Laura Silsby, an American who took it upon herself to find new homes for Haitian children who lost parents in the 2010 Haitian Earthquake was moved to action by harrowing photos of children in distress. During her attempt to bring the children across the border to the Dominican Republic to fly them to new homes in America, she was charged with kidnapping and suspicion of trafficking. The orphan status of the children she was transporting had not been thoroughly investigated and many of them in fact had living relatives. In the Silsby case, her actions led to significant damage for the children she thought she was helping.
Laura Silsbys experience is not the only one to highlight the duality of humanitarianism as an action that can simultaneously ameliorate and exacerbate the pain of others. Operation Babylift, a mission to fly children deemed to be orphans out of Vietnam and the war, was a humanitarian mission implemented by the United States in 1975 in direct reaction to the imminent fall of Saigon. Controversy churned around the Operation as questions arose about the true motivation of U.S. efforts to evacuate children out of Vietnam was America truly concerned with the fate of these babies or where they more interested in generating the only positive image they could out of a disastrous war? The complicated nature of Operation Babylift provides a window to explore the motivations and consequences of humanitarian policy in the United States.
In 1965, President LBJ escalated American involvement in the Vietnam War by sending US combat troops to South Vietnam for the first time. He charged them with the mission to save South Vietnam from a Communist takeover by the Northern Vietnamese Army. American efforts did not halt the Norths advances, and in April 1975 witnessed the abrupt end of the South Vietnamese government. The suddenness of the collapse shocked the North Vietnamese, the South Vietnamese, and the United States, all major players in the Vietnam conflict. As a spectacular military campaign by the North Vietnamese took control of the local provincial capital, Phuoc Bin, on January 7, 1975, it became clear that the South Vietnamese government needed substantial financial aid from the US to survive any further advances from communist forces. In Washington, as President Ford and his cabinet members debated the amount of assistance to provide to Thieus government and its approval by the U.S. Congress, U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam, Graham Martin, attempted to prevent mass panic on the ground by halting evacuation plans as more and more territory fell around Saigon.
Many South Vietnamese who had helped the US effort lived in Saigon and feared retribution and even death from the North Vietnamese army if (or when) they took over the city. Ambassador Martin well understood that if the thousands of Vietnamese who lived in the city and the surrounding areas knew the extent of the Saigons precarious position, panic would erupt as Vietnamese and Americans sought a way out of the country. Both in an attempt to stem this panic and reluctant to end an American presence, Martin focused on obtaining aid for South Vietnam and evaded presidential orders to carry out evacuations. To Graham, evacuating Americans and South Vietnamese meant admitting defeat and certain communist takeover. Ford, on the other hand, was adamant about the evacuation of the Americans left in the country and the many South Vietnamese who had cast their lot with the Americans. In a very public statement to Congress, Ford urged members to consider the safety of nearly 6,000 Americans who remain in South Vietnam and tens of thousands of South Vietnamese employees of the US government, of news agencies, of contractors and businesses for many years whose lives, with their dependents, are in very grave peril. Even as Graham attempted to downplay the need for evacuation, Ford pushed for the evacuations to take place. By this time, many Vietnamese saw the writing on the wall and attempted to obtain visas from the American embassy.
U.S. news reporters soon began sending images that contradicted the scenes of Vietnamese calmly waiting in line for exit visas. Media images portrayed crowds of Vietnamese men, women, and children with only the belongings they could carry on any possible escape route. For some, this meant taking the risk of boarding unstable boats and possibly losing their lives in the ocean. For others, this meant crossing borders by land and hoping for the best. In most cases, these photos captured the desperation of exile due to fear of persecution. There was, however, one group that was singled out by President Ford and whose fate would raise painful questions about Americas past, present, and future role in Vietnam South Vietnamese children placed in Saigon orphanages.
There were many orphanages in Saigon and children found their way to those homes in a number of ways. Several of these orphanages were run by American and Western adoption agencies. Some children were placed in orphanages because they had no other family to care for them. Some were placed in homes as a temporary solution to poverty and the strains of war. Families sometimes temporarily placed their children in homes to ensure they would have more reliable access to food than their families could provide. Most families intended to take their children back once they were on surer footing. In other cases, concerns about the discrimination children might face as adults prevailed in their calculations to place children in adoption agencies and orphanages. During the war, there were many children born to Vietnamese women who were fathered by American G.I.s. Several of these unions took place in brothels while the men were on leave. Vietnamese families and mothers feared that children resulting from such a union would be marked for intense discrimination and prejudice growing up in Vietnam. To avoid this fate, families placed these children, referred to as Ameriasian, in the orphanages.
