Julia Taft and the 1975 Vietnamese Diaspora
The Second Noel
A. Where it started was that I was, at that time in 1975, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Human Development at HEW and among the responsibilities under my jurisdiction were the problems of foster placement, handicapped, American Indians, the aged, the disabled, all the most vulnerable groups in our society. And one day a colleague of mine came in and said, "Julia, you've got to get involved in getting the orphans out of South Vietnam."
What do I know about South Vietnam. What do I know about the orphan problem? He had actually adopted an orphan about two years before and was very close the Pearl Buck Foundation which was concerned at the time that there were a number of children that were in the process of adoption from Vietnam at the time in early March and April that looked as though they might not get out. He was very concerned that somebody ought to be catalyzing the effort to extract the children that were otherwise in jeopardy. So he personally he laid it on me to try to get involved.
So I called a friend of mine who worked for Dan Parker at AID, who had also worked with me at HEW and I said, "I understand there are a lot of orphans in Vietnam that are in the process of adoption. We should be concerned about this. We deal with vulnerable populations. Is there anything I can do to be helpful?"
He said, "Well we're actually working on the issue right now. Why don't you come over." And I came over and started working with AID on what later became "Babylift". And remember the tragedy of getting up one morning listening to the five o'clock news about the airplane crash. At that point when the babylift plans did crash, I guess I felt a very personal responsibility, because I had helped galvanize AID and the other agencies to do something.
Q. Ed Daley was independent. You weren't in touch with World Air and the plane they brought out?
Well, I only got involved with the Oakland situation through one of the doctors who was a pediatrician and was very concerned with what was happening in terms of emergency medical assistance in California. He said, "We're not ready. We don't have ambulances. We don't have the right equipment in our ambulances to handle this." A lot of the children were quite dehydrated, but they all were going to the Presidio. Presidio was totally overwhelmed and the hospitals were overwhelmed and the ambulances were overwhelmed.
That also, I think, sparked a great deal of interest that I have in the whole issue of emergency medicine, which right now on this job is very appropriate and in our work with disasters.
One Saturday I was here working with Dan Parker on the Babylift and there was a memorandum, I think I mentioned to you, that was circulated to all the executive departments, by Henry Kissinger, who was also the National Security Advisor, saying that the President had just established a task force to handle the evacuation of Vietnam and that there would be an urgent meeting of all principals at four o'clock that afternoon in the State Operations Center. One of the addressees was the Secretary of HEW, who was my boss at the time, and Dan Parker showed this to me and said, "Julia, this is Saturday. We know nobody else is over at HEW. Why don't you come with me to this meeting."
So I went with him to the meeting at four o'clock -- on Saturday, April the 18th or 19th.
Q. It's really unusual, isn't it, to have a Saturday meeting --
Well, things were getting very tense. There had already been a working group in the State Department of a lot of young Turks who were quite concerned about what was going on in Vietnam. They thought there had not been enough contingency plannign for the evacuation or the possibility of an evacuation. And as you know from your discussions with Graham Martin, who was our ambassador, he kept on until almost the last minute trying to prevent -- not prevent, but just saying we need more help and more assistance will turn the tide. There were some realists back here who had been old Vietnam hands who realized that this was not true and they had been urging the Secretary of State to establish a working group.
They succeeded and the working group was established. Dean Brown was identified as the President's special representative and the Director of the Task Force. So I went with Dan to this meeting. I thought it all sounded very interesting. They had the CIA report and they had all fifteen key departments involved, not at the Cabinet level, but at the Assistant Secretary level. We were basically told the facts that it was inevitable that there had to be an evacuation and the magnitude, that they weren't sure when the fall would actually come. There were ranges up to a month and as little as one to two weeks.
And we then started to figure out how we would sort out the roles and responsibilities of all the executive agencies. As it turned out, we worked all the next day too. And I went in to Weinberger on Monday and I said this was something I'd really like to get involved with. Although they asked for the Assistant Secretary, would he make an exception and send me instead. And he did. He said, "Sure if you want to do that, why don't you be HEW's representative."
First responsibilities on the Task Force were basically to carve out the policies, or how we would handle the domestic resettlement of the refugees. There were others that were handling the international dimension, the UNHCR. Everybody around the table was trying to deal with their issues. INS was trying to deal with the question of how do you parole them in and what do you do about excludables and that kind of thing. DOD was worried about the logistics. State Department was worried about what to do with the embassy and the embassy staff. But my responsibility was to carve out the policy for the reception and the resettlement.
We immediately -- I worked full time over in the State Department, but we immediately catalyzed a working group in HEW as well to be a backstop to me, because this started growing very quickly. Basic questions of what do you do about Medicaid. What do you do about Social Security numbers. What do you do about welfare? What do you do about resettlement? Do you give a cash grant or not? What are we going to do about geographic dispersion? How do you make sure that the governors are on board and not upset? There were just a plethora of issues that we had to deal with which were very exciting but were also on a very short time fuse.
