WITH TALK AT LAST turning seriously to a possible pull-out of American troops from Iraq, my thoughts run immediately to the fall of Saigon in 1975. That was the last time the United States had to face on a large scale a grave moral question: Whom among our native “friends” do we bring home with us?
Let’s imagine the day where we’re confronted with the imminent “fall of Baghdad.” It’s safe to assume that any Iraqi who worked for the U.S. government or one of its myriad contractors will make a choice target for violent reprisal after the last G.I. leaves. So before that day must literally come a day of judgment, when someone will have to make the difficult decisions — quite apart from the handling of ordinary war refugees — about who will be invited to live stateside and who will be left behind, very possibly to die.
For practical and ethical guidance, I called Wolfgang Lehmann, who was America’s deputy ambassador to South Vietnam for the 13 months leading up to the final evacuation of the U.S. Embassy on April 30, 1975. Long retired from the State Department, Lehmann is someone that the Bush administration might think about consulting — not only on military and diplomatic strategies to avert disaster in Iraq — but also on the nuts and bolts of organizing an orderly departure of tens of thousands of asylum-seeking refugees.
Lehmann is no dove. Initially pro-invasion, he thinks a funding reduction or cutoff by Congress in Iraq would encourage the anti-American rebels to fight even harder — for him, leaving Iraq is a big “if” — just as he believes that the reduction of military and economic aid to the South Vietnamese government in late summer 1974 gave the communist North Vietnamese a “green light to tear up” the Paris peace agreements “and move ahead with a full-scale, overt military attack” on the American-backed south.
The analogy only goes so far, of course. Unlike Vietnam, there doesn’t seem to be any unified command structure in the Iraqi insurgency — no provisional government in waiting that can take over ministries and run the police force in the event of a U.S. withdrawal from the Green Zone. Thus there is no single group that would necessarily round up the American “collaborators” in a systematic way to shoot them or send them to re-education camps.
Nevertheless, there would be lots of bloodshed. And whether we left Baghdad in helicopters with people hanging from the skids, or overland in disciplined convoys, the ethical questions would be the same as in Vietnam.
“We had a system,” recalled Lehmann the other day from his home in suburban Washington, D.C. “Obviously, the first obligation was to evacuate American citizens, then Vietnamese employees of the embassy.” Next in priority “were Vietnamese in the particularly threatened categories” such as “military and government people who worked with us.”
Each sector of the embassy — military, political, intelligence, commercial — was assigned to identify the most vulnerable of its Vietnamese counterparts. This included not only officers in the South Vietnamese army and government officials, but also employees of private companies like Pan Am and IBM.
None of it was easy or routine. The American military had almost entirely gone, leaving Lehmann and Ambassador Graham Martin at the mercy of President Nguyen Van Thieu’s not always competent or ethical Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Besides the embassy’s having “no legal authority to bring anyone to the U.S.,” Lehmann says, “few of these people had passports or exit visas from the South Vietnamese government.”
So when someone arrived at an air- or seaport to embark on a waiting U.S. plane or boat, particularly in the chaotic final weeks, they still needed some kind of papers to get them past their own government’s guards. Ever the diplomat, Lehmann explained his emergency solution: creation by the U.S. Embassy of thousands of “laissez-passer” passport substitutes that were “ostensibly created by the South Vietnamese government, which we handed out.”
“I suspect that we all broke the law,” he says. But apart from carping congressmen, no one in Washington interfered. Finally, on April 25, the embassy was permitted by the U.S. attorney general to employ his so-called “parole authority” to grant legal asylum status to the thousands of Vietnamese flooding into Guam and the Philippines.
The embassy’s moral obligation was clear up to a point. However, among the 2,000 or so American employees of various U.S. agencies (not to mention a couple of hundred retired Americans who had stayed on to live with “common-law Vietnamese wives” as well as high-profile Vietnamese “friends”) were many more thousands of Vietnamese dependents — primarily wives, girl-friends and children but also great numbers of more distant Vietnamese relatives. Lehmann and his colleagues “had to draw the line somewhere.” Many “senior people,” anticipating the worst, had already gotten their families out, “but we did have to turn people down,” like the Vietnamese sister of one of Lehmann’s personal guards. Husbands, wives and children got first priority and “we did not succeed in getting everyone out” who may have had a good case for leaving.
In all, Lehmann says, the American embassy “helped to get out about 135,000 people,” and during the heaviest period, between April 25 and 29, an astounding 27,000, “mostly by military fixed-wing airlift.” The vast majority of these were Vietnamese, most of whom were resettled in the United States.
Lehmann had previously served for nine months as consul general in the Mekong Delta, and for a non-Vietnamese speaker he knew the country pretty well. He still bristles at the suggestion that the United States was slow in responding to the impending refugee crisis. “As early as February 20,” even before Thieu decided to pull his army out Pleiku and Kontum in the Central Highlands, Lehmann was working with the Marines on an evacuation plan.
“Of course,” he says, “we kept this very, very quiet. If we started to call it an evacuation, which it was, we would create a panic and things would get out of hand” as they eventually did anyway, in Da Nang on March 26, when the airfield shut down “because it was just overrun by mobs.”
Although I disagree with Lehmann’s politics I admire him for completing what must have been one of the most thankless tasks in the history of American diplomacy. I asked him if he would venture any advice for his potential successors in Iraqi refugee management. Himself a political refugee, Lehmann is quite sensitive on the topic. His family left Hitler’s Germany in 1934 because his father, the archaeologist Karl Lehmann, had two Jewish grandparents and was thus deemed half-Jewish under the Nazi racial laws and fired from his university post.
“I’ve only thought about Vietnam,” he said. “But I think if you’ve made a commitment and enlisted a great many people on the assumption that you will prevail and this [pulling out] means abandoning them and reneging on our commitment, that forces an obligation on us of saving the people who have helped us. Especially being a nation of immigrants, it would be un-American not to be generous. And we can afford it.”
If Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns has the time, he might want to chat with Lehmann. If the newly studious President Bush is too busy to get on the phone, Lehmann’s oral history is available at the Gerald Ford Presidential Library in Grand Rapids, Mich. It makes riveting reading, even if you’re staying the course.
John R. MacArthur, a monthly contributor, is publisher of Harper’s Magazine.
© 2007, Published by The Providence Journal Co.