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A Personal History of Vietnam War Refugee Policies

Historians/History
tags: Vietnam War, refugees, family



Ron Steinmanspent 35 years at NBC. He was NBC’s Bureau Chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. In 1975 he joined the Today Show, spending 11 years as a senior producer in Washington and New York, including covering politics and overseeing production of the Today Show’s live special weeklong broadcasts from China, Moscow, Seoul, Vietnam and overseas presidential trips. He is the author of Death in Saigon, a murder mystery set in Saigon during the war. His latest book is "My Commonplace Book." Steinman won a Peabody Award, a National Press Club award, two American Women in Radio & Television Awards, and has five Emmy nominations. 

 

When the war ended in Vietnam in 1975, America was completely unprepared for the sudden influx of refugees who came to the United States from South Vietnam. There was no policy for letting them in. There was no policy to keep them out. The Vietnamese who came did so because they felt they had no other option. 

 

That first group to arrive was a diverse lot. Some worked for the American press. Others were in the employ of big American companies with construction and communication projects in South Vietnam. Some were professionals -- lawyers, teachers, and doctors and nurses. Some worked for South Vietnamese non-profits. There were cooks and dishwashers, street cleaners and soldiers. Many were family members who feared reprisals from the North Vietnamese. Their backgrounds and occupations may have been different, but they all shared one overriding goal: they did not want to live under communism and the domination of Hanoi and the Viet Cong, who were equally hated and feared.   

 

Throughout its history, America has seldom been kind or overly hospitable to refugees. Despite the millions who came in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when our doors were open without prejudice, there has always been an unfounded fear that the newcomers would change the American way of life. After World War I, nationalists, always a powerful factor in American politics, decided enough was enough. They wanted to stop the flow of Italians, Jews, Irish, Germans and the Chinese into the U.S. To mollify the nativists, Congress enacted laws that created strong quotas and tough strictures on immigrants. Deportations for illegal immigrants mainly from Mexico and Central America are also nothing new. For example, between 1931 and 1940 America deported more than 500,000 Mexican-Americans back to Mexico. 

 

In the case of Vietnam, however, these strictures were relaxed, perhaps because of guilt over the way the war had ended. 

         

*****

Josephine Tu Ngoc Suong was born in Saigon in 1942 during the Japanese occupation. She had worked for many years for NBC News before I arrived in Saigon in 1966. We married in December 1968 in a simple ceremony at the Hong Kong city hall. Josephine's father, Tu Hong Phat, had  lived though the long French occupation, the short Japanese takeover during World War II and then the return of French domination until the fall of Dien Bien Phu and the new dominance by America. Through hard work he carved out a confortable life for himself and his family who lived on a typical, unpaved street with a market and Catholic Church in central Saigon. 

 

Before the war was over, Josephine and I were living in Rockville Centre, New York, She and her father wrote many letters to each other. I recently found a few surviving letters her father wrote about what he observed in Saigon as the war was ending. The letters give us a rare insight into what an average Vietnamese man thought about the war. 

 

There were major battles on the days when he wrote. Fighting and chaos were everywhere. Most of Mr. Tu's letters were realistic, well informed and filled with information about the war, how Josephine's three brothers were faring and how the family was dealing with food shortages. 

 

He thanked Josephine for packages of food that she sent weekly. He told her how he sent his wife, her mother, Nguyen Thi Ba, to purchase 500 kilos of rice, dry shrimp, and dry Vietnamese sausage that could last as long as five months if the military situation grew worse and there was a shortage of food. 

 

He wrote "The military situation in the south of Vietnam is in an extremely serious stage. Numerous events have occurred recently, never seen in the history of this war." It was surprising to see how well informed Mr. Tu was about the war. I never trusted the local press in South Vietnam, but Mr. Tu obviously knew how to parse the information, real and rumored, from a myriad of sources. 

 

Mr. Tu wrote about the provinces in northern South Vietnam that had recently fallen to Hanoi: "The communists have taken this opportunity to change their guerrilla fighting over to tactical and strategic fighting using main force troops in strength. Our South Vietnamese forces often withdrew its troops before clashing with the enemy." He said, "according to the latest sources, the northern provinces are in a shambles with over 10,000 North Vietnamese troops fighting near Binh Dinh." He told Josephine "refugees keep flowing deeper south even as far as the southern resort of Vung Tao." 

 

At the time of this letter, the ARVN, South Vietnam’s army, was on its own. American troops had left the country almost two years prior. South Vietnam's ground forces were not doing well without American support, hardly a surprise to most observers.

