A Lesson in History: Resettling Refugees of Vietnam

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Senate Hearings

In 1975, President Gerald Ford set up an interagency task force that resettled 130,000 refugees from South Vietnam after the fall of Saigon. Julia Taft was the head of President Ford's Inter-Agency Task Force on Indochinese Refugee resettlement.


There was a time when the U.S. rushed to get refugees from another war resettled. On April 30, 1975, when Saigon fell, there were dramatic and painful scenes of South Vietnamese trying to flee with the last U.S. personnel. That month, President Gerald Ford set up a taskforce that resettled 131,000 refugees over the coming months. Julia Taft was the head of President Ford's inter-agency task force on Indochinese refugee resettlement.

Ms. JULIA TAFT (Inter-Agency Task For on Indochinese Refugee Resettlement): It was an incredible effort, just an incredible effort, and when I think back of the role of the president at the time, he was really committed to making sure that these innocent victims and people who had been allies of the U.S., that we just didn't abandon them.

It was not a popular decision at first, although there were some people in Congress who were very helpful. Senator Kennedy is one of them. But there was high unemployment in the United States; there was still a lot of division of opinion and passions running high about who lost the war and why did we lose the war and the treatment of the veterans that were coming back.

There was a lot going on, and so when Ford decided to be generous and include in the program to assist them, he went and made speeches, he went and visited Fort Chaffey. He did everything he could to convince Americans that this was the right thing to do.

ELLIOTT: So politically, that was difficult for him?

Ms. TAFT: At first, it was politically difficult. Our biggest problem came from California.


Ms. TAFT: Jerry Brown.

ELLIOTT: Then the governor.

Ms. TAFT: Then the governor. And Mario Obledo, who was the - I guess he was called the secretary of welfare or something. They were very difficult. They didn't want any of these refugees, because they had also unemployment. They had already a large number of foreign-born people there. They had - they said they had too many Hispanics, too many people on welfare, they didn't want these people. And we spent a lot of effort trying to ease their concern and really established for the whole country programs where the federal government would compensate states.

But it was a moral blow to us that they were not supportive. So at one point, I had to tell the governor that I would be able to go on TV and to the media and to the voluntary agencies and announce that the governor did not want any church, synagogue, family, former military family in California to be able to help these people.

ELLIOTT: So you almost had like a stand down with Jerry Brown.

Ms. TAFT: Exactly. Exactly.

ELLIOTT: And he stood down?

Ms. TAFT: He stood down. He had to. I mean, I remember at the time we had thousands and thousands of requests from military families in San Diego, for instance, who had worked in Vietnam, who knew some of these people. We had Camp Pendleton, was one of the processing centers. People from nearby wanted to be helpful. The Californians wanted to be helpful.

ELLIOTT: When you look back at the whole experience with the refugees from Indochina during the Vietnam War era, do you think that the United States has the same responsibility toward Iraqis that the country did back then to the South Vietnamese?

Ms. TAFT: No, I don't. I think it's difficult to compare, because back in '75, one of the justifications that Ford gave was related to communism. He said these people are all fleeing communism, which was the same criteria that had been used for the Cubans, the Hungarians, other refugee groups that had been processed in the past.

The refugees that are coming out of Iraq now are not fleeing communism.

ELLIOTT: But they are fleeing sectarian violence.

Ms. TAFT: They are fleeing sectarian violence.

ELLIOTT: Their lives are in danger.

Ms. TAFT: That's right. But the element of protection and responsibility in '75 was that we could no longer assist in protecting these people who were fighting against the North Vietnamese, and we were heavily engaged in that, as you know.

So when it was clear that the North Vietnamese were going to succeed and all these people were displaced, many of them had ties to the United States. I mean, they'd worked with us. They'd been translators. They'd been employees. They'd been part of the South Vietnamese army, which was an ally, and just general victims of the whole chaos.

ELLIOTT: But in Iraq, there are also Iraqis who work as translators for the U.S. military, who work on the U.S. military bases there.

Ms. TAFT: Well, I think in that case, those are the people for whom we have a special responsibility. If they have left Iraq, they need to be assisted.

ELLIOTT: Do you think the U.S. is doing enough to assist those who do need that special protection?

Ms. TAFT: No. What many of us in the field are hoping is that the administration will choose to use about 20,000 refugee numbers which they have remaining, that haven't been allocated yet this year - 20,000 - that they would ask Congress to appropriate money to facilitate the transportation and resettlement of those 20,000 in 2007.

ELLIOTT: Julia Taft was director of President Gerald Ford's Inter-Agency Task Force on Indochinese refugee resettlement. In the Clinton administration, she was assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration.

Thank you for speaking with us.

Ms. TAFT: Thank you for inviting me and for your interest in this important topic.

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