Allison Varzally

As part of targeted evacuation efforts from Southeast Asia in 1975, the U.S. government arranged for military and commercial planes to transport Vietnamese children to the United States. In theory, the airlifts simply facilitated adoption proceedings already in motion. Children selected for the airlifts were already paired with suitable American families who eagerly awaited their arrival. And the efforts were bolstered by collaboration with social welfare and adoption agencies such as Holt International, Welcome House, United Catholic Relief Services, Friends for All Children, and Friends of the Children of Vietnam (FCVN). However, in its rushed execution, the program resulted in confusion and tragedy. One of the first official flights, carrying an estimated three hundred children and adult caregivers, exploded in mid-air; only half of the flight’s passengers survived.

The horrific accident only strengthened the resolve of organizers to get children out of Vietnam. While expressing sorrow for the victims of the crash, President Ford insisted, “our mission of mercy must continue…. This tragedy must not deter us but offer new hope for the living.”[1] In prioritizing the plight of Vietnamese children after years of relative inattention, the U.S. government adopted the rhetoric of responsibility long articulated by left-leaning Americans. Admitting the nation’s culpability in the destruction and dissolution of Vietnamese families, officials sought not simply to atone for American sins and relieve the suffering of Vietnamese children, but to control the peace.

Yet Vietnamese would disrupt these efforts and dispute this message, reappearing as refugees who endeavored to have familial reunion within the United States. Seeking to preserve life amidst unfathomable loss, death, and ruin, Vietnamese mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents strategically chose Operation Babylift as a means of assuring the safety of their young kin, hoping they would be able to reunite with them if they were able to migrate to the United States successfully. Many of the children airlifted from Vietnam appeared to have family members who hoped to reclaim them—they were not all orphans. Vietnamese had seized the evacuation as a necessary, if desperate, step in a larger process of migration that could mitigate their grief and disorientation. Those fortunate enough to reach the United States and initiate their plans of reconciliation, however, were confronted with the contrary ambitions of American families, agencies and government officials who viewed adoption and the assimilation of Vietnamese children as both an apology for the nation’s wrongs and affirmation of its material and moral worth. In arguing for their parental rights and introducing Americans to the forms and obligations of the extended Vietnamese family, these refugees rejected American interpretations of the war in favor of their own. Such interpretations had challenged expected performances of Vietnamese women as either helpless victims or scheming enemies, which came to shape how they settled in the United States, how they sustained ties to Vietnam, and even how this would influence future foreign policy.

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California played a leading role in this intense drama that was unfolding across the United States. Not only did Californians, Vietnamese and American, receive and process the largest number of airlifted children, but they also originated and organized the loudest opposition to American adoptions and benevolent representations of its war in Vietnam. In the process, the state provided a foundation for the establishment of Vietnamese communities and reinforced a tradition of protest and trans-pacific relations.

San Francisco’s Presidio, the largest of the reception centers, swiftly mobilized to process children airlifted from Vietnam. Indeed, of the over 2,000 children hastily removed as part of Operation Babylift, more than 1,500 passed through the military installation that was aided by more than 5,400 California volunteers who provided communication, shelter, food, security, and medical assistance. Among those Bay Area residents who answered the call (specifically for those fluent in Vietnamese) were Muoi McConnel, a Vietnamese nurse married to a former U.S. servicemen; Nhu Miller, a Vietnamese-born, European-raised, and American-educated (Barnard and University of California, Berkeley) woman who described herself as a revolutionary in later interviews; and Mai Chaplin, a homemaker of Vietnamese descent. While caring and conversing with children at the Presidio, the trio came to express such surprise that some of the youth did not appear to be orphans in their own right. Such youth had confessed confusion about their whereabouts and a longing for living Vietnamese parents and kin. Muoi asserted that of the twenty-three children whose names she recorded, three reported having two living parents in Vietnam, fourteen asked about their mothers, and two described grandparents residing in the United States.[2] Mai recalled her exchange with two sisters who claimed their parents were alive and well in Qui Nhon. Reportedly, they had placed their daughters—two of their nine children—in a Catholic orphanage whose director agreed to send the girls to the U.S. until they might return to Vietnam.[3]