 

Toward the end of one long letter Mr. Tu became political, voicing some of his thoughts about life in Vietnam as the war was ending. "In brief, the people who are living under freedom could have a happy life if they worked hard. Living in a free society, the people have all their rights, while the communists have none. People under communism must listen to the Communist party if they want to live. If the communists appear anywhere, the place is soon ruined and damaged. No one can forget the VC general offensive during the New Year of 1968. Thousands of innocent people have been buried alive at Hue, the former Imperial capital. That is why people are fleeing the communists. But the present regime in South Vietnam is not much better since there is much injustice and corruption in the military and administrative machinery. Evil."

 

As the war was ending, NBC decided it had a moral obligation to bring to America any Vietnamese employees and their families who wanted to come here. Josephine's family never hesitated. With the help of NBC News they were part of the first wave of 125,000 immigrants who came to the U.S. in 1975. The whole family, except for Josephine’s three brothers who were in the South Vietnamese military, left.

 

The Vietnamese who successfully fled Vietnam were housed in refugee camps in the United States, on Guam, or in the Philippines. Josephine’s family members were sent to California and Arkansas.

 

Meanwhile, as Saigon was falling in 1975, the brothers were at the Bien Hoa Air Base outside Saigon. Unsure of their next move, they decided to make their way to the family home.

 

Their friend Xuan was still serving in the navy as the situation in Saigon deteriorated. Xuan said that "patrols on the water were normal until the morning of April 28 when the VC opened a heavy offensive against the Thanh Giang Bridge," the biggest span on the highway into Saigon. A battle ensued with no definitive result. 

 

After that battle, Xuan drove with his commander to a meeting in the Rung Sat jungle riverine force zone. His commander had an order to evacuate all his navy ships and he asked Xuan if he would like to go with him. Xuan agreed to flee but He had more to do. He took a chance and went to the Tu home where he found Khiet, Khai and Quan waiting for something to happen. It did. The brothers agreed to come with Xuan on the navy boat. Unfortunately, Xuan’s parents didn’t want to leave Saigon. "My parents still would not leave. My father would not budge," Xuan recalled.

 

Saigon was about to fall and the Viet Cong were everywhere so the men could no longer delay their departure. It was time to get moving. After securing extra food for his family and saying goodbye to his mother and father, Xuan and the three brothers made their final scooter ride to Nha Be where the patrol boats were docked at the rendezvous point ready to go. 

 

As they fled, Xuan recalled, "Outside the main streets of central Saigon, the city seemed as a dead city. No houses or stores were open. People stayed inside unsure of what would come next." It was April 29, 1975, one day before Saigon fell and war officially ended. 

         

After briefly staying in a small house with about fifty other people, they boarded the ships. Worried they might have to fight the enemy to escape, the men mounted weapons on the ship’s deck. Luckily, the small fleet with its lights turned off, escaped undetected. Xuan remembered a moving, tearful ceremony as the crew lowered the Republic of Vietnam flag as the passengers said goodbye to their homeland. After seven days at sea they arrived in the Philippines. From there they transferred to a large commercial ship that took them to Guam. They spent two weeks there before being flown to Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania. 

 

While the family was still settling into our house on Long Island, I had to take up a new assignment for the Today Show in Washington, D,C. Josephine and I flew to D.C. to look for a place to live. While house hunting, we received a 4 A.M. phone call from Josephine’s 23-year-old brother Quan. He was calling from the National Guard camp at Fort Indiantown Gap. Quan, his brothers Khiet and Khai, and their friend Xuan told us they ended up there after a long journey at sea. 

 

Knowing Josephine’s brothers were safe gave added impetus to our house hunting.The day after the 4 AM phone call Josephine and I rented a big home in suburban Maryland that would take care of the family at least temporarily. That Sunday, Josephine and I drove to Pennsylvania to find her brothers and their friend.

 

When we arrived at Indiantown Gap, I told the guard at the gate what we wanted and he unhesitatingly directed us to the administrative building. I entered the office, explained what I wanted to the desk sergeant, and handed him a piece of paper with the names of the men we wanted to take home with us. He grunted in assent, sent a corporal to find the men and soon they were in the office, hugging Josephine, laughing and crying as I signed them out into my custody. 

 

We walked back to the car and I drove to the first Burger King I saw. Everyone ordered burgers, fries and Cokes. Their first real meal in America and, of course, it had to be the fastest of fast food, the most iconic welcome they could have had. They ate, and kept eating. 

