Thursday, November 19, 2015

"Terror in Little Saigon": An Interview with AC Thompson

Irvine - For daring to dig up old unsolved murders of Vietnamese American journalists in America, ProPublica reporter A.C. Thompson has been under the glare of public scrutiny.

Skype interview image capture
 Yesterday, he delved in depth into his reasons for reporting about a shadowy group that many believe may be behind the murders and explained why he wrote the story the way he did, both in a Frontline documentary and in print.  For links to the ensuing controversy, see the previous Subversities blog entry.

The key revelation from our lengthy interview with us via Skype is that Yen Do (now deceased), the respected long-time publisher of the premiere Vietnamese American news daily, Nguoi Viet, published for decades from the heart of Little Saigon in Westminster, California,  was one of those journalists the shadowy group wanted to assassinate.

Thompson said the microphones were off when the person interviewed disclosed to him and his colleagues on the reporting project that this person, whom he named on the interview, had tried to dissuade members of this shadowy group not to kill Yen, saying he was a good guy. Yen was never murdered and died of natural causes in 2006. That person has since denied he made the statement.

In response to a question whether the attacks on Vietnamese American journalists at the time constituted "terrorism", given our having just experienced past Friday's terror attacks in Paris, Thompson explained that when people are targeted for political reasons and injured or killed, that is terrorism.

In fact, he noted, some journalists were targeted even for revealing that the head of the shadowy group was dead.  The group denied the leader's death for years.  Thompson said he was thought to have committed suicide in Laos. 

For an audio of the interview, go to his link: Interview.

---  Daniel C. Tsang, host of Subversity Online

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Domestic Terrorism in America

Irvine = As expected, the wagons are circling among some in Vietnamese American enclaves after PBS Frontline and ProPublica came out with its documentary and article on "Terror in Little Saigon." The article also appeared in OC Weekly.

I was happy to be quoted in the Vietnamese edition of the BBC defending the broadcast and its accompanying article. Here's what I told the BBC Vietnamese edition (the online text is in Vietnamese):

 " 'Terror in Little Saigon' is an important documentary plus reportage (in print as well). For too long a consipiracy of silence has enveloped the Vietnamese diaspora about these crimes and the report not only indicts the local authorities for not investigating the murders and threats but also reaches up to the level of the US Government in its embrace of the leader of the National Front, and looking away while the Front mounted its guerrilla operations from Thailand and Laos. I hope this sparks renewed interest in renewing the investigation into the multiple violations of federal law, not to speak criminal law with the K9 involvement in assassinating people that would have welcomed reconciliation with Vietnam."

 Having written briefly about the National United Front myself for the OC Weekly and knowing that the deaths of journalists were largely ignored by the mainstream media, I welcomed this move by a PBS and ProPublica, as well as OC Weekly, in publicizing "dead cases" from the not so distant past.

My earlier pieces included a profile of an activist who ironically served on the then-existing advisory board of the UCI Libraries' Southeast Asian Archive.  I also wrote another piece about the same individual (an adult) who was leading a so-called Youth Movement for Vietnam during the Little Saigon HiTek protests.

Writers and journalists were among the targets of the protesters.  The protesters, I wrote, "say they want to forge an "information front" against critical media accounts of the mob outside Tran's video store in demonstrations that lasted for 53 days earlier this year. They target several reporters in the battle, including Los Angeles Times op-ed writer Le Ly Hayslip (whose biographies became Oliver Stone's Heaven and Earth), Times columnist Patt Morrison, the OC Weekly's Nick Schou and me. We four are named in a front-page manifesto in the March 12 [1999] edition of the Westminster-based Viet Bao Kinh Te (Vietnam Economic Daily News)."

Let's not forget that decades earlier, in 1986, the Asia Resource Center in Washington D.C.  issued an 8-page "casebook" by journalist Steve Grossman detailing those attacked and/or killed by what it described as "Vietnamese death squads in America".  It was the first of a few brave attempts to draw attention to the phenomenon.

But back to the reaction to Frontline.  It is unfortunate that some in the communities affected don't want light to shine on the acts of intimidation and violence inflicted several decades ago; in fact, those defenders of keeping the past hidden have resorted not to petitioning law authorities to renew their investigations but rather to start investigating the journalist who dared to dig up court and FBI files to expose the past. While much of the backlash to the media coverage has been written of course in Vietnamese, there are some sources that offer information in English.

