Goodnight, Saigon: The Last Days of Vietnam ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 4, 2014)

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Call this an intervention, but someone has to say it. America has an ongoing co-dependent relationship with the Vietnam war. Oh, I know, it’s been nearly 40 years since we were “involved”. And to be sure, as soon as the last Marine split, we wasted no time giving the war its ring back. We put our fingers in our ears, started chanting “la-la-la-la can’t hear you” and moved on with our lives, pretending like the whole tragic misfire never happened. But here’s the funny thing. Every time we find ourselves teetering on the edge of another quagmire, we stack it up against our old flame. We can’t help ourselves. “We don’t want another Vietnam,” we worry, or “Well…at least this doesn’t seem likely to turn into another Vietnam,” we fib to ourselves as we get all dressed up for our third date.

But do all who use that meme truly understand why it’s so important that we don’t have another Vietnam? For many (particularly those too young to have grown up watching it go sideways on Walter Cronkite), the passage of time has rendered the war little more than an abstract reference. It’s too easy to forget the human factor. Even for many old enough to remember, dredging up the human factor reopens old wounds (personal or political). But you know what “they” say…those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it. Which is why I would encourage you to catch Rory Kennedy’s documentary, The Last Days of Vietnam, precisely because she dares to dredge up the “human factor”.

Kennedy focuses on a specific period of time; literally the “last days” of American involvement in Vietnam, detailing the drama that unfolded at the U.S. Embassy compound in Saigon in April of 1975, as North Vietnamese forces closed in on the city. The city defenses were virtually nil; U.S. troops had withdrawn (save a small contingent of Marines assigned to protecting the embassy grounds). The South Vietnamese soldiers who remained were sorely under-equipped and in disarray. No word had arrived from Washington as to any official contingency plans for evacuating any of the South Vietnamese from the city (Congress was gridlocked on the subject…imagine that). It began to dawn on some of the embassy workers that time was running out for their South Vietnamese co-workers and friends. With no time to lose, they decided to go a bit…rogue.

Blending archival footage with recollections by participants (American and Vietnamese), Kennedy reconstructs the extraordinary events of those final days and hours that ultimately resulted in the successful extraction of 77,000 men, women and children (which is about, oh, 77,000 more than would have been able to escape had everyone just sat around and waited for an act of Congress…sometimes, you’ve got to break a few protocols in the name of basic human decency). And as you watch the film you realize what a tremendous act of courage and compassion this was on the part of those who spearheaded this makeshift exodus (it’s reminiscent of Dunkirk). For some participants, who refuse to accept any laurels, memories remain bittersweet at best; obviously they did not have the time or the resources to get everyone out, and that hits them hard to this day.

Of course, there’s that big question that remains: Why were we there in the first place? “The end of April 1975 was the whole Vietnam involvement in a microcosm,” one of the interviewees quietly observes as he wells up with emotion, “Promises made in good faith, promises broken. People being hurt, because we didn’t get our act together. The whole Vietnam war is a story that kind of sounds like that.” Sadly, as we now find ourselves chasing ISIS down the rabbit hole, this is starting to sound like a story without an ending.

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