With the strong academic background I had, I said, we must have done this before -- where are the records of the last time? Tell me about the Hungarians. Well they went and tried to find out what we did with the Hungarians. Well thank you very much, there were two pages of what we did with the Hungarians. One of the things those two pages included was that there was a Presidential committee for the Hungarian Refugee Program. By gosh that makes a lot of sense. Maybe we should have a President's committee for Indochinese refugees. And we started scarfing??? around how could be the chairman and who would be the right panelists. You'd want to have labor unions and religious groups and some political leaders, and civil rights leaders. So we went scarfing and came up with -- and I must say, one of the things I'm still kicking myself for was pushing and doing the work to get that thing started, because it was nothing but a headache throughout the whole program.
Basically the issues of that had to be developed and we did get the commission and they were established. We then looked at -- having no further benefit of information on the Hungarians, we turned to the Cuban program and drew a number of lessons from that experience. One of them being that basically you can't force people to resettle where they don't want to resettle because they will migrate back to wherever they want to resettle. It was always a conscientious effort in the Cuban program to provide funding for relocation outside of the greater Miami area and grants were given to volunteer agencies to do that, where they out-placed people where there was no indigenous support group or cultural affinity, necessarily. The subsequent result of that policy was that a lot of people migrated back to Miami and then went on the welfare rolls.
So we started evolving our policies about freedom of movement, that you would not require any sponsor of any refugee family to hold on to them. If they wanted to move they ought to be able to move and take with them whatever benefits they accrued to them. For instance, if they were entitled to welfare, you couldn't stop welfare if they went to another state.
Q. What numbers were you imagining at this time?
We were imagining numbers up to two million at the very beginning. Now, it became quite clear -- as soon as Vietnam fell and the last evacuation took place, we had, I guess, about fifty-six thousand or so people that we had counted that had come out. But then there was another seventy-nine thousand that were coming on ships, or were stranded in third countries. So all totaled we had about a hundred and forty thousand that came into the system. But during the early stages we were not sure what the range was going to be.
We overestimated because we weren't sure how long the offensive was going to last and when Saigon might actually be overtaken. The initial projections of it lasted through the end of May would then have allowed a much more enhanced evacuation capability.
Q. Phil M. wrote in the Post that this was a migration of Biblical proportions. Obviously he was right on that.
It would have been. Well, there have been major migrations -- the Afghans to Pakistan. The difference is with the Afghans, they have basically left one terrain and gone to another terrain and have not tried to go into resettlement situations, jobs and families and all the problems of relocation. But the fact that we were going to be accepting people who were coming to the United States -- we weren't sure of the numbers. We were fairly clear with the numbers by the first of June -- there was no question. We knew by then where the flotillas were and basically -- I don't know whether you are familiar with this, but basically what happened is a number of ship captains just commandeered the ships and all of their crew to go toward Guam or Subic Bay, or whatever. And there were a number of enlisted men or sailors who actually didn't want to leave Vietnam who were caught in the surge. But the total numbers of the self-evacuees as we called them was about seventy-nine thousand.
But we were trying to develop policies at the same time we were working with the private voluntary agencies. Now at this time there had already been pre-existing arrangements between the State Department and a number of these vol-ags for the resettlement of Eastern European refugees and others, Cubans and a few Chileans. There was an ongoing refugee resettlement program in this country with contractual arrangements with the voluntary agencies. We were meeting with them and tried to work out with them what price was a reasonable price per head for the refugees and what the policies would be for resettlement. And we've got stacks and stacks of what all those policies were.
Basically it was a partnership, because we realized at the time, and it's still very true today, that the U.S. government, while they can set and provide initial nurturing and assistance, does not have the tentacles and support throughout the country to be able to provide ongoing assistance. And this has always been a tradition in our country to receive in the communities, refugees and to assist them on the road to resettlement, and that this was the longstanding role of the voluntary resettlement agencies. And all we were doing was helping match them up to the refugees and assisting them with transportation and resettlement costs. They work very well with us, although there were times when we were all under a great deal of tension, whether they were resettling quickly enough, or mobilizing support enough, but in the end, I think it's fair to say they did a remarkable job. If you figure that we really started about the 22nd of April, that the first touchdown in Guam occurred where they had to erect camps overnight -- our stateside reception was later. But voluntary agencies basically worked out of the four stateside camps that we had -- Camp Pendleton in California, Eglund Air Force Base in Florida, Fort Chaffee in Arkansas and Indian Camp Gap, Pennsylvania. So they were staffed there and they were doing all the interviewing there and working with their own dioceses and their own sponsors throughout the country. I could go on on that question but maybe there are other things that are more relevant in terms of your coverage.
We had realized --- we had never done this before in this country. We weren't really sure what we were doing, but we had everybody working together. It was the most extraordinary experience, because we had a very definable goal and I think there are very few missions that government has or mandates that they have which are so tangible. My mission was to help the refugees resettle in the United States. We had to receive them, match them with sponsors and process them out and get them on the way to resettlement. And the measures that we used to do that -- every day we had charts of how many left which camps, how many new ones came in, what's the bottom line, how long is it going to take to close the camps at this rate.
The problems were absolutely unimaginable. Everything from trying to do security clearances -- we have a requirement in this country that if you are being brought in or are allowed to come in, either as a parolee or as a refugee, you have to get your security clearances. Well, come to find out there were a lot of agencies involved in security clearances, that usually you don't have to do overnight. But we were finding we weren't able to process people out of the camps for two or three weeks because the security clearance process was just a nightmare. You had the DEA, the DIA, the CIA, the FBI, the INS -- about six agencies all of whom had separate systems, some of which were on computer, some of which were not. And you had to plug in, Cao Thi Nguyen, and find out if it's a hit or not a hit. And it was a nightmare.