The OC Weekly last week published two stories on the reaction (mostly outrage) in Little Saigon (story  one and two), and this week published the ProPublica's response point by point to criticism of its documentary and article. As the same article by OC Weekly's Charles Lam notes, another documentary film director, Tony Nguyen, has again been red-baited for daring to help as consulting producer on the Frontline piece.  The director has pleaded for a "chance for truth in Little Saigon" in a piece published yesterday on DiaCRITICS.   For more on Tony's "Enforcing the Silence," see my interview with him linked here.

And online the reaction is also covered in English, although Our Little Saigon is apparently a site linked to the successor group of the Front, so read it for what it's worth. There is even an online petition calling for PBS to investigate the Frontline broadcast, that has garnered under 2,000 signatures as of this writing. And even a local politician has jumped into the fray: California state senator Janet Nguyen, invoking the model minority stereotype of successful immigrants to attack ProPublica in her letter.

The Voice of OC has also covered the reaction in Little Saigon more dispassionately. And a French scholar. François Guillemot has written two pieces (this and later another) in French on his Vietnam history web site, giving a historical perspective with links to more resources and feedback.

I just hope the authorities will resurrect their investigation and not be scared off by the right-wing and other defensive reactions. For two decades or more, the domestic terrorism victims deserve better.
[Revised 18 November 2015: Added: A petition asking the FBI to resurrect its investigation is now online.]
-- Daniel C. Tsang.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

OC Weekly's 20th Anniversary: My Reflections

This week, the iconoclastic OC Weekly celebrates its 20th anniversary!  I was there almost at the beginning, one year or so later, in 1996, penning my first founding editor Will Swaim-commissioned piece, after he noticed the strange obit about Japanese internment camp-denier Lillian Baker in the Los Angeles Times.  

I've already reposted last July that earliest piece in Subversities but here is again an image of that first freelance article I wrote for the paper.

My original article appeared in OC Weekly 29 November-5 December 1996, pages 9-10

In all, from 1996 to 2003, even before the weekly began reducing freelance contributions, I wrote dozens of articles, some under the column "Civil Unliberties," a takeoff of Calvin Trillin's column elsewhere.  Using that name I covered police abuse in the county, especially in Little Saigon, where I was the weekly's first beat reporter, covering the regular eruptions of anti-communist fervor.

Here's a "wordle" of titles of my reportage in OC Weekly from 1999-2003 (plus the title "Real Lillian Baker" thrown in from 1996):

The OC Weekly web site only displays online my articles since 1999 so the earlier years are missing from that site.

The wordle above higlights the fact that Little Saigon was the focus of most of my articles since 1999. But I also covered police abuse, Asian "gangs" and queer uprisings, especially on high school campuses in OC Weekly.

On my KUC Subversity Show I actually interviewed Will Swaim on June 20 1995 just as the weekly was starting. (That interview was recorded on analog tape and not yet digitized.)  Will, whom I just ran into on campus outside Langson Library last week, was a return guest on Subversity in June 4, 2007, with Orange Coast Voice editor John Earl and CSUF Communications Prof. Jeff Brody, who also discussed OC Weekly on the show.

Will, who  was then-editor of The District (Long Beach) appears in the audio clip (around the 10 minute mark) when he debates later OC Weekly editor Gustavo Arellano's "Ask a Mexican" column with John and Jeff.  Said Will he was "not an Excel spread sheet kind of guy" and it "wasn't fun" anymore, explaining why he left the OC Weekly. Gustavo is also pilloried by John and defended by Will for Gustavo's coverage of  UC "recovered memory" Prof. Beth Loftus.  Also discussed in this 2007 interview is OC Weekly's coverage of ethnic issues and criminal justice with Will and John discussing whether or not Scott was too reliant on prosecutors' handouts (at the time).  (I'm glad Scott would later go after the incumbents in the OC Sheriff's position.)  I also had been told by a Managing Editor at the time that Scott was the "gatekeeper" of Little Saigon coverage, which was also discussed on the Subversity interview. 

On the current "Oral History of OC Weekly," for which writer Joel Beers interviewed me by phone a few months ago for some 20 minutes, here's what got extracted from the interview and was published this week in OC Weekly:

"Daniel C. Tsang, contributor, 1996-2003: I think at the time [1996], I was the only reporter who was a person of color. At first, they wanted me to write a horoscope column--because I was Asian, I guess. And I thought that that was crazy. And then they wanted me to write a gay-nightlife kind of column, and I wasn't interested. I am a gay, Asian-American activist and wasn't interested in fluff. But finally, they let me pick my own topics, like my column, "Civil Unliberties", which covered civil-rights violations in the county."

