U.S. Opens New Chapter with Mass Citizen Evacuations

Senior news analyst Daniel Schorr comments on the evacuation of Americans from Lebanon this past week.

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Don Gonyea.

The most epic wartime evacuation in history occurred in the early months of World War Two. In May and June of 1940, 18 months before the United States entered the conflict, more than 350,000 allied troops, mostly British and French soldiers, were evacuated in nine days from Dunkirk, France. Most recent evacuations have been on a much smaller scale. And most often those rescued haven't been soldiers.

Organized evacuation of civilians from a combat zone, such as the one still continuing in Lebanon, is something the United States has rarely experienced. That got NPR's senior news analyst Daniel Schorr thinking.

DANIEL SCHORR reporting:

It may be a token of the times we live in. Harvard University has advised faculty, staff and students of a new benefit available to them. The university has contracted with an organization called International SOS to provide emergency evacuation service from areas that may have become unsafe. The need for large-scale evacuation of Americans from bomb-wracked Lebanon is a relatively new phenomenon for a superpower like ours. I cannot remember many evacuations of Americans under stress from foreign countries.

I can remember the awful pictures of the last days of the Vietnam War, when American staff clung to helicopters on the roof of the embassy, desperate not to fall into the hands of the North Vietnamese or the Viet Cong. I can remember the invasion of Grenada in the Caribbean, ordered by President Reagan in 1983, to rescue some American medical students who didn't think they needed rescuing from the friendly pro-Castro government. And occasionally, some removal of American humanitarian aide workers faced with a menace from some armed radical group.

But the need for a mass evacuation that has arisen in Lebanon, as Hezbollah and Israel pound away at each other, opens a new chapter of America's involvement with an often violent world. It was perhaps because America has so little experience in large-scale evacuations - no exit strategy, you might say - that the removal of several thousand Americans from Lebanon started more slowly than similar efforts by other countries. But once the American evacuation program got started, with helicopters, cruise ships, and Navy ships, it soon was getting hundreds and then thousands a day out of harm's way.

I hope that the next evacuation - I'm not asking for one - will proceed much more smoothly. This is Daniel Schorr.

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