As the urgency to leave increased in Vietnam, some adoption agencies worked on a plan to evacuate as many orphans as possible. Although all the orphans held a special place in the hearts of administration officials and adoption agencies leaders, children born of American soldiers and Vietnamese women took on special significance. Many felt that if the Ameriasian orphans found in Saigon were to stay in the country, they would face a life of hardship and possible death because they were physically associated with the American military presence. In response to these fears, President Ford allocated two million dollars to evacuate children identified as orphans. The first authorized flight to fly children out of Vietnam was an Air Force C-5a Galaxy airplane that departed from Saigon on April 4, 1975. Just after taking off, the plane crashed. 78 orphans and 94 escorts, dependents, and Air Force personnel died as a result of the backdoor blowing out. Within days, the US authorized more flights of orphans out of Saigon. Each flight carried the children to military processing units. The largest processing center was the Presidio located in San Francisco. A team of medical personnel met the flights and gave each orphan a physical exam. With the exams completed, the adoption agencies sent the children to their new homes. By the end of April, with the Communist takeover complete, the flights stopped. The evacuation brought over 2,000 children to the United States.
When the babies first arrived in the United States, they received a warm and celebratory media reception. President Ford met the first flight of orphans that arrived at the San Francisco Presidio military base. With media carefully stationed to photograph every move, the President boarded the plane and soon debarked holding a tiny, swaddled bundle. In those close-up photos of Ford and his wife Betty cuddling the tiny babies, it was hoped something honorable could be reclaimed from the terrible destruction of the Vietnam War.
It was not just the President that met the babies in celebratory style. The babies also received a warm welcome from Hollywoods celebrity elite. The Washington Post related the worries of Yul Brynner and his wife, Jacqueline, who had adopted one of the children from Vietnam. Jacqueline said of the Galaxy crash that occurred in early April, Yul and I are very concerned about our child Like thousands of other Americans we are awaiting word of any kind. The Brynners used their celebrity network calling on Playboy editor Hugh Hefner to transport forty-one of the children from San Francisco to New York in his private plane, the Big Bunny. Reporters noted that some of the children rode on his seven-foot circular bed while others were carried off the plane in the arms of Hefners bunnies.
The initial meetings between the adoptive parents and the orphans generated a spectacle of celebration and emphasized that the babies were more than just average orphans. In these meetings, photos captured the hugs and kisses showered on the children by the new moms and dads. Often, stories discussed the life of want and deprivation that the children experienced in war-torn Vietnam. This was followed by a brief description of the new life that awaited the children in far-flung locales like Stamford, Connecticut. Many of the new arrivals received new clothes at these meetings to better equip them for the colder temperatures of their new homes. Some received new toys as a way to break the ice. Others received new siblings. Some got both, as happened with Huynh Minh Hung who was promptly renamed John David. In this story, big brother Ian wrapped his arm protectively around John David and they wandered off together to play with a new toy airplane.
Uncritical acceptance of the Vietnam war orphans did not last long. A variety of American voices that ranged from child psychologists to news reporters to the casual observer soon began asking whether the evacuation served the best interests of the children. This concern followed closely on the heels of criticism over U.S. motivation for the evacuation. Much of this controversy began when the unclear orphan status of some of the children came to light. The government of South Vietnam reluctantly allowed so many children to leave the country only under the condition that those who left would already be in the adoption process. Volunteers processing the children found that not all of them fit into this category of orphan. In the processing centers, some of the children told the volunteers that they were not orphans and had families living back in Vietnam. Some of these children had been put on the planes by high-level Vietnamese officials desperate for way to get their families out of the country before the communists arrived.