Truth be told, it was Will (if memory serves me) that asked if I wanted to do an astrology column, and then a gossip column a la Michael Musto in the Village Voice.  (Although I was active in the gay community I was not a club frequenter, except to pick up gay print media there.) Both Will and Gustavo have columns on OC Weekly in this week's edition, in addition, of course, to being quoted throughout the oral history.

I am glad there are more people of color there now who do good reportage at the OC Weekly. -  Daniel C. Tsang 


Sunday, August 9, 2015

Co-Founder Benny Tai on Hong Kong's Occupy Central

To listen to the audio of his talk as podcast on KUCI Subversity Online, click here.

Hong Kong's Occupy Central co-founder came to University of California, Irvine last Spring Quarter to speak before a graduate political science seminar taught by Prof. Dorothy Solinger.

Benny Tai at UCI seminar.  Photos © Daniel C. Tsang 2015
In his 28 April 2015 talk, Hong Kong University Law School Prof. Benny Tai explained the birth of Occupy Central and what happened when the student activists took over and turned it into the Umbrella Movement or Revolution, occupying streets in Hong Kong for weeks.

He said he had been a student activist in his university days and thought the Occupy Central actions would end after a brief period.  Instead the students led the way.

He also indicated Occupy Central was not copying the anti-capitalist stance of Occupy Movements elsewhere.

Asked if he had received funds from the U.S. for Occupy Central he said No.

After dinner another department on campus treated a small group of academics to Peking Duck dinner at Capital Seafood in Irvine's Diamond Jamboree retail mall.

There he was asked how he identified himself.  His response:  Hong Konger first, then Chinese.
Polls (notably those conducted at HKU by Dr. Robert Chung Ting-Yiu),  indicate that a majority in Hong Kong have been identifying as Hong Kongers (香港人) rather than Chinese, similar to the situation in Taiwan where the majority identify as Taiwanese rather than Chinese.

Subversity Show host with Prof. Tai at dinner. 

Prof. Tai is still waiting to hear what his university will do over his acceptance of protests-related donations, which he turned over to HKU.  The then-dean of the Law School, Johannes Chan, who was supportive of the protests, is now on hold to become a top administrator at the University, after those who were Beijing-allied tried to block the move and criticized Prof. Tai as well.  HKU students recently took over a HKU Council meeting; the University administration is currently considering whether to bring charges against the student protesters.

For current news on the political situation in Hong Kong, click here:  Cantonese In-Media Hong Kong site | English site of the Real Hong Kong News.

-- Daniel C. Tsang.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Exquisite Portrayal of Queer Sexual Awakening

To hear our interview with the two directors, click here [link fixed now].

Irvine - Brazil is often portrayed in film for its flamboyant, colorful and musical extravagance. Taking a decidedly different stance are queer directors (a couple) Filipe Matzembacher and Marcio Reolon, who have written and directed this exquisite portrayal of teen sexual awakening in "Seashore."

Tomaz (Mauricio Barcellos) & Martin (Mateus Almada) explore each other in "Seashore"

Just on DVD and on VOD from Wolfe Video, the film starts off slow as the high schoolers Tomaz and Martin visit a relative's home. The slow pace is deliberate, as I found out in my interview last Friday (31 July 2015 via Skype) with the two directors, because they wanted to portray the reality of how a gay teen approaches the topic of coming out and reaching out to a best friend, and the friend's reaction.

The directors made this cognizant that Brazil has a negative human rights record regarding discrimination against homosexuals and wanting to offer hope for those contemplating reaching out to others.

"Seashore" had its world premiere at the 65th Berlinale earlier this year. It's not their first film - they also directed a lyrical short, "Ballet Dialogue" - about a young guy and an older man - so that, the directors told me, audiences don't forget the pioneers who led the way for the current generation.

Um Diálogo de Ballet - Trailer from avantefilmes on Vimeo.