         

When we returned to Rockville Centre (we wouldn’t move to Maryland for a few more weeks), there was no negative reaction to the sudden influx of refugees in my Long Island town. Donations of clothing from the two Jewish temples and the Catholic diocese started arriving on our front porch. People cooked meals for us and volunteered to drive family members to stores and medical appointments. Others volunteered to help Josephine in any way she needed. Kindness prevailed. The community outdid itself welcoming the newcomers. 

 

Josephine's three brothers, their newly adopted cousin and her father were still wearing Saigon-style sandals, leather thongs sewn into soles made from discarded rubber tires. They needed something better for their feet, more applicable to the colder weather soon to come. I piled everyone into the station wagon and drove to Baldwin, one town over, and a Shoetown store to buy shoes and socks for everyone. I told the startled clerk that I wanted sneakers and sweat socks for everyone. The men sat down, tried on various sneaker styles, made decisions on what they would wear, and walked out of the store in newly clad feet, happy with their selections and their deeper inclusion into American society.  

 

Josephine’s brothers, their friend and her father started helping around the house washing the bathrooms, cleaning the floors, washing the windows, cutting the grass and upgrading the flowerbeds. Inside and out, the house and yard never looked better. 

 

Then the whole family was off to Maryland so I could start my new job. As we pulled up to our new home, one of our neighbors watched from behind his curtains. Later, he told me he thought he was witnessing a benign invasion by a delegation from an Asian country. The fact that Josephine’s female family members were wearing their traditional dress, the Vietnamese ao dai, only heightened his impression. 

 

Once settled, I started my new job, driving to work every morning at 5:30 A.M. Meanwhile Josephine helped her family adjust to their new home, finding work for everyone so they could be independent. 

 

The men had no definable skills that translated easily into work, which made it hard to find jobs for them. Through a personal contact of mine, we were able to get Josephine's three brothers, their friend, and her father jobs cutting grass, cleaning flowerbeds, and watering lawns. The pay was low, but it was in cash and in those warm weather months they could spend their time outdoors. Soon they started to bring home money and feel more secure in their new life. 

 

It took more doing to find work for the women, who also had no transferable skills. But they were not afraid of menial labor. Josephine made a contact with a local Ramada Inn. They got jobs cleaning rooms, making beds, and washing bathrooms. These were not cash jobs but the accumulated paychecks gave the women a sense of security and worth. 

 

I must emphasize that strangers who helped my family did it with a smile, unlike today when many Americans regard immigrants with disdain and anger. I do not, and the family does not, recall having suffered because they were refugees. 

 

Once Josephine had secured jobs for everyone, her next step was housing. Her family had money coming in and collectively they could afford to move to a place of their own. However, that proved to be difficult. Buying was impossible. Renting was also difficult because none of them had a bank account. None of them had credit cards or Social Security numbers. They had never had a telephone, even in Saigon. Neither had they ever paid an electric bill. In other words, not one of the family had a record of having spent any money in their new country. That would eventually come, but not fast enough to get them their own home. However, Josephine persevered and eventually found a town house the family could rent. She and I vouched for each family member individually and we provided the money for the security deposit. 

 

In a matter of weeks, the family moved into their new home in a lower middle-class development in Gaithersburg, a few miles from where Josephine and I lived. The first night in my Potomac home without them was strange, eerily quiet, as if our basement had never been the home for those who had fled the communist takeover of South Vietnam leaving their old lives behind. 

 

Josephine’s family, continued to work and save money. They got drivers licenses, bought cars and relieved Josephine of her duties as a chauffeur. As soon as they could, the family moved into a bigger house, Here their story takes a new turn. Josephine’s mother, Nguyen Thi Ba, had been a well-known cook in Saigon who ran a small breakfast and lunch restaurant in the front courtyard of their home. 

 

Now she opened a clandestine, illegal restaurant in the front parlor of her house where she served home cooked Vietnamese food to the growing community of refugees starting to populate Maryland, Virginia, and Washington. Some neighbors complained, causing the local board of health to occasionally shut down the restaurant, but that never lasted too long. Even the health inspectors grabbed a quick meal of pho, the hearty signature soup of Vietnam, or a variety of noodles and chicken in plum sauce. The food was too good to pass up. 

 

Josephine’s family had always wanted to own a restaurant. They soon realized their dream. With the money they had been saving the family opened the first of its two restaurants, Taste of Saigon, in Maryland and then Virginia. Their aim, with Josephine as their mentor, was to stand on their own and not be a burden to anyone. In their life as restaurateurs, they were starting to reach their goal.  


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