When it comes to news and documentaries, television is supposed to be long on visuals and short on context.
But context -- wide, deep and occasionally even wise -- is exactly what television is offering this week as we approach the 20th anniversary of one of America's more shameful moments, the fall of Saigon, which brought the Vietnam War to an end in 1975.
CBS News Correspondent Bob Simon has been in Vietnam this week delivering splendid reports, which will conclude tonight during the "CBS Evening News With Dan Rather & Connie Chung" airing at 7 on WJZ (Channel 13). At 8 tonight, the Discovery cable channel will premiere one of the finest documentaries of the decade, "The Fall of Saigon," produced and directed by former BBC filmmaker Michael Dutfield. At 8 Sunday night, CNN will offer a live, two-hour report, "Vietnam: Coming to Terms," featuring anchorman Bernard Shaw at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington and Peter Arnett, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his Associated Press reports during the war, back in Vietnam.
For many people, the images of the final days in Saigon are burned into memory: the helicopter precariously perched atop the deputy CIA station chief's house and all those desperate people trying to make it up a ladder to the copter, Navy crewmen pushing helicopters off the flight decks of U.S. warships into the sea, the victorious Viet Cong tanks rolling down the boulevards of Saigon, U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin looking haggard and confused as he was helicoptered out of the embassy compound.
"I think the fall of Saigon is a story in which television can be really useful in providing some context," said Jenny Thompson, of the American Studies Department at the University of Maryland. Thompson is writing her doctoral dissertation on war, visual imagery and shared memory.
"It seems like we were left the past 20 years with only the pictures. There was not much public discussion of them. It's as if we just stopped talking about the fall of Saigon almost right after it happened," Thompson said.
There was some discussion of the fall in the reporting of Arnett and others, as well as several subsequent books. But Thompson is right about the lack of a larger, ongoing public discussion involving television.
The reasons are not hard to understand. In 1975, the nation was still reeling from Watergate and the resignation of Richard Nixon. We were also being forced to face the harsh reality of our dependence on the Middle East for oil, while adjusting to the less-than-sure-footed presidency of Gerald Ford. In short, we had all the bad news we needed without dwelling on a war that we had just lost. Television was looking for something more upbeat to report than the 58,000 American deaths and the deep scars that remained on the national psyche.
Conversely, when the 10th anniversary arrived in 1985, television was steeped in the feel-good politics of Ronald Reagan's presidency. It was "morning in America," and we simply seemed to have no time to remember our failures, let alone try to understand them.
Michael Dutfield, the award-winning director/producer of Discovery's "The Fall of Saigon," agrees with Thompson's notion that we need to understand the context of the pictures we've been left with.
"I'm 48 years old, and my memories when I started this project also consisted primarily of those few scattered remnants of images. In particular, I had these images of the helicopters going over the sides of the ships into the sea. And I couldn't remember why. Why were they pushing them over the sides?" Dutfield said.
(The documentary explains that the helicopters pushed over the side were those that had been commandeered by South Vietnamese pilots trying to escape Saigon for the safety of the warships. There were so many of them that they quickly filled the decks and there was no room for the U.S. helicopters to land.)
"What we set out to do is try to put together a program of record, a program of testimony from those who were intimately involved with those events immediately prior to the fall of Saigon. We tried to get perspectives that ranged from the White House through to the North Vietnamese soldier walking into Saigon on the morning of April 30. That's the kind of context we were after," he added.
The end result is the best television document on the fall of Saigon -- something every American whose life was touched by that horrible war owes it to herself or himself to see.
The report opens with the image of a helicopter appearing on screen from over the horizon. It's the signature shot that says "Vietnam" to anyone who has seen the feature film, "Apocalypse Now" or "M*A*S*H." The shot is Dutfields' way of engaging viewers.
Dutfield & Co. then take the audience on a journey of discovery, creating a marvelous mosaic out of testimony, recollection, videotape, film, still photographs and fact -- all relentlessly driven by the tick, tick, tick of the clock during the last 48 hours of the war.
As the North Vietnamese circle Saigon on April 28, we see the installation of the last puppet president, Gen. Duong Van Minh. We hear U.S. officials explain how Minh will be able to negotiate a settlement with the North Vietnamese.
Then the report cuts to a flinty old man, former North Vietnamese General Tran Van Tra, who virtually spits out the response, "If any among the enemy thought there could still be a political solution, then it was only an illusion -- the last dream before death."
With those words, we start to understand how truly clueless top American leadership was. What follows is a story of duty and honor by many in the military, but far more confusion, deceit and shame by their political masters in Washington.
There are helicopter pilots explaining how they flew to the point of exhaustion during the rescue -- with no ground control for airspace that was packed with other helicopters. They landed on rooftops in the night, landings that would have been deemed hazardous in daylight.
There are South Vietnamese collaborators choking back emotion years later as they explain how their American bosses betrayed them and their families, leaving them to be captured and punished by the North Vietnamese.
And there are journalists, Marines, embassy aides, and former CIA officials re-creating what went on within the embassy during the final hours. The small details and memories in many of these accounts are superb.
A journalist, George McArthur, who was with Ambassador Martin, describes the final night: Anarchy reigned in the streets outside the embassy and it was near chaos within the walls of the compound with some 2,000 South Vietnamese waiting to be evacuate and thousands more pushing against the gates and trying to climb the wall to get in.
At 10 p.m., trying to maintain the illusion of control to the very end, Martin calmly told his South Vietnamese secretary, "Miss Kim, I don't think I'll be having any more dictation for you tonight. I think it's time for you to go."
Ambassador Finally, there's the testimony of President Ford and Henry Kissinger, who was then secretary of state. They made the decision that resulted in about 450 South Vietnamese collaborators being left behind in the embassy courtyard waiting for rescue helicopters that had been promised but would never come. Kissinger admits that all 450 could have been rescued, if not for the wrong-headed call made by him and Ford. Both blame it on confusion.
Speaking the language of Washington, Ford tells the filmmakers, "We had to make a harsh decision . . . that, to a degree, cut off some of our good allies."
The real condemnation of the decision of Ford and Kissinger is in the anguished testimony of the U.S. military men who had to lie to their South Vietnamese friends about help being on the way, just before sneaking off themselves to be rescued. But their anguish is nothing compared to the sorrow, pity and rage of the South Vietnamese men and women victimized by the final betrayal.
"This is an attempt at a historical document," Dutfield said in a phone interview this week. "I don't want to sound too pompous. But it's an attempt at a collection of testimony.
"Wouldn't it be wonderful if, in 50 years time, it's something that a history major would take down from the shelf and look at after all the people involved and you and me are dead and gone? I hope it has that kind of lasting value."
Of such documents, is a nation's memory made.