THE DOCUMENTARY "Last Days in Vietnam" on PBS' "American Experience"

WHEN | WHERE Tuesday at 9 p.m. on WNET/13

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Saigon -- now Ho Chi Minh City -- fell to North Vietnamese troops early on the morning of April 30, 1975, when the last Marines were airlifted from the roof of the U.S. Embassy. But a key part of this story begins in January 1968, when Hue briefly fell to the Viet Cong, who massacred thousands. It was that fate which many South Vietnamese believe awaited them, too, seven years later. They wanted out, along with the thousands of remaining U.S. personnel.

In this Oscar-nominated film by Rory Kennedy ("Ghosts of Abu Ghraib") -- which had limited theatrical release -- scores of people are interviewed about the final chaotic days, including former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Stuart A. Herrington, an author who would later become a prominent critic of interrogation techniques by the United States in Iraq. But then, he was an Army colonel and was one of the last to leave Saigon.

Many key figures are in this story, notably Richard Nixon, who had resigned the presidency on Aug. 9, 1974. Nixon had earlier promised the South Vietnamese government "overwhelming support" if the Paris Peace Accords were broken. But with Nixon gone, North Vietnam believed its chief impediment had been removed. The invasion began.

Graham Martin, the U.S. Ambassador (who died in 1990), refused to believe that the south could or would be overrun. This film paints a portrait of a man in denial: His adopted son, Glenn Dill Mann, a Marine lieutenant, had been killed at the battle of Chu Lai on Nov. 23, 1965. Martin, this program argues, refused to believe his son had died in vain. As a result, he dithered while South Vietnam burned.

MY SAY One of the most vivid memories of my otherwise mostly misspent youth took place in a high school classroom a year or so after the fall of Saigon. A Vietnamese student -- slight of stature, painfully shy, a cipher to most of us really -- had recently arrived from that shattered country by herself. One day, hoping to get her to open up a little more, our well-meaning teacher asked her what seemed like the most innocuous of icebreakers: What was it like to leave home?

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This girl, who had hardly ever spoken a word, much less expressed emotion, sucked in her breath, stared blankly, then burst into tears. She ran from the room, leaving a stunned teacher speechless.

I dredge up this old memory for two reasons: Forty years ago, many of us really did not know what it must have been like for a refugee without family or state "to leave home" -- that tragic home, in particular. The war was over. We had moved on.

In fact, as Kennedy's fine film demonstrates, the war was not over. There was one final convulsive chapter many of us had largely overlooked. Meanwhile, the human tragedy was still underway.

That chapter, as established here, had elements of all the previous ones: confusion, fear, misinformation, secrecy, suspicion, denial, political fecklessness, heroism, courage and shame. Herrington goes so far as to call those last few days in Saigon a "microcosm" of the entire war but adds that "sometimes there are moments when good people have to rise to the occasion, [and] there was no shortage of people like that" as Saigon fell.

The other reason is that first-rate documentaries like this one proffer vital understanding but a certain degree of closure, too. Emotions remain deeply embedded from this long-ago chapter and that long-ago war -- emotions sometimes deeper than words, sometimes more important than words, too.

@Newsday

BOTTOM LINE Authoritative and exhaustive. A must-watch.

GRADE A+