Amanda C. Demmer wrote the book policymakers should read to address the plight of Afghan refugees. In After Saigon’s Fall: Refugees and US-Vietnamese Relations, 1975–2000, Demmer explains how the executive branch, Congress and refugee organizations helped rescue Vietnamese refugees, to whom President Gerald Ford said America had a “profound moral obligation.” To better understand how the lessons of the post-Vietnam War era may inform policies toward Afghan refugees, I interviewed Demmer, an assistant professor in the history department at Virginia Tech.
Stuart Anderson: What strikes you as most similar between the refugee situations after the Vietnam War and the end of the conflict in Afghanistan?
Prof. Amanda C. Demmer: The first thing that comes to mind is the magnitude of the displacement and suffering. In both instances, Americans waged war in the country for decades. Although the first U.S. combat troops didn’t arrive in Vietnam until 1965, advisors were stationed in the country beginning in the early 1950s. In practice, this extended presence meant that the number of Vietnamese associated with the United States—and, as the U.S.-backed regime fell, implicated by those ties—was astronomical. When frantically planning the U.S. evacuation of Saigon in 1975, U.S. officials acknowledged (though in classified discussions) that over one million South Vietnamese were in grave danger and had claims to American assistance.
We’re seeing something very similar unfold in Afghanistan. Attempting to enumerate which groups of Afghans to include in the U.S. evacuation has prompted belated recognition of the scope and severity of the refugee situation. Last month, as in April 1975, allies evacuated alongside U.S. personnel, but as the desperate scenes at Hamid Karzai International airport demonstrated, the number who wished to leave far exceeded the number who departed.
Anderson: President Gerald Ford said the United States had a “profound moral obligation” to those Vietnamese left in danger after the American troop withdrawal in Vietnam. What impact did that have on U.S. plans and willingness to accept refugees?
Demmer: Ford uttered the phrase during a televised address in early April when he was still trying to secure congressional and public support for an evacuation strategy that included Vietnamese allies. General anti-immigrant sentiment, a long history of anti-Asian racism in U.S. law and society, economic difficulties, an eagerness to put the war “behind” the country and the tendency to see Vietnamese as enemies rather than allies all combined to pose significant barriers to entry for South Vietnamese.
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Arguing that the U.S. had a “profound moral obligation” to its allies and foregrounding the human suffering in Vietnam helped to convince Congress to approve the deployment of troops (as required by the War Powers Resolution of 1973) for the evacuation of Americans and South Vietnamese and appropriate the funds necessary for refugee resettlement.
Ford’s argument about a “profound moral obligation” also echoed long after the evacuation. Framing the relationship between the U.S. and South Vietnamese refugees as moral (rather than martial or legal or any other number of possibilities) meant that those ties endured beyond the collapse of the South Vietnamese state. The simultaneous surge of the so-called “boat people crisis” and rise of the human rights movement in the late 1970s made a robust response to South Vietnamese refugees seem even more morally urgent as time went on.
This approach was solidified further by nonstate advocacy and official rhetoric which emphasized family reunification, which served as a pillar of U.S. immigration law throughout the twentieth century. The administrations of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton all implemented additional migration programs for South Vietnamese refugees citing these moral imperatives.
While the Biden administration has professed a commitment to U.S. allies in Afghanistan, the president has stopped short of promising specific resettlement figures. International and domestic trends regarding refugee resettlement have changed markedly since the 1970s and 1980s. While resettlement used to be the default response to large groups of refugees fleeing a regime antithetical to U.S. ideals, American and international norms now favor repatriation (return to one’s home country) and individual screenings over group resettlement.
At the same time, if admissions figures are any indication, the domestic political environment in the U.S., which was certainly not welcoming to Vietnamese newcomers, has grown even more hostile to the resettlement of refugees. For these reasons, the nature and scope of the U.S. obligation to Afghan refugees, even when framed in moral terms, will be severely tested in the months and years ahead.
Anderson: Parole authority already has been used during the efforts to get Afghan refugees to the United States. Can you explain how parole authority played a significant role in the U.S. response to the Vietnamese refugee crisis?
Demmer: In the 1970s, the United States did not have a process for regular, annual refugee admissions in significant numbers. The parole authority, which derived from a provision in the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act, was the only means to admit refugees beyond the paltry 10,200 the act allotted. Throughout the Cold War, U.S. presidents used parole to admit large groups fleeing communism, who entered the country as parolees and had their legal statuses adjusted thereafter. Although ubiquitously called “refugees,” the 130,000 South Vietnamese who evacuated alongside American personnel in April 1975 were parolees.
Immediately after the fall of Saigon, other South Vietnamese fled their country by boat. Between 1975 and 1979, over 310,000 successfully reached foreign soil, while an estimated tens of thousands more died at sea. In these same years, the Ford and then Carter administrations used parole authority to admit additional Vietnamese into the country on five separate occasions. U.S. inability to respond efficiently or proactively to the diaspora contributed in large part to the codification of the Refugee Act of 1980. This legislation dramatically transformed U.S. policy.