-- Daniel C. Tsang, co-host, KUCI Subversity Online.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Vatican Publishing House Releases Eddie Yeghiayan's Comprehensive Armenian Genocide Bibliography

As if more evidence were needed of the Pope's commitment to honor the memory of Armenians massacred in the genocide by Turks -- Pope Francis recently spoke of the genocide as the world prepared to commemorate that historical mass killing - - the Libreria Editrice Vaticana released last month (8 April 2015) in book form former UC Irvine critical theory and philosophy bibliographer Eddie Yeghiayan's massive, The Armenian Genocide: A Bibliography compiled by Eddie Yeghiayan.

Already online as a searchable database via the web site of the Glendale-based Center for Armenian Remembrance, the bibliography by my retired friend and colleague is now made available in print by
the Vatican Publishing House, making it easier for researchers and collectors who want to flip though its 1126 pages and delve into its annotated contents.

In Italian, the press describes the bibliography as follows:

Il lavoro di ricerca, compilato da Eddy Yeghiayan, racchiude in un solo volume i numerosi studi effettuati sul genocidio armeno. Il volume è suddiviso in otto capitoli così composti: volumi e saggi ordinati per autore per il primo capitolo; una rassegna cronologica di tutti gli articoli usciti dal 1833 al 2011 nel secondo; lo spoglio degli articoli comparsi nei principali giornali e magazine nel terzo; fiction, poesia, dramma e musica nel quarto; tesi di laurea e di ricerca nel quinto; audio e visual media nel sesto; risorse d’archivio nel settimo; siti internet e risorse elettroniche all’interno dell’ottavo. Il volume, uscito in occasione del centenario del genocidio armeno, offre la possibilità di una profonda riflessione sul dramma del martirio che ha colpito il popolo armeno. Il volume, proprio per il suo essere composito e dettagliato, risulta essere un valido strumento di ricerca per tutti coloro che intendono accostarsi all’olocausto armeno e compiere uno studio approfondito sull’argomento.
Eddie Yeghiayan, Mls, è dottore di ricerca in filosofia ed insegna presso la University of California Irvine
Eddie Yeghiayan.  Photography © May 2015 by Daniel C. Tsang

Eddie's other bibliographies and his contributions to another field of study, critical theory, were also recently acknowledged at an event on campus during the opening night of a UC Irvine libraries exhibit.

Although long retired from UC Irvine Libraries, Eddie Yeghiayan appears in a short video clip from Derrida directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman - as a audivisual sidebar to the current Langson Library lobby exhibit "Through Discerning Eyes: Origins and Impact of Critical Theory at UCI."  While he is speaking in English, the subtitles are in Spanish!

Eddie Yeghiayan in clip from Derrida
I regret he is not otherwise mentioned in the formal exhibit, although he is the librarian who founded the Critical Theory Collection in the UC Irvine Libraries' Special Collections and Archives and for many years compiled the detailed Wellek Lecture bibliographies on critical theorists.  This omission was rectified during the Q&A that evening.

During the exhibits opening event 9 April 2015, in the Q&A session after the opening talk by UCI Humanities Dean Georges Van Den Abbeele, I related the anecdote of the New York Times calling Eddie up to ask if the newspaper could use a low-resolution photo of Judith Butler that Eddie had taken and posted online next to his bibliography on Butler.  Eddie - the unasuming and generous soul he was - offered to give it to the paper for free. To laughter, I said he could have asked for $1,000.   "He didn't want any money," I added. The photo was subsequently published in the 27 February 1999 edition of the NY Times, p. B11 to acccompany a story on "Attacks on Scholars Include a Barbed Contest With 'Prizes' " by Dinitia Smith that began on page B9.   This past Sunday Eddie recalled the New York Times had offered him $100 which he declined.  The photo is missing from the online version but Eddie is credited.

UCI Chancellor's Prof. (in Comparative Literature) Gabriele Schwab then spoke up thanking Eddie for his "most amazing bibliographies." UCI Humanities Dean Van Den Abbeele from the podium then said he "knew that" and had "consulted" Eddie's Lyotard bibliography "many, many times" and that "it is an amazing piece of work."  He later told me that while French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard had given him (the Dean) some pamphlets of his (Lyotard's) writings, Eddie's bibliography listed every one of them. 

At a time when library administrators at many places are urging librarians to collaborate with faculty more, Eddie stands as an exemplary example of the benefits of producing scholarly work that brings recognition to bibliographers and other librarians.  

You can listen to the audio of the Dean's talk.  The audio is at times barely audible for speakers from the audience.  See also photos of the opening night.

