Despite today’s outrage over President Donald Trump’s refugee executive order, many liberals in 1975 were part of a chorus of big name Democrats who refused to accept any Vietnamese refugees when millions were trying to escape South Vietnam as it fell to the communists.
They even opposed orphans.
The group, led by California’s Gov. Jerry Brown, included such liberal luminaries as Delaware’s Democratic Sen. Joe Biden, former presidential “peace candidate” George McGovern, and New York Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman.
The Los Angeles Times reported Brown even attempted to prevent planes carrying Vietnamese refugees from landing at Travis Air Force Base outside San Francisco. About 500 people were arriving each day and eventually 131,000 arrived in the United States between 1975 and 1977.
These people arrived despite protests from liberal Democrats. In 2015, the Los Angeles Times recounted Brown’s ugly attitude, reporting, “Brown has his own checkered history of demagoguery about refugees.”
Back in 1975, millions of South Vietnamese who worked for or supported the U.S. found themselves trapped behind the lines when the communists took over the country. Vietnamese emigre Tung Vu, writing in Northwest Asian Weekly, recalled the hardships the Vietnamese faced in 1975 as they tried to escape the communists.
“After the fall of Saigon, many Vietnamese chose to leave by any means possible, often in small boats. Those who managed to escape pirates, typhoons, and starvation sought safety and a new life in refugee camps,” Tung wrote.
Ironically, Republicans led by former President Gerald Ford were the political figures who fought for the refugees to enter the United States.
Julia Taft, who in 1975 headed up Ford’s Inter-agency Task Force on Indochinese refugee resettlement, told author Larry Engelmann in his book, “Tears Before the Rain: An Oral History of the Fall of South Vietnam,” “The new governor of California, Jerry Brown, was very concerned about refugees settling in his state.”
National Public Radio host Debbie Elliott retraced Brown’s refusal to accept any refugees in a January 2007 interview with Taft. According to a transcript, which was aired on its flagship program, “All Things Considered,” Taft said, “our biggest problem came from California due to Brown.” She called his rejection of Vietnamese refugees “a moral blow.”
“I remember at the time we had thousands and thousands of requests from military families in San Diego, for instance, who had worked in Vietnam, who knew some of these people,” she told NPR.
Taft recalled another dark reason the liberals opposed the refugees: “They said they had too many Hispanics, too many people on welfare, they didn’t want these people.”
“They didn’t want any of these refugees, because they had also unemployment,” she told NPR. “They had already a large number of foreign-born people there. They had – they said they had too many Hispanics, too many people on welfare, they didn’t want these people.”
Brown echoed his isolationist theme throughout his first term. As recounted by author Larry Clinton Thompson in his book, “Refugee Workers in the Indochina Exodus,” Brown said, “We can’t be looking 5,000 miles away and at the same time neglecting people who live here.”
At the same time as Brown was fighting Washington, Democrats waged an anti-refugee campaign inside the nation’s capital.
Ford appealed to Congress to quickly help the refugees, who included thousands of Cambodians fleeing a genocidal campaign perpetrated by the communist Cambodian Pol Pot regime.
But in Washington, Ford found himself thwarted by many high-profile Democrats.
A review of the congressional debate at the time and recounted by CQ Almanac shows New York’s Elizabeth Holtzman – who was one of the House’s most visible liberal congresswomen — opposed helping the refugees. Like Brown, she tried to pit her constituents against the refugees. She said, according to CQ Almanac, “some of her constituents felt that the same assistance and compassion was not being shown to the elderly, unemployed and poor in this country.”
Rep. Donald Riegle, a liberal representative from Michigan who later would serve as its senator, offered an amendment that would have barred funds for the refugees unless similar assistance was given to Americans. The amendment was rejected by the House, 346 to 71, according to the Almanac.
Another House Democrat even tried to slow down the airlift of Vietnamese orphans. The Almanac reported that Rep. Joshua Eilberg, the Democratic chairman of the House Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship and International Law, accused the Ford administration of having acted “with unnecessary haste” in the evacuation of the orphans.
The emergency rescue mission, called “Operation Babylift,” was activated by the United States, Australia, France and Canada after urgent appeals were issued by humanitarian relief organizations in Vietnam. The evacuation faced tragedy on its maiden flight when a C-5A cargo plane carrying the orphans crashed after takeoff, killing 78 children along with 35 U.S. government workers and diplomats.
The Library of Congress also reported liberal congressmen tried to stall the refugee legislation, indicating “they would rather wait for the administration to formulate a plan for the care and evacuation of refugees before approving the humanitarian aid.”
Then-Sen. Joe Biden tried to slow down the refugee bill in the Senate, complaining that he needed more details about the quickly unfolding refugee problem before he would support it. He said the White House “had not informed Congress adequately about the number of refugees,” according to the Library of Congress history of the legislation.
Quang X. Pham, who was born in Saigon and later served as a Marine pilot in the Persian Gulf War, later criticized Biden in an op-ed published by the Washington Post on December 30, 2006. Quang wrote, Biden “charged that the [Ford] Administration had not informed Congress adequately about the number of refugees — as if anyone actually knew during the chaotic evacuation.”
Peace candidate Sen. George McGovern, who had lost in a landslide to former President Richard Nixon in the 1972 presidential election, appeared the most heartless senator when he introduced a bill to assist those who wished to return to South Vietnam.
McGovern said he thought 90 percent of the Vietnamese arrivals “would be better off going back to their own land,” according to the Library of Congress. His amendment died in a House-Senate conference.
In the end, most of the Democrat complaints appeared to center on the fact that the refugees were escaping communism, which many liberals did not find that objectionable.
“One of the justifications that Ford gave was related to communism. He said these people are all fleeing communism, which was the same criteria that had been used for the Cubans, the Hungarians, other refugee groups that had been processed in the past,” Taft explained
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