If some of the babies and children found themselves aboard a plane because their families had the connections to place them in those seats and away from danger, other children boarded the planes because their families did not understand Western-style adoption. Many Vietnamese families understood orphanages as holding stations for their children during times of extreme duress brought on by the ravages of war. They brought their children to these homes for a temporary period with every intention of retrieving them. In light of these different understandings of the adoption process, many of the children brought to America were not orphans. Shortly after arriving in the United States and settling with new families, the parents of the Vietnamese children found their children and began the process of reclaiming them only to find their legal parental rights terminated. One Vietnamese mother fighting to reclaim her children explained her understanding of adoption this way, To understand my story think you are caught in a burning house. To save your babies lives you drop them to people on the ground to catch. Its good people that would catch them, but then you find a way to get out of the fire too, and thank the people for catching your babies, and you try to take your babies with you. But the people say, Oh no, these are our babies now, you cant have them back.
Some courts in California, Michigan, and Iowa did order some of the Vietnamese children returned to their birth parents, but many other courts ordered the children to remain with their adoptive parents. In a class action lawsuit brought against Henry Kissinger suing for the right to return children to their parents, the courts declared that the suit had no collective basis and could thus move no further. In abdicating responsibility to reunite parents and children, the suits effectively erased the presence of the birth mother, reinforced an image of Vietnamese culture as one of not caring for their children in the same way as American mothers and families, and muted questions about the nature of American humanitarianism.
With the final court decision, the controversies of Operation Babylift receded further into the background. In place of the controversies, a series of victory stories emerged about the development of the orphans as they grew into adults. On the twentieth anniversary of the Operation, People Magazine wrote an article profiling the lives of some of the orphans. There was a brief one-sentence mention that not all of the children successfully adapted to America. However, for many others most were now productive young adults, attending college, pursuing careers, starting families of their own. It was concluded that with the Vietnam War under renewed scrutiny 20 years after the fall of Saigon, Operation Babylift stand out as a victory and that the stories of the adoptees reinforce that the mission provided a future for children for whom hope appeared lost.
A common theme woven throughout many of these stories is the gratitude many felt for their lives in America. Many adoptees wanted to know more about their early years and their biological families, but ultimately the core refrain was that Babylift represented the appropriate, and often described as the only, humanitarian policy. The spotlight on so many success stories of the adoptees makes it difficult for any dissenting opinions to emerge. Kevin Minh Allen, an adopted child from Babylift, writing in The Humanist that a more critical view of the Operation needed to be taken. Specifically, he argued that the Operation fit into a particular pattern of U.S. intervention in Asia. He also wrote an honest depiction of his life growing up in America stating that of the adoptee experience, many of us have become wise to the racial self-hatred that had been instilled in us and have questioned the multiple loyalty tests we have been forced to take in order to prove our legitimacy in the eyes of our fellow Americans. Responses to such a differing view of the Operation were angry. One reader asked Has Kevin Minh Allen gone back to Korea or Vietnam to observe the condition of Ameriasians?…What should our response have been?…I am sorry that Allen is left with such bitter memories and attitude. Another reader, who helped process the arriving orphans in California, replied to Allen, Im surprised and saddened that this now grown-up survivor claims he and all other babies should have been left in Vietnam. I know that many would have died there or been abused if not for the altruism, misguided or not, of the many U.S. citizens who volunteered.
The 1975 Babylift operation represents a poignant example of the complicated nature of humanitarianism. While actions were undertaken to deal with the human tragedy unfolding before Americas eyes, these steps altered lives in unforeseen ways. Babies received new homes and families in a new land and culture, but questions arose over the cost of this new life as some struggled to adjust in a racially tense America. Mothers felt secure thinking their children were only temporarily placed in a sanctuary of refuge but soon had to grapple with the heartbreak of cultural misunderstandings as their parental rights were terminated. Adoptive parents, many of whom simply wanted to complete their families, struggled with the allegations charged against them as baby kidnappers as they cared for their new additions. In all these ways, Babylift serves as a reminder that whatever actions are taken to ease suffering, a reckoning must take place of both intended and unintended consequences. With such a reckoning, it may be that cases can be avoided where mothers like Hai Thi Popp said of her adoption experience: To understand my story..think you are caught upstairs in burning house. To save your babies lives you drop them to people on the ground to catch. Its good people that would catch them, but then you find a way to get out of the fire, too, and thank the people for catching your babies, and you try to take your babies with you. But the people say, oh no, these are our babies now, you cant have them back.
About the Author: Bethany A. Sharpe is a teacher and a doctoral student at the University of Kentucky. Her research interests focus on US Foreign Relations.
For more information:
- Visit the U.S. History Scene reading list for the Vietnam War