Dismayed and determined to resolve the seeming problem of the non-orphans, Muoi and Nhu approached U.S. officials who straightaway ignored their appeals for assistance. However, Nhu’s husband, Tom, a Stanford trained lawyer, former staff member of the U.S. State Department, and long advocate for Vietnamese children who had helped establish the Children’s Medical Relief International and the Center for Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery in Saigon, listened closely to the women’s concerns and chose to act. Drawing support from a network of California based, anti-war attorneys and the Center for Constitutional Rights,[4] Tom helped file an action, Nguyen Da Yen et al. v. Kissinger et al., in the U.S. District Court, Northern District of California, charging Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, Attorney General Edward Levi, and seven adoption agencies with bringing children to the United States who were not orphans properly released for immigration. Plaintiffs demanded “the accumulation of defendant’s records to determine each child’s adoptive status and enable any living parents to be located,” a process predicated upon halting the adoption proceedings of American families whom they conceded may be “concerned and loving” but “no substitute for biological parents.”[5]

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While expressing sympathy for adoptive families and eschewing political motives, the plaintiffs emphasized the superiority of Vietnamese families, the harm done to displaced Vietnamese children, and proposed the fundamental flaws of the U.S. Government. In its motion for preliminary injunction, lawyers asserted that they did not intend to challenge the wisdom of admitting children during the last days of war, a clarification that seemed to remove the question of child custody from the context of controversy about the war’s closure. However, over the course of the trial, they struggled to maintain an apolitical stance and refrain from a broader commentary about the perceived injustice of the war and the ignorance of American couples. In its complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief, the plaintiffs’ attorneys aired their grievances, accusing the government of orchestrating Operation Babylift “to create a climate of opinion favorable to the continuation of unconstitutional and illegal U.S. involvement in the war in South Vietnam to the end of securing from the United States Congress authorization and appropriation of additional funds to militarily support the war, and to provide a cover for United States military intervention.” In other documents, the plaintiffs found fault with adoptive parents, along with the officials and agencies who facilitated their efforts. “It is not difficult to imagine the pain and suffering the plaintiff children have already undergone, living their entire lives in a country torn by war, ripped from their families and home, brought thousands of miles away, held on military bases to be placed with families, no matter how well intentioned, of an alien culture with whom they are unable to communicate,” insisted lead attorney for the Plaintiffs, Nancy Stearns, in a court memo. To further support this reading, she offered the testimony of Joyce Ladner, a sociologist and civil rights activist who studied transracial adoption. Although Ladner acknowledged, “Asians may not experience as much hostility in the predominantly white American society” as African Americans, she believed that “they do experience subtler forms of discrimination.” Additionally, she anticipated how such Vietnamese adoptees would come to “face additional hostility as a result of feelings of anger in many Americans regarding the Vietnam war” and would suffer “a racial identity crisis comparable to that in black children.” Claiming the virtues of Vietnamese families, she concluded that “even if the circumstances to which they return are less economically secure than the American homes they are presently in, emotional security must not be traded for a middle class life style where racial and cultural gaps are so broad and so often ignored.”[6] She portrayed Americans as a group whose false faith in material advantages blinded them to the problems of transracial families. This exposed a broader, leftist opposition to capitalism that had founded the antiwar movement and informed the plaintiff’s case, but which members of the Center for Constitutional Rights strategically preferred to understate.

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 It is not difficult to imagine the pain and suffering the plaintiff children have already undergone, living their entire lives in a country torn by war, ripped from their families and home, brought thousands of miles away, held on military bases to be placed with families, no matter how well intentioned, of an alien culture with whom they are unable to communicate.

In her April 1975 Affidavit, Nhu Miller further elaborated these points. She noted that Americans misunderstood the structure and strength of Vietnamese families, creating an unnecessary and self-serving crisis. Vietnamese practiced an extended system of family so that “if you lost your father, you still have your uncle. If you lose your mother, your aunt will still nurse you.” Rather than asylums, she explained, orphanages were used as places for boarding children during times of economic or political crisis…. Foreign adoption is an alien and repugnant notion to the Vietnamese.” Nhu countered a picture of neglected or absent Vietnamese mothers, chastising “foreigners, who see only orphanages and assume the Vietnamese don’t care for their children, do not hear about mothers struggling alone to care for ten children or women caring for children left in their care permanently who would never consider putting them in an orphanage.”[7] Nhu’s portrait of maternal struggle and adoption disrupted prevailing images of Vietnamese women that had shaped U.S. assertions in South Vietnam. Perpetuating a habit of feminizing Asian nations and casting Asian women as victims or vixens, U.S. media, soldiers, and policy makers alternatively imagined themselves as protecting or punishing a vulnerable, if sometimes treacherous, South Vietnam. Lost within these gendered constructions and justifications of military action were the real Vietnamese women whom Nhu depicted: individuals making tough but deliberate choices amidst arduous circumstances.[8] So confident in her conception of caregiving customs and the will of Vietnamese mothers was Nhu that she and her husband, Tom Miller, long resisted assuming fuller responsibility for Oktober, the son of a Vietnamese woman, A, who had pleaded for their help. Nhu’s mother, BachLan, had first supported the boy, but when she died, Nhu felt compelled to help A “take care of her own child.” Nhu removed Oktober from an orphanage where he spent some of his days after determining its operators “were essentially selling the children.” And when she finally accepted A’s pleas “to take care of him” on a permanent basis and bring him to the United States, Nhu made certain that Oktober sustained a relationship with his Vietnamese mother.[9]

