"Today, America can regain the sense of pride that existed before Vietnam. But it cannot be achieved by refighting a war that is finished as far as America is concerned. . . . [T]hese events, tragic as they are, portend neither the end of the world nor of America's leadership in the world."
President Gerald R. Ford uttered those words in a speech at Tulane University on April 23, 1975, in the final days of Vietnam's long war. The rowdy crowd roared and gave him a standing ovation. The military draft had ended and American troops and POWs had returned home two years earlier. America had washed its hands of Vietnam, yet millions of lives were still at stake.
Halfway around the world, my family experienced the unfolding of those tragic events in South Vietnam. For us, it was the worst of times. It seemed like the end of the world to me. I was only 10.
Dwight D. Eisenhower had sent American military advisers to Vietnam to help contain communism and prevent the "dominoes" from falling in Southeast Asia. John F. Kennedy dispatched thousands more in a graduated response to a burgeoning insurgency. Lyndon B. Johnson broke his promise not to send "American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves." Richard M. Nixon prolonged the killing for another three years despite having a secret plan to end the longest American war ever.
In the end, after two decades of flailing diplomacy in that tiny peninsula, Gerald Ford dealt with the aftermath: empty guarantees made to an ally, promises he could not keep and a "peace with honor" that the congressional Watergate class would not enforce.
Years later Ford wrote a letter to the group of Marines who had evacuated the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. In it he said, "April 1975 was indeed the cruelest month. The passage of time has not dulled the ache of those days, the saddest of my public life."
But Ford became the savior to those lucky enough to escape the taking of Saigon by the North Vietnamese army. "I pray no American president is ever again faced with this grave option," Ford said at a public forum on the legacy of the Vietnam War 25 years later. "I still grieve over those we were unable to rescue." He added that he was thankful America was able to relocate 130,000 Vietnamese refugees (less than 1 percent of South Vietnam's population) and that "to do less would have added moral shame to humiliation."
My family and those other blessed South Vietnamese found ourselves stuck in refugee camps across the United States. Outside the camps, public sentiment against Vietnamese refugees ran high, although at the time we did not feel it directly. The book on Vietnam had been closed for most Americans until the refugees arrived in unprecedented numbers. Only the Hungarian and Cuban refugee resettlements were of comparable scale. Newspapers portrayed the country as split on what to do with the refugees.
In a May 1975 article in the New York Times, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) commented that "barmaids, prostitutes and criminals" should be screened out as "excludable categories." Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) "charged that the [Ford] Administration had not informed Congress adequately about the number of refugees" -- as if anyone actually knew during the chaotic evacuation. "I think the Vietnamese are better off in Vietnam," sniffed George McGovern in Newsweek.
At the time, unemployment in the United States hovered near double digits. Perhaps this had something to do with the anti-refugee emotion. In Larry Engelmann's "Tears Before the Rain: An Oral History of the Fall of South Vietnam," Julia Vadala Taft, head of the interagency task force for refugee resettlement, recalled such opposition. "The new governor of California, Jerry Brown, was very concerned about refugees settling in his state. Brown even attempted to prevent planes carrying refugees from landing at Travis Air Force Base near Sacramento. . . . The secretary of health and welfare, Mario Obledo, felt that this addition of a large minority group would be unwelcome in California. And he said that they already had a large population of Hispanics, Filipinos, blacks, and other minorities."
The refugees were extremely fortunate. Our biggest supporter, outside of Julia Taft, was the president of the United States. Even though he had described the Vietnam conflict as "a war that is finished as far as America is concerned," Ford's attention was now focused on the refugees. In May 1975 he visited the camps, and soon after refugees began leaving to start new lives across America. The government wanted to disperse the refugees to spread the cost among many states and communities. By Christmas of that year, all refugee camps had been closed, and the refugees were resettled in every state.
I am not aware of any other politicians, antiwar protesters, esteemed journalists or celebrities visiting Fort Chaffee, Ark., where my family was temporarily housed for two months. But Gerald Ford did.
April 1975 was indeed the cruelest month for us. But thanks to President Ford's leadership, we experienced America's kindness and generosity during our darkest days. We owe him our deepest gratitude in remembrance.