-- Daniel C. Tsang

Monday, March 23, 2015

Jack Peltason effectively saved my job

The Peltasons 23 January 2015 at UCI University Club. 
Photo copyright © Daniel C. Tsang 2015
Irvine -  It was my first battle with the University of California, Irvine, administration.  I had come up for academic review a few years after arriving in 1986 at UC Irvine as a bibliographer for political science and economics as well as as social science data librarian.
The powers that be in the Libraries had decided no, I wasn't going to get a positive review.  I realized that if I didn't appeal, it would make it easier the next round for them to get rid of me, since I had not then yet achieved "career status" - roughly the equivalent of "tenure".

So with the help of my union, University Council-AFT, and its smart executive director, Gary Adest, I went through the appeals process.

At that time,  I felt it was fortunate that the decision for whether or not to grant a step increase rested outside the Libraries, so that another set of eyes would review the file.    Unfortunately, the Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at the time, Tien Chang-Lin, whom I thought I knew well through the Asian Faculty and Staff Association, agreed with the library administration and turned me down for a step increase and raise. 

Fortunately one could appeal further, if there were "irregularities" in the way the review was conducted.   (Whether or not a step up and raise were given is considered "academic judgement" - not subject to an appeal.)   I definitely thought so; an outside hearing committee and a secret ad hoc board (this apparently) sided with me - and ultimately Jack Peltason - who was UC Irvine Chancellor at the time - and a political science professor I had helped occasionally - on 9 November 1989 overturned his deputy, Dr. Tien (who would later head UC Berkeley).  Since I had already gone through in the meantime another review successfully, Dr. Tien subsequently advanced me to Librarian IV "without further review".

By his 1989 action Jack no doubt effectively saved my job.  Jack Peltason, who would later head the the entire UC system, passed away Saturday.

It is thus perhaps ironic for a union and political activist like myself to give credit to the big boss or 大老板 .  Without what "Jack" decided in my case, I would likely not still be here, now 29 years after I started at UCI.

Years later, another Vice Chancellor expressed surprised I was still here, given the University's deep pockets to fight off any challengers from employees.  I guess I was persistent, had great union support, and allies in high places, not least the then-Ombudsman, Ron Wilson as well as Gene Awakuni, then-head of the Counseling Center at UC Irvine, who would offer diversity training in the libraries subsequently.  He later became a top-level university administrator at CalPoly, Hawaii and Columbia.

For more background, see my 1992 Amerasia Journal vol. 18 no. 1 essay:  A Look Back: David vs. Goliath at UC Irvine [licensed to UCI users]

In what was arguably his last public appearance, Jack Peltason showed up at a 23 January 2015 memorial service at the University Club for David Easton, another eminent UCI political scientist.  Although Jack did not address the gathering, he communicated spiritedly though an iPad with his admirers gathered around after the event.  Above is my photograph of this gentle man who fought for affirmative action with his devoted wife Suzanne.  May he rest in peace. - Daniel C. Tsang.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Hong Kong Schoolboy Activists Portrayed in "Lessons in Dissent"

To listen to our interview with Director Matthew Torne on Subversity Online, click: here. Documentary available for viewing via UCI on-site or via VPN: Kanopy streaming. May also be available at other academic web sites.

Oxford-educated scholar (his Master's thesis was on Hong Kong politics) turned documentary filmmaker Matthew Torne's  "Lessons in Dissent" (whom he also co-produced) deftly portrays two dedicated teenagers fighting the moneyed Hong Kong establishment and special administrative region's Beijing masters.  It's a study in contrasts and a striking depiction of a new generation of young activists and protesters in a very politicized Hong Kong.  Some spectacular footage is included.

Media-savy teenager Joshua Wong
Focusing not on the recent Umbrella Revolution or Movement, Torne details the struggle in Hong Kong against the proposed imposition of what critics termed brain-washing and propagandistic, a mainland China-dictated National Education in Hong Kong school curricula.

One figure portrayed is the media savy 15-year-old schoolboy Joshua Wong Chi-fung (之鋒), the convenor of Scholarism, and who led the fight against National Education in 2011, and who also was a key figure in last Fall's Umbrella Movement.

The more radical Ma Jai is shown being arrested

In striking contrast is the more below the radar and less known Ma Wan-ke () (nicknamed "Ma Jai" () a 17-year-old secondary school dropout (from the same school and housing estate as the more mainstream Joshua Wong), who while lacking Mr. Wong's more sophisticated political analysis (spoken in the film in Cantonese, with English subtitles), nonetheless is able to offer biting observations that prove that he is able to be well read and  educated despite Hong Kong's at times stultifying education system.  He is an active member of the more anarchistic League of Social Democrats.

