Last Days in Vietnam, a Documentary in Theaters

Rory Kennedy, film-maker and daughter of the late Robert Kennedy, produced a film which debuted in theaters this week about the fall of Vietnam.

I haven’t seen it yet and am debating whether I will. I’m half Vietnamese and have mixed feelings and for many years refused to watch coverage of the war and the pervasive inaccuracy in the media. It’s too close to home. In 1995, 20 years after the withdrawal and debacle, reporters interviewed my father who was Vietnam’s last cultural attaché. Perhaps they were trying to get the record straight.

My father left Vietnam with Ambassador Martin at the end, chronicled in that famous photo of the last American helicopter leaving Saigon. And that story merits its own letter. My mother, brother, and I were sent home to the United States from Saigon earlier that year because we knew what was coming. I find it interesting that so many don’t know about the helicopters pushed into the sea. My father shared that with me as a young child and everyone who was there knew. Some even jumped into the water and swam to the ships because the choppers couldn’t land. Ralph Blumenthal writes about this in an article on the documentary.

  A damaged helicopter being pushed overboard from the warship Blue Ridge to make room for more evacuation flights. Credit Associated Press

A damaged helicopter being pushed overboard from the warship Blue Ridge to make room for more evacuation flights. Credit Associated Press

Desperate to rescue Vietnamese allies and their families, some Americans quietly began an unauthorized airlift.

“Sometimes, there’s an issue, not of legal and illegal, but right and wrong,” Stuart Herrington, an Army captain at the time, says in the film.”

Even Mr. Kissinger seemed affected, Ms. Kennedy said. She asked him about a State Department employee who had defied orders and sneaked back into Vietnam to save Vietnamese comrades. Mr. Kissinger told her that he had been forced to rebuke the man publicly but privately greeted him in his office as “my greatest hero.”

As he related this, Ms. Kennedy said, Mr. Kissinger teared up. The episode, and Mr. Kissinger’s reaction, did not make it into the final cut.

Ms. Kennedy did not plan to include the footage of Kissinger crying about the man who went back to help the Vietnamese. My “greatest hero” Kissinger called him. Reading this brings tears to my own eyes and my father always felt a debt to the Marines who took him to safety. I wonder why she cut this scene? Is there a sense of remorse and tone of regret in this film? Because if you read the media reports at the time and for many years after, there was no such thing.

Here’s an excerpt from a review by A.O. Scott.

“The story is full of emotion and danger, heroism and treachery, but it is told in a mood of rueful retrospect rather than simmering partisan rage.” (A.O. Scott review link)”

A tacit admission of their own previous partisan reporting? The media and the people refused to listen, obscured facts, misrepresented policy and military objectives.

Dr. Kissinger says that he believed Vietnam could be like South Korea today. Quite possibly. We lost the war at home, the American people lost their resolve because of the “media’s willing self deception” (Jim Webb). My father dedicated his professional life to this sliver of land in the far eastern part of the world and we betrayed the confidence of the very people we committed ourselves to. This is the truth, having experienced and suffered from it first hand.

Vietnam was the first televised war in a most liberal age with students across America doing drugs, relishing free sex, and denouncing the war, a war started and escalated by Kennedy and Johnson. Nixon came into office to fix the mess, set up a withdrawal plan, and was excoriated. He paid a price for what is laughable by current administration’s standards.

This may be the Kennedys’ idea of an apology, so be it, but perhaps it is an obligation to her uncle’s conscience as well as her own almost 40 years later. Our departure from this fledgling, struggling country in its hour of need is a disgrace on many levels.

We did not lose on the battlefield during the war. We lost at home.

“You know you never beat us on the battlefield,” I told my North Vietnamese Army (NVA) counterpart, Colonel Tu, during a meeting in Hanoi a week before the fall of Saigon. “That may be so,” he replied, “but it is also irrelevant.” (Colonel Harry G. Summers Jr. full article link)

Colonel Tu knew military victory was not possible, but he also knew America’s Achilles heel was a generational shift in attitudes that shockingly was more sympathetic to the invading communists of the north than our democratic allies in the south. The NVA followed the Leninist playbook to win the propaganda war, and the cultural elites in our media, academia and entertainment were as Lenin would say, useful idiots.

