The rapid fall of Kabul to the Taliban drew immediate comparisons to the scene over 40 years ago when Saigon was captured in the last days of the Vietnam War. The comparison was only amplified as images of Afghans desperately clinging to U.S. planes Monday went viral.
For now, let’s set aside President Joe Biden’s promise that we wouldn’t see these wrenching scenes, that this time things would be different. Instead, we should focus on what happened next after the fall of Saigon in 1975 — Congress’ nearly immediate approval of a program to take in and provide for Vietnamese refugees.
We should focus on what happened next after the fall of Saigon in 1975 — Congress’ nearly immediate approval of a program to take in and provide for Vietnamese refugees.
By April 1975, it was becoming clear to the U.S. that the South Vietnamese government wouldn’t last long against a North Vietnamese assault. President Gerald Ford’s administration was by then lobbying Congress for assistance to get remaining Americans out of the country, as well as Vietnamese allies whose lives would be at risk should the communists capture them. In a preview of the Biden administration’s rhetoric over the last few months, the Ford White House was hesitant to sound the alarm too loudly for fear of demoralizing the South Vietnamese in the fight ahead.
In a meeting with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the White House on April 14, Ford’s request was met with skepticism. Most were concerned with Ford’s plan linking the evacuation plans with a request for over $700 million in military aid to the South Vietnamese government. The administration argued that the money would help stabilize the country enough to safely retrieve the evacuees.
Others, though, were more concerned with the idea of bringing the Vietnamese to America — one senator in attendance even suggested shipping them off to Borneo. Ford, to his credit, responded to that suggestion with an insistence that the U.S. needed to take them in:
“Let me comment on where they would go: We opened our door to the Hungarians. I am not saying the situation is identical, but our tradition is to welcome the oppressed. I don't think these people should be treated any differently from any other people — the Hungarians, Cubans, Jews from the Soviet Union.“
But Congress wasn’t having it — at least not with the possibility of U.S. forces’ fighting the North Vietnamese again. The day after the fall of Saigon, the House voted to reject the final version of the Vietnam Humanitarian Assistance and Evacuation Act, a bill that would have provided $150 million for evacuation plans and given Ford the green light to use military force to protect American evacuees. The Vietnam Contingency Act, which had passed the Senate weeks earlier, never made it to the House floor for a vote.
Less than a month later, though, Congress did pass the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act. The law provided over $450 million to support the assimilation of eventually 130,000 South Vietnamese refugees who had been evacuated. (That works out to over $2.3 billion in 2021 dollars.) These refugees were originally taken to Guam before being granted “parole” by the attorney general to enter the U.S. mainland legally. (The process for refugee immigration shifted to the system we know today under the Refugee Act of 1980.)
And as it became clear that the situation in Vietnam was only getting worse for southerners and hundreds of thousands of people fled the country by boat to neighboring countries, the U.S.’s resettlement program was expanded multiple times. President Jimmy Carter in 1979 doubled the number of refugees coming to the U.S. from Indochina to 14,000 per month. By 1990, the U.S. had accepted over a million Vietnamese people.
As America debates whether to accept Afghans wanting to flee the Taliban’s renewed rule, it’s worth noting that the 1975 refugee law wasn’t popular. The images of Vietnamese people swarming helicopters did little to soften the hearts of Americans. The New York Times was blunt in explaining most Americans’ reluctance to accept Vietnamese refugees:
Some of those hostile to the newcomers seem to be just weary of the whole long American involvement in things Vietnamese and eager to shut the door on the unhappy past. Others voice fears of epidemics of Asian diseases.
A few, however irrationally, see those fleeing Communism as a Communist threat. Some see the refugees as just the opposite — a possible nucleus of right‐wing strength. But the vast majority of those opposed to the resettlement express concern about the economic impact at a time when the country already has an unemployment rate of 8.7 percent.
That apathy was clearly seen in a Gallup poll released in May 1975, which found that a majority of Americans — 54 percent — opposed South Vietnamese refugees’ coming to the States. In contrast, only 36 percent supported the idea. Four years later, in 1979, 62 percent of Americans disapproved of Carter’s plan to increase the number of refugees coming from Indochina.
America kept accepting Vietnamese refugees — not because it was popular or because it would win votes, but because it was the right thing to do.
The bill still passed, though, and America kept accepting Vietnamese refugees — not because it was popular or because it would win votes, but because it was the right thing to do. The Senate, a few weeks before the Vietnam Migration and Refugee Assistance Act went into effect, had shown its willingness to go against public sentiment when it overwhelmingly passed a resolution that reaffirmed “that the Statue of Liberty is, as Emma Lazarus called her, the Mother of Exiles” and welcomed the refugees from Cambodia and Vietnam.
Today, millions of Afghans have been spread out across Central Asia for decades now. In recent years, Afghans have been encouraged to repatriate back to their home country under the promise of a brighter tomorrow. That time seems to be at an end, and the scenes from the Kabul airport show that the exodus from the country is likely only beginning.
Many political allies and foes alike are painting Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan as a betrayal of Afghans who have worked so hard to build their country up and now face retribution from the Taliban. In that light, it’s imperative that Congress take the next step and move forward in accepting more Afghan refugees into this country. It’s the most honorable way to protect yet another group of people whose lives have been inextricably tied to the whims of the U.S.