Matthew Torne at UC Irvine 25 February 2015; Photo c Daniel C. Tsang 2015
For Subversity Show Online, show host Daniel C. Tsang interviewed Director Matthew Torne earlier today from London via Skype.  Torne had shown his documentary before several dozen students at UC Irvine the Wednesday before.  Meanwhile, Joshua Wong was featured in  the L.A. Times after their visit to UCLA.

Protest leader Joshua Wong
On Subversity,Torne offers a critical analysis of the current political situation in Hong Kong in the aftermath of last fall's uprising.  He explains why he chose the two young protesters to feature in his film and offers some trunchent analysis of the People's Republic of China as Hong Kong's new colonial masters.

Joshua Wong with Lessons in Dissent DVD
The DVD was just released in Hong Kong; the boxed set comes with two DVDs (the documentary plus outakes) and a 96-page booklet with trenchant analyses of the political situation in Hong Kong.  - Daniel C. Tsang.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

"Last Days in Vietnam" Documentary is Fatally Flawed

Update: Thanh Nien (20 February 2015) links to this blog: "The first 25 minutes of the documentary devoted to establishing background and context are dangerously simplistic, quickly abandon all pretense at historical accuracy or balance, and [are] extremely manipulative,” wrote Christoph Giebel, an Associate Professor of Southeast Asian History and International Studies at the University of Washington, last week on the Vietnam Scholars' list serve."  The same article, by Calvin Godfrey, was also posted on diaCRITICS the following day.
The recent online free screening of an Oscar contending documentary, Last Days in Vietnam, on the Vietnam War (or American War) has sparked quite a bit of debate.  For instance, Nick Turse has panned it in the Nation, pointing out the consequences of the massive American bombing are still felt in Vietnam.

On Subversities, with the permission of the author of another critique, we provide here this Vietnam Studies academic's analysis of this documentary, taken from postings originally on the Vietnam Studies Group list.  Here is University of Washington historian Christoph Giebel's critique below, with headlines added:

A Fatal Flaw

I first saw the documentary in September at a pre-screening, and my many misgivings then were only reconfirmed by seeing it now again online.  The fact that the documentary is “widely praised” and nominated for highest US awards is much more of a commentary on current US culture —steeped in nationalist discourses of exceptionalism, thoroughly militarized, and narcissistic— than a reflection of its actual quality.  While most of the film is taken up by a detailed telling of the evacuation, the first 25 minutes of the documentary devoted to establishing background/context are dangerously simplistic, quickly abandon all pretense at historical accuracy or balance, and extremely manipulative.  These opening 25 minutes are a fatal flaw that render the entire documentary questionable at best.  Apart from the compellingly told, if minor human-interest stories contained in the main portions of the film, “Last Days in Vietnam” is the worst attempt at documenting the war I have seen in a long while.  In its early parts it comes across as a bad caricature of Cold War propaganda, and seemingly un-self-aware at that.

There is no indication in the credits that the film makers consulted any historians.  Instead, they seem to have relied on their own general, vague sense of how the war is being discussed in conventional, establishment discourses in the US or on the perspectives of the main US protagonists that are then uncritically presented as factual background.  The quote by Rory Kennedy in the linked review is bitterly ironic, as the film maker is revealed as incurious and easily swayed by the worst revisionist tropes of US politics over the war in Viet Nam.

Here’s my first stab at pointing to a few of the main issues with the documentary’s opening 25 minutes:

1) US-centrism and exceptionalism:
With one of its main themes being the “abandonment” of "South Vietnam” by the US, the unspoken, but heavily hinted at argument is that US action alone would have prevented the collapse of the RVN. The long-debunked notion that the US “cut” aid and did not provide the Paris Agreement-mandated supplies is trotted out and portrayed as central to why the ARVN was disintegrating (see, for example, the roughly 90 seconds starting at 22:18).  It is entirely US (in)action that is determining the outcome of unfolding events, not Vietnamese action/agency.

