By Christoph Giebel
SEAC faculty (International Studies and History)
The following comments refer to the documentary Last Days in Vietnam, 100 minutes, USA 2014, dir. Rory Kennedy, for WGBH’s American Experience series.
I first saw the documentary Last Days in Vietnam in September at a pre-screening and my many misgivings then were only reconfirmed by seeing it recently again online. The documentary has been the subject of a remarkable public relations and media blitz in the US, garnering much mainstream praise along the way, and is currently nominated for an Oscar in the Best Documentary category. I cannot but wonder that this fact may be more of a commentary on current US culture —steeped in nationalist discourses of exceptionalism, thoroughly militarized, and prone to narcissism— than a reflection of the film’s actual quality. Last Days in Vietnam is for the most part a documentary about the frantic, disorganized, yet determined and (for much of the time) unauthorized efforts by lower-level US officials to evacuate tens of thousands of at-risk Vietnamese from Sai Gon and other areas of the Mekong Delta in late April, 1975, during the last chaotic week of the war in Viet Nam. The documentary features a number of main US protagonist and a smaller number of Vietnamese affiliated with the former Republic of Viet Nam (RVN, 1955-1975) as they recount their harrowing experiences, moral dilemmas, and at times daring acts. The story follows predictable narrative devices of “a few good men stepping up to do the right things,” of triumph against great odds, and of celebrating a presumed “American spirit.” Last Days contains a trove of rare archival footage, much of it made public for the first time, although the story as such has been known for a while and documented before.
While most of the film is taken up by a detailed telling of the evacuation, the first 25 percent of the documentary, which is devoted to establishing background and context, is dangerously simplistic and manipulative, quickly abandoning all pretense at historical accuracy or balance. Director Rory Kennedy, through her US protagonists, tells a fantastic tale built on three simplest of claims, all of them incomplete if not outright inaccurate: The January 1973 Paris Agreement established a ceasefire “between North and South Vietnam,” presumably enforced by President Nixon’s threat to re-intervene upon communist violations; after Nixon’s forced resignation, “North Viet Nam” “invaded” “South Viet Nam” in March 1975 across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) at the 17th parallel, putting all of “the South Vietnamese” in mortal danger; when US domestic politics prevented further American support, the RVN was “abandoned” and collapsed. These opening 25 minutes are a fatal flaw rendering the entire documentary questionable at best. Apart from the compellingly told, if minor human-interest stories contained in the main portions of the film, Last Days must rank as the worst attempt at documenting the war I have seen in a long while. In its early parts it comes across as a bad caricature of passé Cold War propaganda, and seemingly un-self-aware at that.
According to the documentary’s credits, the film makers consulted no historians. Instead, they seem to have followed their own general, vague sense of how the war is being discussed in conventional, establishment discourses in the US or relied on the self-serving perspectives of the main US protagonists that are then uncritically presented as factual background. There are indications that expert historical witnesses approached Director Rory Kennedy about her documentary’s grave historical inaccuracies once it was released, but she made no substantive changes and continued to tell her false version of events at public appearances in front of warmly welcoming audiences. This is bitterly ironic, as the filmmaker is revealed as incurious and easily swayed by the worst revisionist tropes of US political combat over the war in Viet Nam.
I will focus in the following on six main issues with the documentary’s opening 25 minutes:
1) US-centrism and exceptionalism:
With one of its main themes being the “abandonment” of “South Vietnam” by the US, the strongly implied argument is made that US action –and US action alone– would have prevented the collapse of the RVN. The long-debunked notion that the US “cut” aid and did not provide Paris Agreement-mandated supplies is trotted out and portrayed as central to why the Army of the RVN (ARVN) disintegrated (see for example, the roughly 90 seconds starting at 22:18). Likewise, as discussed next in more detail, it supposedly was Nixon’s self-cultivated “madman” persona that singularly prevented Vietnamese communist actions against the RVN. Later, the US anti-war movement is given inordinate influence over the final fate of the RVN. In Last Days, it is entirely US (in)action that is determining the outcome of unfolding events, not Vietnamese actions or agency.
