'Last Days in Vietnam' recalls true heroism

Posted by John Kanelis on
Last Days in Vietnam
PBS

Rory Kennedy is the youngest of 11 children born to Ethel and Robert F. Kennedy. She was born after her father, then a U.S. senator from New York, was assassinated in June 1968 while running for president of the United States on a platform that called for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam.

As it turned out, that withdrawal wouldn't come until 1973. And two years after U.S. combat forces had left, the government of South Vietnam was overrun by the communist government of North Vietnam. The war was over.

The end didn't come quietly. It came amid considerable panic, chaos and tumult. Rory Kennedy has captured that moment in time -- exactly four decades ago -- in a stunning film, "The Last Days in Vietnam." Panhandle PBS is broadcasting an American Experience segment Tuesday at 8 p.m. that highlights Kennedy's film.

The final days of our nation's involvement in what was then known as South Vietnam was highlighted by an 11th-hour evacuation from the top of the U.S. embassy in Saigon -- which the communists renamed Ho Chi Minh City almost immediately after declaring victory.

Richard Armitage was a Special Forces soldier at the time, who then went on to serve as a deputy defense secretary. He tells his story about what happened as South Vietnamese forces fled the advancing North Vietnamese Army.

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For those who played a role in that war -- and I played a tiny role starting in the spring of 1969 -- this film leaves us with decidedly mixed feelings. It's been said repeatedly over the years that we "lost" the Vietnam War. Politically, that's quite true. The North Vietnamese had the patience and the will to endure enormous battlefield losses. Moreover, they figured the United States lacked that patience and figured -- correctly, it would turn out -- that our patience would expire once it became known our forces couldn't destroy the determined and resolute enemy.

That enemy kept coming back onto the battlefield.

Rory Kennedy's film, "The Last Days in Vietnam," tells the story of North Vietnam's final victory and how its armed forces launched its offensive throughout South Vietnam. It hit major cities -- such as Da Nang and Hue -- and then Saigon.

And while the remaining Americans -- such as Marines assigned to guard the embassy in Saigon, Special Forces and civilian aid workers -- performed acts of heroism to save as many Vietnamese as they could, they couldn't save all of them.

Therein lies the heartbreak, as told by this film.

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