So we tasked one person full time to work with those agencies, around the clock, to come up with a system that would be mutually compatible so we could get security clearances. Important, because had it not been able to be done and we had just sought a waiver of it, I think there would have been an agonizing sense of uncertainty by the American people as to who are these folks. The fact that we could do security clearances on them I think helped alleviate the concern. I know particularly Elizabeth Holts was very concerned. So we got it done, we tasked that and it worked.
There were other elements of the program beyond just the logistics nightmare. Some of the people who were coming in had brought money out with them and at this time all Vietnamese had whatever savings they had in gold. There was a widespread impression that a lot of these people had a lot of money and had gotten a lot of that money from the war, which was not true. There were some people that did have money. I think we processed out maybe two thousand, total, including all family members, of people who had resources enough that we felt they didn't need a sponsor, they could do it on their own. We set three thousand dollars per person -- if they had the equivalent of three thousand dollars per person for each family member, they don't really need to stay at Indian Gap Camp waiting for a voluntary agency to find you a home in Boise, Idaho. If you spoke English you didn't need to be retained in a camp. The camp was basically an opportunity to hold people until there was a good match, until they could be processed out.
So there were some people who got out that way. There were also a number of employees of U.S. companies who had been working in Vietnam and we allowed them to resettle those. Pan Am was one, for instance. Pan Am was able to take out its people, because they were offering them jobs. Or New York Times --
Q. Or World Air --
That's right. What we tried to do is figure out who really needed to be in camps and who didn't. Then we had basically that remaining core. Among the interesting problems we had, as you well know there are about fifty last names in Vietnamese society. And every family member has a different name. We were going crazy because you would have five family members all with different names. Still you had to give them family identification numbers. You had to give them refugee numbers so we could track them from the camp. We finally got a process of coordinating the Social Security Numbers which I'll tell you about in just a minute.
One of the interesting things that we had was a requirement for data processing that had been absolutely unheard of, to try to find out who is in what family group, where did they come from, what are their ages, who is their voluntary agency, where are they going to be resettled, what are their skills profile so one can help match them to a labor market. We had all these pieces of information we needed, and IBM came forward and said, "We would like to help you figure out what the computer program would be like and to provide the computer services." Well it was a blessing. Throughout the whole program, and I'm talking about hte nine months that I was involved in it, IBM worked around the clock with us in their facility doing all the data processing with some of the people from HEW and State Department that we sent out. They asked for no publicity until the whole thing was over and it was a roaring success and then they said, "You know, Mrs. Taft, you've always said you'd give us publicity. I think we'd like to now do it. It's cost us millions of dollars, but it was an exciting wonderful opportunity." I've always loved IBM ever since. They gave it to us and the specialists who were involved from HEW said that it would probably have taken five years of the top data processing people in government to figure out for the Social Security Administration how to do a similar program. IBM just really brought the best brains together. It's a very very complicated program.
When we started seeing the private sector come in and either sponsoring their own people or to help like IBM, or Pillsbury giving a thousand dollars worth of goods to every family that resettled, particularly in that area in Minnesota, -- there was a lot of corporate involvement and that was very exciting. We did have though a sense of concern in a lot of quarters, initially by the media. Skepticism reflected in the media. I'm not saying they generated it, but "why are we doing this?", and Americans saying, "Do we really want these people?" If you look at some of the early polls you find the polls were not supportive very much.
When I became the director --
Q. A question I was going to ask you was about a backlash. There muse have been a constant fear that.
There was some backlash initially. One of the things -- I don't whether I did by design or default, as we were so busy back here, but I didn't want to give a lot of energy back here. We're always available, but I thought it was important for the media to go to the camps and we encouraged the camps -- they were closed camps, but they were open to the media. As soon as the media got out there and started interviewing the families that you show in there, and they could see these are not all prostitutes, not all Tiger Cage people. These are live human beings who have gone through hell and they are here seeking freedom and respite and a new life, it changed it just almost overnight. By that time, this is about the end of June and the first part of July, it would really pick up. The PVOs had their sponsorship campaigns under way. Lots of sponsors were coming forward. The press was always there. This was the biggest story of the year, although I think the Mayaguez actually was the story statistically. But this every night on television, they showed in our living rooms the good pictures of Vietnam. For a population here that had seen the war torn ones, here was finally something the U.S. government in their minds was finally doing to save lives and to bring hope. That was a turning point.
I don't give the credit to the media, I give the credit to the refugees. The refugees told their story. The story got covered. The refugees went to communities all over the country. They worked hard. They were dear people. They were appreciative. They sold themselves and they still are selling themselves today if you have been tracking them. Valedictorians and salutatorians, and businessmen. They're really working. So they sold it. But the media was very helpful in conveying those stories. That was wonderful.
Of course, in any program of this magnitude there were episodic problems, strike breakers, people not knowing what their rights were.
