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Vietnamese Refugees

Egregious memories of then-Senator Joe Biden's staunch opposition to desegregation and busing still disturb me, but worse was his hostility towards helping Vietnamese war refugees after that war. I spent a lot of time just after the fall of Saigon as a volunteer helping Vietnamese refugees living in a tent city at Camp Pendleton Marine Base, to determine where in the United States they could move to. The State Department, Red Cross, and Airlines were all there to help; I helped because I was asked to do so by an eminent Vietnamese Buddhist in Los Angeles, Dr. Thich Thien-An, and because I spoke French via a French-Vietnamese translator, in order to help those bewildered people. Why? Because no one else would....

Yet Senator Biden, the future vice president, then at the age of 31, fiercely maintained that the U.S. had "no obligation, moral or otherwise, to evacuate foreign nationals," dismissing concerns for their safety as the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong swept south toward Saigon in 1975. South Vietnam had collapsed at the end of the War in the spring of 1975, President Gerald Ford and his government evacuated thousands of families who had worked with U.S. troops during that infernal war, but the arch Senate spokesman The leading voice in the Senate opposing this rescue effort was Joe Biden.

From a Washington Examiner article by Jerry Dunleavy, July 4, 2019:

Hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese allies were in danger of recriminations from the Communists, but Biden insisted that the United States has no obligation to evacuate one or 100,001 South Vietnamese.”

Republican President Gerald Ford said: The United States has had a long tradition of opening its doors to immigrants of all countries. We've always been a humanitarian nation. We felt that a number of these South Vietnamese deserved an opportunity to live in freedom.”

Biden objected and called for a meeting between the president and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to voice his objections to Ford's funding request for these efforts. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who led the meeting, told the senators that the total list of the people endangered in Vietnam is over a million and that the irreducible list is 174,000.”

Vietnamese Refugees

Biden said U.S. allies should not be rescued: We should focus on getting them [the U.S. troops] out. Getting the Vietnamese out and military aid for the GVN [South Vietnam's government] are totally different.”

Kissinger said there were Vietnamese to whom we have an obligation, but Biden responded: I will vote for any amount for getting the Americans out. I don't want it mixed with getting the Vietnamese out.”

Ford was upset with Biden's response, believing that failing to evacuate the South Vietnamese would be a betrayal of American values: We opened our door to the Hungarians. Our tradition is to welcome the oppressed. I don't think these people should be treated any differently from any other people the Hungarians, Cubans, Jews from the Soviet Union.”

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee recommended that the bill be passed by the full Senate by a vote of 14 to 3. Biden was one of just three senators on the committee who voted nay. The conference report also passed the Senate as a whole by a vote of 46-17, where Biden again voted against it.

Saigon fell on April 30, 1975, and hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese who did not manage to escape the country were eventually sent to reeducation camps, where they were often abused, tortured, or killed.

The Director of the U.S.'s Inter-Agency Task Force on Indochinese Refugee Resettlement in 1975, Julia Taft, told NPR in 2007 about the refugees: 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. They should have been helped."

Despite Biden's objections and from other leading Democrats, U.S. military evacuated 130,000+ Vietnamese refugees in the immediate wake of the collapse of South Vietnam, 100,000+ more to be resettled in the U.S.

One refugee was Quang Pham, whose 2010 autobiography, A Sense of Duty: Our Journey from Vietnam to America, concerned his escape to the U.S. at the age of 10, in 1975 with his mother and his three sisters (11, 6, and 2). His father, a member of the South Vietnamese military, did not escape with them; he was forced to spend 10 years in a reeducation camp before coming to the U.S. in 1992.

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Vietnamese Refugees

Speaking with the Washington Examiner, Pham praised Ford for saving so many Vietnamese refugees, including his family; he criticized Democrats like Biden for trying to keep them out, saying, When we needed help, I remember who helped us and who didn't. About Joe Biden, Pham said this:

You have to look at foreign policy and humanitarianism. The Vietnam refugee crisis was big in 1975. Even if you were against the war, why wouldn't you support the refugees? Why wouldn't you support the families and women and children who were trying to escape? If we get involved in wars, there will be refugees. So we need to think about our moral obligation to non-Americans, especially to our allies."

Is it fair or even appropriate to judge Biden based on his actions from 1975? Pham replied, "As someone running for President, it's part of his record, just like everything else."

Tent city at Camp Pendleton

Tent city at Camp Pendleton

Pham matured in the US, then joined the Marines and served in the 1st Gulf War; he said: "Vietnamese refugees from 1975 had a lot of help from Americans who lived near the refugee camps and from Vietnam vets who felt they had a debt to help us. I'm grateful for that."

Biden's position against the Vietnamese diametrically contrasted the one he took 30 years later over Iraqi and Afghan interpreters who had worked with U.S. forces. "We owe these people. We have a debt to these people. They put their lives on the line for the United States," Tony Blinken, Biden's foreign policy adviser said in 2012.


And how and why in Joe Biden's mind were Vietnamese survivors of Lyndon Johnson's War Against Communism any different back in 1975? Call it "maturing," "expediency," or "political evolution," his anti-Vietnam stance still bothers me, and I conversely appreciate in retrospect Gerald Ford's insistence that much more.

Stephen Fox