2) Racist/orientalist reductionism of Vietnamese actions, motivations, and feelings:
One of the most disturbing scenes of Last Days in Vietnam shows CIA-agent Frank Snepp “explaining” what led to the “invasion” of Spring 1975: “The North Vietnamese viewed Nixon as a madman. They were terrified of him. They believed that Nixon, if necessary, would bring back American air power. But in August 1974, he was gone. … And overnight everything changed. Ha Noi suddenly saw the road to Sai Gon as being open” (scene starting at 7:20).
For the documentary, this segment functions as the crucial and only link between two points: (A) The falsely portrayed ceasefire “between North and South Vietnam” with Nixon’s hollow assurances to RVN President Nguyen Van Thieu that “if the North Vietnamese were to substantially violate the terms of the Paris Agreement, the United States would respond with full force,” and (B) the “North Vietnamese” “invasion” of March 10, 1975 and subsequent US “abandonment” of “South Viet Nam.”
The implications of Snepp’s simplistic point are two-fold: on the one hand, it reinforces the US exceptionalist message that it was Nixon, as towering Uncle Sam, who alone held the line for “South Viet Nam” and that it was his US politics-engineered downfall that directly led to the RVN’s collapse. On the other hand, Snepp plays into long-standing racist notions in the West that “the natives” are easily swayed by base emotions and can be kept under control through “shock and awe”-style threats of violence. Here the rational, stern, but ultimately well-meaning White Man, there the gullible, emotional, child-like Little Brown communist.
Naturally, the domestic turmoil in the US played a role in Ha Noi’s plans. Yet, to anyone having done a modicum of research on the Vietnamese revolution and considered the years-long perseverance of revolutionary-nationalist forces under the most intense bombardments, the idea that “the North Vietnamese … were terrified of [Nixon]” and that it was this irrational terror that kept them in check is laughable, substance-free, and plain ugly.
3) False and manipulative framing along broader US Cold War rhetoric:
The documentary abounds with the terms “North Vietnamese” v. “South Vietnamese,” all neatly homogeneous, and with a false spatial, binary representation of the warring parties as “North Viet Nam” and “South Viet Nam,” and of a “North Vietnamese” “invasion” “into” “South Vietnam” (caption at 7:54). That the propaganda trope of two discrete countries and a “Northern” invasion is still being peddled —and widely accepted— in 2014 as an accurate historical rendition of the war is shocking. Last Days reinforces this falsehood with a grotesque digital map depicting McCarthyism-style red ooze emanating from north of the DMZ and gobbling up homogeneously yellow territory to the south (it appears at 13:54, 18:52, and 33:56). On this count alone, the film loses all credibility. It is one thing to say that the historical witnesses and the parties they represent may have subjectively felt this to be true, but the documentary portrays it as fact.
The Paris Agreement in fact knew no “North Vietnam” and “South Vietnam” (as captioned at 3:20), but instead the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam (DRVN, est. 1945) and the RVN, both claiming to have sole, all-Vietnamese authority, and the southern National Liberation Front (NLF) and its Republic of Southern Viet Nam (1969-1976) thrown in for good measure. The DMZ of the film’s map was long defunct. Revolutionary forces of the DRVN and the NLF, as well as local guerrillas controlled large areas of Viet Nam south of the 17th parallel, as specifically acknowledged by the Paris Agreement. There were many factions of southern Vietnamese, supporters of the RVN being merely one of them. No matter, the documentary collapses “South Viet Nam” with, and assigns it to, the RVN and completely elides revolutionary and nonaligned southerners. (That makes for oddly confusing images of relieved, happy if not jubilant Sai Gon citizens welcoming the victors in the final scenes of Last Days.)
4) Specific misrepresentation of the Paris Agreement:
The film’s false reduction of the Paris Agreement to “a ceasefire between North and South Vietnam” ignores (1) that the warring parties were not defined by these spatial terms, that (2) the ceasefire was in situ and not at the 17th parallel, and that (3) there were political provisions calling for a peaceful settlement that were immediately renounced by the RVN after the signing. No mention is made of the much more aggressive violations of the ceasefire by the ARVN in 1973. Of course the revolutionary side violated the Paris Agreement as well, albeit initially in a much more reactive manner, but Last Days, in maps and words, obscures the complexity of the situation and resorts to manipulating an uninformed audience into believing that a neatly defined ceasefire line existed between a “North Viet Nam” and a peaceful, homogeneous “South Viet Nam”-cum-RVN that was only violated on March 10, 1975 by an “invasion.”