We had very few Hmongs. The Hmongs we did have, about twenty-five hundred, and they all ended up in Pendleton and we worked with the governor of Iowa, Governor Ray, and had Colleen Shearer was the person he designated in charge of refugees, and she and the governor and his staff worked on a resettlement of Hmong people in Iowa which was a collective resettlement. They all were going to Iowa. They weren't all going to the same city in Iowa, but all were going to be in the same state. And there were settlement programs, programs sponsored by the state of Iowa on the same terms that we sponsored refugees through the Catholics or anybody else. We gave them grants. It kept them together. There were very few of them, about twenty-five hundred, and all of our political people here said don't split them, don't send them all over the country. Keep them as close together as possible. So they sent them to Iowa and one of the first things that they did was to purchase a funeral plot so that they would know this was now home. They are very tied to their ancestors and this was going to be the place where they were going to be buried and so their children would view this as their new home.
But they were so sensitive in terms of how you do this and how you make them feel comfortable. And the we expected would have been the most difficult to resettle and they turned out consistently good. But there are vignettes like that that would happen all the time, that just kept our adrenalin flowing, because even if we got bad feedback, we were so flexible we could say, "Okay, if this is a bad policy, we'll change it." But we had to be very decisive and make decisions along, and just run by gut instinct.
Q Any concerns with traditional areas of strong racial feeling? The South, Chicago, Indianapolis?
Well, what we did -- I'm only talking about '75. I've stayed with the refugee program throughout and there were emerging problems, but at the outset --
Q. Nobody said, "We don't want them."
That's correct. Before I became director, the governors were concerned. They wanted to know whether these people would be eligible for welfare, if the Federal Government was going to pay. They were concerned about the monetary effect. Dean Brown sent out a cable to all the governors, which I did not clear, which told all the governors not to worry, that no state would get more than 10 per cent of the refugees. So all the governors said, "Okay, ten per cent." The HEW guidelines were that HEW would pick up a hundred per cent of the costs. We were going to pick up the state portion as well as the Federal portion for any refugee that needed welfare or medical assistance, so they had no financial problem. They also had this statement that they wouldn't get more than 10 per cent of the refugees. Well, hell, we couldn't control that. Particularly for Camp Pendleton, which in the first few days before our system was really set up, some of the refugees just walked off the camp and ended up in San Diego and Los Angeles. We later found them and matched them up with sponsors. But already by the time this cable had gone out, California might have had ten thousand refugees. That would not have been fair.
So I did have a number of discussions with the state of California. The new governor of California, Jerry Brown*, was very concerned about Vietnamese refugees settling in his state. Brown even attempted to prevent planes carrying refugees from landing at Travis Air Force Base near Sacramento. The Travis Base commander told California secretary of health and welfare, Mario Obledo**, who had actually issued the order, that the Air Force must bow to "a higher authority" and continue to receive Vietnamese families and lead them to immigration-receiving desks and Red Cross centers. At about the same time I began receiving frantic telephone calls from Obledo and other California officials. Obledo was especially opposed to Vietnamese resettlement in California. Obledo said that he felt that this addition of a large minority group would be unwelcome in California, that they already had Filipinos, Latinos, and he really took us on on this. Obledo went to far as to send a telegram to John Eisenhower, chairman of President Ford's advisory committee on refugees, complaining that the sponsorship program for the Vietnamese would result in "a majority of refugees receiving welfare assistance." [Ironically, Obledo had pointed out five months earlier, when Governor Brown appointed him to his office, that his family had been on public assistance during the Depression. He was also an enthusiastic proponent of an open-border policy with Mexico.] White House photographer David Hume Kennerly, who had photographed part of the evacuation of Vietnamese from coastal cities, was so disturbed by Governor Brown's position that he wrote the governor: "It is my personal opinion that you have no compassion for your fellow human beings. If you and a few others like you would view the Vietnamese as people and not objects, you wouldn't hesitate to open your doors to them. After all, America is comprised of people from every country in the world, many of whom were refugees. Finally the way I had to deal with that, was I said, "Do you want me to make a public statement that no more refugees can resettle in California? And forbid the churches and California citizens who have relatives or friends in this refugee boat to say that they are not going to be able to participate in the program? They wouldn't do that.
But it almost came to blows. That was a very difficult time because of Mr. Obledo's relationship with the Hispanic community. There's always been interesting ethnic balances or imbalances in California, but when it came right down to it, we could have said that we would not fund resettlement of anybody and therefore non of the churches could participate. And of course the people of California wanted to. That's why they had refugees. Because many of them were retirees from foreign service, military in a lot of those places, San Diego and Los Angeles. If you were to say to them, "Sorry you are not going to be able to take your family members or you friend, So California was quieted down. But that was one of the only early problems.
We also then, toward the end of summer, were identifying in the camps people who were hard to place. Ones who spoke English who had contact in the United States -- the telephone lines between these camps and the rest of the United States was incredible, calling people, "Remember me? I worked with you. Can you help me? I signed up with CWS, will you call them?" They are survivors and a lot of the ones that seemed to be easier to resettle were resettled early on. But in the summer we identified a number of people who did not have good linguistic skills. Many fishermen. Lots of single men. Ten thousand single men. And we had to start thinking of different ways to deal with them. By this time we also had Kimberly and we had a Laotian. So we worked on congregate schemes where we tried to see if we could find thirty families who would go and work and live in these homes sponsored by a parish in the Gulf, if these were fishermen. This led them in subsequent years to problems with competition over the fishing in the Gulf of Mexico.
