Did America close its gates to refugees in 1976 and 1977 after admitting 130,000 in 1975?
After WWII, the U.S. resettled 650,000 displaced Europeans, took in refugees fleeing Communist regimes (38,000 Hungarians in 1956-7), took in tens of thousands of Cubans and in 1975-6, 130,000 Vietnamese refugees as part of the U.S.-sponsored evacuation program culminating in Operation Frequent Wind. That program evacuated 7,000 American civilians and U.S.-allied Vietnamese by helicopter from various points in Saigon. By November, Operation New Life processed 110,000 refugees from Saigon who had been brought to Guam. Operation New Arrivals relocated Vietnamese refugees from Guam and other Pacific Islands to the United States. Did American policy change after this response to the fall of Saigon and emergency refugee crisis in 1975?
No. When American officials realized the exodus was continuing and that 90,000 refugees remained in camps in Thailand or were stateless persons in various countries throughout Southeast Asia, the U.S. established a refugee office in Bangkok, Thailand, headed by Lionel Rosenblatt, a friend of Richard Holbrooke. In 1975, Rosenblatt, with L. Craig Johnstone, had defied State Department orders, flew to Saigon and organized the evacuation of friends and colleagues with whom they had worked in Vietnam. For their work, they were formally reprimanded by Henry Kissinger who, at the same time, informally smiled and shook their hands. Rosenblatt received the William R. Rivkin award from the American Foreign Service Association for his work rescuing Vietnamese refugees. (See the character named Larry Rush in the 1990 movie Last Flight Out.)
Rosenblatt was then given the responsibility for processing additional Vietnamese refugees for entry into the United States. (Cf. Larry Clinton Thompson (2010) Refugee Workers in the Indochinese Exodus, 1975-1982.) Rosenblatt, who would eventually leave the State Department and become President of Refugees International, assumed his role as founder and chief of the Refugee Section at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok. During 1978-81, he became the refugee coordinator and director of the Khmer Emergency Group. (His archives are located at the Irvine campus of the University of California.)
The U.S. continued to admit about 100 per month under Section 212 (d) (5) of the Immigration and Nationality Act permitting the Attorney General in his discretion to: “parole into the United States temporarily under such conditions as he may prescribe for emergent reasons or for reasons deemed strictly in the public interest any alien applying for admission to the United States.” Other than this discretionary option, no legislative mandate existed to admit more. However, by 1977, pressure had grown to admit 1,250 per month led by Ted Kennedy in the Senate and, in the House of Representatives, Joshua Eilberg, a Democratic Representative from Pennsylvania.
Cyrus Vance, Secretary of State, rather than ignoring the refugee issue as Packer claimed, recommended that President Carter authorize Attorney General Griffin B. Bell to use his authority to admit 15,000 additional Indochinese refugees: 8,250 Vietnamese, including more than 7,000 “boat people,” 6,000 Laotians and 1,000 Cambodians living in Thai refugee camps. They were to be admitted at the rate of about 1,000 per month over the following fifteen months.
Now it may seem as if I am making a mountain out of a tiny molehill. However, these mistakes about claiming that the U.S. closed its doors and that Vance was indifferent to the plight of the refugees may signal a much larger problem in Packer’s writing. They may represent a plethora of errors and misstatements, perhaps influenced by Holbrooke’s grandiose self promotion. Further, Packer, in getting things wrong that are so easily checked, immediately becomes suspect as a source of historical accuracy. Finally, it suggests becoming very wary when Packer denigrates other officials, the UNHCR and NGOs when compared to Holbrooke’s purported creativity and activism on behalf of refugees. Let us see how Packer’s claim stands up, that, against widespread opposition, Holbrooke promoted the use of the American Navy to rescue refugees at sea. Did Holbrooke, in Packer’s words, badger President Jimmy Carter to increase the intake of refugees from 7,000 to 14,000 per month prior to the international conference in Geneva in June of 1979?
America may indeed have wanted to forget the war, but that was not the reason for the delay in the uptake of more refugees. A new president had just taken office. He had to get his feet wet. There were legislative obstacles. Further, the same people who opposed the intake of the 130,000, because the refugees were from a different culture and would not assimilate, because they would provide competition for American workers, even though the organized union movement supported the intake of the refugees, because of the costs of the resettlement program (one half billion for the 130,000), continued to oppose the intake of Indochinese refugees. And they were supported by a majority of Americans. However, and this is very important, the legislative and executive branches of the American government continued to provide the leadership in opposing the majority opposition to the intake of the refugees and the xenophobic voices that championed those sentiments. Fortunately, in both the Republican and Democratic parties, saner voices prevailed. Holbrooke may never have given up his concern for refugees, but he was far from being a lone wolf advocating on their behalf.
