris of destroyed aircraft and wrecked trucks.

When [Secretary of Defense James] Schlesinger heard the news that the airport was inoperable, he called Scowcroft, yelling at him, “For Christ’s sake, let’s go to the helos.” Ford checked with Kissinger and agreed: “We have no choice but to send in the helicopters, get our Americans out, and try to save as many friends as we can,” Ford told Scowcroft. Thirty minutes later, Armed Forces Radio in Saigon played “White Christmas,” signaling that the final evacuation was under way. Some South Vietnamese had their own name for the operation: “The Running.”

Over the final two days of April, 71 helicopters made 689 sorties staffed by 865 Marines. As long as Americans remained at the embassy, Martin knew, the helicopters would keep flying. So he used the flights to evacuate dependents and other at-risk Vietnamese, even as hundreds of Americans at the embassy remained to be evacuated. To Kissinger, Scowcroft, and the Joint Chiefs, Martin’s insistence on evacuating Vietnamese against explicit orders to the contrary was insubordinate. “Graham gave me an initial headcount of several hundred that included both Americans and Vietnamese,” McFarlane reports in his memoirs, “and we started the [last set] of sorties.” Once the helicopters lifted off, however, “Graham reported back” and gave McFarlane “a number that was more than we had started with.” Since McFarlane “knew what [Graham] was doing,” and since he agreed with “his desire to evacuate as many Vietnamese as possible,” he didn’t pass anything along. After a while, “Henry caught on,” and he became very upset when his military assistant admitted that Martin “was padding things a bit and bringing out more Vietnamese.”

The usually calm Scowcroft snapped. “Understand there are still about 400 Americans in embassy compound,” he cabled Martin. “You should ensure that all, repeat all, Americans are evacuated in this operation ASAP.”

Furious, the ambassador gave as good as he got:

Perhaps you can tell me how to make some of these Americans abandon their half-Vietnamese children, or how the president would look if he ordered this.  Am well aware of the danger here tomorrow and I want to get out tonight. But I damn well need at least 30 CH-53s [Sikorsky Sea Stallion helicopters] or the equivalent to do that. Do you think you can get president to order CINCPAC [Office of the US Commander in Chief Pacific] to finish job quickly? I repeat, I need 30 ch-53s and I need them now.

As the waves of helicopters scurried back and forth between the U.S. embassy and the U.S. fleet, Martin kept boarding Vietnamese, even though embassy staff, U.S. Marines, and others waited at the mission. “Brent Scowcroft had promised me 50 more of those big helicopters,” Martin recalled. “We had taken the Vietnamese and the Koreans to whom we had made a promise, we carefully counted them and brought them across the wall into the inner compound. We had no intention of bringing the people we had left in the outer compound. We were going to bring these other people out—some of them were cabinet ministers and so on.”

Many wouldn’t get out. The word in the White House and in the Pentagon was that Martin was “always going to have 2,000 more.” “No matter how many helicopters left, the estimate of the number of evacuees remaining never changed,” one helicopter squadron commander said. “It was like trying to empty a ‘bottomless pit.’” Military leaders already held Martin responsible for delaying the evacuation, and they now (rightly) suspected that he was deliberately withholding Americans so he could evacuate more Vietnamese.

For his part, Martin blamed Scowcroft for not ordering enough helicopter sorties so he could evacuate all of the Vietnamese still at the embassy. “Actually we very carefully calculated the whole bloody business, taking ninety at a time, and with what Scowcroft had promised me—well, God knows if you can’t count on the President’s National Security Adviser, who the hell do you count on?”

But the decision wasn’t Martin’s to make. The White House and Joint Chiefs had decided that time was up. Recounted Martin, “Suddenly we got this message that everything was off. ‘The next helicopter is coming; please come out.’” After receiving the news, he cabled Scowcroft, “Plan to close mission Saigon approximately 0430…Due to necessity to destroy [communications] gear, this is the last Saigon message to SecState.”

