"What happens to the people left behind?": Rory Kennedy on her Oscar-nominated "Last Days in Vietnam"

Filmmaker tells Salon about a complicated, overlooked moment in U.S. history, and its implications for the future

Published February 13, 2015 1:30PM (EST)

  (Sundance Institute)
(Sundance Institute)

War is a terrible thing. This is a truism and a cliché, of course, but it's one that we usually apply to what the experience of actually being in a war is like. Or we use it as an argument against taking the idea of warfare lightly. Sometimes, less honorably, we use the phrase to show off our machismo and dedication. The point is, we think of the evil of war almost always on the front end — before the war and during the war. But part of what makes war such an awful thing, such a malevolent force, is the way its destruction ripples through time and space, often far beyond our expectations, and sometimes beyond our full understanding.

That's the story behind "Last Days in Vietnam," the Academy Award-nominated 2014 documentary from filmmaker Rory Kennedy. A by turns tragic, inspiring and overall deeply human film, "Last Days in Vietnam" tells the story of the chaotic and frenzied final moments before Saigon fell, when the U.S. government was once again caught off-guard and when countless Americans did everything they could to save the many South Vietnamese people that Washington discarded and time has nearly forgotten. Recently, Salon spoke over the phone with Kennedy about the film, its inspiration, what it can tell us about today's conflicts, and how she got Henry Kissinger to sit down and talk. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.

What is it about this kind of moment in history that you found personally so compelling that you wanted to devote significant amounts of your time and energy to make a film about it?

I think one of the remarkable parts of the story is the overwhelming association for us as Americans when we hear Vietnam is about loss, it’s a moment of abandonment, it represents failed policies. It’s pretty much all negative. So I think part of the power of this story and why it resonates is that in the face of all that there were these Americans and South Vietnamese who did the right thing. When people leave the theater they are proud of these Americans.

The film doesn’t shy away from the reality of those policies and what was put in place by the U.S. government. But it does take a moment to celebrate these Americans and what they did in these very dramatic and extraordinary stories that I think have largely been untold. So I think that that spoke to me and was meaningful. I think there’s also relevance in this story in the challenges we’re facing now as a nation, in Iraq and Afghanistan, how do we get out of these wars gracefully and with respect to the people on the ground. I think as we start deeper engagements with ISIS that raises important questions about how the ends of these wars might look and what questions we should be asking now as a nation to anticipate that.

What lessons do you take away from the Vietnam experience that we should keep in mind when we try to wind down our current conflicts or start pondering escalating a new one?

I think the film raises important questions about what happens at the end of a war. Particularly, the film is a reminder of the human cost of war. So I think it reminds us of the responsibility to the people who are left behind when we leave. There’s a character in our film, a South Vietnamese who worked with the Americans closely during the Vietnam War. He was assured that he would get out when there was a crisis and when the country was falling, and he was left behind like so many Vietnamese. He ended up spending 13 years in a reeducation camp doing hard labor.

So it’s easy enough for us to leave, but what happens to the people left behind? And I think that’s a really important and fundamental question. There are translators and people who worked with the Americans very closely, both on the ground but also as drivers and translators and cooks and security guards, who faced greater scrutiny as a result of their association with Americans. I think we do have a responsibility to those people and we have to think through the consequence of what happens when we leave, for them and for their lives, for their families and for their children.

Any specific, historical lessons in terms of foreign policy?

I think one of the lessons that I learned in making this film was that by April 1975 there were very few good options available to the U.S. government. One of the things I learned was that really the best and most strategic time to make decisions is before you get involved in a war. Once you go down the path you lose control and things can get out of control. When we were considering furthering our reach that we need to really understand what the exit strategy is, what our goals are, how are we going to extricate ourselves, what are our responsibilities to the people on the ground, what happens to those left behind.

I've noticed that often the people who suffer the most after our withdrawal are the people who believe the most in the most romantic or idealistic vision of what America represents. What's your take on that phenomenon?

Perhaps. When I look at Vietnam and the people who were left behind in Vietnam, I think there was a range of people there, and I don’t know if I would say those who were more idealistic faced greater repercussions. I’m not sure that’s true. But I think what they do have in common is that they had a trust in Americans. They trusted that they would be looked after. They trusted that we wouldn’t abandon them. They believed in us as allies and as compatriots and as friends. In that civil war we had families who were Vietnamese, we were working side-by-side with them and they believed and trusted in us. That’s part of the great sadness of the story and the harshness of it is having broken that trust. When we do that over and over again it really damages us, because when you go in and need allies in different situations, which we will inevitably need, you’re not going to have that level of trust, because we’ve proven ourselves unworthy of it too many times.

