Photo: Courtesy of Craig Compiano/USS Kirk Association
Academy Award®-Nominated Film "Last Days in Vietnam"
Premieres Tuesday, April 28 at 9:00 p.m. ET on PBS
April 1975. During the final days of 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 few 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 choice -- who would go and who would be left behind to face brutality, imprisonment, or even death. AMERICAN EXPERIENCE presents the Academy Award® nominated film Last Days in Vietnam, directed by Rory Kennedy, on Tuesday, April 28, 2015, 9:00-11:00 p.m. ET (check local listings) on PBS. Scheduled in conjunction with the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, the broadcast will contain additional footage not seen during the film's theatrical release.
In 1973, the Paris Peace Accords had forged a tenuous ceasefire and limited U.S. military involvement to the presence of approximately 6000 non-combat troops and advisors. While President Nixon promised a swift military response should the North Vietnamese violate the agreement, his abrupt departure from the White House in late 1974 left in its wake a Congress unwilling to appropriate funds to Vietnam or put U.S. soldiers back in harm's way.
By early March 1975, huge swaths of territory were overrun daily by the North Vietnamese Army, and by the end of the month, they had surrounded the capital, preparing to launch their final assault on Saigon. As the inevitability of a communist victory became clear, the U.S. diplomats and military operatives still in Saigon 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. By April 25, the number of people in Saigon wishing to flee swelled far beyond that projection.
Yet even as the North Vietnamese troops drew close to Saigon, U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin, himself the father of a fallen Vietnam veteran, steadfastly refused to discuss an 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 U.S. citizens and their dependents only, or to ignore orders and evacuate 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 courts-martial, a handful of individuals took matters into their own hands. Engaging in unsanctioned and often makeshift operations, they waged a desperate effort to get as many South Vietnamese out of the country as possible.
On April 29, the airport in Saigon was bombed, leaving few options for evacuation. What ensued was a desperate scramble to board one of the helicopters carrying refugees to a small fleet of ships floating just offshore in the South China Sea. U.S. Navy ships, initially sent to offer support and protection to Americans, rapidly and unexpectedly played a central role in the frantic evacuation, taking aboard both American and South Vietnamese helicopters, and countless evacuees.
However, most of the action on that final, fateful day took place at the besieged U.S. Embassy in Saigon, where thousands of South Vietnamese scaled the walls in hopes of securing a last-minute evacuation. As desperation rose and time grew short, Ambassador Graham Martin used American resources meant for his own protection to extract thousands of South Vietnamese during an airlift from the embassy compound.