Part I: Indochinese Refugees

A Review of George Packer (2019)

Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century

Richard Holbrooke was three years younger than me. He died nine years ago. He too had a calm and somewhat nasal voice, but it had a singsong cadence when he laughed while mine remains a low rumbling monotone interrupted by the odd guffaw. If I was the wallflower who listened and observed, questioned and interjected, Holbrooke led you onto the political dance floor by “cajoling, nattering, bullying, seducing, needling, analyzing, one-upping you – applying continuous pressure like a strong underwater current, so that by the end of a conversation, even two minutes on the phone, you found yourself far out from where you’d started.” I always try to bring the conversation back to where we began, though I am sure I am equally or even more wearing and exhausting with my verbosity as I drill down deep rather than carrying someone forward in a torrent of words.

Richard Holbrooke was a world-renowned statesman. I was an academic on the sidelines who inserted my toes in many of the same areas in which Holbrooke had become centrally involved, first and foremost into the issue of the Indochinese refugees, but also Bosnia-Herzegovina where I became a severe critic of Holbrooke’s. He went on to try helplessly and hopelessly to extricate America from Afghanistan while I implicated and accused America of failing to intervene in the genocide in Rwanda.

Holbrooke mirrored and expressed America’s confidence and energy, its efforts to reach and grasp at a heavenly ring, while I was probably more like the quiet Canadian who tried to play a modest and glancing role in trying to improve the world bit by bit. Instead of excess and mindblindness, Canadians have strived to see clearly and distinctly. In our desire to preserve our sight and our vision, however, we have often avoided the fray.

Holbrooke developed his foundational principles concerning diplomacy and politics, in good part as a result of his American experience in Vietnam. My political principles took root from my role as a leader and participant in the anti-nuclear and anti-war movement during the same period in the sixties. In my life, I learned a great deal about diplomacy, but never was able to incorporate those lessons deeply into my behaviour. Richard Holbrooke, by contrast, was a sponge. And, I would argue, a leach in his own unique way. Other than this over-generalized personalized comparison of our respective experiences, reading the story of this period of Holbrooke’s life brought back many memories of my own encounters with the Vietnam War.

As I indicated above, our paths crossed in terms of policy in the latter part of the seventies in dealing with the Indochinese refugees, an issue on which I became very active. Then we were both on the same side. Our paths would cross again over the Dayton Accords and Holbrooke’s seminal role in that agreement. I have never forgiven Holbrooke for his role in forging the terms of that agreement and I was anxious to read the second half George Packer’s biography to see if my previous thoughts on his role were reinforced or whether I would learn to understand him in a new way and discard my previous harsh judgements.

George Packer’s biography offers a detailed account of Holbrooke’s personal development, his friendships, his loves but, most importantly, his in-depth involvement in the foreign policies, strategies and their implementation over five decades of American history. The book is as much a story of America as it is of Richard Holbrooke.

George Packer’s decision to write a biography of Holbrooke is itself a sign of the latter’s importance. Now a staff writer at The Atlantic and formerly for The New Yorker, George Packer previously published The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, that won the 2003 National Book Award. His book, The Assassin’s Gate: America in Iraq was a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize. In addition to his other political writings, Packer has written two novels and a play.

George Packer is a wonderful writer. He easily weaves the tale of the very personal and the very public life of Holbrooke as a pivotal diplomat over those five decades. The book is written more in the form of a novel where the author is often sitting on the shoulder of Holbrooke as the latter exchanges thoughts and intimacies with his lovers and exchanges ideas and political plans with his friends and colleagues. However, the volume is purportedly and primarily a political history and personal biography of Richard Holbrooke.

I read through the first over one-third of the book covering the Vietnam period in two sittings. I was entranced – that is, until I got to the relatively brief section on the Indochinese refugees. Then I paused. And I reflected. This was a period and an event that I knew very well. If it had been misrepresented, what should I now think of the portrait that so enthralled me up until this point? I jump ahead to this section before I review the tale of the previous sections on Vietnam through the refracted lens of Packer’s account of Holbrooke’s involvement with the Indochinese refugees.

The section on the Indochinese refugees is only five pages (201-205). It covers the period from 1975 to 1979. The story as told by George Packer is very straightforward. There were three phases. In phase I, in 1975-6, President Gerald Ford admitted 130,000 Vietnamese into the USA. In phase 2, from 1977-1978, “the gates closed” because “Americans wanted to be done with the region.” The refugee issue was ignored. The U.S. lacked any refugee policy. There were only two people in the State Department refugee office. Cyrus Vance, President Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of State, believed that refugees were an internal matter for the “host” country, the country of first asylum. Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s security adviser, “gave them no thought at all.”