As Lieutenant General Ion Mihai Pacepa, the highest ranking intelligence official ever to defect from the Soviet Bloc, said:

“During the Vietnam War we spread vitriolic stories around the world, pretending that America’s presidents sent Genghis Khan-style barbarian soldiers to Vietnam who raped at random, taped electrical wires to human genitals, cut off limbs, blew up bodies and razed entire villages. Those weren’t facts. They were our tales, but some seven million Americans ended up being convinced their own president, not communism, was the enemy. As Yuri Andropov, who conceived this dezinformatsiya war against the U.S., used to tell me, people are more willing to believe smut than holiness.” (Link to article)

Our actions had devastating consequences. Hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese were murdered outright or died cruel deaths in the concentration camps as the army of North Vietnam swept through the south. As many as a million more fled by any means possible, the ‘boatpeople’ risking their lives in rickety boats on the high seas, knowing what lay in store for them if they remained. Many thousands didn’t survive the journey. Our abandonment of Vietnam destabilized the region, as Laos and Cambodia quickly fell to brutal regimes carrying the same communist flag as North Vietnam, resulting in the murder of millions more. Comparisons to modern Iraq are appropriate as we watch the barbaric ISIS rampaging through Syria and Iraq, filling the void left by our departure.

Here is one of the singularly accurate and best reviews of the media’s role on the war. The Honorable James Webb has served as senator, Secretary of the Navy, distinguished combat marine, professor, Emmy award winning journalist and author. (Jim Webb Bio link).

If you want to understand the major factor why we “lost” the Vietnam War, read his column which I pasted below in full. Webb begins with media tycoon Ted Turner’s public apology for just one of a multitude of lies perpetrated by the media. (Link to article)


The Media’s War on Vietnam Vets

July 15, 1998
by James Webb, The Wall Street Journal

Last week CNN founder Ted Turner issued a fervent apology to Vietnam veterans for his network’s false report that the military had used sarin nerve gas in Vietnam. “Nothing has upset me more probably in my whole life,” Mr. Turner said, adding that he “would take my shirt off and beat myself bloody in the back” if it would do any good.

Those who served in Vietnam should leap to accept this apology. But a long line of journalists and scholars should follow Mr. Turner’s lead in making amends for the persistent defamation of those who served honorably and well in the Vietnam War.

This animus toward those who fought has now spanned a generation. It has deep roots in the elites among the old antiwar left, whose members not only avoided military service but openly derided those who went to Vietnam as either stupid or evil. Having placed their bets and bet their place in American history on the supposedly benign intentions of the Vietnamese communists, their response to the Stalinist relative that befell Vietnam after 1975 was to push ever harder to discredit U.S. evolvement in the war.

Routinely Ignored

Thus negative stories about the War and those who fought it became de rigueur. Particularly, if one could tell them through the eyes of a veteran. But facts were routinely ignored.

Literally thousands of journalists have published lies, exaggerations and misrepresentation that fit a preconceived notion that made a story. I first became aware of the media’s willing self-deception in 1981, when I was interviewed by Time magazine for what turned out to be a lengthy, negative piece on those who had fought in Vietnam. The veteran who gave the most damning testimony, including claims that he shot a pregnant woman and her unborn child, was later shown never to have served in Vietnam at all. It is a simple matter for any reporter to verify many aspects of a veteran’s combat service by asking for a copy of his Form DD-214, a publicly available document. But the Time reporter did not do so, and the magazine offered no reaction after its story was disproved.

Repeated, conscious misrepresentations have become conventional wisdom. It is now axiomatic that the war was fought by the poor and minorities dragged unwillingly into battle after being conscripted. The truth is that for the first time in U.S. history, the country’s elites, who have inordinate power in the media and academia, did not show up. The poor and the minorities fought, but so did the middle class. Defense Department statistics show that 86%, of those who died in Vietnam were white, and 12.5% were black from an age group where blacks comprised 13.1%, of the population. Volunteers accounted for 77% of combat deaths.

Another canard frequently cited during the Persian Gulf War is that Vietnam servicemen were over-decorated. In his book National Defense, James Follows claims that by 1971 the military had given 1.3 million medals for bravery in Vietnam vs. 1.7 million for all of World War II.