But we had a number of religious leaders that would have their flock. A priest in Vietnam from a village would have all of his villagers and then he would say they all have to stick together, so they wouldn't want to resettle out at different places. So then we had to deal with the priest and find a voluntary agency that would take thirty families as opposed to one family, find a community that would take thirty at one fell swoop, and see if we could get some support for some of these fishing schemes and things like that.
There was a whole effort to target which groups might be hard to place and put them in a reasonable place. You didn't want to send fishermen to Boise, Idaho and places like that. There was a lot of thought and a lot of work there. We had a number of Vietnamese working with us and helping to do that. About twenty-five or thirty of the local employees in our embassy in Saigon that came out in the evacuation ended up working for us. And then we hired them to work as translators and facilitators at the camps.
I'm sort of rambling on, Larry, I'm not sure what you want.
Q. Did you have a timetable when you thought the camps would -- there was a continuing flow, wasn't there?
There was a continuing flow up until the last flotilla types came in. I've got this wonderful chart at home which shows the high point of total capacity.
At the very beginning of the program, we said first of all we didn't want to have camps for long periods of time. It is not humane to keep people in camps for long periods of time. I was continually reminded by the Press, some of the detractors on the Hill, that after Dien Bien Phu France had taken a number of refugees and there still was a refugee camp twenty years later. And Mrs. Taft are you going to have a refugee camp twenty years from now? And I kept saying, No, no, no, that's not out policy.
But it was hard to be able to predict when. But during the summer as soon as we realized that there were no more boats coming out of Vietnam -- this was before boat people. That didn't start until '79. We knew who we had and what the processing rate was by all the camps. I had this brilliant guy who did regression analysis, and I'd say, "Okay, if this camp processes at this rate, and this camp does it at that rate, and we don't have a storm or something, when will each camp be out?" And he would do these analyses as to when the camps were going to be out. It helped us in terms of figuring out whether we needed to have a winter proof camp and which camp it might be and when we could close Pendleton, because Pendleton was a tent camp and couldn't stay open past the end of September--actually it stayed open to mid-October because the weather was good. But we had to figure this out because we had different kinds of facilities.
We knew when we had to close Eglin, which was in August because it was tents and it was hurricane season in August. So we stopped filling people into Eglin in July knowing when the last one would be out. We did that all the way. In my heart, working every day, eighteen hours every day, I decided fairly early on that I wanted to get through with this by the end of the year. We were operating at such a hectic capacity, around the clock shifts, that it just seemed to me, that we could end by the end of December. So I started saying that we would get done by the end of December. Well, the White House got very nervous and saying, "Julia what happens if something happens and they're there into next year, an election year and these people may be around for two three or four years." And I said, what we've got to do is set goals with the refugees so that they know they can't stay -- some of them were quite timid -- this was not their home, that they couldn't stay indefinitely. We had to let the voluntary agencies know because they were hiring people that this was something that we wanted to keep the pressure on them to do the processing, to do the matching and that this wasn't going to be a two or three year project.
We had contracts for the facilities, so I said that I felt that we just basically say, optimistically, but we hoped this will be the end. After June I would say we got virtually no criticisms of the program. Particularly from the Hill. If you were to talk to the staff members we had to work with on a daily basis, and Senator Kennedy and the House Judiciary Committee, we were there all the time. Two or three times a week we were up there testifying, talking to them, calling them.
They'd say, "Julia, why have you done this?" I'd say, "Well, the best thing we could think of. If you've got a better idea, we'll try it." It was a partnership. We really worked out together without any constraints. Congress was wonderful. They gave us carte blanche to spend the money, much like the authorities we have here. They said don't worry about normal contracting procedures, this is an emergency, do the best you can. They gave us enough money. They gave us flexibility, but we also had no partisanship. It was, in my experience in government, which was seventeen years, I have never seen a more bipartisan undertaking. We did not play politics. Basically we were saying, the American people are making a commitment to do this. We want to help them and we need to work together. So if there ever was a problem, and we did have lots of problems, there were just all kinds of things that happened, and if I wasn't sure -- we were all just using our best advice -- I'd just call up and say, "Gee, we want to try this and see if it can work." And they'd say to give it a try.
If you read the testimony and read the committee reports I think you'll find that --
(END OF SIDE A ) This goes at the beginning of the TAFT file that I sent to you already.
JULIA TAFT (recorded on side B)
Q. One of the Vietnamese priests I spoke with worked with an American priest who was in the camp and doctors -- babies were born in the camp, people died --
A. Most of the medical support in the camp came from DOD. We asked DOD to basically provide food, facilities, perimeter security, logistical support, communications -- all kinds of things, including health care. On the health care we supplemented what they had with Public Health Service officers. Many people from CDC??? and the Public Health Service went out. We did not use, to my knowledge we had no contracts other than with Fred Cross, for some services. We didn't have contracts for specific services. Most of that was federal employees. The priest that were there were part of the religious community that were PBOs. They would bring their people in. We did have -- they had services, we had marriages, baptisms, a full range of services there. We brought in the Salvation Army and other -- YMCA did recreational programs. We brought in the Center for Applied Linguistics helped us work out educational program. By July we had full schools. Everybody was learning English, and ESL and tapes and movies and all kinds of things. It was just great.
