Last Days in Vietnam – The Sarasota Film Festival Begins

I can still hear the words spoken by US National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger who said on October 26th, 1972 – ‘We believe peace is at hand’

After a long and difficult war, by 1972, US domestic support for the Vietnam war had deteriorated. By early 1973, there was major pressure on the Nixon administration to announce the withdrawal of US forces. On January 23rd, 1973. President Richard M. Nixon gave a speech to the nation,

“I have asked for this radio and television time tonight for the purpose of announcing that we today have concluded an agreement to end the war and bring peace with honor in Vietnam and in Southeast Asia.”

Officially, the Paris Peace Accords, that begin in 1968 were signed on January 27th, 1973 – four days after Nixon’s announcement. This was the cease-fire treaty with North Vietnam.  A bit more than two months later, the last of the US combat soldiers left Vietnam. The date was March 29th, 1973. Two years later, as Saigon fell, the South Vietnamese had to sign another document  – a document of ‘unconditional surrender‘.

After Nixon’s landslide election in 1972, among other things, the Watergate scandals broke. While the US Congress dithered for two years, and the US troops had been withdrawn, Nixon was facing almost certain impeachment, and so he resigned the Presidency in August 1974.

The evacuation begins...

The evacuation begins…

The North Vietnamese, noting the paralyzed and partisan gridlock of the US Congress, continued their incursions, pressing forward and deeper into South Vietnam. Almost daring the US to step back in and give South Vietnam the military support it needed. But that didn’t happen. Ultimately Saigon was surrounded and the fall of Saigon was inevitable. And so the evacuation of almost all American civilian and military advisors, along with tens of thousands of South Vietnamese citizens began.

Those are the facts, and you could look them up, and read the same thing. But reading about them, and seeing them via archival photos and film footage, and hearing about those days from folks who were there are vastly different.

This evacuation is the subject of Rory Kennedy’s film, Last Days in Vietnam. Powerful, emotional, heart-wrenching, and truthful are the words that best fit this film. Kennedy told us, in the Q & A after the screening, that she was proud to have told this story. This story was the one least known by most of us who either lived in those times, or heard about the war from our parents.

As the hours ticked by, desperation was the partner of all

As the hours ticked by, desperation was the partner of all

The Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall was filled to the limit, and while the crowd lacked that buzz that you normally hear while waiting for a blockbuster to begin – there was an air of expectation present. It was a tale of promises not kept, and along side acts of tremendous bravery. We heard things that we had never considered like the document of the Paris Peace Accords was called ‘a masterpiece of ambiguity’. We listened as the US Ambassador to Vietnam, a man whose own son had been a casualty of the war, refused to accept the reality which meant that he held off issuing the orders of evacuation. We heard that the term ‘URGENT’ as it was used in the communiques between the Embassy in Saigon and Washington was a serious understatement.

Our people on the ground were faced with choices like following orders, or like doing things that weren’t legal. Acts which ultimately became black ops that flew totally below the radar of the Ambassador. It was a decision based on humanity and morality – that the evacuation which was delayed for so long, ultimately began without Ambassador Graham Martin’s knowledge. When the The North Vietnam Army was within shelling range of Tan Son Nhut (the Saigon Military airport) – and the shells tore up the airport’s runways – that meant that Option A – a massive airlift was no longer possible. Option B was to pick up people at the embassy and drive them to the dockside, where they’d board ships to take them down the Saigon River and out to the South China Sea. But the streets were congested so that was problematic. Option C was simply to leave Saigon in trucks – but the NVA had surrounded Saigon, and the roads were impassable as they were packed with refugees on foot.

Out at sea, this helicopter was being waved off as it was too big for the it wanted to land on. Out of fuel - people leaped from the chopper into the sea.

Out at sea, this helicopter was being waved off as it was too big for the ship it wanted to land on. Out of fuel – people leaped from the chopper into the sea.

That left only the 4th Option – to air lift people out by helicopter. From the roof of the US Embassy and from the parking lot within the Embassy Compound, we watched as the desperate Vietnamese clambered to get into the Embassy compound for an opportunity to board a big Chinook helicopter and leave their homeland without much more than the clothing on their backs. We watched as US civilians, contractors, media people, and members of the diplomatic corps were slowly airlifted out. The final evacuation orders were delayed for so long because Ambassador Graham Martin first refused to accept the reality of what was happening around him, and because of the snafus in Washington as well as the biggest fear – panicking the Vietnamese. Ultimately Martin became a heroic figure as he waited, and waited, and waited – making sure he could do no more before boarding the last helicopter.

