Operation Babylift 1975

A Babylift flight arrives at San Francisco, 5 April 1975. Photograph Source: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration – Public Domain

The catastrophic rhyme of history reverberates in society after society. Sometimes war is involved and sometimes it is not, but the hideous rhyme often becomes a sickening attempt to enforce the dominant “culture” on indigenous peoples. Innocent children are included in this human debacle. Often greed is incorporated into the enterprise of empire and sometimes it’s the full-spectrum, full-dominance putsch of empire. Resistance is often brutally crushed!

Whether it’s the attempted destruction of the Native population in the US and the removal of Indigenous children to state schools, or the same treatment of indigenous children in Canada or Australia, the intent and results are the same. The strategic hamlets of Vietnam had their historic precursors on Native American reservations. The values of the dominant culture, read frequently as white, are imposed on innocent children and they are taught to behave within the constraints of the dominant culture. In the Magdalene Laundries (asylums) of Ireland, children were often wrenched from the arms of their mothers and sent as orphans abroad. In the latter case, both the mothers and their children were taught a brutal lesson. Certain expressions of sexuality, not condoned by the so-called “superior” culture or religion, were viciously punished. Reflections of the latter can be seen in the increasingly right-wing treatment and view of women and children in the contemporary US through the actions of states and the federal government in the limitation of reproductive rights. Many with the means can escape these constraints intended to ensnare the perceived rabble.

In the US war in Southeast Asia of the 1960s through 1975, a brutal lesson was taught to 3,300 children as South Vietnam was about to fall to the forces of the North. Seventy-eight of those children, including infants, died in the first flight of “Operation Babylift” when that flight crashed and broke apart soon after taking off. Operation Babylift was the wrong-headed and ill-conceived attempt to airlift children who had been left at orphanages. Many parents attempted to reestablish their lives in the war zone, and their children were removed by way of  the airlift before parents could take over their care again.

Gerald Ford was President at the time of Operation Babylift (“Misguided Intentions,” U.S. History Scene) and did not pass up the opportunity to exploit the export of children, some still with parents in Vietnam, with a photo op at a San Francisco airport, as he held a newly arrived Vietnamese infant. A Yale University psychologist quoted in the New York Times 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.” (PBS, American Experience).

US Ambassador to Vietnam, Graham Martin, said the evacuation “would help reverse the current American public opinion to the advantage of the Republic of Vietnam [South Vietnam].” Concerned individuals brought a federal lawsuit through the Center for Constitutional Rights against then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the federal government, and adoption agencies to counter the movement of the airlifted children from Vietnam. One entire orphanage run by a religious organization was emptied and its children sent to the US, France, Germany, and Australia, which were among the nations that participated as places where airlifted children were brought for adoption.

The US government desperately needed to change its image because of massacres in Southeast Asia. The My Lai massacre and the massacres attested to through the 1971 Winter Soldier Investigation (Waging Peace, February 3, 2021) come to mind. People saw atrocities on the news and read about atrocities in the mass media.

Fast forward four decades and recall the photo of the dead Syrian refugee child washed up on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea (Guardian, September 2, 2015) and the resistance and blockades against refugees from countries in the Middle East and Africa and consider that some refugees are more deserving than others.

Trump separated Central American and South American refugee children from their parents as a real life symbol of his hate and many of his supporters’ hate toward a targeted group of children and adults. The Biden administration has also targeted immigrants at the Mexican border.

Only 12 of the children airlifted in 1975 were ever positively identified with relatives in Vietnam. Similar failures to identify separated children and parents at the Mexican border occurred. There is an active group of Operation Babylift survivors who communicate among themselves, but it is a small group considering the total number of children involved in the airlift.

Empire, greed, white supremacy, and the condescending nature of the dominant culture in wealthy societies have conducted various policies such as Operation Babylift for centuries.

The trauma of children from Operation Babylift, and the trauma of their parents, is impossible to describe. Some of those airlifted could adapt to new societies and many could not adapt. The ruthlessness, even among those who thought they acted out of good intentions, is no rationalization for the theft of entire lives!

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).