At 4:42 a.m. on April 30, the ambassador, pale, suffering from insomnia, unsteady on his feet, and still recovering from a recent medical operation, was helicoptered from the embassy. Additional helicopters rescued the remaining few Americans. The final CH-46 and its escort of Cobra gunships landed just before 8:00 a.m.—in full daylight—to pick up the last eleven Marines. As the last Marines quickly climbed the stairs up to the embassy roof, desperate South Vietnamese raced up behind them. And as the Marines hastily boarded the one waiting helicopter, the first Vietnamese to reach the roof made a dive for the helicopter as it began to lift off.

About 400 Vietnamese who were crowded in the embassy courtyard and whom Martin or other U.S. officials had promised to evacuate were stranded. For the U.S. officials and Marines taking the last few helicopters, the scene was excruciating: Although orders were orders, many of them had worked for years with the South Vietnamese, and they felt responsible for abandoning them.

At about noon on April 30, the lead tank from the 324th Division of the North Vietnamese army crashed through the gates to the presidential palace in Saigon. Big Minh was placed under arrest, and the U.S. embassy was ransacked not long afterward. All of Vietnam was in communist hands.

The evacuation crisis was the most severe leadership test Brent Scowcroft had faced in his career. Throughout it, he was constantly in touch with Kissinger and frequently with the president. He spoke often with Schlesinger and others in the Department of Defense as well as with Ambassador Martin, Wolfgang Lehmann, [CIA station chief] Tom Polgar, and President Thieu, whether by telephone or cable. He also worked closely with Adm. Noel Gayler, commander in chief of the Pacific Command. And he was “able to knock heads together at CINCPAC and with the fleet commanders when critical bottlenecks showed up,” historian John Prados reported, not losing sight of what the U.S. hoped to achieve.

Scowcroft ran the situation room “for a long, exhausting day of one emergency after another.” And with the twelve-hour time difference between Washington and Vietnam, he was often up most of the night and sometimes all night during those final days. To others in the White House, he appeared “frail and exhausted.” In contrast to Kissinger, who “grew increasingly irate and short-tempered” as the evacuation drew to a climax, Scowcroft kept his poise. Hartmann, who disliked the holdovers from the Nixon White House, especially Kissinger, appreciated Scowcroft’s “tireless and unflappable” personality.

Still, Scowcroft found the end of the Vietnam War greatly disturbing. Having dealt with hundreds of families of POWs and MIAs in his role as military assistant and having himself been confined to military hospitals for two years, he couldn’t view the episode and the suffering it involved from twenty thousand feet.

The end of the Vietnam War was in many ways a microcosm of the multifaceted history of the failed U.S. involvement in Indochina. “It was,” admitted Scowcroft, “a miracle we got out.”

This piece was excerpted from The Strategist: Brent Scowcroft and the Call of National Security. (PublicAffairs Press, 2015)

Bartholomew Sparrow is a professor and associate chair of the Department of Government at the University of Texas at Austin

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Credit Photograph by David Hume Kennerly/White House via AP

Credit Photograph by David Hume Kennerly/White House via AP


Obama and the Fall of Saigon


The New Yorker    September 10, 2014

Almost forty years ago, in April of 1975, as the North Vietnamese Army was sweeping through South Vietnam toward Saigon, President Gerald Ford addressed a joint session of Congress. He asked for seven hundred and twenty-two million dollars in emergency military assistance for the government of South Vietnam. He invoked the dire risk faced by tens of thousands of South Vietnamese, including those affiliated with the United States. In “Last Days in Vietnam,” Rory Kennedy’s gripping new documentary about the fall of South Vietnam and the chaotic U.S. evacuation, Henry Kissinger, who was the Secretary of State, says of Ford, “He had two major concerns. The first was to save as many people as we could. He cared for the human beings involved—that they were not just pawns and, once they had lost their military power, they were abandoned. The second was the honor of America—that we would not be seen at the final agony of South Vietnam as having stabbed it in the back.”