American copters lent to the ARVN landed and disgorged refugees, but then the helos had to be pushed overboard, so more of them could come in and land.

American copters lent to the ARVN landed  on ships and disgorged refugees, but then the helos had to be pushed overboard, so more of them could come in and land.

All that remained were the 11 US Marines who formed a Detachment that had been tasked with guarding the embassy. They were seemingly left behind. But they weren’t as hours later – the next morning in fact – a helicopter flew in to pick them up.

Heading for Subic bay in the Philippines - a thousand miles away. On arrival many of the Vietnamese vessels were turned away as the bore the flags of the defeated country. At sea, they were re-flagged.

Heading for Subic Bay in the Philippines – a thousand miles away. On arrival many of the Vietnamese vessels were turned away as the bore the flags of the defeated country. At sea, they were re-flagged.

In the film we heard from a spook from the CIA, from key Navy personnel like Captain Paul Jacobs who was the captain of the USS Kirk, a ship that played a major part in one of the most significant humanitarian missions in U.S. military history, and from Richard Armitage who graduated from The US Naval Academy in Annapolis, then served on a Navy Destroyer. Ultimately, as a civilian, he would get more than 30,000 Vietnamese to safety by leading a flotilla of US Navy Ships, Vietnamese Naval vessels, and fishing boats – all crammed to gunwales with people – to Subic Bay in the Philippines.

The conditions of the ships were ‘over-crowded to say the least. Hearing the Navy people tell us that ships built to house a crew of two hundred were carrying 2,000.  When things like that were stated on screen, you’d hear heavy sighs and the sound people make anywhere when they receive bad news. Yes, we were watching a film about events of 40 years ago – but I’m sure no one will deny the power of what we watched.

Captain Jacobs was in the house tonight, as was Rory Kennedy, and Ethel Kennedy, her mother. Also present were a few of those last 11 Marines who remained to the very end and were the last Americans to leave.

A famous photo - but this was not the roof of the US Embassy. Instead it was a CIA instillation in Saigon.

A famous photo – but this was not the roof of the US Embassy. Instead it was a CIA instillation in Saigon.

It was indeed a powerful movie. We heard expressions like ‘dead men walking’ – a reference to those we would not be able to  airlift out. 180,000 Vietnamese wanted out and were on the books. Of these only 77,000 were evacuated. Of those left behind, 65,000 were executed by the North Vietnamese. Or you’d feel the joy of hearing from military men who defied the orders – and who said you must abandon the rules and follow your heart.

We heard from a US Marine pilot who was at the controls of a helicopter, who when told to stand down after an 18 hour shift of ferrying people from the US Embassy out to waiting ships at sea replied – Sir! US Marine pilots don’t get tired. Sir!!

We heard from Stuart A. Harrington, who served as a part of the Defense Attaché Organization (he was an intelligence officer) in the embassy in Saigon. Harrington was one of the last Americans to leave the Embassy at dawn of April 30th, 1975. In the film, Harrington called the end of the war – A serious and deep betrayal of the promises that the US had made to South Vietnam.

Captain Jacobs, in attendance for the film, told us that he and his crew weren’t heroes {his words tonight] We just did our jobs and went home! He also said I was a Yankee from New England, and I was going to do what was right and there was no way I was going to wait for permission from the DOD in Washington.

In the film, we heard from various Vietnamese who were fortunate enough to survive and were willing, all these years later, to sit down and talk (on the record) with Rory Kennedy. The line I remember which was just so difficult to absorb was – I had lost my beloved country.

I hope you get a chance to see this film. I applaud Rory Kennedy’s work, her courage, and her efforts to bring this story of real events from 40 years ago to our eyes, as well as our hearts and minds today. I especially appreciated the work involved – sorting through film archives, and finding the photo images that were not all that familiar to us. Most of all, Rory Kennedy, who was only 7 years old at the time of these events, must be congratulated for bringing forth so many from those days who told their stories.  The trailer follows.

http://vimeo.com/83720339

 

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