The cases of Vietnamese families who endured separations and sought reunions in the United States seemed to underscore Nhu’s picture of caring Vietnamese kin and Americans’ propensity to sin. Li The Hang, whose work as an interpreter in a U.S. hospital in Vietnam familiarized her with American personnel and regulations, placed two of her five children, Phuong and Holly, with Catholic Charities and begged the organization “to get them out” before conditions deteriorated further in 1975. As she said her farewells, Li The Hang pressed into their hands a photo inscribed with a message intended to reassure and inspire: “My wish is for you to grow up free. We would rather be away from this country and live in freedom then be together under Communism.” When Li and her remaining children arrived in the United States four months later, she began hunting for Phuong and Holly. Despite the reluctance of an Oregon-based foster family to release their charges, the adoption papers they had filed were not yet processed and Li was able to recover her children with the help of a Catholic Priest. During a 2011 interview, she recalled the joy of the trio’s reunion. Her antipathy to Communism not only animated her plans of dividing, migrating, and eventually reuniting her family, but her service to other Vietnamese refugees. After settling and opening a successful restaurant in Decatur, Georgia during the 1980s, the Hangs would sponsor as many as 150 Vietnamese families.[10] Reclaiming her children within a context of virulent anticommunism and diaspora, Li confirmed an American narrative about the downfall and doom of Vietnam. However, her assertion of maternal rights as a refugee sheltered by the United States also underscored the failure of modernization and militarization in South Vietnam; rather than rescued or reprimanded under the discipline of American masculine power—fantasies that propelled American policy in Southeast Asia—Vietnamese women surfaced as independent forces seeking place and persuasion as parents within their new nation. Despite the trauma of dislocation and migration, experiences that many refugees have sublimated with silence, these women spoke out. Their declarations repurposed Vietnamese social norms and cultural types. Vietnamese society had valued women’s reproductive and motherly talents. The war both intensified the importance of and imperiled their duty to protect and prepare the next generation. While men’s contributions to the nation were typically connected with their military service and camaraderie, Vietnamese women demonstrated service by enduring separations from their adult children, especially enlisted sons, and waiting for peace. These gendered interpretations persisted in postwar Vietnam. Women were honored for surrendering and mourning their lost sons, a form of reverence that elided the less passive and broader roles they had played in combat and in daily life by managing households, businesses, farms, and family.[11]

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Like the Hangs, many refugees replayed and refined Vietnamese constructions of gender and family within the United States using the lawsuit spearheaded by Californians to reunite them with their dependent relative. After the death of one son and one daughter in 1968, Nguyen Thi Phuc feared for the future of her remaining children. “If I don’t let [my sons] go out, then when they grow up the boy have to go military, had to go fighting. They die. I know that,” she stated during court testimony. Resisting the trope of sacrificial mother and risking retribution as disloyal to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, Thi Phuc sent her boys to the United States in 1972. Two years later, she heard “the bomb and rocket shoot very close to Saigon,” which led to her placing her daughters in the care of a Mr. Jacobs who agreed to bring the pair safely to the United States. Thi Phuc insisted that she had never signed relinquishment papers and secured the promise of Mr. Jacobs that “if I stay in my country, later where I stay I be safe, he return my children to me.” However, eighteen months later, when she arrived at Fort Chafee, Arkansas—a domestic military base much like California’s Camp Pendleton that processed Southeast Asian refugees—and attempted to recover her four children, she was faced with significant hurdles. Her sons’ foster parents wished to adopt them, rather than to surrender the boys. Despite her queries to immigration officials, the United States Catholic Conference, and local press, she could not determine her daughters’ whereabouts.[12]