And they had newspapers. The people were sort of organized. They had their own newspapers and a whole distribution system. But the health care was Public Health Service and military predominantly. We did not allow researchers in.
Q. What about volunteers, people who had been in Vietnam and wanted to help?
No. We don't do that even in the disaster program. The last thing you need are free lance volunteers coming in saying "I want to be helpful." You have to have structures for this. The volunteers that were in were volunteers that worked with the PVOs, in other words, people that were hired or identified to work with the Catholic Migration Service or with the Lutherans, or whatever. That's where they got their volunteers. But we did not open camp for good-hearted people. We said they had a full responsibility to help the refugees resettle. There are volunteer sponsors. There's a lot you can do. You can help this family get an apartment, get organized, get their life going. There was enough volunteer work outside of the camp that we didn't want to have a lot of people in camps that were already -- a lot of refugees in the camps.
And one of the things also that we did that was very organized, is we got Social Security to set aside a block of numbers so that we could issue numbers to the refugees at the camps for their social security. And we used that as part of the after action evaluation. Used the block of social security numbers to get earnings data from the refugees. While we didn't use it to identify individualsl we used the block to identify who was a refugee and who just a citizen and got earning statements and -- you could maybe just copy the report I did for New Twentieth Century. Marci's got it. I can just show it to you, it's my only copy and I really can't let that one go. It describes what that processing was for that.
Q. When did the camps close?
The last camp closed on December 20 and it was Fort Chaffee. It was important because there were times when DOD was interested in pulling out because this was taking a lot of resources to run camps all over the country. On two occasions I had to go to the President and say I really need them to stay in, because we're almost there but we're not going to make it if anybody pulls out. So we got out in December.
Q. Guam was empty by then too, I suppose?
Oh, yes. Actually Guam was emptied much sooner than that. One of the reasons we decided to open Indian Town Gap was that cyclone season was coming and there was a prediction that if we did not have everyone in Guam in fixed facilities they would get killed. So we had a draw down of Guam to fixed facilities. We had to go from fifty thousand to about twenty-five thousand by the end of June, which we met. And then of course as openings occurred stateside we brought those people from Guam.
The first place that closed was Wake Island, and Subic, which wasn't a processing center and then Guam. Then Eglin, Pendleton, Indian Town Gap and then Chaffee.
Q. This sounds like an enormously successful operation. Timetable, the success rate of relocating people, despite the difficulty everything was solved.
Of course, the process of resettlement really starts when they were out of the camp, but out of my control. I think, in retrospect, well, even at the time, we had a great esprit de corps. I was in the interesting position of being young, I was only thirty-two, and I was running the thing and four star generals were getting directions from me and cabinet officers and wondering at times whether I really had the support I needed. And I always did. Ford was wonderful. Dick Chaney, Weinberger of course, and the people who really counted all supported me. And the fact that I came out of HEW as opposed to State or DOD was an asset because there was still, after Vietnam, a lot of tension between the Defense Department and the State Department, diplomatic people versus defense people.
This program provided a context for them to work together, because most of the people of the camp that were employees were former AID employees in Vietnam and people from our embassy working with our military. And they had a wonderful working relationship. There was no politics involved, but it was a very healing process for them, much the same as the healing process in a lot of churches that had been fragmented over what position to take on our policies in Vietnam. This was a healing situation. And it was very much that way here. We got wonderful support from the INS, Justice Department, Labor Department, Labor Department helped us because we didn't want to send refugees to places that had high unemployment. We wanted to send them where there was a skills match. And they worked very closely with us.
Of course HEW put in a lot of resources in helping with the camps. So I feel it was a great success. I look back on it and at the time we were all so busy trying to just use good judgement because there were no guidelines, that it was very inspiring.
Q. What motivated you to volunteer? Did you ever stop and ask yourself?
At one point early on I was firstly the Acting Director. There was some question as to whether or not I should be the Director, or whether they should bring in somebody else. Governor, or politician, or me. And I think I had just proven that I could do it without a lot of political credentials. I basically am a crisis manager. What they really needed was an integrated personality. They didn't need an ego, or a politician to run it. But there were about two or three weeks in which the question was going back and forth and I finally just said, "If I don't get appointed, and you don't want me, I'm going to leave." And my staff told me to say that, they convinced me I should. And they were all going to walk out too. They said, "We are going to pick up and walk out of the operations center." (Don't quote me.) But I think there was a point where you're working so hard and doing so much that you don't understand why they would bring somebody in who didn't know anything about what was going on for status.
As soon as I erased that --
Q. You say you were a crisis manager, but these were also people. Did you have any identification, besides the orphans?
I'm very much a people person. I was in HEW working with vulnerable populations. I care very much about quality of life and people. That's why I'm in the disaster field here.
Q. You have never been to Vietnam?
Yes, I have been to Vietnam. I've traveled a lot. But I didn't have a background as an Indochina specialist. I'm very much a frustrated social worker. I care very much that whatever could be done be done. I got out, of course, to all the camps and I felt their suffering, but what I had to spend most of my time worrying and caring about was the care and feeding of my staff. And making sure they all knew--and I could give energy to them and challenge them too. That's what I do. That's what reinforced me, because all of us became very close and we all knew every day that we had helped people have a new life.