Richard Holbrooke was the exception. Because the refugees were from Indochina, the area in which Holbrooke lost his virginity in foreign affairs, and because the refugees were desperate, they “became Holbrooke’s concern. For four years [1975-1979], he never lost sight of them.” In August 1977, before Congress, he pushed to admit an additional 15,000 refugees. “In 1978 and 1979, when Vietnamese by the tens of thousands were forced to take to the South China Sea, he pushed for a stronger American response, such as using navy ships to pick up those turned away by neighbouring countries. But the navy didn’t see rescuing refugees as a military mission.” (p. 202)

Phase three took place in 1979; during that year, the policy shifted. On the issue of naval rescue in the spring of 1979, Holbrooke convened a meeting in the State Department to push his position, but was opposed by other agencies, especially the Pentagon. It was only because Holbrooke had recruited Vice-President Walter Mondale to support his position that Mondale, at the end of the meeting, simply ordered the navy to pick up the refugees. Mondale added that, alternatively, the admiral could find another job.

In the second step of Phase three, in June of 1979, Holbrooke on the way to the G7, “badgered first Vance and then Carter to double the number of Southeast Asian refugees admitted into the United States from seven to fourteen thousand.” Even if you knew nothing about refugee policy and the period 1977 to 1979, there had to be something fishy about this statement. For if the USA had turned its back totally on Indochinese refugees, why had the USA been taking 7,000 Indochinese refugees per month or 84,000 per year or 56% of the intake in 1975-6?

We’ll return to this strand in the narrative. The resistance to Holbrooke’s proposal was too strong. Vietnamese refugees were not a priority issue. Nevertheless, when Carter reached Tokyo, he announced that the refugee intake would go from 7,000 to 14,000 per month, with the implication that, against all odds, Holbrooke had persuaded Carter. Further, in July, with Carter preoccupied with Egyptian-Israeli peace negotiations, Mondale was sent to the pledging conference in July. His speechwriter used Holbrooke’s paper on the dastardly conduct of the Evian Conference in 1938 when Western states, with the one exception of the Dominican Republic, turned their backs on the Jewish refugees.

Mondale’s speech got a standing ovation in citing Evian. “Let us renounce that legacy of shame. Let us honor the moral principles we inherit. Let us do something meaningful – something profound – to stem this misery. We face a world problem. Let us fashion a world solution. History will not forgive us if we fail. History will not forget us if we succeed.” Holbrooke, according to George Packer, had been motivated, not by the plight and flight of his Jewish parents, but by his experiences in Vietnam and by his disposition, not to respond with psychological despair but with “furious action.”

Lionel Rosenblatt, Holbrooke’s friend from their service in Vietnam together, then stationed at the U.S. embassy in Bangkok, did as he had in 1975; he defied orders and helped evacuate South Vietnamese refugees from Saigon. In 1979, he moved to action to help the Cambodian refugees staggering across the border into Thailand while the UNHCR stood by and said nothing according to Packer. Ambassador Morton Abramowitz was on side. Holbrooke in Washington gave them political cover. In October, Holbrooke traveled to Thailand to visit the camps, when, with a few exceptions, according to Packer, international do-gooders “seemed more concerned with correct procedures than solving problems.”

In the camps, Holbrooke denounced the UNHCR, and, with “his egotism and idealism in perfect balance,” pursued a relentless policy of relieving the plight of the refugees as Rosalynn Carter took sentimental photo-ops with an exhausted refugee mother and her child and pronounced the situation “devastating.” Only after that, according to Packer, did the world pay attention. As a final outcome of Holbrooke’s efforts, Jimmy Carter signed the Refugee Act of 1980, tripling the number of refugees allowed into the country. “By 1982 the United States had admitted half a million Indochinese, by far the most of any country in the world. The number eventually reached one and a half million. Holbrooke had a lot to do with it.”

A lot of claims were put forth in these five pages. I have selected ten:

  1. After 1975-6, America closed its gates to Indochinese refugees.
  2. The reason: America wanted to forget the war and turn its back on the refugees.
  3. Holbrooke, however, never gave up his concern for the refugees.
  4. Holbrooke, against almost general opposition, successfully pushed a policy of naval rescue of Vietnamese refugees fleeing in 1978-9.
  5. At the G7 summit in Geneva in June of 1979, as a result of Holbrooke’s badgering, Carter pledged to increase the American intake from 7,000 to 14,000 per month.
  6. In the August Indochinese refugee conference in Geneva, as a result of Holbrooke’s paper on the Evian Conference in 1938 dealing with the plight of the European Jews, VP Walter Mondale gave his historic speech rallying the world community to resettle the refugees.
  7. The initiatives Holbrooke took were motivated both by his memories of the suffering of the Vietnamese and his disposition to respond to suffering, not by an outflow of feeling, but by furious action.
  8. After, and, by implication, as a result of Holbrooke’s and Rosalynn Carter’s visit to the Cambodian refugee camps, “the world paid attention to Cambodia.”
  9. Up until then, the UNHCR had been silent and impotent and the NGOs mostly passive and incompetent.
  10. By implication again, as a result of Holbrooke’s dedication and commitment, Jimmy Carter signed the 1980 Refugee Act which tripled the annual refugee intake into America of Indochinese from 17,000 to 50,000.

In the next blog, I will examine each claim in turn.

With the help of Alex Zisman

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