‘Last Days in Vietnam’: How the fearful fled a country ripped by war

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By Jake Coyle/Associated Press

There are many differences between America’s troubled exit from Iraq and its ramshackle retreat from Vietnam. But the U.S. flight from Saigon as seen in Rory Kennedy’s documentary “Last Days in Vietnam” has incredible, unmistakable resonance on the political, ethical and military confusion that occurs when, after years of war, a faraway nation pulls up stakes.

These are scenes of a humbled superpower and the terrifying vacuum left behind. South Vietnamese soldiers (allies to the U.S. through years of combat) mobbing the last World Airways flight out of Da Nang as it moves down the runway. Packed refugees crouching around the pool of the U.S. embassy in Saigon. Helicopters being pushed into the ocean so that more could land on a destroyer escort. (The boat, the Kirk, received 17 helicopter loads of refugees.)

“It looked like something out of Exodus,” remembers an American soldier in the film.

The end came two years after a 1973 peace accord, one celebrated with Bloody Marys at the U.S. embassy. But the agreement between President Richard Nixon and the North Vietnamese Army proved empty. After Nixon was impeached, North Vietnam launched a major attack on the South, and streamed down the coast largely unabated. The U.S., tired from the long, aimless war, no longer put up a fight. President Gerald Ford couldn’t even get Congress to approve some $700 million in aid, leaving little support for South Vietnam.

In April 1975, Armed Forces Radio signaled the retreat with a planned code: Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.”

Kennedy, the youngest of Bobby Kennedy’s 11 children and a seasoned filmmaker, fills her documentary with particular stories from the desperate final hours in Saigon. Many of the tales are remarkable, none more so than the Vietnamese helicopter pilot who flew his family on a large Chinook to the Kirk. Since the helicopter was too large to land on the small boat, his family jumped to the ship; a baby was tossed. The pilot then hovered over the water before jumping into the ocean and swimming to the ship.

Just as the entire war had been, the exit was a moral quagmire. “Who stays, who goes?” says Capt. Stuart Herrington. For those who had fought for the South, staying meant death, prison or “reeducation” camps.

U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin had delayed the evacuation until the very end, fearful of setting off a panic. That meant that preferable plans for airlifts or cargo ships were jettisoned for helicopters, which could carry fewer refugees.

But there are countless stories here of American soldiers — often against orders — sneaking out as many of their Vietnamese colleagues as possible. Martin filled the helicopters with South Vietnamese, knowing as soon as the last American was out, the helicopters would stop.

The final moment, too, was mishandled. Henry Kissinger announced the final withdraw of troops, only to then discover there were still a handful of Marines left on a rooftop. “There was another horrendous screw-up,” groans Kissinger.

While the U.S. attempts to counter ISIS militants in Iraq, “Last Days of Vietnam” is eerily foreboding for its implicit warnings to the fallout of political abandonment. But it’s also, on a more micro level, inspiring. Even in failed wars, lives can be saved.

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American Experience Films presents a documentary directed by Rory Kennedy. Running time: 98 minutes. No MPAA rating. Opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre.

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