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Study Guide | Film

Last Days in Vietnam

The Story
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The Oscar-nominated documentary The Last Days of Vietnam chronicles the chaotic final days of the American involvement in the Vietnam War. In April of 1975, the North Vietnamese were closing in on the city of Saigon. With only limited US military support, the South Vietnamese resistance was crumbling as village after village fell to the North. When the US government made the decision to completely withdraw from the country, the operatives and diplomats still in the country were faced with an even greater decision—who would go, and who would be left behind. As the North Vietnamese tanks approached, a number of Americans defied orders from above and took matters into their own hands, helping 135,000 South Vietnamese escape to safety.

The Last Days of Vietnam begins its exploration in 1973, when after months of negotiations, representatives from the US, South Vietnam, Vietcong, and North Vietnam sign the Paris Peace Accords. This agreement calls for a cease-fire between North and South Vietnam and the withdrawal of all but 6,000 US non-combat troops and advisors. The South Vietnamese hesitate to sign, but President Nixon assures them that if North Vietnam breaks the agreement, the US will reenter the war with full force.

One year later, Nixon resigns in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. Correctly predicting that in Nixon’s absence the US will no longer come to the aid of South Vietnam if war resumes, the North Vietnamese plan their final push to overtake and reunite the country under Communist rule. Despite requests from Nixon’s successor, President Gerald Ford, Congress is unwilling to provide troops or funds to reinstate US involvement in a protracted war that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives and millions of dollars, and which has little to no public support.

By early March of 1975, the North Vietnamese began their offensive, aggressively attacking and seizing territory after territory. It becomes clear to the US diplomats and operatives still in Saigon that a Communist victory is inevitable, and a plan for evacuation and withdrawal, essential. However, Congressional gridlock and the reluctance of the US ambassador, Graham Martin, to admit defeat, stalls any movement to finalize an evacuation plan.

As the North Vietnamese draw closer, the Americans in Saigon become increasingly concerned for the safety of their South Vietnamese allies, co-workers, friends, and family. Even the most ambitious of evacuation plans would only allow for the transport of a few thousand South Vietnamese.

With defeat apparent, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger urges Ambassador Martin to proceed with evacuating Americans in Vietnam and their dependents. To support the evacuation efforts, the US Justice Department waives visa requirements in order to allow 130,000 South Vietnamese dependents and associates to leave Vietnam for the US. A large evacuation center is opened at the Tan Son Nhut airport to transport the refugees out of the country via commercial flights.

But a week later, Communist ground forces attack the airport, destroying any possibility of evacuation through commercial flight. President Ford approves the use of helicopters, but those on the ground in Vietnam know that helicopters will not be sufficient to transport the number of South Vietnamese desperately trying to flee the country, now swelling to roughly a million.

American officers and diplomats in Vietnam are faced with a moral dilemma: Do they leave with their dependents and abandon the people they have grown to value and love during their time in Vietnam, or defy official policy and take matters into their own hands? They decide to risk it all and do whatever they can to transport as many South Vietnamese as possible to safety. Using any and all means at their disposal—helicopters, cargo planes, ships, riverboats—they devise and execute their own evacuation efforts, ultimately helping 135,000 South Vietnamese escape.

“BAM Education study guides are supported by the Frederick Loewe Foundation.”