Monday, December 24, 2012
The Second Noel
The Second Noel:
How 130,000 Refugees
Found New Homes in America
Before Christmas in 1975
Julia Vadala Taft (1942-2008)
"Now we can see it clearly, like the light at the end of a tunnel."
General Henri Navarre, Commander of French Forces in Indochina, 1953-1954.
When South Vietnam fell to the North Vietnamese Army thirty-seven years ago, nearly 130,000 South Vietnamese fled from their country and sought asylum in the US.
In order to deal with the problems of resettlement for the refugees, President Gerald Ford appointed an Interagency Task Force on Indochina Refugees consisting of representatives from all 15 executive departments. Julia Vadala Taft, 32, was chosen to represent HEW on the task force. On May 23rd she was named head of the organization.
Taft, the daughter of Sicilian immigrants, had received her BA and MA degrees in international politics from the University of Colorado. She'd traveled abroad several times during her college years and had visiting Vietnam once. A White House fellowship brought her to Washington in 1972. After a year as a fellow at HEW she became Special Assistant for External Affairs within the department. At HEW she also met and later married William Howard Taft 4th, the great grandson of the 27th president.
Taft says she has always been "very much a people person." Because of that the Indochinese refugee problem immediately drew her attention. Having been to Vietnam, "I wanted now to make sure that whatever could be done for those people would be done and done right this time."
The Task Force initially had to calculate the number of Vietnamese refugees they would be dealing with. Early estimates varied anywhere from 10,000 to two million. There were other unknowns, too. Where would the staging areas be in the US? Nobody was sure. Would any other countries help with the resettlement? Could the refugees be channeled quickly into the US as immigrants? If so, how was this to be done? What were the political and social implications of this? Would the states cooperate? How much would it cost? Who would pay? What would be the response of the public? Would there be protests or a backlash to the influx of so many Asians suddenly coming into the country in such a short time?
The Task Force was rich in questions, poor in answers.
Nobody worked harder to find answers than Taft. Nobody cared more. She worked seven days a week and eighteen hours a day seeking answers and at the same time finding new homes for 130,000 homeless Vietnamese.
The numbers puzzle was solved early in the summer. "We were imagining numbers up to two million at the very beginning," Taft says. But the early projections were far greater than the actual numbers. "All totaled we had about a hundred and thirty thousand that came into the system. But during the critical early stages we were not sure what the range was going to be."
Taft's group quickly developed specific policies even as they worked with the private voluntary agencies(vol-ags) to carry out those policies. There was a prior arrangement between the State Department and a number of the vol-ags for the resettlement of Eastern European refugees and others -- Cubans and a few Chileans. Taft met with representatives from the organizations and worked on resettlement procedures and a budget. "Basically we worked as a partnership," she remembers, "because we realized that the government can set up and provide initial nurturing and assistance, but does not have the necessary connections and support groups throughout the country to be able to provide ongoing assistance. This has always been a tradition in our country -- that to receive refugees into the local communities, and to assist them on the road to resettlement, is the role of the voluntary resettlement agencies. All we had to do was help match them up to the refugees and assist 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."
Representatives of the voluntary agencies worked out of the four military bases serving as final staging areas -- Camp Pendleton in southern California, Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, Fort Chaffee in Arkansas and Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania. They maintained staffs in the camps and did interviewed and did paperwork while working with their own dioceses, branches, chapters and their own individual and family sponsors throughout the country.
"Never before in this country had we done something on this scale and at this pace. We weren't always sure what we were doing, but we had everybody working together," Taft remembers. " It was the most extraordinary experience, because we had a definable goal and I think there are few missions that government has or mandates that are so tangible. My mission was to help refugees resettle in the United States. We had to receive them, match them with sponsors, process them out and get them on the way to resettlement. Every day we updated charts telling us 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 unimaginable. We had, for example, 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 it 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.
Some refugees, nevertheless, got out quickly. Those who could speak English and who had $3000 for each family member were allowed to go without sponsors. There were also former employees of U.S. companies in Vietnam and these were allowed to resettle in places where they were rehired by their American employer. Pan Am, World Airways, Bank of America, the television networks and wire services, and the New York Times kept Vietnamese employees on their payrolls in the US .
"We found we had a need for data processing that was absolutely unheard of to that time," Taft says. "We had to find out who is in each family group, where they were from, what their ages were, who was their voluntary agency, where they were to be resettled, what their job skills were and so on so we could help match them to a labor market. We were literally buried in this information. Then IBM-- God bless them -- came forward and said, 'We would like to help you develop a computer program and we'd like also to provide the personnel and computer services for you.' Well, it was a blessing! Throughout the whole program, and I'm talking about the nine months that I was involved in it, IBM worked around the clock with us doing all the data processing with the people we sent out. They asked for no publicity until the whole thing was over and it was a roaring success. Only then they said, 'You know, Mrs. Taft, you've always said you'd give us publicity. We'd like it now. It's cost us millions of dollars, but it was an exciting, wonderful opportunity.' I've always loved IBM since then. The specialists from HEW who worked with them said that it would probably have taken five years for the top computer people in government to figure out how to do a similar program. But IBM just really brought the best brains together and did it in a few months.
