Rory Kennedy’s 2014 documentary, The Last Days of Vietnam, is the latest feature in the BBC’s always superb Storyville collection. Combining incredible archive footage with moving testimonial from those who were there, it tells the story of Saigon’s fall to the North Vietnamese at the end of the Vietnam War, and the final
The US ambassador in Vietnam at the time, Graham Martin, stubbornly refused to believe that Saigon would fall, and ignored repeated cries from his staff to begin covertly preparing for full scale exodus, as the North Vietnamese tanks moved closer by the day. By the time he finally relented, Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut airport had been destroyed by NVA fire, and so the Americans had to begin the so called, last-resort, ‘option 4’ evacuation plan –taking out all American citizens, and as many at-risk South Vietnamese people as possible, in helicopters, flying back and forth between the American embassy and aircraft carriers moored in the South China Sea.
It’s heart-breaking to hear and understand the dilemma of some of the American soldiers – many had made good friends, or even married and had children, with the South Vietnamese. Any people found guilty of collusion with the Americans, or of having served in the South Vietnamese Army would be at risk of imprisonment, torture or execution from the NVA, and so a decision had to be made on who to take, and who to leave behind. The stories of the soldiers who were there are harrowing, as they talk of families with multiple children having to be left out, of hordes of people crowding at the embassy gates desperate to be let in.
Alongside this, many pilots in the South Vietnamese army took matters into their own hands and flew themselves, and their families and friends out to American naval vessels. There were queues of helicopters waiting to land, and without space to accommodate them all, the only option was to simply push the helicopters into the sea after they had landed.
The archive footage of these events results in some truly jaw-dropping footage. There are incredible scenes too, of boats, designed to take no more than two hundred people, with over two thousand crowded on them as they make their way out of Saigon.
There are contributions throughout from US military and embassy staff, as well as many South Vietnamese who escaped – and some who were left behind, only to spend several years in ‘re-education’ camps. The terrible moral choice faced by the soldiers on the ground and the chaos and confusion that reigned throughout those last days are keenly felt throughout this powerful and breath-taking portrait of the fallout of the USA’s errors in Vietnam.
Intelligence Officer Stuart A Herrington, who was one of the final Americans to leave Saigon, aptly sums it up: ‘promises made in good faith, promises broken. People being hurt – because we didn’t get our act together’.
The Last Days of Vietnam is a gripping, and at times shocking account of one of the most extraordinary stories from one of the most extraordinary events of the 20th century.
The Last Days of Vietnam is on BBC Four at 10pm.m Monday 13th July.