Last Days in Vietnam was being removed from Netflix, so I managed to catch it before it went. I am glad I did, although I had to forego a number of other movies being removed on July 1st.
This is a PBS-made documentary about the evacuation of the American Embassy in Saigon. It starts its story with the Paris Peace Accords and the invasion of the South by the North in the spring of 1975 and continues through to the fall of Saigon and the aftermath. Focus is on the decision of the U.S. ambassador, Graham Martin, to not organize an evacuation in advance. At first, his decision was driven by optimism that the Peace Accords would prevail and a solution found. Later, he was afraid (as was pretty much everyone) that hints of an evacuation would cause panic. The narrative also focuses on efforts of lower level officials to salvage what they could and save at-risk Vietnamese – those who had aided the Americans during their time in the country – during a time when such actions were unsanctioned.
The documentary is well put-together. Interviews with participants are mixed with explanatory narration along with film and photography of the events. In some cases, we see the same person who is being interviewed on period film, taken while the events are unfolding.
Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese were evacuated from Saigon and other parts of the South in advance of the North Vietnamese take over. But even more hundreds of thousands were sent to re-education camps or into hard labor by the communists. While not documented, it is believed that tens of thousands were executed. Those left behind include those who worked for the Americans, those who were placed in the South Vietnamese government, and the wives, mistresses, and children of Americans who were stationed in Vietnam.
The story told is a sad one. Largely the blame is shouldered by Ambassador Martin, who was asked repeatedly to prepare for the need for an evacuation but would not. A better organized evacuation, started in advance, could have been much, much more effective. Besides the human factor, the task of destroying classified documents and millions in U.S. currency was left to the final 24 hours. It is not discussed in the program, but one wonders how much U.S. information and material was taken by the North Vietnamese invaders and how much of that should have been avoidable through advanced planning.
While Martin is criticized, we see that his heart was in the right place. When the evacuation is called to a halt (by Ford and Kissinger – the latter of whom is interviewed in the show) it is not through lack of concern for the refugees. Miscommunication and misunderstandings across the Pacific likely caused decisions to be made in error.
This would not have been the first time in the Vietnam War, but it would be the last.