The 40th anniversary of the communist conquest of Indochina will be marked in April by the broadcast on America’s PBS of Rory Kennedy’s documentary “Last Days in Vietnam.” It is a stunning scoop recounting the desperate scramble to save as many as possible of the Vietnamese who sided with the United States in the war. It is hard to imagine that any American who sees it will fail to be moved by the human toll of our betrayal of our Southeast-Asian ally.
I hope it will get an airing in Israel as well. Israel is another small country – much smaller than Vietnam – that is vastly outnumbered by its enemies. Like Vietnam, Israel counts on America to stand fast with it. Yet in Vietnam, America suddenly started treating with the enemy, as it is now doing with Iran. It would be inaccurate to suggest that the analogy is exact – or that the America-Israel relationship could be sundered as quickly as Congress fell away on Vietnam. It would not be inaccurate, though, to say this film illuminates the consequences a betrayal like few others being screened today.
In “Last Days of Vietnam,” which was released in September, Kennedy, the daughter of former Senator Robert F. Kennedy and niece of former U.S. President John F. Kennedy, unearths incredible footage, including Super-8 film taken aboard USS Kirk, to which many of those rescued were flown. We see helicopters pushed over the side to make way for new waves of refugees, and one chopper from which an infant was literally thrown to freedom in the arms of a waiting American.
Yet I wonder whether the story captures the full drama of the tragedy. The “Last Days” saw heroes – diplomats, spies, businessmen, Marines – including some who disobeyed orders from Washington in an effort to save as many of our allies as possible. It captures the searing nature of the betrayal and puts it into human terms. But it stops short of opening up the broader questions: Who was the author of this betrayal? What about our own time, when we are once teetering on defeat in two theaters, Iraq and Afghanistan?
This is a moment to remember that Congress didn’t vote to abandon Free Vietnam — to cut off its ammunition and other materiel – until well after American combat troops had left. When Congress finally acted, in late 1974 and early 1975, there were no combat troops – none – left in Vietnam. Just a few embassy guards, a few diplomats, some businessmen, and a few intelligence officers were all who were left to deal with the Vietnamese who had sided with us and who suddenly were confronted by their worst nightmare. What was the point of ending our support then if not to hand the communists a victory?
These broader questions would be a lot to ask of Rory Kennedy. Her martyred uncle, after all, was the president who took America into this war and her own martyred father was the senator who led the Democratic Party against the war. It had to have taken extraordinary journalistic courage to look the consequences in the face, as she does in this film. Yet the bigger questions beg to be pressed, particularly at a moment when America has withdrawn from Iraq and has just ended its combat role, at least in theory, in Afghanistan.
I saw the film this month at the Council on Foreign Relations. Its membership is packed with ex-diplomats, military officers, spies, journalists who were deeply invested – emotionally and patriotically – in the war, some for it, others against it. They were spellbound by Kennedy’s telling of the story, in which interviews of diplomats and soldiers, Vietnamese and Americans, are interspersed with cutaways to a map turning red as the communist armies advance on Saigon.
Kennedy uses news footage of South Vietnamese allies of America trying desperately to get into the America’s Saigon embassy, out of which the airlift was run. They knew the fate that would await them under the communist regime that was in the process of completing its conquest. The mothers handing up children, the crowds overloading helicopters, all are caught on film. In 50 years of newspaper work, I don’t think I’ve ever been to an event that so riveted its audience.
After the film was shown at the council, Kennedy took questions. Some attendees criticized the film, saying it had gone too lightly on Henry Kissinger, who had inked the Paris peace accord that the communists betrayed and who, it was suggested, knew the disaster that was in the making. I took the film differently, as a long-overdue chance to glimpse the heroism of Kissinger and former U.S. President Gerald Ford, who spent 1974 and 1975 trying to convince Congress not to abandon an ally.
What an irony – or Godsend – that this film is going to be widely aired as America is being tempted, yet again, into a pact with a calculating enemy, this time the regime in Teheran. The American leaders, particularly U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, plumping for a deal are of the ilk that went for a deal with the Vietnamese communists. Yet it is hard to imagine that the mullahs in Teheran can be any more trusted than the communists in Hanoi. If the Knesset wants to glimpse the consequences, this is one of the films to see.
Seth Lipsky is editor of The New York Sun. He was a foreign editor and a member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, founding editor of The Forward and editor from 1990 to 2000.
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