"Soon we started seeing other private sector groups come in and either sponsor their own people or help like IBM. Pillsbury, for example, gave a thousand dollars worth of goods to every family that resettled in Minnesota. There were other corporate efforts that went unnoticed in the press but which helped welcome the newcomers. It was all very very exciting.
"But from the start there were also signs of a backlash. There was a sense of concern reflected in the media --an outspoken skepticism. I'm not saying the media generated it," Taft says, "but people were asking 'Why are we doing this?' and some Americans were asking, 'Do we really want these people here?' If you look at some of the early polls you find they were not very supportive."
Taft had little time for spin control. But as she worked she followed the media coverage, and she worried about it. Then she acted. "I don't remember whether I did by design or default," she says, "as we were so busy back here, and I didn't want to give a lot of energy to media coverage. But I began to think that it was important for the media to go into the camps -- they were closed camps but they were opened to the media. So I encouraged them. And as soon as the media got out there and started interviewing the families, and then the American public could see these are not all prostitutes, not all tiger-cage guards and corrupt profiteers and ridiculous things like that -- that these are living human beings who had gone through hell and were here seeking freedom and respite and a new life. Well, those stories changed public attitudes almost overnight. By the end of June public support began to pick up. The vol-ags had their sponsorship campaigns under way and thousands of sponsors were coming forward. The press was always there. This was the biggest story of the year. This was on television every night. At last they showed the good pictures of Vietnam in our living rooms. For a population here that for a decade had seen only Vietnam war stories, here was finally something that the U.S. government, in their minds, was doing to save lives and to bring hope. That was the turning point.
"I don't give the credit to the media," Taft cautions. "I give the credit to the refugees. The refugees told their stories. The story got on television and in the newspapers. Then 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. They are valedictorians and salutatorians, doctors and engineers, graduates of our military academies and successful businessmen. They're really working. So they sold themselves. But the media was helpful in conveying those stories."
Early in the program, many governors expressed concern about the refugees. They wanted to know whether the Vietnamese would be eligible for welfare and if so, then would Federal Government fund it. We sent out a cable to the governors telling them not to worry, that no state would initially get more than 10 per cent of the refugees. So the governors went along with our program. We were going to pick up the state portion as well as the federal portion for any refugee that needed welfare or medical assistance," Taft says, "so the states had no financial problem. They also had this statement that they wouldn't get more than 10 per cent of the refugees. Well, hell, over time we couldn't really control that. This was particularly for true for Camp Pendleton. In the first few days of the evacuation, 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 the cable had gone out, California might have had ten thousand refugees. That would not have been fair."
The new governor of California, Jerry Brown, was very concerned about refugees settling in his state. Brown even attempted to prevent planes carrying refugees from landing at Travis Air Force Base near Sacramento. The Travis commander told California's 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 helpful Red Cross centers. At about the same time Taft began receiving frantic telephone calls from Obledo and other California officials. Obledo, was especially opposed to any Vietnamese resettlement in California. "He felt that this addition of a large minority group would be unwelcome in California," Taft remembers, "and he said that they already had a large population of Hispanics, Filipinos, blacks and other minorities. He really attacked our program. He wanted no Vietnamese resettlement in California! Obledo then sent 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 pointed out five months earlier, when Governor Brown appointed him to office, that his family had been on public assistance during the Depression. He was also an advocate 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 Brown’s position that he wrote to the California 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,” Taft remembers, “was I said, 'Do you want me to make a public statement in the newspapers that no more Vietnamese refugees can resettle in California? Do you want us to go to the churches and California citizens who have relatives or friends in this refugee boat and say that they are not going to be able to participate in the program?' Obledo said no, he didn't want that. But we almost came to blows. When it came right down to it, we could have said that we would not fund resettlement of anybody in California and therefore none of the churches could participate. And of course the people of California wanted to participate. Many of them were retirees from foreign service, military in a lot of those places, San Diego and Los Angeles. If I were to say to them, 'Sorry you are not going to be able to take your family members or you friend home to California, well, you know what the response would be. So California's officials were quieted down. And in the end, California welcomed the Vietnamese."
Taft was determined not to keep the refugees in camp no longer than was absolutely necessary. She wanted them out of the camps and integrated into communities throughout the country, to get them on a path to starting life over again. " It is just not humane to keep people in camps for long periods of time," she believed. "I was continually reminded by the press and some of the detractors on the Hill that after Dien Bien Phu(1954) France had taken a number of refugees and they were still in a refugee camp twenty years later. Again and again I was asked, 'Mrs. Taft are you going to have a refugee camp twenty years from now?' And I kept telling them, "No, no, no, that's not our policy."
