No Exit

Every war is a failure, of course, but for this country the Vietnam War signals something profoundly shameful and unappeased in our national fiber — a colossal moral fuck-up compounded by diplomatic arrogance and political deceit, in which a generation of Americans, and every generation thereafter, came to regard the government with a cynicism from which we have never recovered.

A new documentary film by Rory Kennedy tells the story of the infamous fall of Saigon, when in April 1975 the North Vietnamese army surrounded the capital city and the Americans and South Vietnamese scrambled like hell to evacuate. Last Days of Vietnam gives us history through the fish-eyed lens of regret, and the tale it tells is complicated and morose. Individual instances of heroism — a U.S. chopper pilot defying command in order to rescue the endangered South Vietnamese, ambassador Graham Martin refusing to leave the besieged embassy — are small consolation when measured against the greater betrayal of imperial hubris, in which our foreign policy mangled and then abandoned an entire country and its people.

Waterloo is Waterloo. As one of the last soldiers to leave the embassy recalls about flying away, leaving behind hundreds of South Vietnamese who’d been promised escape: “I felt absolutely awful. It was just so serious and deep a betrayal.”

Through stunning archival footage of Saigon at that time, coupled with contemporary recollections by survivors, both American and South Vietnamese, Kennedy pieces together a detailed narrative of Saigon’s chaotic collapse. We get stories from ground zero of military personnel struggling to find a way out, as they wait for the next helicopter to land inside the embassy and carry them to ships waiting offshore. And we witness Bosch-like scenes of clamoring madness, with hordes of Vietnamese spidering over fences and huddling inside the embassy grounds in fear, seeking a rescue that, for many, never came.

Yes, the point is made: Despite a bureaucratic stalemate, and against direct orders from high command, a number of Americans partook in an unsanctioned and makeshift escape plan where they succeeded in evacuating some 135,000 South Vietnamese military personnel and their families. Such actions cannot be dismissed. Nor should they be taken out of context. If you pull someone from a house fire you started, you’re still an arsonist.

Because, in the end, we have on screen the aging but familiar face of Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s secretary of state and a kingpin of Cold War policy whose hawkish advice led to, among other things, the carpet bombing of Cambodia. Poised and calculating as a sociopath, and forever unrepentant, it is Kissinger who puts the lie to any instance of uplift within the grander tragedy. For Kissinger, as well as for Nixon and Ford and the whole slew of screws, Vietnam remained a statesman’s game of dominoes, and when those dominoes began to fall, it wasn’t them who paid the ultimate price.