But compare actual gallantry awards from World War II with those in Vietnam:

The Army awarded 289 Medals of Honor vs. 155 in Vietnam,
4,434 Distinguished Service Crosses vs. 846 and
73.651 Silver Star Medals vs. 21,630
The Marine Corps, which lost 102,000 killed or wounded out of some 400,000 sent to Vietnam, awarded 47 Medals of Honor (34 posthumously),
362 Navy Crosses (139 posthumously) and,
2,592 Silver Star Medals.

A 1980 Harris survey commissioned by the Veteran’s Administration, the most comprehensive ever done regarding those who served in Vietnam, revealed that

92% of those who served in combat were “glad they’d served their country,”
74% “enjoyed their time in the military,” and
80% disagreed with the statement that “the U.S. took unfair advantage of me.”
Nearly two out of three would go to Vietnam again even if they knew how the war would end.

The only national media report on the survey’s results was an Associated Press story headlined, “One in three would not serve again if asked.”

In 1986 the New England Journal of Medicine published a study claiming that veterans were 86% more likely to commit suicide than non-veterans. The study’s authors, betraying their own political views, lamented that “men of low socioeconomic status may be less adept at avoiding military service.” The study was junk science: a blind analysis of 14,145 men born between 1950 and 1952 who died between 1974 and 1983. By comparing their birth dates to the dates on the draft lottery, the study assumed but never verified who had served and who had not. Those with high draft lottery numbers had a 13% higher suicide rate, which the study then “extrapolated” into 86% – again without identifying a single veteran. The study ignored the fact that most of those who went to Vietnam volunteered for military service (among those born in 1952: 273,110 men enlisted and only 43,706 were drafted).

The media predictably embraced the study’s flawed findings: “CBS Evening News” credited it with “documenting that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between having served in the military during Vietnam and problems later, including suicide.” Mothers, hide your daughters, the crazy vet is at the door.

Hollywood, too, has manifested a historically unprecedented, ugly pathology when it comes to the Vietnam War and the people who fought it. If you want camaraderie, dignity, heroism and sacrifice, better check out a World War II flick, or “Star Wars.” But what can one expect from the community that gave the producers of the vicious documentary “Hearts and Minds” a standing ovation at the 1975 Oscars when they read a telegram from Hanoi that announced the “liberation” of South Vietnam?

The extensive coverage of the 20th anniversary of South Vietnam’s 1975 demise was rife with former foreign correspondents congratulating themselves on their courage under fire. But the coverage all but ignored the accomplishments of an American military that was transported halfway around the world where it met a determined enemy on its own terms. The coverage seldom discussed the many tragedies that befell Vietnam once the communists took over. And it ignored the most significant announcement of that anniversary period: Hanoi’s admission that it had lost 1.1 million soldiers dead in the war, plus another 300,000 missing in action, compared with U.S. losses of 58,000 and South Vietnamese losses of 254,000.

Earlier this year, CBS’s “60 Minutes” marked the 30th anniversary of the bloodiest year of the war with a feature on the My Lai massacre. Ostensibly designed to recognize the humanity of two helicopter pilots who saved several civilians during the killing, the piece was instead a gruesome rehash of America’s darkest moment in Vietnam. In deciding to revisit 1968 CBS might have looked at the bravery of American soldiers under attack on battlefields across South Vietnam. If it was interested in ugliness, it could have examined afresh the systematic executions of more than 3,000 South Vietnamese civilians in Hue by communist cadres during the Tet offensive. But its intent was clearly elsewhere.

Shattered Lives

This unending agenda has shattered many lives, but there are indications that an accounting may be at hand. Today’s best young scholars tend to question the dogma of an antiwar left that has grown gray without abandoning its animus toward those who served. As one example: Mark Mayor won the 1993 prize for historical research at Harvard University by peeling away the shibboleths that have surrounded the Phoenix Program, an effort directed against Vietcong leaders. Mr. Moyar’s book, Phoenix and the Birds of Prey (Naval Institute 1997), is a product of that research and a groundbreaking piece of revisionist history on the war.

Of equal import, next month B.G. Burkett, a Dallas businessman and Army veteran of Vietnam, will self-publish one the most courageous books of the decade, Stolen Valor (Verity Press looks at the cases of more than 1,700 people who have distorted or lied about their service in Vietnam, often distorting the public’s understanding of the war. His book constitutes a damnation of the major media so great that the CNN Time story on saran will take its right context as a rare moment when the purveyors of dishonesty got caught, rather than as the journalistic aberration many would like to term it.

Sep 9, 2014


About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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