During the final days of the Vietnam War and before the United States evacuated its own people, it first planned to transport the Vietnamese children away from the war-torn areas of Saigon in what was called Operation Babylift. What followed next were criticisms of the government’s actions and questions about their political motivations. Was it morally right to take the Vietnamese children and have them adopted by families from America, Canada, Europe, and Australia? Was it right to assume that all those more than 3,000 kids were orphans and not some children who got lost and with parents waiting to find them?
Off to a Bad Start
It all started on April 4, 1975, just a few weeks from the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War. The very first flight in an attempt to transport children to the United States ended tragically as just several minutes after the takeoff, the plane malfunctioned, and pilot Captain Dennis “Bud” Traynor crash-landed the C-5 cargo plane into a nearby rice paddy. The impact crushed the cargo deck where almost all of the orphans were. A total of 138 people died in the crash, 78 of which were children and 35 were adults.
When President Ford heard what happened, he said,
Our mission of mercy will continue. Other waiting orphans will make the journey. This tragedy must not deter us from offering new hope for the living. The government and people of the United States offer this hope in our rededication to assisting the Vietnamese orphans as best and as quickly as we can.
Taking the Children to the US
On April 17, 1975, President Ford authorized the evacuation of thousands of Vietnamese who were at risk. From April 20 to 28, 1975, about 40 planes left took off from Saigon every 24 hours. Each of them was designated to transport 100 passengers at max due to the circumstances. However, there were times that they carried 180 evacuees.
Holt International, an adoption agency, as well as service organizations like Friends of Children of Viet Nam (FCVN), Friends For All Children (FFAC), Catholic Relief Service, International Social Services, International Orphans, and the Pearl S. Buck Foundation, petitioned the government to help evacuate the orphans in Vietnam. So, around 3,000 children were relocated and adopted by families in the United States and other allied countries. By April 27, the North Vietnamese forces were near enough to Saigon for them to launch rockets. The next day, North Vietnamese aircraft bombed the airport at Tan Son Nhut.
American businessman Robert Macauley heard that it would take more than a week for the remaining orphans to be evacuated due to the lack of military transport planes, so he chartered a Boeing 747 from World Airways and made sure that 300 orphaned children would leave the warzone and the country. He paid for the trip by mortgaging his house.
It was Frederick “Skip” Burkle Jr. who served as the medical director of Operation Babylift. He and his team gathered the children in Saigon, accompanied them to Clack Air Base in the Philippines, and then across the Pacific Ocean to Los Angeles, and from there to the Long Beach Naval Support Activity.
From the very beginning, Americans already had mixed opinions about the purpose of Operation Babylift. As per American Ambassador to Vietnam Graham Martin, the evacuation “would help reverse the current of American public opinion to the advantage of the Republic of Vietnam.”
Bay Area attorney Tom Miller, on the other hand, believed that it was “one of the last desperate attempts to get sympathy for the war.”
Headlines about it began sprouting everywhere at that time, like “Babylift or babysnatch?” and “The Orphans: Saved or Lost?” While The New York Times quoted what Yale psychologist Dr. Edwar Zigler said, “We’ve been ripping [the children of the airlift] right out of their culture, their community… it’s some kind of emotional jag we are on.”
On the other side of the argument, American aid workers like Sister Susan McDonald were grateful for Operation Babylift. She cared for 100 infants at an orphanage in Saigon, and she saw how the living conditions worsened as the Viet Cong moved closer to the city, how food and other necessary supplies ran out, and the lives of the children were risked. She had been looking for a flight to move these children away from danger, so she did not hesitate after finding out about Operation Babylift.
Through time, it was hard for the Babylift adoptees to try and trace back who their parents were, as no records exist.
Did the US do the right thing by taking the children away to give them a better chance at life? Or did they basically steal them away from their parents and country?