A much larger exodus was on the horizon. At the same time as Congress was holding hearings on 4 August 1977 of the House Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, and International Law, at which Holbrooke appeared to support the 15,000 intake, 1,500 per month were escaping from Vietnam, mostly on unseaworthy boats. The Boat People exodus was in its very early phase. On 12 June 1977, a 1,570-ton oil tanker, the Leap Dol, well past its recommended use date but chartered by the World Conference on Religion and Peace for precisely the task of rescue, sat in a Malaysian harbour unable to unload its cargo of 249 mainly Laotian refugees rescued at sea in January. So much for Packer’s slighting of the majority of the NGOs for their incompetence and lack of initiative.
The Laotian flight adumbrated a new boat exodus from Vietnam as the Hanoi government in 1978 began harassing the Hoa, specifically the “overseas” Chinese who made up a significant segment of the merchant class in South Vietnam. At the time, Richard Holbrooke was Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. On 30 July 1984, he wrote a review for The New Republic of William Shawcross’ book, The Quality of Mercy: Cambodia, Holocaust, and Modern Conscience, that contributed to the debate over the responsibility to protect, given additional momentum following the Rwanda genocide in 1994. Holbrooke wrote:
“The routine of government meetings never seems more unreal than when their consequences are so real—literally life or death—for people who have no spokesman present in the room. One such meeting that remains vividly in my mind took place in the White House Situation Room early in 1979. The South China Sea was filled with tens of thousands of Vietnamese refugees, many in ramshackle boats, seeking sanctuary’ in neighboring countries. Large numbers of them drowned, and others were attacked by pirates. There were ships of the U.S. Seventh Fleet in the Western Pacific, but not where the boat people were in greatest difficulty. At the time, the Navy was following traditional rules of the sea: picking up refugees sighted during regular naval patrols only if they appeared to be in imminent danger. No extraordinary rescue efforts were being made.
“The question arose: Should the Seventh Fleet be instructed to make the rescue of refugees fleeing Vietnam, in effect, an additional assigned mission? There was serious division within the U.S. government. The Navy was concerned about the diversion of ships from their primary naval mission. Moreover, some countries in the area, in violation of long-standing rules of the sea, would not let ships unload refugees. What destination, then, for those picked up by the Seventh Fleet? Would the Navy bring them directly to the United States, allowing them to “jump the line” and enter the United States months, or even years, ahead of others already waiting in the swollen camps of Southeast Asia? Some, including at least one staff member of the National Security Council (not Zbigniew Brzezinski), opposed doing anything that might “generate” refugees. They argued that once the news reached Vietnam that the Seventh Fleet was rescuing refugees off the Indochinese coast, many more people would set out to sea in ever more dangerous small boats. This would not only create more refugees, they argued, but would also remove from Vietnam many people who, if forced to remain inside Vietnam, might cause the Communists serious internal problems.
“Most of the points raised against the use of the Seventh Fleet had some validity. But as Washington argued, people continued to drown. Finally, the issue made its way to a high-level meeting chaired by Vice President Mondale. Sitting at the head of the long table in the windowless, sterile atmosphere of the Situation Room, as far from the stormy waters of the South China Sea as could be imagined, we debated the issue, at times as though it was just another abstract interagency dispute. Mondale patiently listened to every argument for almost two hours. At the end of it all, he cut through the legalisms and the complications. He could not imagine, he said, being part of an Administration which did not ask its ships to try to rescue innocent people fleeing an oppressive regime. He wanted the orders to the Seventh Fleet amended in order to save lives.”
From the details in Packer’s brief capsule of the incident, I suspect this is the source of the story. But obviously not the only one. Note a number of points. The issue was not, as Packer depicted it, the Navy picking up refugees at sea, but the Navy actively searching and rescuing those refugees. Second, Holbrooke explicitly states that Brzezinski did not speak in opposition to the Navy actively rescuing refugees. Third, though there was one person vocally opposed, certainly others, the general consensus supported assigning the Navy the active role of rescue. Fourth, Holbrooke makes no claim for playing a leading or heroic role in the discussion as Packer suggests. Finally, there is no indication here that Mondale reprimanded the admiral present for not getting on board (no pun intended) the new policy.