Now there was one section of this whole program that became the most difficult decision I have ever made in my life. At the time, when I was struggling through it--in retrospect I decided it was correct -- but as you know there were about fifteen hundred people who came out and were in Guam and did not want to resettle in the United States. These were called the "would-be repatriots" and they were a nightmare. They were throwing Molotov cocktails, they were burning buildings. They wanted to go back home and they did not want to be in the United States. And we finally had to put them behind barbed wire and had to have guards and approach the UNHCR and say would you please arrange for their repatriation, they don't want to be in this country. We don't want to force them to be here, and you're in charge of repatriation. You go to Hanoi and you discuss this. And we had a number of discussions with UNHCR. We tried to get other countries to take these people. They didn't want to go to other countries. They wanted to go back to Vietnam. And they wanted to go back on one of the ships that was in port in Guam. And "Mrs. Taft, why will you not let us do it?" I would get letters, signed by a thousand signatures, pleading to let us go home. So I had to work with the staff to figure out what the hell we were going to do. Should we give them a ship and it sails back to Hanoi and gets blown out of the water? Are we going to have that guilt on our hands? If you don't give them a ship, will they kill each other or Americans in Guam? Are we going to have that?
It was very tough.
The bottom line was, though, that this was a program for us to help people who wanted to be helped and who were seeking refuge and new lives in the States. And these people who did not want to come didn't just change their minds, they got caught up in the evacuation or something and they really did want to go back home. What it really boiled down to was a question of self-determination. I figured they really wanted to go back home and they knew the consequences, the worst-case consequences, and I could facilitate their getting home, that we had an obligation to allow them to do that. And this was a very difficult thing because it was quite clear that they would not be received well, but I had to get a decision. There were some people who said, "Oh, yeah, put them on a boat and send them back." And there were others who said, "No,no. Resettle them here." It was very tough.
Finally I had to get the President to make a decision and Ford did make the decision personally. And then we allowed the Vietnamese in Guam to refurbish one boat with food and make it seaworthy and to elect their captain and to be prepared to depart. But before they departed, we established and individual counseling program for each person separately, and the configuration was -- I had all Vietnamese speakers, Americans who spoke Vietnamese, in Guam where the building had the counseling room and there were two doors. One door led to the bus that took people to the boat, and the other door led to a bus that took people back to a safe compound. Because we didn't want any pressure and we thought there was a lot of pressure--if anybody really didn't want to go, thinking that their friends would strong arm them or pull them in at the last minute. So we went through an individual counseling process with every single person. We said we can't make any guarantees. We can't tell if the boat is actually going to get there. We can't protect the boat. We can't make sure you are going to land. We can't be sure what is going to happen to you when you get there.
All the time, as soon as the announcement was made about the ship going back, Hanoi kept on saying, " The Americans better not do this, we'll blow it out of the water. What kind of right do the Americans have? We don't want these people. They are all spies for the CIA." It was terrible.
The bottom line was a little more than fifteen hundred. They were jubilant. They were so pleased and after that the rest of the program just went along. But this was the most difficult thing. I think about forty decided not to go.
We told the UNHCR, announced it over VOA that these were people who adamantly wanted to go. They had petitioned to go. They all had a chance not to go and they wanted to go back and be with their families and be in their home country. And that's what we were doing. And we kept our fingers crossed and it sailed and landed in Cam Ranh Bay.
The captain was mutinied and most of the people were seized when they got there. There were very few women and children, but they were allowed to leave and the others went to re-education camp.
As the Boat People came, some of the Boat People were people who had been on the ship and they told us what had happened.
Q. What do you mean the captain was mutinied?
He was killed by the people on the ship for some reason. That's all I know. We only heard this years later. But I don't think that's the important point. The important point is that it reinforced our commitment that we only wanted to bring people in who wanted to be here. But that was a very tough time.
Q. Are you a religious person? Was there a religious dimension to what you did?
Everybody has such a different definition. I've always been brought up to serve. My family was in public service and it was my responsibility to serve and I can. And I thrive on it.
Q. It seems like such a Christian charitable task that was undertaken. So one always think of people who want to do the "right thing".
Don't you think that's what people in public service are responsible for doing? What you seek in your life is to be relevant and to do things you think are useful and worthwhile.
Again I had no real previous experience with Vietnam. It was just being in it, finding I could do it, and thriving on it and getting very good feedback. All of us got very good feedback. We had at our farm two years ago Dean Brown and I and two people who had been our deputies sponsored a reunion of people who had worked on the task force. And we had about a hundred people come. One came from Israel, Paul Hair, who was our ambassador to Zambia, came from Israel. Foreign Service people, people came from all over the country.