Dang Thi Hao showed similar resolve and met similar hindrances as she solicited assistance in winning back the two-year old daughter, whom a Catholic organization had brought to the United States, from Camp Pendleton, California officials. Fear, not neglect, prompted Thi Hao to yield the girl. She pleaded, but her pleas soon fell on deaf ears. One authority supposedly even urged her “to have another child,” a deeply disrespectful, even if not premeditated, remark that betrayed an insensitivity to the histories and individuality of Vietnamese refugees. Thi Hao told Miller, “there were other women seeking the return of their children, but they were being intimidated by the military and voluntary agencies.”[13] Char Thi Lan also portrayed American bureaucrats, specifically those employed at the California Department of Health and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, as anything but helpful. Despite her appeals, she had failed to recover her four-month-old niece whose mother had not consented to the airlift.[14] In these three cases, and others beyond, Vietnamese women not only found fault with the American government and demanded reflection on its responsibilities to refugees, but desperately tried to configure their authority and relationship to the United States through intense parental terms. They drew upon a respect for mothers in Vietnamese culture, while criticizing a war and regime that had compromised their ability to fulfill that particular function. Rather than shore up the Socialist Republic of Vietnam by gifting their children, these women had dispatched the youth to the United States where they now expected to retrieve and enact their maternal powers.

One authority supposedly even urged her “to have another child,” a deeply disrespectful, even if not premeditated, remark that betrayed an insensitivity to the histories and individuality of Vietnamese refugees. Thi Hao told Miller, “there were other women seeking the return of their children, but they were being intimidated by the military and voluntary agencies.”

Adoption agencies and adoptive parents, including those in Cupertino, California who organized the Council for the Rights of Adoptive Families to protect their interests, had come to counter that Vietnamese children were legitimately abandoned, suffering, and available, that agencies had followed proper protocols, and that “the lawsuit was politically motivated and had nothing to do with the children.”[15] In their defense, they outlined the chaotic conditions of a war-torn Vietnam, the free will of Vietnamese mothers who chose, rather than were coerced, to relinquish their children, as well as the opportunities that these Vietnamese children would come to possess in the United States.

Confronted by conflicting reports and divisive testimonies, the Judge ultimately ruled that “the case was not properly a class action suit,” due to the fact that “each child’s situation [proved] so individual that common questions did not predominate over individual issues.” He represented the cases as being so complex and dizzyingly unique to defy the kind of generalization the plaintiffs desired. While acknowledging the confusion and occasional duplicity that had shaped the removal of Vietnamese children, he expressed skepticism about the plaintiff’s broad advocacy of reunification: “While beyond the scope of this court’s inquiry in this litigation, it is possible, in the individual circumstances peculiar to certain children, that the best interest of the children would be to not return them to their biological parents. It is not necessary to ruminate too extensively to imagine many situations where, for emotional, psychological, medical, or other reasons, a child would be better off remaining with the adoptive parents.”[16] Disappointed, but not dissuaded, select Vietnamese families initiated and often won individual custody battles in state courts—sometimes with the aid of Tom Miller and the California team who reached out to Vietnamese refugees in the U.S. and pressed the State Department to locate families in Vietnam seeking lost relatives.[17]

California, once a place of concentrated social protest where Asian immigrants had come to historically struggle and settle, soon assured that concerns of cultural autonomy, responsibility, and imperialism that were once raised during the American War in Vietnam were sustained. Debates about the constitution and influence of Vietnamese and American families exposed the long and difficult entanglements wrought by American power in Southeast Asia. As time passed and the Vietnam War became a memory to implore rather than a war to fight, Vietnamese children were reunited with their biological kin, adopted by American families, or belatedly invited to immigrate as young Amerasians. They would soon mature and become actors, as well as symbols of discussions of being representative of war legacies, constructions of ethno-racial communities, and proud patterns of assimilation.

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Notes

  • This article is adapted from Allison Varzally, Children of Reunion: Vietnamese Adoptions and the Politics of Family Migrations (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).  

[1] “Ford Vows to Continue Operation Babylift,” Los Angeles Times (4 April 1972): 4.

[2] RG 276, Box 11 Reporter’s Partial Transcript, 19, 20 May 1975, RG 276 United States District Court of California, San Francisco, National Archives at San Francisco (RG 276, NARA-SF). Note, the author accessed court records stored at the National Archives in two visits separated by two years. During this interval, the court records were reorganized and the box numbers changed. Box numbers in the 500 range reflect the most recent iteration.

