The man and the problem first met surreptitiously for four days while his State Department superiors thought he was on his sick bed at his home in Chevy Chase. Lionel Rosenblatt had actually slipped half across the world to take on, personally and secretly, a problem his government seemed to be ignoring. He went to South Vietnam and helped 200 Vietnamese, who had worked with the Americans, escape before the fall of Saigon.
On April 20, nine days before Saigon fell in 1975, Rosenblatt and another young foreign service officer, Larry Craig Johnstone, fed up with what they felt was an immovable bureaucracy, took personal leave, and without telling anyone, flew at their own expense to Saigon. Both spoke Vietnamese and had many Vietnames friends so they were able to set up their own underground without much difficulty. Working out of a Vietnamese apartment, they arranged meetings on street corners or on the veranda of the old Hotel Continental where they filled out the necessary forms before smuggling the Vietnamese to Ton Son Nhut airport and through various police checkpoints to where they were finally loaded onto empty U.S. military planes returning home.
The American Embassy in Saigon was instructed to look for the two young men, but harassed by the problems of dismantling the huge U.S. complex they were either too busy or simply reluctant to stop the two Americans from running their own secret escape route.
When on April 25 they boarded a plane crammed with refugees for the return trip home, they were sure they had lost their jobs.
Within hours of their arrival in Washington they were summoned to appear before the Secretary of State. A stern Henry Kissinger warned them never to do such a thing again, using words like "irresponsible" or "over-dramatic," and then the Kissinger smile appeared. He embraced the two saying that he hoped he might have had the courage to do the same if he had been in their positions. Both were subsequently given Foreign Service Association Awards.
Johnstone continued his regular foreign service career, but from then on, Lionel Alexander Rosenblatt has devoted his life to Indochinese refugees. Now, three and a half years later, he heads the American effort to speed the flow of refugees from Thailand to the United States. Now the whole grim business has escalated -- as mass migrations from Laos and Cambodia, overland, and by boat from Vietnam, daily swell the numbers looking for homes. More than a half million Indochinese have become refugees in the last four years. Some 150,000 are currently in camps in Thailand.
The enormity of the problem and the paucity of available alternatives for these unfortunates would discourage many, but Rosenblatt and a small staff, many of them former Peace Corps volunteers, attack the daily task of selecting that tiny number who will make it to the United States. Approximately 35,000 will be rescued from the hopeless no man's land of a refugee camp in a country that can provide neither farm land nor jobs for newcomers, a land already overpopulated and underfed.
"I get up each morning," says Rosenblatt, "wondering who I can fit into the criteria of eligibility today. Who will I have to turn down? Someone whose case I know and care about? So many of these application forms become real people to me and certainly to their case workers. We get pretty involved."
Rosenblatt worries that the United States isn't taking more refugees. He and his staff feel that we have a moral obligation towards the hundreds of thousands whose lives have been so disrupted by the war in Vietnam. The fact that the Thais currently feel inundated and unable to cope with the hordes makes it imperative to find other alternatives.
"We are," says Rosenblatt, "dealing with mass migrations. The whole of the Mhong tribal nation is being eliminated or forced out of Laos. We are speaking of hundreds of thousands of people."
The enormity of the problem must be reduced to the technicalities of doing what is possible. So Rosenblatt and all his staff go to work in their small, paper-strewn office across the street from the spacious U.S. embassy, seven days a week, 14 to 16 hours a day.
Former Ambassador to Thailand Charles Whitehouse remembers Rosenblatt's dedication with a smile. "When I saw Lionel coming down the hall I would duck into an office or behind a door. I knew he would be coming along with a request I couldn't posibly fill. Lionel pushed me -- and the department -- long before I had any feeling that Thailand was going to be swamped by a human invasion. I venture to say Lionel knew many more would come. He felt we were in for a dramatic time. He was right."
Lionel Rosenblatt, 35, is tall and dark. Sitting in his shirt sleeves surrounded by the clutter of his work and continually interrupted by the flow; of Indochinese coming to see him about their lives, he seems relaxed. Louis Wiesner of the International Rescue Committee, who has worked with Rosenblatt for years, says: "Lionel is very disorganized but somehow it doesn't matter. In the end he is extraordinarily effective."
Lionel Rosenblatt was brought up in Bellport, Long Island, where his father, a nuclear physicist, was the director of the U.S. government's Frankfort Arsenal at Brookhaven.
Bellport High was divided between the "lab" children and the town ones. Lionel, a lab child, became president of his class. He went on to Harvard and then, after a year at Stanford Law School, joined the foreign service.