Many of us got together to reminisce and we also included the Vietnamese who had worked for us and the feeling, you can't capture it in words. How we all felt about each other, and about what had happened to us as individuals and as a group. We are all just very very close. We got telegrams and letters from Kissinger, Ford, other people we had invited that couldn't make it. It was an experience that I think almost takes an external catalyst to have something change you, but the fact that one could actually provide a constructive life for a hundred and thirty thousand people, you don't have this chance much at all in one's life. Maybe you feel like you can help your kids, or whatever, but a hundred and thirty thousand people -- but it was all knowing that every person there worked their tail off. We all killed ourselves. Every person working doing what they could best do, including the voluntary agencies. The agencies here never saw a refugee, knowing that if they didn't do what they could do, something would go wrong. Everybody had responsibilities. It's like running a disaster. Everybody here that we worked with had a role and if Rene doesn't do the work she's trained to do and does best, and thrives on it and does so well, if she's not here putting out as best she can, the whole mission is jeopardized. So when she does it and knows that she is contributing to successful lifesaving activities that we do in disasters, that just keeps the adrenalin going and you see the end results very quickly, you get the feedback. There's not enough in our lives that we can hold in our hands and say, "My god, we did that", and to be able to measure it.
This dear guy who did these Congressional analyses -- I don't know anything about computers, but we could sort of say "Look you're doing really great on this one. Maybe we better send you more staff to this camp, because there are some real problems there." It's a good management tool. But everybody in the process, from all fifteen agencies and over fifty thousand U.S. Government employees were involved between April and December of 1975. Those stories were not the things we had time to sit down and brief everybody on. But everybody had a role.
So it's not just me and whether I was religious, it was everybody. I think also what helped those of us who did not have a previous emotional attachment to Vietnam was that the State Department and the DOD people who had that were working with us were so committed to these people and felt so strongly that we had to do something from a moral standpoint as a well a voluntary standpoint. Because they had spent their lives trying to help them and wanting to make sure that the last intervention was one which was good. We had a lot of people in that category, who to this day are strong advocates for refugee issues. There was a lot of that personal attachment, which I then, of course, absorbed, because, they know, they're caring, and it's contagious.
But there was a very strong sense, and many people in this building had been married to Vietnamese people. They ended up having their wives, their in-laws, their families -- it all became a big family.
Q. You were enriched by this. Were you transformed by it? You said you were a different person --
Maybe I am. There's been nothing -- I've had wonderful jobs, but this is one thing that was totally consuming. Of course I had a very nice husband and no kids, because my kids would not be speaking to me, but I virtually didn't see my husband for six or seven months. And we just basically worked around the clock.
But I think in terms of the values that I got, first of all you've got to trust your instincts, and no amount of training or manuals on how to manage or make decisions -- that doesn't matter at all. Either you have an instinct to listen to advice and get good advice and be decisive, or you don't. So I listened to my intuition.
The second is, the people are basically good. And if they are given defined tasks and are reinforced in that and get feedback, you can get people to produce in any management sense.
There were other ingredients. You had the humanitarian dimension, but basically you had people who knew what they were supposed to do and were accountable for it and found out on a daily basis if what they did worked or not. And that kind of motivation from a manager's standpoint is a very important ingredient that I think all government or business need to learn from.
The third is that I became even more entrenched in non-partisanship. I really feel that in the humanitarian field there can be no politics. You get your strength from a diversity of your constituency. And you build that constituency by making sure your policies and programs draw from strengths of everybody's perceptions. And this is what we did with the ???gulags??? and this is what we did with other Federal agencies. There were some agencies that said "Listen, you better go slow on this kind of policy." And they were right. But by doing that then you got them to buy into another policy. A lot of consensus building.
But I came away with an extraordinary repect for public servants. And the American people were wonderful. I'm interested now on the fortieth anniversary of the Marshall Plan, on the retrospectives that have been done on how the American people bought into the Marshall Plan. Because we had a microcosm of that with Indochina. You couldn't ignore the fact there were refugees in your town. Your church had them. There were things you could do. You could actually go, give them a dinner, give them a job, or help them with training, or provide transportation. There were things people could tangibly do.
The Marshall Plan, there were things people could do. They started the CARE packages. There were tangible things that people could do that they could say, "My contribution." I've got to think about that some more and combined with this experience figure out what we are missing now that we don't have the buy in of the American people to a lot of the American policies. I think maybe it's too abstract or complicated and people need to have a better way to hold on, or a more tangible object.
Q. When you walk down the street in Washington and you see a Vietnamese or Indochinese, do you feel a little pride?
Oh, I do. As a matter of fact, every time I'm in an airport in New York coming back from Europe waiting to come down here, I still see refugees. I always go up to them asking if they need any help, where are they going, what kind of conditions they have, loan them money, or something. Oh, they're all mine. I feel very close to them. I still get Christmas cards from lots of them.
Q. They knew your name.
Q. You said you came from an academic background?
I was kidding about that. I have a master's degree from University of Colorado. I'm an Army brat, so I lived a lot of different places. But basically called Colorado home.
Q. The New Haven Orphanage people are there --
Friends of the Children of Vietnam is based in Boulder.
Q. Your position now is --
The Director of the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance.
(((End of interview.)))
* Jerry Brown, 1938 - )California Governor, 1975-1983, and 2011- present.
**Mario Obledo, 1932-2010, was called "the Godfather of the Latino Movement." He served as California's Secretary of Health and Welfare, 1975-1982. President Bill Clinton awarded Obledo the Medal of Freedom in 1998, describing him as having "created a powerful chorus for justice and equality."
In Memory of Julia Vadala Taft, 1942-2008