Vietnamese people worldwide last week marked the anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, in many different ways. The Vietnamese government in Hanoi celebrated the victory of April 29, 1975, in what it now calls “the American War.” At the same time, thousands of Vietnamese families who fled South Vietnam in the following months, celebrated their success in America.
Ten years after the war ended, I came face-to-face with the suffering of some South Vietnamese families, living in poverty and squalor outside of Hong Kong. Worldwide media flippantly called them “Vietnamese Boat People”.
They deserved a better outcome. Many had held important positions supporting the American Military during the Vietnam War. Fearing for their lives and those of their families, they fled Vietnam on dangerously overcrowded freighters and fishing boats. Though hundreds of these boats eventually entered Kowloon Harbor, the Hong Kong government could only absorb a few of the refugees per month. Many of the rest remained on the boats which were eventually lashed together with crude carpentry to form a kind of floating village of poverty within the outer limits of the harbor.
During a trip to Hong Kong in 1985, I joined a few friends aboard a colorful tourist boat called a “Chinese junk”, a motorized version of an ancient Chinese vessel. Our on-water tour included a detailed close-up view of the lives of the so-called boat-people in their floating village. Though they lived under the poorest possible conditions, the village retained a sense of order. One or more of the boats actually served as a school. We watched as a group of well-behaved school kids traveled to “school” aboard an old wooden dinghy rowed by an older child.
Our tourist junk rode several feet higher than the crude decking of the boat-village, meeting regulations of Hong Kong officials. This ensured that we could safely view the village without the possibility of village residents boarding our small vessel. As we approached a woman on the village decking saw us, disappeared for a few seconds and returned with what looked like a fisherman’s landing net with a very long handle. On closer inspection, I realized that it wasn’t a net. It was a “begging basket” secured to a long homemade pole.
As our boat came close enough, I somehow made eye-contact with the woman, and she trust her basket within a foot or two of me. Without thinking, I reached into my pocket, found a $1-Hong Kong coin, and dropped it into the basket. Within a few seconds at least 10-12 anguished women appeared, all crying out, and thrusting similar baskets at me. Our boat captain quickly accelerated away from them, admonishing me to never give money again. Nevertheless, the hopeless expressions of the refugees stayed with me for days after.
How did this all happen? When the US withdrew its last military units from Vietnam in 1973, it left behind tens of thousands of Vietnamese civilian employees who provided the support infrastructure for the vast US presence during the war. Most of them understood that the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) would easily defeat the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Viet Nam). They also understood that the Hanoi government would punish as collaborators, all people who had worked for the US military, and all South Vietnamese military and government members.
As the NVA advanced, the abandoned people feared for their lives and the lives of their families. Those with financial resources or US connections took steps to leave the country as soon as possible. Many others left but were stranded in camps on tiny South Pacific islands, waiting months or even years for sponsorship by US relief organizations. Even when they finally arrived in the US, suffering continued. Many families were broken up to find spaces in welcoming foster homes where they lived temporarily.
Yet somehow, most of the Vietnamese eventually prospered. They found ways to support their families, educated their children, and emerged as successful Americans. Those left behind in Vietnam were not as fortunate. Many were punished or killed by the advancing NVA. Though 40 years have passed, the surviving families still in Vietnam remain as an impoverished underclass—sad remnants of a war that ended many years ago.
Few of us remember much of this story. By 1975—two years after the US pullout—the American press paid little attention. The Vietnam War was an old story. Media people were satisfied that they had prevailed since most were openly against America’s role in Vietnam. Besides, the Watergate story—with much juicier villains—had grabbed their attention.
Though 40 years have passed, we can see that America could have made a more humane exit from Vietnam. President Gerald Ford understood what would happen when he addressed Congress and asked for funding to evacuate South Vietnamese families in danger. Funding would have provided a series of fixed-wing airplane flights to evacuate large numbers of people in a few weeks of the steady airlift. But politics intervened. Congress refused to allocate funds. The handful of people evacuated had space only on a few American choppers from the roof of the US Embassy.
My book “The Victory that Wasn’t” offers a fictional alternate history of the final Vietnam war years, with much better outcomes for all Americans, including the endangered South Vietnamese families. It’s available on Amazon at http://amzn.to/1GUL8oX