That does not mean that it did not happen, but since Packer does not cite sources, we do not know the origin of the anecdote. It may just have been a good lively tale. This use of imaginative licence is suggested by the false factual claim that, “Every agency found a reason to oppose his idea.” First, there is no evidence that it was Holbrooke’s idea, though he clearly supported it. Even in Holbrooke’s account of the incident. it was not opposed by most agencies (my italics) let alone all of them. Finally, the debate was not over the Navy rescuing refugees, as Packer depicted it, but of initiating a search and rescue operation rather than just taking on board refugees that Navy vessels came across.
Refugees fleeing by boat surged to more than 25,000 per month in 1979. Following UNHCR urging, several maritime Southeast Asian nations established camps, Bidong Island by Malaysia and the Galang Refugee Camp in Indonesia, to house the refugees. But these nations were explicit: this was intended to be a temporary solution and would only remain an open possibility if Western states committed themselves to resettling the refugees.
Did Holbrooke badger President Jimmy Carter on route to the G7 meeting in June of 1979 in Japan to double the monthly intake from 7,000 to 14,000? Note the gap in the narrative. There is no accounting for the increase in the monthly intake from 1,500 per month to 7,000. Look at how Packer described the lead up to the next conference in Geneva. “No one expected much from the [28 June 1979] conference…the U.N. refugee office was stuck in its own bureaucratic inertia.” Further, Packer insists that Holbrooke was the main source for Mondale’s moving speech at the G7.
By 1978, a consensus was beginning to emerge among mandarins in Western states that the cause of the exodus was not directly linked to the American Indochina war. Hanoi initiated a war to bring Kampuchea into line. Hanoi wanted to get rid of its “overseas” Chinese. Hanoi actively took steps to pressure tens of thousands considered “undesirable” to leave while expropriating their assets. The influx of refugees into other nations in the region was destabilizing. In Malaysia and Indonesia, the Chinese were already a threatened minority and upsetting the current balance would likely exacerbate tensions in those countries. Chinese antipathy to its fellow communist regime in Hanoi exaggerated the situation. The special statement in June 1979 in Geneva summarized the consensus: “The plight of refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia poses a humanitarian problem of historic proportions and constitutes a threat to the peace and stability of Southeast Asia. Given the tragedy and suffering which are taking place, the problem calls for an immediate and major response.”
In 1978, with exodus of over 2,500 refugees aboard the Hai Hong, Canada had already taken the lead and pledged to take 25% of them instead of following the usual formula of admitting 10% and relying on the U.S. and other countries to pick up the rest. Rather than inertia, by June 1979 the nations of the West had determined to take concerted action. As moving as Walter Mondale’s speech was, and evidence does suggest it was influenced by an article that Holbrooke had written on the 1938 Evian conference, all of the countries in the G7 were prepared to take more dramatic initiatives that did not simply rely on putting pressure on Hanoi to cease and desist. “The Governments represented (at the G7) will, as part of an international effort, significantly increase their contributions to Indochinese refugee relief and resettlement – by making more funds available and by admitting more people, while taking into account the existing social and economic circumstances in each of their countries.”
Taking advantage of its presidential rather than parliamentary system, the United States was first off the mark. On 29 June, President Carter announced that the U.S. would double its monthly intake. Holbrooke did not have to badger Vance, Mondale or Carter. The consensus had set in both internationally and domestically among the progressive leaders in the U.S. The Canadians had come to the meeting with prepared draft statements that would follow the Geneva meeting. Canada had already upped its intake in June from 8,000 to 12,000 per year and was making plans to increase that target further. By July, it settled on a figure of 50,000, about 4,000 per month, much more than the usual ration of 1:10 to the American commitment of 14,000.
My suspicion of Packer’s historical account of Holbrooke’s role had grown to a disquiet. Holbrooke was undoubtedly a leading voice supporting the refugees. Marty Kaplan, Mondale’s speechwriter, acknowledged the role of Holbrooke influencing the content of Mondale’s speech, not only the best that Kaplan ever wrote but one of the best ever on refugees. However, would my disquiet become a full-blown distrust when I looked into answering the last five questions raised in my first blog in this series?
To be continued.
With the help of Alex Zisman.