Forty-three years ago, a powerful, wealthy nation was engaged in a long
conflict with a small, poorer country, but in spite of its great resources, the
larger nation still could not claim victory. It had to evacuate its army, sink
its equipment into the ocean, shred classified documents, and return to its
people, stunned, angry, and hurt. People of both nations suffered; parents
from each side were separated from their children and refugees were left
adrift on the seas or to live abroad in exile, as deserters. The United
States, the dominant country, felt defeated, if not in war, in spirit, and it
ultimately lost 58,220 of its own children, in addition to 1,597 still officially
missing in action.
We left South Vietnam, but not before a final gesture of humanity---perhaps
a small act of atonement for some of our bombing, napalm, and war
crimes. We evacuated over 10,000 Vietnamese babies who were orphans
of the war. If it had not been for the destruction wrought over a decade of
conflict, this act would have been remembered as an example of what can
be accomplished by people when they are committed to the survival of the
human family, by tending to all children, regardless of their nationality or
Even after the billions of dollars we spent making war, Americans found
resources to spare, and during one of the darkest times in our history,
Operation Baby Lift was put into action. Civilian and military sectors
coordinated personnel, supplies, volunteers and jet fuel in a heroic last minute
mission to gather these children and bring them to safety. It took
nearly 30 trips of 30-hour flights to get them, some of whom were never
properly identified as orphans and could have even been children of our
“enemy.” They were temporarily housed at Presidio Army base in San
Francisco to be stabilized, identified if possible, medicated as needed,
clothed, and processed for the welcoming arms that waited for them
throughout the world.
This expedition was organized by Republican President Gerald Ford and,
for better or worse, it was done out of the deepest fear that these children
would be put in harm's way and abandoned in the chaos of war, and out of
the deepest conviction that their fate was our responsibility. The image of
innocent children suffering was rendered intolerable. Today, some of those
adoptees still hunt for their biological Vietnamese parents; but the rescue
was done in the highest manifestation of our biological instincts, to protect
children by any and all available means
That was April, 1975. In April, 2018, another Republican President,
imagining that we are at war with smaller, poorer countries and insisting
that we are being invaded and infested, now incarcerates refugees from
those countries. Many of them were hoping to escape hardship and
violence in their own homelands. Some of those trying to get here,
trespassing on American soil, brought along their sons and daughters in
their own biological instinct to protect them.
But those children will not be rescued or brought to safety by our country.
There will be no Operation Baby Lift for them. They are not orphans or
prisoners of war, but yet they are held captive and terrorized by separation
of family, the weapon of destruction we have chosen to deploy just for
political leverage. These children have no treaty, no standing, and no
assurance that guardians will be waiting to ensure that their lives might be
enriched after this tragedy. Reunification will likely be preceded by an
extended, frustrating bureaucratic process of searching for their parents,
and parents searching for their children.
The circumstances of these two situations do not need to be identical for
the analogy to be obvious. It’s the people in power and their policies that
make the results polar opposites. Today, we’re still big, powerful and
wealthy, but something has changed.
Which country did those refugees think they were fleeing to: the America of 1975 that followed its conscience, or the unrecognizable America we’ve become today?
Photo by Kimo Williams, taken in Viet Nam, 1970