“Breaking U.S. immigration laws saved lives in 1975. It gets you arrested today.”
Breaking U.S. immigration laws saved lives in 1975. It gets you arrested today
by THURSTON CLARKE (Tunisia 1960)
JUL 15, 2019 | 3:05 AM
Los Angeles Times
As the Vietnam War caromed to an end, Sister Marie Therese LeBlanc, a middle-aged American nun serving at Friends of the Children of Vietnam orphanage in Saigon, signed one affidavit after another attesting to sons and daughters she never had. It was April 23, 1975, one week before the city fell to the communists.
The 36 people LeBlanc claimed as her children were the adult employees of her orphanage and their families. Nevertheless, State Department officials at the evacuation processing center at Tan Son Nhut air base affixed their consular seals to her affidavits, and American airmen added the names she provided to the flight manifests of the Air Force transports flying out of Saigon. They collaborated with her because they knew, as she did, that the North Vietnamese had threatened retribution against anyone with ties to the losing side in the war.
A nun, U.S. diplomats, military officers and dozens of others followed the dictates of conscience, not the law, in April 1975. They lied and broke explicit rules to save Vietnamese lives. None were prosecuted. If their counterparts at our southern border repeated such acts today, they could easily face imprisonment.
LeBlanc exploited a loophole created by U.S. Defense Attache Maj. Gen. Homer Smith. Ambassador Graham Martin was under pressure from Washington to evacuate Americans from South Vietnam before the bloodbath began. Many of those whom officials wanted out were civilian contractors who had Vietnamese wives and children and refused to leave without their wives’ extended families. On April 19, the Immigration and Naturalization Service had sent Martin a cable: To expedite the evacuation of U.S. citizens, any American could sponsor visas for their Vietnamese in-laws if they agreed to be responsible for the cost of their transportation, care and resettlement.
Smith seized on the option. He composed an “affidavit of support” that would permit Americans to sponsor anyone they claimed as a family member. Martin, who wanted Washington off his back, reluctantly agreed to the affidavit, and his secretary mimeographed copies that quickly circulated through the contractor community and beyond.
Smith knew the affidavits would proliferate. He told his staff members they could list anyone they wanted to evacuate as dependents, provided that none were in the South Vietnamese military. Teenager Linh Duy Vo later credited Smith for his escape to the United States, writing in a tribute after Smith’s death in 2011, “You had saved thousands of lives, a repeat of Schindler’s list. I was among them.” Others made a similar comparison. Jackie Bong, who got out of the country with the assistance of an American posing as her husband, later wrote that her escape was like “Jews being helped to flee Europe during World War II.”
Smith’s mimeographed form contributed to the largest humanitarian operation in U.S. history. On April 21, the U.S. Air Force evacuated 249 Americans and 334 “others,” mostly Vietnamese, from Saigon. The next day it flew out 550 Americans and 2,801 others, and on April 23, LeBlanc’s “children” were among the 5,574 others. By the end of April, the Air Force had evacuated 45,000 South Vietnamese and third-country nationals. Add those to the evacuees rescued by the U.S. Navy at sea, and in the last weeks of the war, 130,810 refugees got out of Indochina with U.S. aid.
There were many American Schindlers. Bill Ryder, an official with the U.S. Military Sealift Command, encouraged the captain of an American freighter to defy orders to leave Saigon with an empty vessel. Under cover of darkness, evacuees boarded the ship, and after reaching international waters the captain announced that he was carrying 700 stowaways. Ryder understood that he was breaking American, Philippine and South Vietnamese visa and passport laws, using a ship chartered by the U.S. Navy at a cost of $12,000 a day, and sticking American taxpayers with the bill.
Lionel Rosenblatt and Craig Johnstone, Foreign Service officers who had worked in Vietnam, were just as willing to take a risk. They went AWOL from their State Department desk jobs in Washington, flew to Saigon and worked undercover to evade embassy security officers who had been ordered to find and expel them. They helped more than 500 of their Vietnamese friends and former co-workers and family members get to Tan Son Nhut and onto evacuation flights. They were summoned to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s office later. Kissinger, once a German refugee himself, told them, “You did a very admirable thing, I’m very proud of you.” Turning to the official responsible for bringing them to his office, he said, “If I get another memorandum … chastising the only people who have done the honorable thing, it’ll be you who’ll be dismissed.”
