New Doc on the Final Days in Saigon

I am confident that I speak for the overwhelming majority of Vietnam veterans when I say that Henry Kissinger is just about the last person I would want to see as a talking head in a documentary about anything to do with the Vietnam War—much less the final days in April of 1975.

There’s no disputing the fact that Kissinger, the former Nixon Administration Secretary of State and National Security Adviser, was the most influential American shaping Vietnam War policy from 1969 to the end in 1975. But to include him in a Vietnam War documentary is akin to having Admiral Tojo explain the ending of World War II in the Pacific.

That’s because Kissinger’s arrogance, disingenuousness, and duplicity —along with that of his boss, Richard Nixon—made him more responsible than any other American for the war’s disastrous conclusion.

What’s more, following the end of the war Nixon (until his death in 1994) and Kissinger have spent considerable time baldly rewriting Vietnam War history. In a stream of books, speeches, TV and radio interviews, and articles the duo has tried to make the case that the war effort did not fail because of anything they did. Rather, it was the fecklessness and evil doings of others: the North Vietnamese, the Viet Cong, the South Vietnamese, the American news media, the American antiwar movement, the U.S. Congress, your Aunt Gertrude.

So it was with no small measure of incredulity to see Kissinger spouting off throughout The Last Days in Vietnam , an otherwise very well done and moving look at the last few days of the Vietnam War in April of 1975. The film, directed and produced by Rory Kennedy for PBS’s American Experience series, has been playing at film festivals and in a few theaters this summer and will be into the fall. It will air on TV next spring to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the communist takeover of the former South Vietnam.

Kennedy’s theme is the human angle in this sad episode of history. She focuses on heroic actions taken by Americans on the ground in Saigon as they tried—against overwhelming odds—to evacuate South Vietnamese men, women, and children they believed would be in mortal danger after the North Vietnamese took over the country.

The most informative and riveting testimony comes from former CIA analyst Frank Snepp, one-time Army Capt. Stuart Herrington, former U.S. Marine Guards Juan Valdez and Mike Sullivan, former Navy officers Hugh Doyle and Paul Jacobs, and two Vietnamese people left behind, a college student named Binh Pho and former South Vietnamese Navy Lt. Dam Pham, along with Kiem Do, who was a captain the South Vietnamese Navy. In the main, they tell stories that are short on politics and long on emotion. In comparison, Kissinger’s two cents come off as banal and bland.

Kennedy has found lots of great footage to go with the first-person testimony, including home movies shot aboard the U.S.S. Kirk , and lots of film from inside and around the American Embassy in Saigon. It’s a well above average documentary that is marred by the hulking presence of one of the war’s most controversial figures.

A list of upcoming screenings is posted on the film’s website .

—Marc Leepson




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