It’s a little jarring to hear Kissinger distance himself on moral grounds from using human beings as pawns. His and Richard Nixon’s policy in Southeast Asia amounted to little more than that: sacrificing untold hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and Cambodians, as well as thousands of American troops, to bloodless terms like “credibility,” “strategic realignment,” and “peace with honor.” But Kissinger’s account of American efforts during the fall of South Vietnam is accurate: in Washington and in Saigon, officials went to great, though tragically belated, lengths to rescue those Vietnamese associated with the governments of South Vietnam and the United States. “Last Days in Vietnam” will unsettle many of your fixed ideas about the end of the war. (For example, the film raises the possibility that, had Nixon not resigned over Watergate, nine months before the fall of Saigon, the North Vietnamese wouldn’t have invaded the South so readily, because they regarded Nixon as a madman capable of anything.)

In the long view of history, the war was unwinnable. As Neil Sheehan’s masterpiece “A Bright Shining Lie” shows, it was a war of Vietnamese nationalism, and the French and American interventions were seen by most Vietnamese as last stands of colonialism rather than as Cold War imperatives. By that April, two years after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords and the withdrawal of the last American combat forces, most people back home didn’t want to hear the name of the country where, in twelve years, almost sixty thousand U.S. troops had died. Congress, reflecting that exhaustion, voted down Ford’s emergency request (which would only have postponed defeat). Hearing the news, the mild-mannered President cursed, “The sons of bitches!” The fall of Saigon was just days away.

“Last Days in Vietnam” is full of dramatic tales illustrated by vivid archival footage. With no space for a landing, a South Vietnamese pilot drops his family out of his transport helicopter, onto the deck of an offshore American Navy vessel, then dives into the South China Sea and saves himself as the chopper crashes into the waves. A Vietnamese student named Binh Po buys and talks his way onto the grounds of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, joining ten thousand other desperate people, only to wind up among the four hundred and twenty left behind when an order from President Ford ends the evacuation prematurely and the last Marine chopper takes off. (Binh Po spent a year in a Communist reëducation camp before escaping from Vietnam by boat, in 1979.) Marine Sergeant Mike Sullivan and other Embassy guards, without orders, take it upon themselves to make sure that the Vietnamese they know personally—tailors, cooks, dishwashers, and their families—make it out on the Chinooks. As North Vietnamese tank divisions roll toward Saigon, individual Americans break official rules and risk their lives to get as many of the Vietnamese who worked with Americans as they can to safety, along with their families—an inspiring example of moral heroism in the final days of a war best known for its mistakes, crimes, and sheer waste.

At the same time, the evacuation was a disaster. Ambassador Graham Martin, a rigid Cold Warrior out of “The Quiet American,” refused to believe that Saigon was about to fall, and wouldn’t allow fixed-wing air evacuations from the Tan Son Nhut airbase while it remained out of North Vietnamese hands. The result of Martin’s delusion was the frantic helo lifts from the Embassy grounds, the last and worst option, too little and too late, which left tens of thousands of our Vietnamese allies behind to suffer the brutality of the North. Yet even Martin, who lost his only son in the war, emerges, more ambiguously, as a conscientious diplomat at the last hour, postponing his own evacuation long enough to get thousands of Vietnamese out.

Army Captain Stuart Herrington, one of the heroes of the evacuation, had to lie to the Vietnamese left behind at the Embassy, telling them that a big chopper was on the way, then sneak away to board the last flight off the roof. Still haunted, he speaks for the film: “The end of April of 1975 was the whole Vietnamese involvement in a microcosm. Promises made in good faith, promises broken, people being hurt because we didn’t get our act together. The whole Vietnamese war is a story that kind of sounds like that. But, on the other hand, sometimes there are moments when good people have to rise to the occasion and do the things that need to be done, and in Saigon there was no shortage of people like that.”