5) One-sided representation of war-time violence:
In a segment starting at 8:22, Last Days asserts that “the South Vietnamese” population had a well-grounded fear of violence at the hands of the “invading” communists and gives as an example the 1968 Hue massacre. Again, it is one thing to document the legitimate fear of communist violence and civilian killings as foregrounded in the subjective perspective of the documentary’s protagonists. But this is what the film portrays alone to be the nature of warfare against the entirety of “the South Vietnamese.” Seemingly no one else perpetrated violence, no one else suffered among southerners. Even a brief reference to the RVN- and US-organized military campaigns against large segments of the southern population in the preceding decades might have illuminated and rendered more complex why the RVN faced imminent collapse in April 1975. No matter, Last Days insists on a simplistic black-and-white fantasy version of a war that claimed millions of lives on all sides.
6) Complex US debates reduced to liberal “abandonment”:
Finally, Last Days participates in one-sided US politics by pointing at Congress and the US anti-war movement as main culprits for the US “abandonment” of the RVN. In a telling sequence , President Ford is asking Congress in April 1975 for $722 million in emergency funds, Rep. McCloskey explains that Congress was unwilling to appropriate that money, all while older images of anti-war protestors holding up “Bring the troops home” placards are simultaneously overlaid (scenes starting at 16:43). The complex ways in which the US public debated and opposed the war are thus reduced to mere self-interest and not caring about and abandoning “the South Vietnamese.”
I will neither speak here to Kissinger’s well-documented role in the war, nor to the adventurous US-centric notion that Congressional appropriation (not assembling, shipping, delivering, distributing), on April 17, of emergency military aid, in violation of the Paris Agreement, would have made any difference before April 20 when the RVN’s collapse became irreversible.The same manipulative overlaying of images occurs once more (scenes starting at 23:47): Secretary of State Kissinger speaks into the camera about the two reasons for Ford’s $722 million request, one, “to save as many people as we could … the human beings involved, that they were not just pawns” and second, “the honor of America, that we would not be seen at the final agony of South Viet Nam as having stabbed it in the back.” The images immediately cut to a newspaper headline of 18 April 1975, “Congress Balks At Arms Aid,” followed by a presidential aide remembering how he broke the news to Ford and the President uncharacteristically using a swear word, calling Congress “sons of bitches.” Last Days’ message to take away: Ford and Kissinger deeply cared, Congressional sons-of-bitches and the anti-war protesters did not and cold-heartedly stabbed “South Viet Nam” in the back.
A documentary focused on evacuation efforts during the collapse of the RVN cannot be expected to represent historical contexts in all their complexities. However, it can set an accurate background in broad strokes cognizant of such nuances. Instead, the film makers of Last Days in Vietnam trotted out one Cold War propaganda zombie after the other. Manipulative McCarthyite “invasion” maps; distortions of events and facts; misleading regional-spatial terminology; homogenization of diverse populations, multiple perpetrators, and countless victims; a caricature of US politics. All those tired clichés that have, for two generations, prevented reconciliation across old divides and a more mature engagement of US society at large with the war in Viet Nam. The first 25 minutes of Last Days sink what could have been a fine documentary. This is too bad, because the human-interest story of the evacuation in the bulk of the film give voice to people immediately affected by the events in compelling and, at times, moving ways.
- An online version of the film was made available for three days in early February athttp://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/lastdays/ . All references to segments of the film are based on this online version. Back to text
- Letter by 34 former war correspondence and US officials of 11 October 2014, in the author’s possession; for Rory Kennedy interviews, see for example, the Daily Show, as quoted inhttp://www.hyphenmagazine.com/blog/archive/2014/10/film-review-last-days-vietnam, and the Hamptons International Film Festival, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dw-bGUKyc3o Back to text