In the months following the Vietnam War, tensions between the U.S. and Vietnam had been at a standstill, until President Nixon's resignation following the Watergate scandal triggered a North Vietnamese offensive on South Vietnam. Under their attacks, the South Vietnamese army collapsed, and it would only be a matter of time before Saigon would be seized. Without the aid or authority from the U.S. to help the Vietnamese escape from a cruel tyranny under the communist North, American marines stationed in Vietnam launched a series of "black ops"—unauthorized operations—to help Vietnamese families and civilians out of the country. More than 30,000 Vietnamese and American civilians were whisked away to safety, while 420 people left on the embassy roof to face the beginning of a new regime.
That story is the crux of Rory Kennedy's latest documentary, Last Days In Vietnam, which offers a glimpse into those chaotic moments of desperation before the North Vietnamese closed in on Saigon, as told through rare archival footage and interviews with civilians, soldiers, diplomats and witnesses to the event. Kennedy recently discussed with us the making of her film.
OC WEEKLY: I imagine, since this is the first time this story is being told on film, you had to start from scratch and dig really deep for all the facts.
RORY KENNEDY: Part of this story has been told in different capacities. There've been books written about the Marines left behind and different stories we culminated in this film, but this is the first time this story is being told in its entirety. Luckily, there were a handful of first-person accounts that we were able to read and cull through to understand the events as they took place.
How did you get involved with this project?
[Mark Samels,] executive producer of the American Experience films, approached me about making a film on the final days of the war. I've always been fascinated by Vietnam and feel it's a seminal event in our nation's history. I also thought the timing was interesting, as we were . . . on the brink of withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan, and I thought there were some possible lessons to be learned from what happened in Vietnam to what's going on today.
How were you able to get in touch with the Vietnamese civilians you interviewed, such as Binh Pho, who was just a college student at the time of these events?
A priority of mine was to get the Vietnamese perspective, so we put a lot of time and energy into tracking down Vietnamese civilians who participated in the events in the film in terms of helping other Vietnamese trying to get out of the country; I didn't want it to seem like it was just Americans coming in to save the day. Much of our story was oriented around the 420 people left behind at the embassy, so it was important to track down one of the 420; Binh Pho was one of the harder people to find, as were the people who were left there and weren't able to get out of the country.
Have you received any significant feedback from the Vietnamese community about the film?
The response from the Vietnamese community has been really extraordinary, it's one of the things that makes me happiest about sharing this film. I think the Vietnamese have not been recognized for what they went through during those final days. They and the Vietnamese Americans who live in this country have such extraordinary stories, and so I think it's been an opportunity for a lot of families to be able to tell those stories, [as well as] for the younger generation who didn't necessarily live through it to understand it and have a deeper appreciation for what the older generation went through to get here. It's been very powerful and, in some ways, cathartic and a source of closure, or if not closure, a kind of opening to start really understanding and appreciating these events.
Of all the people who were interviewed, the person who resonated with me the most was Colonel Stuart Herrington. He seemed to be the moral conscience in the film, and his testimony was very moving.
I felt the same way, which is why he opens and closes the film. He's really reflected deeply on these events, and he's very poetic in the way he talks about them. What he went through and what he lived through really epitomizes the story that we're trying to tell. Leaving those 420 people behind was certainly a seminal moment for him. I think it helps us as a country to understand what we did during those final days and abandoning the Vietnamese and what his story represents, and that was really something that we can now all process on some level.
Aimee Murillo is calendar editor and frequently covers the Orange County DIY music scene, film, arts, Latino culture and currently pens the long-running column Trendzilla. Born, raised, and based in Santa Ana, she loves bad movies, punk shows, raising her plants, eating tacos, Selena, and puns.