The desperate, chaotic scenes from Afghanistan playing out in August 2021 immediately call to mind the fall of Saigon nearly 50 years ago. As director and producer of the Oscar-nominated film, “Last Days in Vietnam” Rory Kennedy observes, “There’s a real connection and analogy to what happened in Vietnam in 1975 and what we’re seeing right now in the streets of Kabul.” In this exclusive conversation, AMERICAN EXPERIENCE’s executive producer Cameo George speaks with the acclaimed filmmaker about the parallels between the 1975 evacuation of Vietnam and the recent American withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the lessons that America’s history in Vietnam offer today.
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April, 1975. During the chaotic final days of the American involvement in 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 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 decision—who would go and who would be left behind to face brutality, imprisonment, or even death.
But as President Ford’s administration considered withdrawal, the prospect of an official evacuation of South Vietnamese became terminally delayed by Congressional gridlock, and by an inexplicably optimistic U.S. ambassador, who steadfastly refused to discuss the possibility of 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 only U.S. citizens and their dependents, or to break the law and save 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 court-martial, a handful of individuals took matters into their own hands. Engaging in unsanctioned and often makeshift operations, they waged a desperate effort to save as many South Vietnamese lives as possible.
Produced and Directed by Rory Kennedy, “Last Days in Vietnam” was a 2015 Academy Award® nominee for Best Documentary Feature.
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