Rory Kennedy's Vietnam Documentary Says the US Congress Abandoned Our Vietnamese Allies at War's End. Don't Believe It.

tags: Vietnam, PBS

Last Days in Vietnam will premiere on public television April 28. Ken Hughes is a researcher with the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. He adapted this article from Fatal Politics: The Nixon Tapes, the Vietnam War, and the Casualties of Reelection     

The documentary Last Days in Vietnam casts the fall of Saigon into a whole new darkness. Instead of unraveling old myths about the Communist takeover of South Vietnam forty years ago this month, Last Days splices together a new myth—namely, that Congress refused to provide funds to evacuate the Vietnamese who had taken our side of the war and faced retaliation at the hands of the Communists.

The filmmakers cut something important out of President Gerald Ford’s April 10, 1975, plea to Congress: “There are [words omitted] tens of thousands of South Vietnamese employees of the United States government, of news agencies, of contractors and businesses for many years whose lives, with their dependents, are in very grave peril. [words omitted] I am therefore asking the Congress to appropriate without delay $722 million for emergency military assistance [words omitted] for South Vietnam. [words omitted] If the very worst were to happen, at least allow the orderly evacuation of Americans and endangered South Vietnamese to places of safety.” A newspaper headline (“Congress Balks at Arms Aid”) appears onscreen as Ford’s press secretary, Ron Nessen, says, “Congress wouldn’t pass it. They said, ‘No more.’ You know? No more troops, no more money, no more aid to the Vietnamese.” 

Reviewers have drawn the obvious (but false) conclusion. Film critic Ann Hornaday, for example, wrote that “a war-weary Congress and the American populace they represented effectively put the kibosh on more aid, either for military support or an orderly evacuation.” Not so.

President Ford actually requested two kinds of aid. Here are his unedited words (with italics highlighting the ones Last Days left out): “I am therefore asking the Congress to appropriate without delay $722 million for emergency military assistance and an initial sum of $250 million for economic and humanitarian aid for South Vietnam.” While Congress rejected the military aid request (too little and too late to prevent defeat), the House and Senate both approved more money than Ford requested for humanitarian aid and the evacuation of imperiled South Vietnamese. (Congress moved fast: The Senate approved evacuation aid 75-17 on April 23. The House voted for it 230-187 on April 24. House and Senate conferees reconciled the bills on April 25 and boosted the total to $327 million; the Senate approved the compromise bill that same day. The House was poised to do likewise on April 29, but Ford urged delay—by then, the evacuation was nearly over. Saigon fell the next day. Afterward, Congress approved $503 million to cover the evacuation and the additional costs of relocating refugees.) 

Not that you’d know this from watching Last Days. Indeed, director Rory Kennedy seems unaware. In interview after interview, Kennedy has promulgated her movie’s myth: “The U.S. decided we’ve just got to get the Americans out and leave all our Vietnamese counterparts behind.” Again, not so.

Evacuating the endangered Vietnamese was official U.S. government policy. In April 1975, the attorney general authorized emergency entry into the U.S. for 125,000 “high-risk” Vietnamese and their families. Round-the-clock airplane flights spirited thousands of Vietnamese daily out of Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut airport for more than a week before the Communist takeover. President Ford appointed an official evacuation task force. The House and Senate even approved the use of American troops for the mission. By falsely depicting the evacuation as something that was done in defiance of Congress, Last Days in Vietnam heightens the story’s drama at the expense of the truth. 

Worse, it reinforces the single most pernicious myth of the war—Richard Nixon’s “stabbed in the back” myth that blames Communist victory on Congressional perfidy. In Nixon’s version of history, he had won the war by January 1973, when the North signed the Paris Peace Accords. “Congress,” he claimed, “proceeded to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.” Specifically, Congress gave him less funds than requested for military aid to the South Vietnamese and cut off funds altogether for bombing the North Vietnamese. 

