Changing hearts and minds about end of Vietnam War

Documentary “Last Days in Vietnam” reveals amazing stories of courage during the fall of Saigon.

By Alex Whisler, Special to the Star

The documentary “Last Days in Vietnam,” by filmmaker Rory Kennedy, gives insight into the end of U.S. involvement in South Vietnam’s capital, Saigon – which was also the end of South Vietnam.

The film is largely about courage – not the traditional war-movie courage of facing down one’s enemies, but the actual courage of defying orders to save lives.

In 1973, the Paris Peace Accords ended direct U.S. military involvement, but left between 5,000 and 7,000 U.S. military advisors and diplomats in South Vietnam. Two years later, communist North Vietnam began rolling over Southern Vietnamese cities in violation of the accords, betting that the United States, with its longstanding ambivalence toward the conflict and its internal problems spurred by the Watergate scandal, would not respond militarily. They won that bet.

Though the Vietnam War has a negative connotation in America, what was often overlooked were the courageous Americans who went out of their way to protect our allies in the chaotic endgame. Compassion to fellow man may not seem something hard to do, but there were many obstacles.

North Vietnamese troops were closing in on Saigon, yet Graham Martin, the U.S. Ambassador, was too optimistic about the situation, and didn’t organize an evacuation plan. Martin, father of a deceased Vietnam Veteran, didn’t want to leave his post, nor did he want to panic South Vietnamese civilians. It was up to others to form makeshift secret operations to save as many South Vietnamese families as possible.

These plans were not legal, since they were going over the head of the U.S. Ambassador and ran counter to direct orders; they were faced with the predicament of choosing legality or morality.

A couple of days before the final attack, an evacuation to transport South Vietnamese allies onto U.S. cargo ships to the Philippines was underway. On April 29, the Saigon airport had been bombarded, leaving the U.S. only a day to evacuate. With the airport and runway in shambles, helicopters were used to take families to Navy ships off the shores of the South China Sea.

One of the most memorable images from the film captures American sailors pushing helicopters off of the deck of the Navy ship to make room for more evacuating helicopters to land.

The documentary feels at times like a war thriller. Its theme is morality; choosing either to follow inhumane orders or help innocent people. “Last Days in Vietnam” shows courageous men, who put their lives and jobs on the line to save Vietnamese civilians.

“Last Days in Vietnam” runs Sept. 19-25 at the Nuart in Los Angeles, then Sept. 26-Oct. 2 at the Landmark in Los Angeles.

Unrated; contains adult language and situations including intense news footage.

Four stars (out of five)

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