On a recent flight from Vietnam, one of many trips I have made since the war ended, I was seated next to Dan Nguyen, a 63 year old Vietnamese who quietly spoke with me about his harrowing passage from Vietnam in 1981, along with his two younger brothers on a leaky wooden fishing boat. They eventually arrived in Guam before the dawn of a new day in sunny California. Nguyen became a proud American citizen in 1987 and successfully found career employment with Cisco.
Nguyen’s story along with more than 130,000 lives are all unique, and so many different versions are recounted in Thurston Clarke’s Honorable Exit How A Few Brave Americans Risked All To Save Our Vietnamese Allies At The End of the War but all offer a shared goal in their quest for freedom.
Although not classified legally as “refugees” under international law, the Vietnamese were commonly called refugees as well as “evacuees” and “parolees.” Most of the Vietnamese who fled sought and soon gained resettlement in the US. President Gerald Ford’s administration allowed them to enter as “parolees”—a loophole in the US immigration policy, which did not make provisions for refugees at that time. The number of boat people leaving Vietnam and arriving safely in another country totaled almost 800,000 between 1975 and 1995. Scores of Vietnamese failed to survive the passage, facing danger from pirates, overcrowded boats and storms.
For these war evacuees, the escape from Vietnam was triggered as a result of the communist government of North Vietnam, supported by the Soviet Union and China in a battle with South Vietnam, backed by the US, in what historians have called a Cold War proxy fight. The US had been providing aid and advisors to South Vietnam as early as the 1950s and by 1968 had more than 500,000 troops in the country.
Each side suffered and inflicted huge losses, with the civilians suffering horribly. During the course of the war, the US lost 58,220 while Vietnamese losses were estimated at over 2 million. The war persisted from 1955 to 1975 with most of the fighting taking place in South Vietnam.
It was in 1973 when US participation in the Vietnam War ended in a cease-fire and a withdrawal that included promises by President Nixon to assist the South in the event of invasion by the North. But in early 1975, when North Vietnamese forces began a full-scale assault, Congress refused to send arms or aid. By early April that year, the South was on the brink of a defeat that threatened execution or years in a camp for those Vietnamese who supported the government in Saigon.
More than 44 years ago leading right up to the fall of Saigon, there was a hastily organized rescue effort dubbed “Operation New Life.” It was a massive resettlement program for the thousands of Vietnamese fleeing political oppression, poverty and continued war. The evacuation was organized by scheduled flights from Saigon to reception camps in the Philippines and Guam and by transport aboard US Navy ships. To be sure, the reprisals for the South Vietnamese who worked for the US, or held senior positions in South Vietnam’s government, translated into the reality of draconian re-education camps.
Today the 1.3 million immigrants from Vietnam and their 300,000 or so children, along with their culture and cuisine, are part of the American mosaic. For them, the only option was to flee or find American friends still in Saigon who could help them escape.
Clarke’s narrative takes the reader to the build-up of the evacuation of not only Americans but also Vietnamese who wanted to board the next available flight from Tan Son Nhut airport.
In this sweeping tale of heroism, scores of Americans—diplomats, business people, soldiers, missionaries, contractors, and spies –risked their lives to assist their current and former translators, drivers, colleagues, neighbors, friends, and in many instances, strangers in escaping.
One of the heroes singled out is diplomat, Kenneth Quinn. We met in Cambodia when he served as Ambassador and I was reporting for The Washington Times. At that time, I was not informed of his backstory in Vietnam. During his diplomatic career, Ambassador Quinn served as a rural development advisor in the Mekong Delta, on the National Security Council staff at the White House, at the US Mission to the UN in Vienna, and as Chairman of the US Inter-Agency Task Force on POW/MIAs.
A fluent Vietnamese speaker, Ambassador Quinn acted as interpreter for President Gerald Ford at the White House and personally negotiated the first-ever entry by US personnel into a Vietnamese prison to search for US POW/MIAs.
On March 28, 1975, Quinn was back in Saigon on a presidential mission, headed by General Fred Weyand, a previous commander of US forces in Vietnam. The capable and dedicated Foreign Service officer first served in Vietnam deployed as a district senior advisor in Sadec Province in 1968. Later he soon found himself at the epicenter of insuring as many refugees could be offered safe passage to America. Although he was later assigned to the National Security Council in Washington, his love for Vietnam never wavered and was fortified by his marriage to a Vietnamese and her family and friends.
Clarke writes, “Washington was 12 hours behind Saigon, so it was early on the morning of April 28, 1975 when Quinn (now back in Washington), heard that the Pentagon had stopped the flights and was recommending that Ford halt the evacuation of Vietnamese by fixed-wing planes and concentrate on rescuing Americans. Quinn raced to the office of White House photographer David Kennerly and explained the situation. Kennerly quickly went to the Oval Office and told President Ford that a reliable source had informed him that thousands of refugees were stranded at Tan Son Nhut.”
Quinn knew that Ford treated Kennerly like a son and because of his swift actions in communicating with the photographer, thousands of Vietnamese were safely flown out of Saigon.
There are so many other heroes that Clarke presents, including Richard Armitage, Walter Martindale, Theresa Tull, Marius Burke, Ken Moorefield, James Parker, Al Topping, Brian Ellis, John Madison and other Americans, including US Navy personnel picking up 20,000 refugees stranded at sea.
The US eventually accepted well over a million refugees who started new lives in communities across the country. Even in Quinn’s home state of Iowa, the late governor Robert Ray, a Republican, faced down many staunch critics when he called openly for Iowans to welcome nearly 10,000 Vietnamese in 1975.
Clarke’s book is timely since Americans today are watching another humanitarian crisis unfold at America’s southern border, where the stark evidence of a broken US immigration system now reveals death, detention and separation of families.
That’s not to say that in the 1970s Vietnam refugee resettlement campaign didn’t elicit public opposition. However, the Trump administration wages a deliberate campaign of human rights violations against asylum seekers in order to broadcast globally that the US no longer welcomes refugees.
Unfortunately, the White House is seeking to dismantle the US asylum system, including by narrowing definitions of who qualifies for protection—in violation of international law.
The same generous humanitarian spirit that helped Vietnamese seek the promise of America is needed now as the grim reality of the migration crisis unfolds on America’s southern border and in the graphic photograph showing the lifeless bodies of a Salvadoran father and his daughter, clutching one another, who drowned as they attempted to cross the Rio Grande into Texas in their pursuit of a new life.
James W. Borton is a contributing foreign correspondent for several publications.