But Nixon had lost the war himself long before. He sealed Saigon’s fate when he agreed to withdraw all American soldiers from Vietnam. From his first days in office, Nixon’s top military, diplomatic and intelligence advisers had warned him that Saigon would continue to depend on “major” American ground forces for its survival even after the South Vietnamese army was fully trained. In other words, the choice facing America was either to stay and fight indefinitely, or leave and lose. 

Nixon had promised America “peace with honor” in his 1968 presidential campaign. Neither choice fit that bill. 

So he lied. Publicly, Nixon promised to withdraw “from Vietnam on a schedule in accordance with our program, as the South Vietnamese become strong enough to defend their own freedom.” Privately, he acknowledged that they never would. “South Vietnam probably can never even survive anyway,” Nixon said on Aug. 3, 1972, his words captured on his own secret White House recording system. Instead of basing his schedule for withdrawing American soldiers on conditions on the ground in Vietnam, Nixon based it on the political calendar. He kept the war going through all four years of his first term so Saigon wouldn’t fall before Election Day 1972. 

And to keep Saigon from falling right after he withdrew—that is, to avoid blame for losing the war after winning reelection—Nixon cut a “decent interval” deal with the Communists. Through National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, Nixon secretly assured North Vietnam’s sponsors in Beijing and Moscow that as long as the North waited a year or two after he brought the last American troops home, it could overthrow the South without fear of American intervention. As Kissinger told Nixon on tape, “We’ve got to find some formula that holds the thing together a year or two.” 

They did. Under the Accords, the last American ground forces left Vietnam in March 1973. Saigon fell two years and one month later. Its chaotic collapse was built into Nixon’s settlement terms.

It didn’t have to go down that way. Nixon could’ve agreed to the North’s proposal for a coalition government (one in which the Communists would share power in the South) during his first year in office. He could’ve negotiated safe passage out of the country for all the Vietnamese who had fought or worked on our side. Settling in 1969 would have saved 20,000 American lives and many thousands more Vietnamese, North and South. 

But it might have cost Nixon the 1972 election. During his 1968 campaign, Nixon had dismissed a coalition government as a “thinly disguised surrender.” Agreeing to a coalition in 1969 would have been a public admission of failure. Instead, Nixon held out for a “decent interval”—that is, for a better disguised surrender. It took four years for him to get it, but when North Vietnam finally accepted his terms in October 1972, it enabled Kissinger to publicly proclaim to voters that peace was at hand. The opposite was true: the “decent interval” deal guaranteed that war would resume between North and South and that the Vietnamese who fought on our side would face either death or life under a brutal Communist regime. 

The evidence of Nixon’s deceit, caught on his own tapes and on near-verbatim transcripts Kissinger’s aides made of meetings with Communist leaders, is utterly irrefutable—and utterly absent from Last Days. For a movie made by a Kennedy (the director is the niece of President John Kennedy and Senator Ted Kennedy and the daughter of Senator Robert Kennedy), Last Days is shockingly, if unconsciously, pro-Nixon. Viewers see Nixon declaring “peace with honor” on-camera, but don’t hear his private view that South Vietnam probably wouldn’t survive. Viewers see Kissinger claiming, unchallenged, “We who made the agreement thought it would be the beginning, not of peace in the American sense, but the beginning of a period of coexistence which might evolve, as it did in Korea, into two states.” Even Frank Snepp, a CIA analyst who provided Kennedy with one of her more compelling interviews, complained that Kissinger’s on-camera statements were at odds with ones he made on Nixon’s tapes. (When South Vietnam’s president said Nixon’s settlement terms would destroy it, Kissinger told Nixon, “He’s probably right.”) Rory Kennedy could’ve at least quoted her uncle Sargent Shriver, the 1972 Democratic vice presidential nominee, who said of Nixon’s settlement, “I don’t see what’s the difference between what he has got and what he used to call surrender.” Instead of busting Nixon’s myth of congressional treachery, Last Days in Vietnam adds one final stab in the back.

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