At the beginning of Last Days in Vietnam, Rory Kennedy’s Oscar-nominated documentary about the chaotic final days of what the Vietnamese call the American War, an American man tears up, struggling to maintain his composure. “It was a terrible, terrible, terrible moral dilemma,” he says, choking on his words.
“Terrible” is a perfect word to describe the conflict: close to 4 million violent war deaths, about 2 million of them civilians—most of them in South Vietnam—millions more wounded, 11 million made refugees. But the former US Army officer, Stuart Herrington, wasn’t talking about anything of that sort. The dilemma in question had to do with whether a US-allied South Vietnamese army colonel should decide to abandon his post, his army and his country and flee with his family to the United States—surely a gut-wrenching personal choice, but microscopic in a war that saw suffering on an almost unimaginable scale.
So goes the rest of this much-hailed documentary that focuses on harried, haphazard, sometimes even mildly heroic efforts by Americans to slip South Vietnamese friends out of the country on planes, ships and finally helicopters as North Vietnamese forces push ever closer to the South’s capital, Saigon. The film keeps a tight focus on this particular aspect of the end of that grim war, while rehashing tired canards and distorting history in ways large and small. In so doing, it offers a classic American yarn about the good intentions of well-meaning Americans whose chief desire, in a land that their country had helped to decimate, is to save Vietnamese lives under difficult conditions—and the terrible intentions of barbaric communist hordes bent on a bloodbath. (Never, mind you, are viewers made aware of a single reason Vietnamese might have a gripe about successive US-backed South Vietnamese regimes that imprisoned, abused, tortured and killed their own people.)
For example, Last Days in Vietnam contends that once the US military pulled its last ground troops out of South Vietnam, after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1973, North Vietnam simply bided its time, waiting until Watergate paralyzed Washington before setting upon the South, which is portrayed as a sitting duck. There’s even a map with a spreading, blood-red stain to indicate communist advances, akin to the creeping communism commonly depicted in Cold War–era graphics. There’s no indication that in fact both sides began violating the accords almost immediately, fighting tooth and nail for territory, and that neither ever showed any real interest in a political settlement.
At such a late date, this warped history serves only the interests of the cynical US architects of those accords and the failed policies that followed, chief among them Henry Kissinger, President Gerald Ford’s secretary of state and national security adviser at the time of Saigon’s collapse. Kissinger anchors a cast of talking heads that also includes former CIA analyst Frank Snepp; Richard Armitage, a Special Forces adviser who went on to serve in George W. Bush’s State Department; and lesser-known functionaries like Herrington, as well as a tiny set of South Vietnamese, half of them former military men.