Back in 2007, when I started writing about the betrayal of Iraqis associated with America in Iraq, I spoke with two of the men featured in “Last Days in Vietnam”: Frank Snepp, the chief C.I.A. analyst in Saigon and the author of “Decent Interval,” an account of that period; and Richard Armitage, a naval officer, who returned to Vietnam as a civilian defense official and ended up bringing twenty thousand Vietnamese out on boats. Hearing their stories, I thought that the analogies with Iraq were obvious—willful blindness at the highest levels, no plan for rescuing Iraqis—but the differences were even sharper. The Vietnam-era Americans came off much better. With a few exceptions, it was hardly possible to imagine Embassy officials or troops in Baghdad taking great risks to get their Iraqi contacts out before we left. Relationships with Iraqis were much more distant, and Americans much more isolated, owing to security restrictions and other factors. Above all, in Baghdad there was a pervasive air of deskbound caution, buck-passing, and ass-covering, in contrast with the Wild West atmosphere that broke out, for better and for worse, in Saigon in April of 1975. It was all too easy for Americans in Iraq not to know what they didn’t want to know.

On Wednesday night, President Obama will speak to the country about his strategy for fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham. I wonder if he’ll have a chance to see “Last Days in Vietnam,” which opened on Friday. He would probably be struck by the historical irony that, like Ford, he must try to explain to Congress and a weary, sour public why the U.S. should get involved again in a far-off, supposedly concluded war that most Americans now view as a waste.

This is a speech that Obama, even more than Ford, never wanted to give. He ran for reëlection, in part, on having fulfilled a promise to end the war in Iraq—always the previous Administration’s war. His eagerness to be rid of the albatross of Iraq played no small part in clearing the way for ISIS to take a third of the country, including Mosul, and to threaten Baghdad and Erbil.

All the more reason to give the President credit (though his political enemies never will) for his willingness, however reluctant, to turn around and face the catastrophe unfolding in Iraq and Syria. Wednesday’s speech will no doubt nod toward staying out (no boots on the ground, no new “American war”), even as it makes the case for going back in (air strikes, international coalitions, the moral and strategic imperative to defeat ISIS). This is the sort of balancing act that Obama speeches specialize in. But he also needs to tell the country bluntly that there will almost certainly be more American casualties, and that the struggle against ISIS—against radical Islam generally, but especially in this case—will be difficult, with no quick military solution and no end in sight. Otherwise, he’ll have brought the public and Congress on board without levelling with them, a pattern set in Vietnam and repeated in Iraq, with unhappy consequences.

By the time Ford gave his speech, that war was lost, and seven hundred and twenty-two million dollars couldn’t have done what billions of dollars and half a million American troops hadn’t—though the end game, as Kennedy’s film compellingly shows, was a last unnecessary fiasco. But the Iraq War never ended, except in the minds of most Americans. Unlike Vietnam, ISIS is an irreconcilable enemy and a metastasizing threat. We Americans want to wake up as fast as possible from our historical nightmares, whatever the cost to other people. It’s human nature. Unfortunately, this one still requires our attention.

George Packer became a staff writer in 2003. For the magazine, he has covered the Iraq War, and has also written about the atrocities committed in Sierra Leone, civil unrest in the Ivory Coast, the megacity of Lagos, and the global counterinsurgency. In 2003, two of his New Yorker articles won Overseas Press Club awards—one for his examination of the difficulties faced during the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq, and one for his coverage of the civil war in Sierra Leone. His book “The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq” was named one of the ten best books of 2005 by the New York Times and won the New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award and an Overseas Press Club book award. He is also the author of “The Village of Waiting,” about his experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa, and “Blood of the Liberals,” a three-generational nonfiction history of his family and American liberalism in the twentieth century, which won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award; in addition, he has written two novels, “The Half Man” and “Central Square.” He has contributed numerous articles, essays, and reviews to the New York Times Magazine, Dissent, Mother Jones, Harpers, and other publications. He was a Guggenheim Fellow in 2001-02, and has taught writing at Harvard, Bennington, and Columbia. His most recent book is “The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America.”