2) Complex US debates reduced to liberal “abandonment”:
The documentary participates in one-sided US politics by pointing at Congress and the US anti-war movement as main culprits for this “abandonment.”  See, for example, the a little over two minutes of scenes starting at 16:43: President Ford asking Congress for $722 million, Rep. McCloskey then explaining that Congress was unwilling to appropriate that money, overlaid simultaneously with (older) images of anti-war protestors, mainly holding up “Bring the troops home” placards. The complex ways in which the US public debated and opposed the war are thus reduced to being only self-interested in “bringing the boys home” and not caring about/abandoning "the South Vietnamese.”  The same manipulative overlaying of images occurs once more, starting at 23:47: Kissinger speaks into the camera about the two reasons for Ford’s $722 million request, one, "to save as many people as we could … the human beings involved, that they were not just pawns” and second, "the honor of America, that we would not be seen at the final agony of South Viet Nam as having stabbed it in the back.”  The images immediately cut to a newspaper headline of April 18 “Congress Balks At Arms Aid,” followed by a presidential aide remembering how he brought the news to Ford and the President uncharacteristically using a swear word, calling Congress “sons of bitches.”  The message to take away: Ford/Kissinger deeply cared, Congressional sons-of-bitches and the anti-war protesters did not and cold-heartedly stabbed “South Viet Nam” in the back.

(I will not speak here to the adventurous notion that Congressional appropriation (not assembling, shipping, delivering, distributing), on April 17, of emergency military aid, in violation of the Paris Agreement, would have made a lick of a difference before April 30.)

3) False and manipulative framing along US propagandistic, Cold War rhetoric:
The documentary abounds with the terms “North Vietnamese” v. “South Vietnamese,” all neatly homogeneous, and with a false spatial, binary representation of the warring parties as “North Viet Nam” and “South Viet Nam,” and of a “North Vietnamese” “invasion” “into” "South Vietnam” (caption at 7:54).  That the propaganda trope of two discrete countries and a “Northern" invasion is still being peddled —and widely accepted— in 2014 as an accurate historical rendition of the war is shocking.  Others have already pointed to the grotesque digital map with its 1950s, McCarthyism-style red ooze gobbling up homogeneously yellow territory.  It appears at 13:54, 18:52, and 33:56.  On this disturbing count alone, the film loses all credibility.  (It is one thing to say that the historical witnesses and the parties they represent may have subjectively felt this to be true, but the documentary portrays it as fact.)

Needless to say that the Paris Agreement knew no “North Vietnam” and “South Vietnam” (as captioned at 3:20), but instead the DRVN and RVN, both claiming to have sole, all-Vietnamese authority, and the NLF’s RSVN thrown in for good measure.  The DMZ of the map was long defunct.  Revolutionary forces (PAVN, PLAF, local guerrillas) controlled large areas of Viet Nam south of the 17th parallel, as specifically acknowledged by the Paris Agreement.  There were many factions of southern Vietnamese, supporters of the RVN being merely one of them.  No matter, the documentary collapses “South Viet Nam” with, and assigns it to, the RVN and completely elides revolutionary and nonaligned southerners.  (That makes for oddly confusing images at the end of relieved, happy if not jubilant Sai Gon citizens welcoming the victors.)

4) One-sided misrepresentation of the Paris Agreement:
The film falsely reduces the Paris Agreement to "a ceasefire between North and South Vietnam,” without mentioning that (1) the warring parties were not defined by these spatial terms, that (2) the ceasefire was in situ and not at the 17th parallel, and that (3) there were political provisions calling for a peaceful settlement that were immediately renounced by the RVN after the signing.  No mention is made of the much more aggressive violations of the ceasefire by the ARVN in 1973.  Of course the revolutionary side violated the Paris Agreement as well, albeit initially in a reactive manner, but the documentary, in maps and words, obscures the complexity of the situation  and resorts to manipulating the uninformed audience into believing that a ceasefire existed between a “North Viet Nam” and a peaceful, homogeneous “South Viet Nam”-cum-RVN that was only violated on March 10, 1975 by an “invasion.”

5) One-sided representation of war-time violence:
Dao X. Tran in the online review has said already enough on this point.  Again, it is one thing to portray the legitimate fear of communist violence and civilian killings as foregrounded in the subjective perspective of the documentary’s protagonists.  But this is what the film portrays alone to be the nature of warfare against the entirety of “the South Vietnamese.”  No one else perpetrated violence, no one else suffered.  See segment starting at 8:22.