What were the experiences of the people who were left behind and were seen as collaborators after our withdrawal?

Many, many, many of them were sent to reeducation camps. Others were tortured and some were killed. I would say that’s kind of the range of experiences that most people had who had worked with the Americans and had been left behind.

A part of the movie that I thought was very compelling was when Stuart Herrington talks about right and wrong, legal and illegal, and how sometimes situations call for different approaches. Can you tell me a little bit about why that became a relevant question for a lot of Americans during the withdrawal scramble?

Herrington, like so many other people — including Richard Armitage and Joe McBride and many others who are profiled in the film — was facing the dilemma of having to follow what was basically the U.S. policy at the time, which was try to get as many Americans out of the country as possible [rather than] to save as many Vietnamese as possible. There was a very significant number of people who pursued the latter, and dedicated their time and committed themselves to trying to save as many South Vietnamese as possible, risking certainly their jobs and arguably their lives to do so. Richard Armitage says to beg forgiveness and ask for permission, which is along the lines of a sense that was, we’ll do the right thing now, whatever the consequences are later. They saw what was right and what was wrong and they did the right thing.

With the broken promises and just the number of lives that were abandoned, did they make you, or do you think it should make us, question more whether war can be done for humanitarian purposes?

I think it’s a really good question and really important question, and I don’t know the answer to that. I think you have to be judged based on a case-by-case basis. But I think that we should really expect our leaders to help think through what these wars are going to look like and how they’re going to end. If you look at what’s going on in Iraq and Syria with ISIS, it’s horrific, it’s horrendous, it’s abject horror, it’s unimaginable, you know, beheadings and burning people alive. Of course, everything in me wants to seek revenge on that and right that wrong and I think that’s true for all of us.

But is war the answer? I don’t know if war is the answer. I don’t know if that solves the problem. Part of the reason I don’t know that is nobody in the leadership position has talked through what is the exit strategy, what are our goals, what are we trying to accomplish here, how are we going to get out of this situation, who’s going to fill the void when we leave, what happens with all the anger that’s generated toward the Americans for stepping into that? How does this solve the overall and underlying problem? I don’t know that war is the answer to that. I don’t see really how it is, honestly, because nobody has told me what that’s going to look like and where we’re going with it. I think that needs to be considered and articulated before we just decide to engage in another war.

What was your impression when you were interviewing Kissinger? If you had any, what were your impressions about how he seemed as he went back in his mind?

I was really focused on the story of what happened at the very end of the war. So obviously a lot of important questions I didn’t ask him about. I think part of the reason he agreed to talk to me is because we were so narrowly focused on this particular story. When you read the transcript of that time from the White House, he was saying all the right things. He was doing all the right things, and he did seem to genuinely care about what happened to the South Vietnamese. He may have known he was being recorded and said the right things because he foresaw that this would be something that people would look back on in history. I will say that he had extraordinary recall, down to the minute of who was where and what was happening during those last 24 hours.

At that time I was very well versed in, at 10 a.m. this happened and 11 a.m. this happened and he was able to denote right with me every second of that 24-hour period. He knew exactly what was happening, what he communicated, what the response was. There was miscommunication; they were told to send the planes in the airports up, they needed the helicopters sent to the embassy. They were told that we should get down there at 11 a.m. but they thought it was Greenwich Mean Time, except because they were operating on Vietnamese time the helicopters landed two hours later and it was a debacle. He just went through every detail, when the ambassador left, what was happening at 3:45 in the morning, how many helicopters they'd been asked to send, how many people were in fact there and left behind.

I was struck by his extraordinary recall— I mean, he was almost 90 when I interviewed him— and I think that speaks to some level of investment in that period of time and how important it was and that he recognized that that 24-hour period was deserving of a documentary and that it was an extraordinary story. He really didn’t want to participate in the film and he said “no” multiple times but I really felt like his voice was important, so I kept going back to him. Ultimately, he did it, I think, because he knew how important the 24 hours was. He felt like people didn’t know the story and should know the story.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

MORE FROM Elias Isquith