Closer Readings Commentary

“American Experience: Last Days in Vietnam”: A Classroom-Ready Resource

American Experience: Last Days in Vietnam gives a powerful account of the days leading up to the evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. Produced and directed by Rory Kennedy and nominated for an Academy Award® for documentary feature, the film, featuring narratives from people who lived through this experience, illuminates the moral dilemmas facing both U.S. military personnel, who would have to disobey orders to save lives, and South Vietnamese, who faced imprisonment or worse if they could not—or chose not to—escape. The producers describe the film:

April 1975. During the chaotic final days of 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 few 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 choice—who would go and who would be left behind to face brutality, imprisonment, or even death ...

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 U.S. citizens and their dependents only, or to ignore orders and evacuate 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 courts-martial, a handful of individuals took matters into their own hands. Engaging in unsanctioned and often makeshift operations, they waged a desperate effort to get as many South Vietnamese out of the country as possible.

Most of the action on that final, fateful day took place at the besieged U.S. Embassy in Saigon, where thousands of South Vietnamese scaled the walls in hopes of securing a last-minute evacuation. As desperation rose and time grew short, Ambassador Graham Martin used American resources meant for his own protection to extract thousands of South Vietnamese during an airlift from the embassy compound.

Several classroom-ready, curriculum-targeted digital resources for the film are offered through the PBS LearningMedia site. Additionally, a free, streaming version of the film is available on the PBS website (after April 28), where a DVD version is also available.

PBS LearningMedia has published three video resources adapted from Last Days in Vietnam as well as three audio stories from the companion American Experience: “First Days Story Project.” The video resources examine the events of the several days leading up to and including the evacuation, as well as the difficult choices faced by both American and South Vietnamese soldiers, State Department officials, CIA analysts, and refugees. The audio stories, which were made in collaboration with StoryCorps, capture the stirring evacuation and post-war experiences of members of the Vietnamese-American community.

These teaching resources contain the previously referenced video and audio media as well as text-based support materials, such as a background essay and teaching tips. The teaching tips indicate ways to use these materials—for example, by examining:

  • significant national and international events of the 1960s and 1970s
  • moral decision-making as it applies to civic life
  • the immigrant experience
  • ways that students can use these materials to develop writings and other presentations about history, immigration, and assimilation

A background essay provides a concise overview of the war, from its beginnings as a limited civil struggle to its escalation into a full-scale international, Cold War conflict. The Vietnam War was anything but two-sided, and the essay touches on the sometimes-nuanced relationships of the participants. The teaching tips range from suggestions to guide students' viewing of the media to activities that students may complete in small groups or on their own. Teachers can access the educational resources via the American Experience: Last Days in Vietnam Collection or on PBS LearningMedia.

The resource titles are:


Christopher Riegle is a Senior Content Producer, Digital Education, at WGBH in Boston.