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ast Days in Vietnam Civilians evacuating ahead of Communist troops about to enter Saigon in this documentary opening Friday. Credit Juan Valdez/American Experience Films, WGBH

Last Days in Vietnam Civilians evacuating ahead of Communist troops about to enter Saigon in this documentary opening Friday. Credit Juan Valdez/American Experience Films, WGBH


Witnesses to the Collapse
‘Last Days in Vietnam’ Looks at Fall of Saigon
By A. O. SCOTT    

The New York Times  September 4, 2014
Perhaps the most striking thing about “Last Days in Vietnam,” Rory Kennedy’s eye-opening documentary about the 1975 evacuation of the American Embassy in Saigon, is how calmly it surveys what was once among the angriest topics in American political life. The story is full of emotion and danger, heroism and treachery, but it is told in a mood of rueful retrospect rather than simmering partisan rage. Ms. Kennedy, whose uncle John F. Kennedy expanded American involvement in Vietnam and whose father, Robert F. Kennedy, became one of the ensuing war’s most passionate critics, explores its final episode with an open mind and lively curiosity. There are old clips that have never been widely seen and pieces of information that may surprise many viewers.
Pictures, moving and still, have always been part of the American collective memory of Vietnam. The fall of Saigon conjures up the image of a helicopter on a rooftop as desperate people try to climb aboard. One thing I learned from “Last Days in Vietnam” is that it was not the roof of the embassy, as is sometimes assumed, but of the building where the C.I.A. station chief lived, in another part of the city. What happened at the embassy — and in the waters off the coast of Saigon — was desperate and dramatic and much more complicated.

The Paris Peace Accords of 1973 had provisionally maintained the partition of Vietnam into North and South. As soon as the American forces were gone, the Communist North began to unify the country by force, sweeping quickly through Da Nang and other Southern cities and closing in on Saigon by April of 1975. For tangled reasons that Ms. Kennedy and her interview sources manage to clarify impressively, plans for evacuation were delayed until the 11th hour. Thousands of Vietnamese who had loyally served the American cause and the South Vietnamese government were in imminent danger, and “Last Days in Vietnam” is largely a chronicle of efforts to get them and their families out.


 Evacuees board a helicopter. Credit Bettmann, Corbis/American Experience Films

Evacuees board a helicopter. Credit Bettmann, Corbis/American Experience Films

The narrators are an assortment of American and Vietnamese men who witnessed the events firsthand, and whose accounts are deftly woven into a conciseand gripping film. Some are well known, like Henry A. Kissinger, the secretary of state and national security adviser at the time, and Richard L. Armitage, who went on to serve in the State Department in the administration of George W. Bush. At the time, he was a naval officer, and he remains a natural-born storyteller with a gruff sense of humor and a vivid sense of detail. Hour-by-hour accounts of the airlifts that brought thousands of people from the embassy to American ships are provided by embassy guards, journalists and military personnel. We hear from residents of Saigon who made it out, and also from some who didn’t.
The central figure in the drama is the American ambassador, Graham Martin, who died in 1990 and could not be interviewed for “Last Days in Vietnam.” That is unfortunate, but the portrait that emerges from archival news footage and the memories of others is fascinating in its ambiguity. As the North Vietnamese armies routed the Southern forces, he refused to plan an exit strategy, believing in the face of overwhelming evidence that South Vietnam would survive.

 The crew members aboard the U.S.S. Kirk signal an arriving helicopter to send its passengers out, on April 29, 1975. Credit Hugh Doyle/American Experience Films

The crew members aboard the U.S.S. Kirk signal an arriving helicopter to send its passengers out, on April 29, 1975. Credit Hugh Doyle/American Experience Films

This almost delusional stubbornness — which Ms. Kennedy’s interviewees still marvel at 40 years later — revealed another side as the Communist capture of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) drew near. Defying prudent advice and at some risk to his own safety, Ambassador Martin delayed his own departure from the embassy for as long as he could, so that as many Vietnamese as possible could escape.
Not that this is a story with a happy ending. What followed was brutality and repression on the part of the victors, and a refugee crisis among their victims. Now that so much time has passed, and relations between the United States and Vietnam have normalized, it might have been good to hear a voice or two from the other side, to learn what was going through the minds of the soldiers entering Saigon as the Americans left. But this omission does not diminish what Ms. Kennedy has accomplished, which is fairly and compassionately to reconstruct a messy episode in history.


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