THE LAST AMBASSADOR by Bernard & Marvin Kalb Kalb


Email this review


The newscasting Kalbs want to evoke the 1975 fall of Saigon; they want to dramatize the issues involved; they want to fabricate a little spy/romance suspense; and they want to do it all without using any real names. Result? A classic example of fact/fiction identity crisis--satisfying in neither department. The controversial ""last ambassador"" in Saigon was, in fact, career diplomat Graham Martin (see Alan Dawson's 55 Days and others). Here, however, he's called Hadden Walker, and though the Kalbs make him a Martin-like autocrat--inflexible, blindly committed to an ARVN victory--they put heaviest blame (for the bungled evacuation especially) on ""the President"" and ""the Secretary of State."" Opposing Walker throughout is CIA agent Tony Catlett, who argues for negotiating a coalition government with Hanoi--especially after Tony spots the NVA buildup near Ban Me Thuot. And caught in between is Walker's daughter (and Tony's lover) Suzanne--who, after witnessing the Vietnamese-civilian horror (Tony kills refugees trying to board their plane), agrees to plant a bug to secretly record her father's real prognosis on the war. (In public he's gung-ho, constantly demanding ARVN funds from Washington.) But this halfhearted love/ ethics crisis is soon rendered moot when a furious Walker is ordered--too late, as it happens--to begin coalition talks: the triumphant invaders don't need negotiations now, so from then on the shaky focus is on the desperate chaos of evacuation--with loyal Vietnamese left behind (over Walker's protests) while Tony tries to save his Vietnamese ex-mistress: And Walker, wrongheaded yet honorable in his own way, is left, doomed, an angry scapegoat: ""The President as pitchman. . . selling shame as triumph, defeat as victory. . . . ""Provocative questions--but the serious political angles here: axe blurred by the fictional fudgings and cheapened by the wayward stabs at melodrama (there's also Walker's Eurasian mistress, who might be a spy). And the quality of the novelizing itself is quite low--with two-dimensional characters, stiffly speechifying dialogue, heavyhanded touches (Walker destroys his beloved porcelains, yelling ""The White House!"" and ""Congress!"" with each smash), and slurpy love scenes. Still, though this is weak as fiction and shaky as interpretive history, the ironic horrors of Saigon's fall do come through--in a patchy foreshadowing of what a novelist in the J. G. Farrell/ Paul Scott class may some day make of that tragic place and time.

Pub Date: Sept. 11th, 1981
Publisher: Little, Brown