6) Racist/orientalist reductionism of Vietnamese actions, motivations, and feelings:
One of the most appalling scenes of Last Days in Vietnam is CIA-agent Frank Snepp “explaining” what led to the “invasion” of Spring 1975.  Starting at 7:20: "The North Vietnamese viewed Nixon as a madman. They were terrified of him. They believed that Nixon, if necessary, would bring back American air power. But in August 1974, he was gone. … And overnight everything changed. Ha Noi suddenly saw the road to Sai Gon as being open.”
For the documentary, this segment functions as the crucial and only link between two points:  (A) The (falsely portrayed) ceasefire “between North and South Vietnam” and Nixon’s (hollow) assurances to Thieu that "if the North Vietnamese were to substantially violate the terms of the Paris Agreement, the United States would respond with full force.”  And (B) The “North Vietnamese” “invasion” of March 10, 1975 and subsequent US “abandonment” of “South Viet Nam."
The implications of Snepp’s simplistic point are two-fold: on the one hand, it reinforces the subtle message already discussed under (1) and (2) above that it was liberal hounding of Nixon, who alone as towering Uncle Sam held the line for “South Viet Nam,” that ultimately led to the RVN’s collapse.  On the other hand, it plays into long-standing racist notions in the West that “the natives” are easily swayed by, and can be kept under control through, fear, “shock and awe,” and the threat of violence.  Here the rational, if cunning, but ultimately well-meaning White Man, there the superstitious, emotional, child-like Little Brown “commie."
Naturally, the domestic turmoil in the US played a role in revolutionary plans, but the idea that “the North Vietnamese … were terrified of [Nixon]” and that it was this irrational fear that kept them in check is laughable, unbelievably substance-free, and plain ugly.

The first 25 minutes of Last Days in Vietnam sink the documentary.  This is too bad, because the human-interest story of the evacuation in the bulk of the film give voice to people immediately affected by the events in compelling and, at times, quite moving ways.

C. Giebel
Assoc. Prof. of History (Southeast Asia)
and International Studies (Viet Nam)
University of Washington -Seattle
7 February 2015 Postcript from Prof. Giebel:
Alternative Introduction Suggested 
If this film was meant as a snapshot of one city at a particularly perilous moment, an intro along the following introductory lines would have completely sufficed:

Southern Viet Nam, 20 April 1975:  the ARVN was unraveling before the combined forces of Vietnamese revolutionaries, barely five weeks into a General Offensive that swept entrenched communist-led divisions into the lowland population centers of central and southern-central Viet Nam.  A re-intervention of US forces was, for a complex set of domestic political reasons, out of the question.  The battle at Xuan Loc to hold the final defensive line before the approaches to Sai Gon, capital of the RVN, was lost, having ground up the last organized reserve units of ARVN.  The Republic of Viet Nam now rapidly collapsed, many of its troops, commanding officers, and civil servants deserting their posts, its leadership in disarray and embroiled in factional fighting, and any semblance of a functioning government quickly vanishing in the few remaining territories under its control — the vicinity of Sai Gon and scattered areas in the Mekong Delta.  Total defeat was only a matter of time.  With increasing urgency, indeed desperation, US personnel now faced the task of organizing an emergency evacuation of around 7,000 US citizens, their Vietnamese dependents, and perhaps several hundred thousand Vietnamese affiliated with the Republic and its armed forces, who were at risk of revolutionary reprisals.  The city of Sai Gon was teeming with people bewildered by the rapidly unfolding events, some in great fear for their safety, some secretly jubilant in their revolutionary loyalty, many others exhaustedly awaiting the end of war.  This documentary is about the untold stories of some remarkable Americans and Vietnamese caught up in the evacuation efforts from Sai Gon as the United States and many Republican loyalists faced their Last Days In Viet Nam.

There.  Took ten minutes to write.  Could have been spoken in voice-over in three minutes as a prologue to the documentary.  No gimmicky McCarthyite maps of red ooze, no gross distortions of the Paris Agreement, no utterly misleading regional/spatial terminology, no false insinuation of a ceasefire at the 17th parallel between discrete countries broken by a “Northern invasion,” no caricature of US politics, no homogenization of populations, no disrespect for the suffering of many ordinary people in southern Viet Nam.

Instead: trotting out, for 25 minutes, one Cold War propaganda zombie after the other that have, for two generations, prevented reconciliation across old divides and a more mature engagement of US society at large with the war in Viet Nam.  The film makers had choices.  They ruined what could have been a fine documentary.

Christoph Giebel