Then and Now:  Evacuating Vietnamese (1975), Evacuating Afghans (2021)

By Shlomo Maital

A Huey Helicopter

   At the end of April 1975,  the US evacuated its Saigon embassy, as North Vietnamese forces rapidly approached.  Thousands of Vietnamese also sought to leave, to reach safety, and besieged the Embassy.  US Marines and the US Navy went into action.  The US Navy aircraft carrier Midway was positioned offshore, in the South China Sea.  Its fighter aircraft had been replaced with Chinook and Huey helicopters. Helicopters flew to the roof of the Saigon embassy, filled their cabins with evacuees, and deposited their precious cargo on the deck of the Midway.   They flew in daylight and through the night.  

    An eyewitness account of this mission was reported today on the BBC World Service by a navy officer and a Marine who both took active parts.  The Navy officer reported that on the Midway, helicopters that landed on the deck took up space that other helicopters needed to land.  He made a decision – push some of the inactive helicopters into the sea, to make room.  (Each Huey or Chinook could take up to  50 people, for the short journey.)   People’s lives are worth more than helicopters, he said.

     Marine soldiers on the ground defied State Department orders to process and transport only Americans  — and loaded Vietnamese as well into helicopters.   When the last helicopter took off, there were still Vietnamese awaiting rescue – 420 of them.  We felt bad, the Marine said, we felt terrible – but it had to end then. 

     Fast forward.   The United States opened its doors.  Large-scale immigration from Vietnam to the United States was facilitated, and in total the U.S.-sponsored evacuation brought an estimated 125,000 Vietnamese refugees to American shores.  Among other immigrant groups, they have been ambitious, creative hard-working citizens. 

     I’ve been to Vietnam.  I have good friends there and have had Vietnamese students who studied abroad.  These are resilient hard-working people, who have created high value for their adopted country and of course, for their own. 

      I have not visited Afghanistan, and do not know Afghans personally.  But I have no doubt, that if America opened its doors to those Afghans who wanted to emigrate, and used its vast military and civilian resources to bring all those who wish to leave, to safety —  and if it gave the US military an order,  do what it takes to bring all those who wish to leave out to safety, beyond August 31 —   the US would gain a valuable tranche of human capital,  and there would be no more concern about America’s declining birth rate.     

        My evidence?  My own mother and father, and grandparents,  immigrants to Canada.  Immigrants bring hope, aspiration, gratitude, resilience and love of adopted country. And second-generation immigrants (me) — the same or more so. Why is that so hard for Americans to understand?

     United States,  Saigon 1975.

     United States, Kabul 2021.

     What in the world has happened to America?