"By the summer we knew who we had and what the processing rate was by all the camps," Taft says. "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 empty. It helped us in terms of figuring out whether we needed to have a winterproof camp.
" I decided fairly early on that I wanted to get through with this by Christmas! I wanted these people to celebrate their first American Christmas in their own homes. So I started telling everyone that we would have no Vietnamese living in refugee camps by Christmas. That was the goal. We let the voluntary agencies know that this was something we wanted and so we kept the pressure on them to speed up the processing. Everybody had to know that this was going to end before Christmas!"
Julia Taft met her deadline. The first holding camp closed was Wake Island, then Subic Bay, and Guam -- all in July. Eglin closed in August, then Pendleton, and Indiantown Gap. The last camp -- Fort Chaffee -- closed five days before Christmas
On December 24, 1975, President Ford issued a press release on the refugee resettlement program and concluded, “The success of this massive undertaking was due mainly to the open-hearted generosity of the American people, who both individually and through their churches and civic groups came forward to sponsor these newest members of our society. But the program could not have succeeded without the efforts of those who worked long hours in this humanitarian cause....Initial fears that the refugees would become an ongoing problem ware now allayed. The refugees have proven themselves to be hard working and industrious people with a thirst for education and a deep-seated desire to improve themselves. I am confident that they will follow the example of former immigrants who have so richly contributed to the character and strength of the American system. The warmth and generosity that have characterized the welcome that Americans have given to the refugees serve as a reaffirmation of American awareness of the roots and the ideals of our society.”
Looking back at her 1975 experience, Taft remembers, " I was in the interesting position of being young and I was running the thing and four star generals and cabinet officers were getting directions from me. Whenever I wondered if I really had the support I needed I always found I did. President Ford was wonderful. The people who really counted all supported me.
"The program provided a context for people from scores of government departments and agencies to cooperate. We established a wonderful working relationship. It was a healing process for those involved, 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 the healing situation. .
"I feel, after all these years, that I did 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. I do. I've always been brought up to serve. My family was in public service and it was my responsibility to serve and I did. I still do.
"The fact that we could actually help provide a new constructive life for a hundred and forty thousand people -- well, very few of us ever face a challenge and a chance like that in our lives. Maybe you feel like you can help your kids, or whatever, but a hundred and forty thousand people!
"Everybody in the process did well --men and women from all fifteen executive agencies and over fifty thousand U.S. Government employees were involved between April and December of 1975. Their incredible stories were not the things we had time to sit down and brief everybody on. But everybody had a role. There were many heroes.
"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. But in this case, we did.
" I think what also helped those of us who had no previous emotional attachment to Vietnam was the fact that the State and Defense people who did have that attachment were so committed to these refugees and felt so strongly that we had to do something from a moral standpoint as a well a voluntary standpoint. They'd spent their lives trying to help Vietnam and the Vietnamese and now they wanted to make sure that this last intervention was one that was good. There was a lot of that personal commitment and attachment, which I, of course, absorbed because that's contagious.
" I was transformed by that experience. There's been nothing as totally consuming in my career since then.
"What did I learn from this? I learned that you've got to trust your instincts, and no amount of training or manuals on how to manage or make decisions in those moments matter at all. Either you have an instinct to listen to advice and get good advice and be decisive, or you don't. I listened to my intuition.
"Second, I learned that 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. We had the humanitarian dimension, too, but basically we 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 government and businesses 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 the diversity of your constituency. You build that constituency by making sure your policies and programs draw from strengths of everybody's perceptions. And this is what we did.
"I came away from this with an extraordinary respect for public servants. And, naturally, the American people were, as usual, wonderful.
"And so today, every time I'm in an airport coming back from overseas or waiting to come down here to Washington, or wherever I am in the United States, I still recognize the former refugees. I always go up to them and ask how they are doing, where are they going, what kind of conditions they have. I offer to help in any way I can.
" I feel so very close to them. Oh, they're all mine! I still get Christmas cards from lots of them.
" And they remember my name."
David Hume Kennerly
(In February of 1976 Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare David Mathews recommended that Julia Taft be considered for a Presidential Award for her outstanding work as Director of the Interagency Task Force on Indochina Refugees. In January, 1977, as Gerald Ford prepared to leave office, Secretary Mathews reminded him that the award, “for whatever reason,” had not been made. It never was. Taft became Director of the Offices of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance[FDA] from 1986 until 1989. She became the President of Interaction, the nation's largest coalition of private humanitarian agencies, and has been coordinating relief efforts in various parts of the world. She later served in Rwanda and Zaire.) Julia Taft died of cancer, March 15,2008.