Produced and Directed by Rory Kennedy, "The Last Days in Vietnam" is currently nominated for a 2015 Academy Award® for Documentary Feature. For more information, follow it on Facebook.
April, 1975. During the chaotic final days of the American involvement in the Vietnam War, as the North Vietnamese Army closed in on Saigon, South Vietnamese resistance crumbled. City after city and village after village fell to the North while the U.S. diplomats and military operatives still in the country contemplated withdrawal. With the lives of thousands of South Vietnamese hanging in the balance, those in control faced an impossible decision -- who would go and who would be left behind to face brutality, imprisonment, or even death.
Two years earlier, the Paris Peace Accords forged a tenuous ceasefire and limited U.S. military involvement in South Vietnam to the presence of approximately 6,000 non-combat troops and advisors. While President Nixon promised a swift military response should the North Vietnamese violate the accord, his abrupt departure from the White House in late 1974 left in its wake a Congress unwilling to appropriate funds to Vietnam, or to put U.S. soldiers back in harm's way. Accurately predicting that their offensive would go unanswered by U.S. force, the North Vietnamese advanced.
By early March, 1975, huge swaths of territory were overrun daily, and by the end of the month, the North Vietnamese Army had surrounded the capital, preparing to launch its final assault on Saigon -- 11 months ahead of schedule.
To the U.S. diplomats and military operatives still in Saigon, one thing was clear -- a Communist victory was inevitable. The Americans grew increasingly concerned for the safety of their South Vietnamese allies, co-workers, and friends. Even the most ambitious U.S. evacuation plan allowed for the transport of just a few thousand South Vietnamese refugees. But by April 25, the number of people in Saigon wishing to flee swelled far beyond that projection -- to roughly a million.
But as President Ford's administration considered withdrawal, the prospect of an official evacuation of South Vietnamese became terminally delayed by Congressional gridlock, and by an inexplicably optimistic U.S. ambassador, Graham Martin. Martin, himself the father of a fallen Vietnam veteran, steadfastly refused to discuss the possibility of evacuation, both for fear of panicking the South Vietnamese population, and out of a stubborn reluctance to admit defeat.
With the clock ticking and the city under fire, American officers on the ground found themselves faced with a moral dilemma: whether to follow official policy and evacuate only U.S. citizens and their dependents -- or to break the law and save the men, women and children they had come to value and love in their years in Vietnam. At the risk of their careers and possible court-martial, a handful of individuals took matters into their own hands. Engaging in unsanctioned and often makeshift operations, they waged a desperate effort to save as many South Vietnamese lives as possible.
In the days leading up to the final attack, U.S. Army Captain Stuart Herrington and several of his colleagues bypassed the ambassador and organized a “black” evacuation effort, transporting their South Vietnamese counterparts to the airbase, and sneaking them aboard outbound U.S. cargo flights to the Philippines.
As the situation became increasingly dire, Department of Defense official and former Navy Officer Richard Armitage arrived by plane in Saigon. In consultation with his former counterpart, South Vietnamese Navy Captain Kiem Do, Armitage developed a plan: to evacuate all U.S. Navy ships before they fall into the hands of the Communists. But they neglected to tell the U.S. Defense Department a crucial detail: he and Kiem have arranged for the ships to contain extra cargo -- about 30,000 South Vietnamese refugees.
On April 29, the Saigon airport was attacked, leaving the U.S. only 24 hours to fully evacuate. Floating offshore in the South China Sea was the U.S.S. Kirk, part of the U.S. fleet sent to facilitate the evacuation of Americans. The ship, with its single, tiny helipad, and its crew was entirely unprepared for the role it is about to play in the scramble to evacuate the city. Soon, a seemingly unending stream of helicopters, piloted not by Americans, but by South Vietnamese airmen fleeing for their lives with their families and friends, descended upon the American destroyer.
However most of the action on that final fateful day takes place at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, where thousands of South Vietnamese hoped to secure a last minute evacuation while a U.S. intelligence analyst ran his own underground railroad of evacuees to barges on the Saigon River. In the final hours of the evacuation, Ambassador Graham Martin, at long last, came to understand the human cost of entering a war with no clear vision of what the end would be.
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