Honorable Exit: How A Few Brave Americans Risked All To Save Our Vietnamese Allies at the End of the War e
by Thurston Clarke (Tunisia 1968)
April 30, 2019
$30.00 (hardback), $14.99 (Kindle)
Reviewed by Tony Zurlo (Nigeria 1965-66)
In wars we expect to read about heroes in combat. In Honorable Exit Thurston Clarke’s mines the depth of emotion that drove dozens of Americans in Vietnam to acts of heroism by risking life and careers to find ways to evacuate South Vietnamese who had connections with Americans and who would have been imprisoned or killed by the North Vietnamese.
Clarke tells the story of A Few Brave Americans who during the last weeks of April 1975 smuggled 130,000 Vietnamese co-workers, secretaries, orphans, families — anyone who might become victims of North Vietnamese revenge through the perilous streets of Saigon and other cities. Don’t let the subtitle fool you. There were dozens of brave heroes.
Ambassador Graham Martin was generally in charge of evacuation plans. Often blamed for too rigorously trying to follow South Vietnam’s laws of immigration, Martin worried that the government would interpret any open attempt to evacuate Vietnamese as America’s intention to withdraw all support to the South and would ignite widespread panic. But even Martin circumvented his orders toward the end “to grant emergency immigration parole to fifty thousand endangered South Vietnamese ” by interpreting “the number to mean heads of families and not the families too.” Martin admitted years later that “During the last couple of weeks I was doing things that were totally illegal and getting criticized for not doing more.” President Gerald Ford, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and handful of senators also stand out as strong, influential voices for rapid evacuations. President Ford told historian Douglas Brinkley in 2000, “I still grieve over those we were unable to rescue.”
Dissatisfied with Martin’s meager evacuation plans, Colonel William LeGro, a military intelligence officer, told a colleague “Let’s ignore the embassy and organize our own evacuation.” Soon dozens of clandestine, non-stop “underground railroads” were leading tens of thousands of people to safe boarding of planes and boats. Although it’s difficult keeping track of so many names and their titles, many of the “brave Americans” were attached to the State Department. Some escape plans were associated with CIA personnel. Many others were U.S. military. To succeed, they needed cooperation from private contractors, pilots, teachers, nurses, doctors, and other civilian occupations, most of them also hoping to get Vietnamese friends and workers to evacuation points. None of these Americans had planned to become heroes. Their unselfish love and compassion drove them to risk their careers by disobeying orders, dodging bullets, forging papers, concealing identities, even pledging personally to sponsor evacuees.
Nelson Kieff, . . . plainclothes military intelligence agent(‘s) . . . job would be to prevent unauthorized passengers from boarding his bus. Crowds besieged his bus the moment it stopped, crying and begging to be allowed inside. It was half full when Kieff picked up a young Vietnamese woman on his list. The people surrounding the bus looked menacing, and some were armed. After the young woman boarded, Kieff shouted for the driver to slam the door and accelerate. She screamed, ‘My brother!’ and Kieff looked back to see a young man running after the bus, frantically waving his arms and shouting.” He had to make a split-second decision. Fearing that armed deserters might hijack the bus, he told the driver not to stop. While recounting this story four decades later, he began to cry, saying through his tears, ‘I thought I was doing the right thing. I didn’t even know if he was on my list or not, and I don’t know what happened to him, or to her.”
Clarke describes another American with thirty-two adoption affidavits.
He was asked, ‘Do you know you are only allowed to take immediate family members of American citizens out? Are all these people related to you?’ The American said they were, directly or by adoption. He had listed the ages of his thirty-two adoptees. One was an elderly Catholic priest.
What in the hell is this?’ the airman asked. ‘Here’s this eighty-year-old priest.’
‘Well, that’s my adopted son.’
South Vietnamese soldiers and police usually stopped buses, trucks, cars, delayed airplane takeoffs, and arrest anyone they suspected had no or illegal papers to exit the country. Almost all teenage boys and young men who looked eligible to fight were pulled off and put in the military.
Clarke’s writing is clear and comprehensive. But don’t expect to digest it all in one or two readings. It needs a comprehensive organizational chart, a map of South Vietnam with major cities, and a map of Saigon showing various locations occupied by different groups mentioned in the book, a thorough index, and maybe a thorough list of recurring leaders of these secret evacuations. In addition, a convenient chart of the dozens of organizations and their acronyms would help.
Most of these “refugees” ended up in the U.S., where they met adamant resistance (only 36 percent of Americans in May 1975 supported admitting Vietnamese refugees). However, over the decades the patriotism and success of Vietnamese Americans has been a showcase of why we need to open our hearts and doors to refugees from around the world, rather than wall them out.
Clarke’s story needs to be told; needs to circulate around Washington, D. C., and be required reading for members of congressional committees. It’s my understanding that a film of this remarkable story is being made.
These “few brave Americans” validated the” better angels of our nature.” Or perhaps more so, they show how Americans can rise above today’s scourge of “tribal” identity and prove to the world we do care.
After surviving the beginning of a civil war in Nigeria and a paranoid Chinese government a year after the Tiananmen Square uprising, Tony Zurlo (Nigeria 1965-66) settled down to a comparatively safe life as a college professor in Texas. Now, after eight years of retirement, he is wondering what happened to the wealth and fame promised in life. However, realizing his lack of genius and talent, Tony has achieved just enough in writing and education that he appreciates how remarkable but incomprehensible life is. So in old age, Tony scribbles a poem, now and then, and with great effort honks a tune or two on the saxophone hoping to back up Chuck Berry or Ray Charles in the great hereafter.