[3] Dana Sachs, The Life We Were Given: Operation Babylift, International Adoption, and the Children of War in Vietnam (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010); Reporter’s Partial Transcript, 25 June 1975, Box 11, RG 276, NARA-SF.

[4] The Center for Constitutional Rights was established in 1966 by civil rights activists seeking to advance popular, progressive causes. https://ccrjustice.org/home/what-we-do/historic-cases?page=19, accessed 11 January 2018.

[5] Plaintiff’s Memo in Support of Entry of Preliminary Injunction Incorporating Provision of Consent Order and Petition for Rehearing and Suggestion for Rehearing En Banc, RG 276, NARA-SF.

[6] Ibid., Complaint for Declaratory Relief, RG-276, NARA-SF; Affidavit of Joyce Ladner, 20 January 1976, RG 276, NARA-SF.

[7] Affidavit of Tran Tuong Nhu (28 April 1975), RG 276, NARA-SF.

[8] Heather Marie Stur labeled the competing types of Vietnamese women conceived by Americans as “damsels in distress” (those in need of rescue from communist aggression) and “dragon ladies” (those whose duplicitous behavior compromised U.S. ambitions and invited censure). See Heather Marie Stur, Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 176.

[9] Oktober is the boy’s “Berkeley, California” name. Author’s Interview with Nhu Miller 29 May 2012; “A” is a pseudonym for Oktober’s birth mother.

[10] Author’s Interview with Le Thi Hang, 13 October 2011.

[11] Helle Rydstrom, “Gendered Corporeality and Bare Lives: Local Sacrifices and Sufferings during the Vietnam War” Signs vol. 37, no. 2 (January 2012): 275-299; Lan Duong, Treacherous Subjects: Gender, Culture, and Trans-Vietnamese Feminism (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012); Nathalie Huynh Chau Nguyen, Memory is Another Country: Women of the Vietnamese Diaspora (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2009.)

[12] Reporter’s Transcript, Box 12, RG 276, NARA-SF. Although excluded from the specific class represented by Tom Miller because the children had arrived in the United States earlier than 1975, their stories resonated and Nguyen Thi Phuc’s had stepped forward because of the law suit, RG 276, NARA-SF.

[13] Affidavit of Thomas Miller, July 1975 box 6, Folder 2, RG 276, NARA-SF.

[14] Certificate of Attorney, 24 March 1976, Box 33, RG 276, NARA-SF.

[15] Cherie Clark, After Sorrow Comes Joy: One Woman’s Struggle to Bring Hope to Thousands of Children in Vietnam and India (Westminster, CO: Lawrence and Thomas Publishing House, 2000).

[16] Nguyen Da Yen v. Kissinger. 528 F.2d 1194. U.S. Court of Appeals, 9th Cir. 5 Nov. 1975. The Judge’s concerns about the emotional costs of searches likely shaped his decision to seal the case files rather than appoint special masters to review the files. This effectively frustrated the efforts of plaintiff’s attorneys, in cooperation with the International Red Cross and Vietnamese government, to help families in Vietnam locate children in the United States. Author’s correspondence with Tom Miller, 11 July 2015.

[17] The County of Adams, State of Colorado, Dependency Action No. J6-5679-N; The People of the State of Colorado in the interest of Le Thanh Tung, aka Vo Huy Tung, aka Hoang Tung, aka Brice Zenk; Duong Bich Van v. John T. Dempsey, individually and as director of Social Services and the Michigan Department of Social Services and David and Barbara Pederson, jointly and Severally Civil Action No. 76-140 499 (23 June 1976); Peter Brennan, “Tug of Love: A Boy’s Tough Choice Between Two Mothers,” US Magazine (28 June 1977): 71-73; Le Thi Sang v. Knight, California Superior Court, San Joaquin County, docket No. 125898.

 

Allison Varzally is a professor of history at California State University, Fullerton. Her publications include Making a Non-White America: Californians Coloring Outside Ethnic Lines (University of California Press, 2008), which won the Theodore Saloutos Award from the Immigration and Ethnic History Society, and most recently Children of Reunion: Vietnamese Adoptions and the Politics of Family Migrations (University of North Carolina Press). She is Book Review Editor of Southern California Quarterly.

Copyright: © 2018 Allison Varzally. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

 

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