Gloria Emerson, “Operation Babylift,” 1975

Source: The Reunion  of the First Generation of Vietnamese Adoptees, courtesy of Bree Brown

Gloria Emerson, whose book on Vietnam, Winners and Losers, won the National Book Award for non-fiction in 1978, offers a sharply critical view of “Operation Babylift” in this excerpt. The effort to “rescue” thousands of Vietnamese children on the eve of the U.S. evacuation was mounted by a number of U.S.-based agencies and organizations, including Holt Children’s Services, the Pearl Buck Foundation, World Vision, and the International Social Service. It was widely publicized and hotly debated after a military transport plane carrying around 300 passengers crashed on April 4, 1975, shortly after take-off from Saigon. More than 100 children were killed, along with at least 25 of their adult escorts. For other views of “Operation Babylift,” see the text of the New York Times ad that ran on April 7, 1975, the “Statement on the Immorality of Bringing South Vietnamese Orphans to the United States, April 4, 1975,” and Agency for International Development, Operation Babylift Report, 1975.

Operation babylift became a carnival: tearful, middle-class white women squeezing and kissing dark-eyed children, telling reporters that their new names would be Phyllis and Wendy and David. It is not over yet. A spokesperson for AID, the government agency providing military aircraft for the private agencies bringing the children here, and said it was an “open-ended operation.” The arrival of nearly 2000 children from Vietnam—I won’t call them orphans since we now know that some of them did indeed have parents—has aroused some of the emotions felt in 1973 when the American prisoners of war came home at last. Many people, so moved and so grateful, forgot that if the United States had not gone on bombing there would have been no prisoners. This time, only two years later, there is the same self-congratulatory spirit, a feeling of winning something at last, the need to prove to ourselves what decent people we really are. It is almost forgotten during these excited, evangelical scenes at airports that it is this country that made so many Vietnamese into orphans, that destroyed villages ripping families apart, this country that sent young Vietnamese fathers to their deaths. Now we have decided the Vietnamese we will “save” and “love” must be very pliant, very helpless. . . .

Now the welfare of a few thousand children has become a most successful propaganda effort for us to defend and support the diseased government of Nguyen Van Thieu despite the opposition to him in the South. Babies are a nicer story than the 26 million craters we gave South Vietnam, nicer than the 100,000 amputees in that wretched country, more fun to read about than the 14 million acres of defoliated forest and the 800,000 acres that we bulldozed. It does not matter at all that on television a Vietnamese foster mother sobbed bitterly and strained for a last look at the child she had cared for as Vietnamese infants were put on a plane at Tan Son Nhut. There are clearly no attempts being made to find foster parents in Vietnam who could take a child; we do not want to give money for that. . . .

Vietnamese living in the United States have tried to reason that all children in their country must be helped and this can best be done by ending the war. The first step would be to stop sustaining the government of Thieu. “You have been killing us with your kindness for twenty years,” Le Anh Tu, a 26-year-old Vietnamese woman living in Philadelphia, says. On a recent local radio talk show, called the “Saturday Night Special,” she asked listeners in favor of adoption if they really cared for the welfare of Vietnamese children, if they would be willing to return the children once peace came. The answers were shocked refusals at such an idea. . . .

We will never have the happy ending we want. President Ford’s chief refugee coordinator, Daniel Parker, the administrator of AID, suggested at a congressional hearing that 3000 to 4000 more Vietnamese children be airlifted to the United States. The confusion is immense. The argument grows a little louder, but not loud enough.

On the day of the crash of the U.S. C-5A transport plane carrying 243 children and 43 accompanying adults, a South Vietnamese army lieutenant spoke his mind. “It is nice to see you Americans taking home souvenirs of our country as you leave–china elephants and orphans,” this officer said. “Too bad some of them broke today, but we have plenty more.”


Source: Gloria Emerson, “Operation Babylift,” The New Republic, April 26, 1975, 8-10.

Page Updated: 2-24-2012
Site designed by:

To learn more about The Adoption History Project, please contact Ellen Herman
Department of History, University of Oregon
Eugene, Oregon 97403-1288
(541) 346-3699
About the Project and the Author
© Ellen Herman