The scene would later remind one witness of the Vietnam War.
“Plumes of smoke billowed high into the illuminated night sky from barracks that had been set afire,” David Maraniss wrote in The Washington Post. “Flames still flickered from a charred guardhouse. Whoops and fierce cries of defiance echoed across the camp. Shotgun-toting civilians in pickup trucks loomed a mile or so beyond the gate. The mood was tense and chaotic.”
But this wasn’t Vietnam — or Iraq in the wake of an Islamic State attack. This was Fort Chaffee, a military installation in Arkansas, on June 1, 1980, when refugees from Fidel Castro’s Cuba rioted. The refugees had been sent there at the behest of President Jimmy Carter over the vociferous objections of an Arkansas governor with quite a political future: Bill Clinton.
“The White House message seemed to be: ‘Don’t complain, just handle the mess we gave you,'” former Arkansas first lady — and possible future president — Hillary Clinton wrote in her memoir “Living History.” “Bill had done just that, but there was a big political price to pay for supporting his President.”
As fears of Islamic State militants hiding amid thousands of Syrian refugees were boosted by attacks in Paris last weekend that killed more than 130 people, the decades-old tale of Clinton, Carter and Cubans at Fort Chaffee took on new resonance. The governors of 26 states, almost all of them Republicans, have said Syrian refugees are not welcome — though, as Bill Clinton found out, they likely have no ability to stop refugees from coming should the White House will it.
“The governor doesn’t believe the U.S. should accept additional Syrian refugees because security and safety issues cannot be adequately addressed,” Jim Lynch, a spokesman for Ohio governor and Republican presidential hopeful John Kasich said, as The Washington Post’s Abby Phillip reported. “The governor is writing to the president to ask him to stop, and to ask him to stop resettling them in Ohio.”
But, in a presidential election, bluff and brag mean a lot, even when it doesn’t amount to anything.
“The Fort Chaffee story is largely forgotten by the general public, but it’s a good bet that some governors haven’t forgotten its political lessons,” David A. Graham wrote at the Atlantic.
Clinton’s refugee problem began in the spring of 1980, when Castro, battling a bad economy, permitted 125,000 Cubans to leave the Communist nation in what became known as the Mariel boatlift. Chartered vessels carrying Cuban citizens across the water put Carter in tough spot — the United States was supposed to welcome the wretched refuse of any teeming shore. But what if Cuba’s unwanted, which included criminals and the mentally ill, were a little too wretched? The president didn’t appear to care.
“We’ll continue to provide an open heart and open arms to refugees seeking freedom from Communist domination and from economic deprivation, brought about primarily by Fidel Castro and his government,” Carter said.
But while the “open arms” line would prove Carter’s most memorable statement on the boatlift, the White House wanted to fold its arms as soon as possible.
“What the President in fact said was that we didn’t ask for this arrival,” Gene Eidenburg, a cabinet official, said in 1981. “This was not something we wanted. We had laws for dealing with people who were seeking political asylum and those who were eligible to receive it would receive it and those that weren’t would not receive it — would return to their country.”
As Carter pondered the gulf between soft rhetoric and hard enforcement of immigration law in Washington, Clinton, in the governor’s mansion in Little Rock, suspected he would get a call he wouldn’t want. Fort Chaffee had been a relocation center for Vietnamese refugees in the mid-1970s. Would Carter want to repurpose it for Cuba’s rejects? Soon enough, Clinton found himself on the phone with Eidenburg, negotiating — or, really, bowing to — the White House’s demands.
First, Clinton suggested the refugees be screened on an aircraft carrier off of the Florida coast. Eidenburg said that didn’t make sense, because there was no place to put those refugees the United States wouldn’t accept.
“Sure there is,” Clinton replied, as recounted in his memoir “My Life.” “We still have a base at Guantanamo, don’t we? And there must be a gate in the fence that divides it from Cuba. Take them to Guantanamo, open the door, and march them back into Cuba.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. rejected its future occupant’s Guantanamo plan.
“When the White House dismissed my suggestion out of hand,” Clinton wrote, “I should have known we were in for a long, rough ride.”
That ride commenced almost immediately. There were 20,000 Cubans at Fort Chaffee by May 20. Locals’ reactions to their uninvited guests recalls some of the angry rhetoric about Syrian refugees put forth since the Paris attacks.
