At about ten o’clock in the morning on April 29, 1975—forty years ago this week—an American radio station in Saigon broadcast, without further explanation, Irving Berlin’s "White Christmas." Just before dawn the city’s airport had been shelled by the North Vietnamese Army, and the sound of Bing Crosby’s crooning was the covert and somewhat surreal signal for the mass evacuation of Americans remaining in the South Vietnamese capital.
It was about time. The North Vietnamese had violated the Paris Accords in January and launched a full-scale invasion of the South. The aspiration of the 1973 Accords—says Henry Kissinger in an interview for a compelling new documentary available at PBS called Last Days in Vietnam—had been to create a situation similar to that on the Korean peninsula. But instead of having an ocean on three sides, South Vietnam had a western flank that was an undulating jungle highland, cut up by international borders recognized by no one who mattered.
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Nixon had promised that, should the North invade, America would re-enter the war, and it appears the Communists took his threat seriously. When he resigned in 1974, the North saw its opportunity. Huế fell at the end of March, leading to mass executions of those left behind who found themselves on the black list. Da Nang went in early April, and the world was witness to shocking footage of panicked mobs surging onto the runway as the final jets took off with people clinging to their sides—footage included in Last Days. Directed and produced by Rory Kennedy, the documentary artfully sketches this broad context before turning to a detailed account of the harrowing twenty-four hour evacuation that began on the 29th.
It didn’t have to be this way, both in the sense of the broader strategic tragedy and the specific disorder of the evacuation. But the U.S. Congress, filled with Democrats elected in ’74, was simply done with Vietnam, and when Gerald Ford came to ask them for financial assistance for the South, they turned him down flat. As to the evacuation itself, the U.S. ambassador to Saigon—a man named Graham Martin—appears to have been simply overwhelmed by his responsibilities.
Martin is dead now, and so can’t defend himself from the numerous much younger people interviewed for Last Days who don’t have many kind things to say about him. But it seems clear that the man—whose son had been killed in combat during the war—clung to a delusional belief that something would emerge to prevent the South’s collapse long after it became obvious that no such salvation was coming.
It took the shelling of the Saigon airport to change his mind. In addition to signaling how dire the situation had become, the attack also closed off one of the more attractive options for evacuating personnel—on large, fixed-wing aircraft departing from terminals designed to marshal significant numbers of people. The principal option that remained was extraordinarily inefficient: the use of Marine helicopters based on carriers on the Pacific. The North Vietnamese transmitted a message to Martin that they expected all Americans to be out of Saigon by the next morning. The ambassador finally allowed the operation to begin.
Many of the Americans due to evacuate had been in Saigon for years. They had friends, lovers, wives, and children among the locals. Far from being covert, the fact that the evacuation had begun was almost instantly known by everyone in the city. Those who felt they could talk their way into the Embassy swarmed the place. Thousands more boarded rickety ships tied up on the banks of the Saigon River.
When the first Marine helicopters touched down that afternoon, Ambassador Martin refused to board, insisting that "deserving Vietnamese" with links to the American mission would depart first, and that he would be on the last helicopter. For all of Martin’s intransigence, this decision saved thousands of people from a high risk of execution or, if that could be avoided, the certainty of re-education camps where disease and starvation were to become endemic.
The helicopters came in two at a time through the night, one landing on the roof, one in a parking lot, packing aboard as many as they could and departing for the half-hour flight out to the ships. Meanwhile, more helicopter flights were departing from the airport, and ad hoc, sometimes panicked efforts to get people to the evacuation points or directly to the ships took place all over the city. The photograph that most people associate with this day is actually not of a Marine helicopter at the Embassy, but of a CIA helicopter evacuating Vietnamese people from an apartment building on Gia Long Street where Westerners—including, years earlier, my mother—lived.
The documentary’s most remarkable tales and images come from men who served aboard the USS Kirk, a small destroyer positioned off the coast to provide security for the flight path of the helicopters. On the afternoon of the 29th, the Kirk found itself approached by a series of South Vietnamese Army helicopters. The first was piloted by the deputy chairman of South Vietnam’s Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Kirk had only a single, small flight deck, and so the officers and sailors took to pushing each helicopter overboard, so as to be able to accept the next one.
Finally, a Chinook helicopter appeared, an aircraft far too large to land on the Kirk. The pilot—a junior Vietnamese officer who was evacuating his own family, having deserted to fly home, pick them up, and take them out to sea in hopes of finding an American ship—hovered the craft over the ship’s deck as his family jumped aboard, even dropping a baby into the arms of an astonished sailor. The pilot then ditched the craft in the ocean in a tremendous, splintering crash, and calmly swam to a rescue boat dispatched by the Americans, who erupted in cheers when they saw he was alive. Its remarkable efforts not yet complete, the Kirk that night picked up a young Richard Armitage, and assisted him in his covert mission to evacuate ships of the South Vietnamese Navy, packed with refugees, to the Philippines.
At five in the morning, on direct orders from President Ford, a Marine helicopter landed on the roof of the Embassy and the pilot refused to take off until the ambassador was on board. At eight in the morning, a final group of eleven Marines departed, having blocked the door to the roof with whatever heavy objects were available. Before they took off, they saw North Vietnamese tanks in the street of the city. Hundreds of "deserving" Vietnamese were still at the Embassy, believing more helicopters were on their way.
Last Days in Vietnam is riveting, unclouded by political cant, and at times quite moving. It is impossible to watch it without observing the parallels to Iraq and Afghanistan. Saigon fell because the American government let it fall. Limited cause for optimism can be found in the fact that our government today seems to believe the American people will not tolerate seeing the same thing happen in Baghdad or Kabul.