"It was a natural choice," says his cousin, Ambassador Peter Rosenblatt, who is the president's personal representative for the negotiations in Micronesia. "We have all been brought up traveling. Our grandfather was an early Zionist so we spent many of our vacations in Israel."
Rosenblatt's younger brother, Josiah, is also a foreign service officer, currently serving as a special aide to Ambassador Samuel Lewis in Israel. His youngest brother, Nathaniel, has just been accepted by the diplomatic corps but is delaying a final decision until he finishes law school.
Rosenblatt was well on his way to a successful conventional foreign service career before his brief visit to Saigon. Says his ambassador cousin, "Lionel has been given many chances to go to other jobs, ones that lead up the career ladder, but he believes we owe these people an attempt to help them, that this is truly a part of our original commitment to Vietnam."
Rosenblatt's name was not on the September promotion list.
His wife -- they met when they were both on assignment in Columbo, Ceylon -- has become a nurse and currently works for the medical unit of the International Rescue Committee in Nong Khai, the largest of the refugee camps. During the week Anne Rosenblatt lives an austere life. She sleeps in a dorm and eats in the mess set up for the personnel of the various voluntary agencies working in the camp. The medical problems she cares for run the gamut from open and often infected wounds of those shot while escaping, to the ever-present, universal maladies caused by parasites (malaria, amoebic dysentery). On Friday night she takes the overnight train to Bangkok to see her husband.
The U.S. refugee office in Bangkok has only one job, the selection and transportation of those Indochinese going to the United States. The Thai government has the primary responsibility of receiving and housing the refugees. Except for a brief period in 1977 the Thais have allowed the inundation. The Thais are constantly concerned that communist troublemakers will come in under the guise of being refugees. They are worried because many refugees leave the 15 established camps and disappear into the Thai economy taking either land or jobs from needy Thais. Though the United Nations High Commission for Refugees assumes many of the costs of establishing and maintaining the camps -- and voluntary agencies from all over the world have supplemented the food, clothing and medical care -- the Thais find themselves absorbing many costs, like extra border guards. Additional police are needed to keep the peace in areas where the local population is actively reluctant to accept the refugees. The Thais are becoming increasingly concerned that they will be left to provide for most of the refugees.
Life as a refugee varies from camp to camp. Some camps are large enough so that the refugees, many of whom have been in camp for two or three years, have built their own huts and started vegetable gardens. Others are overcrowded, totally dependent on the meager rations provided by the camp kitchen. But what they all have in common are thousands of people yearning to come to the United States.
In practical terms this means that the U.S. Office for Refugees must -- in order to be fair -- interview every Indochinese who thinks he should be included in one of the categories of criteria required for eligibility in the Indochinese Parole Program.
The basic selection process in Thailand is done, under a contract with the Department of State, by the staff of the International Rescue Committee. These young people are mostly former Peace Corps volunteers. They all speak Thai, several speak Khmer or a tribal dialect. Their experience in the Peace Corps has given them some preparation for the extremes of Thai climate and the hardships that living in a refugee camp entail. It did not prepare them to rescue drowning mothers and babies from the Mekong River at flood tide as exhausted members of the Mhong tribe tried to escape a pursuing Lao militia. It did not prepare them to console decimated families. Nor did it teach them how to deal with the problem of selecting a few from so many. It is a heartbreaking job with few simple answers.
The Mongh, for example, are Moslems. Many have several wives. The U.S. Immigration Service is prepared for only one per family. Some must be left behind.
Even those who have acquired a precious visa cause problems for case workers. Frequently when one realizes he is really leaving camp, that he will once more be able to care for a family, he recrosses the perilous Mekong to find that family. His immigration visa was made out only for him as prior to acceptance he had never mentioned a family, so the weary staffer has to begin all over again and include a family in the new application.
There are five separate programs under which a refugee can apply for a U.S. visa, making the process something of a bureaucratic dice game.
The Mhong tribesmen are the cause of greatest concern in Thailand currently. They are being gassed and napalm-bombed by Lao military using old American planes. Their crops are being systematically destroyed, their water supplies poisoned.
Rosenblatt, in Bangkok, worries that the boat refugees are getting all the attention. People floating hopeless around at sea present a more photogenic story than the starving Mhong coming down their mountain paths. He hopes there will be places for both groups.
Possibly Lionel Rosenblatt can, for just one day, sit at his desk, and reflect with contentment that, after all, 165,000 Indochinese have already made it to the United States.
"Lionel worries about his people even after they are here," says his father. "He is always writing me to look up so-and-so to find out how they are doing."
"I think," he says, "my son must be guided by the Talmudic teaching: 'He who saves a human life is as if he saved the whole world.'"