“To say that they [local residents] are scared is an understatement,” Clinton remembered one sheriff said. “They are arming themselves to the teeth, and that only makes the situation more volatile.”
On May 26, “a couple hundred” refugees escaped the fort, running out through an unguarded gate. Clinton demanded the National Guard act, but was faced with a bit of a Catch-22: The Cubans weren’t illegal aliens, so they couldn’t be detained against their will — even though they weren’t citizens, and were now walking free among Arkansans, many of whom were hostile.
Clinton called Carter and “demanded that someone be given authority to keep the Cubans on the base,” he wrote. “I was afraid people in the area were going to start shooting them. There had been a run on handguns and rifles in every gun store within fifty miles of Chaffee.”
Carter sent more troops — Clinton wrote he “was able to relax a little.” Then: “On the night of June 1, all hell broke loose.”
A riot erupted at the fort; 1,000 Cubans fled past troops, who did little to stop them. The Cubans began walking down a highway to the closest town, which was filled with “several hundred angry and armed Arkansans,” as Clinton put it, with state troopers the governor’s only muscle to prevent chaos. After some of the Cubans started throwing rocks, Clinton feared “a bloodbath that would make the Little Rock Central High crisis look like a Sunday afternoon picnic.”
Fortunately, the Cubans retreated when troopers fired warning shots. Sixty-two people were injured and three buildings at Fort Chaffee were destroyed, but no one died. Conditions at the fort improved, and the screening process was streamlined. Further, Carter promised no more Cubans would be sent to Arkansas. Calm returned to the state ahead of a November election in which Clinton would, he hoped, secure a second term as the Natural State’s governor.
A few months later, at a meeting of the National Governors Association, Clinton got a call from the White House. Though he had fallen out with the president over Fort Chaffee, he expected to be congratulated for remaining faithful to Carter during a tough election. Instead, Carter was calling to renege on his promise — more Cubans were headed Clinton’s way.
Clinton pleaded for a reprieve. “Send them to a fort in some warm place out west you’re not going to win in November anyway,” he told Carter. Carter declined, saying a new facility would cost $10 million. Clinton: “I said, ‘Mr. President, your word to the people of Arkansas is worth $10 million.’ He disagreed, and we ended the conversation.'”
The fallout almost ended Clinton’s political career. Attack ads from his opponent, which included footage of rioting Cubans, pushed the refugee issue.
“We made the argument that Carter had used the state of Arkansas and the governor to literally dump Cubans here because we had very few electoral votes and he knew Clinton would not complain,” said Paula Unruh, the campaign manager of Clinton’s Republican opponent Frank White.
Nor was Carter immune from such tactics. On the stump, Ronald Reagan called his Cuba policy “inconsistent, insensitive and inefficient.”
“America has always accepted refugees with open arms, but we should not do it in such a way as to make things worse for both the refugees and the communities in which they are placed,” Reagan said.
At first, Clinton thought the ads so ridiculous that no one would believe them. He was wrong — the governor, as well as Carter, lost their jobs on the same day.
“I could have satisfied them only by shooting every refugee that left the fort,” Clinton said of some voters. “… I was sinking in the quicksand of Cubans.”
The now-former governor despaired.
“I was full of self-pity and anger, mostly at myself,” he wrote. “… At that moment, there didn’t seem to be much future for me in politics.”
Though Clinton, of course, went on to regain the governorship in Arkansas in 1982, he was still licking his wounds from the Fort Chaffee refugee imbroglio during his second term as president. When he awarded Carter and wife Rosalyn the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1999, The Post wrote the gesture eased the “Clinton-Carter rift.”
These men — both Baptists, Southerners, and former governors who would prove to be the only Democratic occupants of the White House between Lyndon B. Johnson and President Obama — should have gotten along. The Cubans, however, seemed to spoil it.
“One would have thought, looking at it abstractly, that they would have been the best of pals,” Mary E. King, an American University foreign policy specialist and Carter consultant, said at the time. Instead: “inexplicable frostiness.”
The world, meanwhile, was left to contemplate what would become of refugees in the coming decades.
“It is already clear that the 1980s are going to be a period when Americans grapple more closely than they have in 60 years with all the separate aspects of immigration: refugees, legal immigrants, illegal immigrants – the works,” The Post editorialized in 1980. “A sense is growing that although it is murderously difficult to deal with all the parts at the same time, that is the only way in which the competing values and interests can be fairly balanced.”