Four decades later, that forbearance is AWOL in the United States. In January 2018, a volunteer with a humanitarian organization was charged with a felony for providing food and water to two migrants who had crossed into a desert wildlife refuge where 32 people had perished during the previous year. A year later, four humanitarian workers were convicted of misdemeanor charges for leaving caches of food and water in the same area. In May 2019, Teresa Todd stopped on the side of a lonely highway in Texas when she was flagged down by three migrants from El Salvador who appeared to be in distress. Border Patrol agents took her into custody, and she remains the target of an investigation that could result in criminal charges. One of the migrants, an 18-year-old girl, was treated for starvation and dehydration and might have died had Todd not stopped.
In ways large and small, the U.S. government collaborated with the American Schindlers in Vietnam intent on doing “the honorable thing.” On our southern border today, in Todd’s words, the government is instead sending “a message to try to chill people from helping others.”
Thurston Clarke (Tunisia 1960) is the author of “Honorable Exit: How a Few Brave Americans Risked All to Save Our Vietnamese Allies at the End of the War.”
5 CommentsLeave a comment
Many thanks to Thurston Clarke, and may God always smile on those individuals who, in a time of great confusion, followed their moral principles.
I was drafted following the end of my PC service, and saw some of the other consequences of the Vietnam War and the government’s rationalizations first hand. It created a division of mistrust between the American people and the government that probably never will entirely heal.
Even with today’s AVF, seeing pictures of American GIs playing soccer with Afghan children, I think there still is a bit of the PCV in many American servicemen. Let’s hope they never lose it !
I’m always reminded of the statement by Naval Intelligence Officer, Cmdr William Lederer (USN Ret), who authored a novel, “The Ugly American”, which some say had played role in Pres JFK’s decision to create the Peace Corps, AND to make it independent of the “Foreign Policy Establishment”. The seasoned officer wrote:
“The only thing good that ever happened in Vietnam was when the Marines in I-Corps, tasked with pacification, slung their M-16s, and like Peace Corps Volunteers, sat down with local Vietnamese farmers, and asked them what it was they wanted.” Reading the above, we might want to add something to that.
John Turnbull Ghana-3 Geology and Nyasaland/Malawi-2 Geology Assignment 1963, -64, -65.
Thanks for publishing this, John. Midway into his article, Thurston Clarke mentions Lionel Rosenblatt, a neighbor and long-time friend whom I’ve seen and spoken with several times in recent months.
I’ve generally known about Lionel’s role as a rogue facilitator who helped rescue many Vietnamese whose lives were in his care until they found safety in America. As for Sister Marie Therese LeBlanc, I’ve never met her and certainly never knew about her almost movie-like starring role in saving Vietnamese. However, having been schooled by other nuns from grades 1-8, I’m pleasantly impressed yet not surprised.
Come to think of it, someone should make a film documentary about what Clarke recounts above! –Tino
Yes, Tino, this would make an inspiring film, at a time when the country really needs some inspiration. All the characters are there ! I would share your respect for your grade-school nuns, and their dedication.
I am still haunted by the sight of helicopters taking off from the roof of the embassyin Saigon when people still trying to escape. To know what Sister Marie Therese LeBlanc did is so encouraging. What a courageous woman! This is a great story and I agree with everyone this would make an important movie.
Yes, it could be THE film of this decade. Regrettably the lovely European actress Audrey Hepburn (who played the role of real-life Sister Marie Louise Habets (“The Nun’s Story”), of the Belgian Congo, isn’t here to play that role.
Worth noting that Sister Marie whilst advising on the filming, befriended Audrey, and lovingly nursed her back to health after an accident. As my Spanish neighbour might say, “They don’t make ’em like that anymore.”