It has been 40 years, nearly to the day, since the last helicopter carrying the last Marines left Saigon. On April 30, 1975, the American presence in Vietnam came to an end; hours later South Vietnam, surrendering to the North, was itself no more.
Two wars in Iraq and one in Afghanistan (still in progress, along with the ongoing war on terror) between then and now changed what we mean when we talk about war. Vietnam is about as far from us now as Vietnam itself was from World War I. Its gray-haired veterans are emissaries from another world.
To mark this anniversary, PBS scheduled a clutch of shows that address the war from different angles. Monday night saw "The Draft" and "Dick Cavett's Vietnam," the first a kind of general survey of American conscription with an emphasis on Vietnam; the second was based, like "Dick Cavett's Watergate," around interview footage from Cavett's talk shows.
Neither show quite holds together: "The Draft" raises good questions about class and the military but too closely associates questions of patriotism with the willingness to carry a gun, and the Cavett program suffers at times from an oddly whimsical, almost amused tone that fights the seriousness of the often fascinating archival clips. "While I set out to do an entertaining talk show," the host says today, inserting a purposeful chuckle, "you could not keep Vietnam out of the conversation."
Tuesday's offerings — "Last Days in Vietnam" and "Kent State: The Day the '60s Died" — are far better.
The latter arrives just before another landmark, the 45th anniversary of the May 4 events at Ohio's Kent State University, when National Guardsman fired live ammunition into a crowd of students, killing four (two had merely been walking to class) and wounding nine. The Kent State protests were part of a national wave of demonstrations sparked by President Nixon's April 30, 1970, announcement that he had moved the war into Cambodia — yet another imminent anniversary; at Kent, this had already led to the burning of an ROTC building.
Younger readers are invited to picture their college or high school campus swarming with armed men in uniforms; some may be reminded of Ferguson, Mo., and other recent scenes of domestic disquiet in which angry citizens have faced an uneasy official force.
"Kent State," which moves back and forth between Cambodia and the U.S. to create a kind of dialogue between the war abroad and the war at home, is less an attempt to present every fact than to let you taste the urgency of the moment, to evoke a sense of colliding social tides and a country in division and disarray. Kent State is seen as a culmination of this conflict, and the beginning of the end of the antiwar movement.
It's a measure of those times that a woman, asked about the Kent State shooting, responds in front of a television camera, "I'm sorry they didn't kill more." More than half the respondents to one poll blamed the students for the attack; only 11% blamed the people with the guns.
In a clip also seen in the aforementioned Dick Cavett show, Cavett wonders to a Nixon friend and defender, the Rev. Billy Graham, whether Nixon's own characterization of protesters as "bums" had helped create the climate that made Kent State possible. ("I'm sure that he didn't mean for the whole public to hear that particular terminology," says Graham.)
And yet, as post-Kent protests move to Washington, Nixon wanders out to the Lincoln Memorial, one morning at 5 a.m., to mill among the protesters. "I just hope your opposition doesn't turn into blind opposition to the country," he remembers saying. ("Nixon was a sensitive man," Nixon speechwriter Pat Buchanan recalls.)
There is about as much on-the-scene footage and as many photographs of the shooting and its aftermath as anyone will want to see. Former students, some witnesses to the shooting, and former guardsman, standing among the shooters, are interviewed, as are Buchanan, on the one hand, and Mark Rudd, co-founder of the radical Weather Underground, on the other. Rudd still dreams of revolution; Buchanan sees in the same revolution just the wedge the Republicans needed to pry conservative Democrats from their party. Nixon would win reelection handily in 1972.
Rory Kennedy's superb "Last Days in Vietnam," which was nominated for an Oscar, tells the story of the fall of Saigon to the Viet Cong and the eleventh-hour evacuations of American personnel and thousands of Vietnamese citizens that accompanied it. Given the immediacy of its subject matter, it is an appropriately, though no less remarkably for that, non-political story.
Whatever you felt or feel or think you should feel about Vietnam, "Last Days" is moving and maddening and exciting and inspiring on an elemental level — with teeming crowds scaling embassy walls, daring helicopter rescues and packed barges making their way downriver through enemy fire, it's an action film, minus the witless dialogue or drum-beating.
The film is rich in archival-memory and first-person recollections of many key figures, of higher and lower or no rank at all. These range from Henry Kissinger to a Marine guard to a Vietnamese student trying to find his way out of the city, with many others, through the American embassy, as it became a kind of refugee camp and staging area.
As the first television war, Vietnam was captured copiously on video and film and extensively photographed as well, and the testimony and the imagery combine into something that feels very vital and present. Kennedy puts you into the time and the place — and what's more, gives you a sense of the American connection to the country and the people, not just to a cause.
Decisions may have been reckoned coldly at home, but the Americans left in Vietnam were not leaving without regret. In the chaos of the endgame, many ignored orders when the orders were bad, and when officials higher up were slow to move, officers lower down created their own "black ops" evacuations.
Other wars sit comfortably in history; we seem to know what they were about; we feel good about the ones we won. Vietnam, un-won, is different — mishandled from the indistinct moment of our getting in to the messy moment of our getting out, it remains an open question, an open wound, its meaning and mythology disputed now as then. It doesn't give up answers easily, if it gives them up at all.
Forty years later, we're still working through it, a necessary enterprise and an impossible one.