The act legislated that the White House and Congress would have a role in crafting refugee policy, codified a human-rights based definition of refugee that put U.S. law in line with international norms and provided a mechanism for the admission of 50,000 refugees annually, a number that could be, and repeatedly was, increased depending on the circumstances, so long as the executive and legislative branches concurred. Throughout the 1980s, refugees fleeing Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia received more than 50% of the available resettlement slots each year. The parole authority, then, both brought substantial numbers of South Vietnamese to the United States and helped prompt the creation of new paths to resettlement.
Anderson: In your book, you point out that the United States had no choice but to work with the communist Vietnamese government to address the plight of refugees, particularly for the establishment of the Orderly Departure Program. What does that tell us about Afghanistan?
Demmer: The Orderly Departure Program (ODP) was established in May 1979, after the number of “boat people” broke records throughout the spring, peaking with over 58,000 arriving each month. The scale of the diaspora was so severe that countries in Southeast Asia began to push the migrants back to sea. In this context, the ODP provided a safe, legal means for emigration for humanitarian and family reunification cases without the dangers associated with clandestine flight or protracted stays in refugee camps.
Applicants had to receive approval for emigration from the Vietnamese government; thereafter, foreign officials screened individuals on Vietnamese soil and, if approved, they traveled directly from Vietnam to resettlement countries aboard. Because the United States and Vietnam lacked diplomatic relations, UNHCR officials acted as intermediaries (the closest U.S. officials were stationed in Bangkok), which made the American branch of the Orderly Departure Program especially inefficient.
By the mid-1980s, an agreement between the U.S. and Vietnam permitted U.S. officials to be stationed in Vietnam. The two former foes also negotiated subprograms within the ODP for Amerasians (the children of American men and Vietnamese women), former reeducation camp detainees, and their “close family members.” Ultimately, over 500,000 resettled in the United States through the program.
This history suggests that it is possible for the United States to resettle large numbers of individuals directly from Afghanistan, even after the U.S. withdrawal. Support and pressure from the international community and bipartisan support at home are two ingredients that will likely be necessary to create an Orderly Departure Program-like program for Afghans. Initial signs are promising; 46 Senators called on President Biden to expand resettlement opportunities in late August and over 100 nations have signed a statement calling on the Taliban to deliver on its promise to permit emigration after the departure of coalition forces, though a recent statement from a split UN Security Council shows that divisions in the international community remain. With the world’s attention arguably more focused on Afghanistan than at any other point in the past 20 years, policymakers should act quickly to turn these promises into policy.
The history of the ODP suggests such efforts will require contact with a hostile regime and a willingness to compromise. Because the ODP required Hanoi’s acquiescence, the program necessitated frequent contact and cooperation between U.S. and Vietnamese officials, even as the U.S. sought to isolate and punish Vietnam in other ways. Although they lacked formal economic and diplomatic relations, U.S. officials met with their Vietnamese counterparts in New York City, Geneva and Hanoi to negotiate on what U.S. policymakers called “humanitarian issues”: refugees and missing American servicemen.
If U.S. officials hope to implement an ODP-style program, negotiating with the Taliban will be a prerequisite. Cooperation and, sometimes, concessions will also be required. Amerasians, for instance, traveled through the Orderly Departure Program via a special designation: they emigrated on immigrant visas but were eligible for refugee benefits once they arrived in the United States. This convoluted balance acknowledged and bent to Vietnam’s insistence that Amerasians were not refugees, but nevertheless still ensured that Amerasians were treated as refugees once on U.S. soil.
Persistence and determination in the face of repeated obstacles will also be necessary to create an in-country emigration program for the many Afghans with claims to U.S. assistance. Despite promises otherwise, for example, the Vietnamese government did not permit former reeducation camp prisoners and their families to travel through the ODP for much of the 1980s, even as thousands of others did depart from Vietnam and resettle in the United States.
U.S. officials raised the issue repeatedly throughout the 1980s but were consistently rebuffed. It was not until 1989 that Washington and Hanoi negotiated a bilateral agreement, the Humanitarian Operation (HO), which permitted released detainees and their family members to travel through a special ODP subprogram. It is very likely that if the Taliban does permit ODP-style departures for some groups, it will also refuse emigration for others. A program that facilitates a migration as large as the ODP will require short-term and long-term goals and commitments.
Anderson: What role did members of Congress play in influencing U.S. refugee policy after the Vietnam War?
Demmer: Members of Congress are some of the most important actors in my book, which traces the role of refugee politics in U.S.-Vietnamese relations between 1975 and 1995. While the Refugee Act of 1980 specified that Capitol Hill would have a say in determining annual refugee admissions, legislators went far beyond this enumerated role.
In the late 1970s, before the Refugee Act’s creation, individuals like Ted Kennedy, Rudy Boschwitz, Bob Dole, Claiborne Pell, and Stephen Solarz connected their personal and familial histories, especially their ties to World War II and the Holocaust, to the “boat people” migration. Congressmen passed resolutions, held public hearings, proposed legislation, lead delegations aboard, founded special committees, collaborated closely with NGOs and exerted pressure on both the White House and the government in Hanoi.
By the late 1980s, the torch of congressional leadership on refugee issues and U.S.-Vietnamese normalization more broadly was (mostly) passed to Vietnam War Veterans. As military service and the U.S. armed forces became symbols of national pride and celebration, veterans in Congress acquired a powerful form of political capital that they used to influence migration programs for Vietnamese refugees.
Senator John McCain, for instance, worked closely with other government officials and NGOs to advocate on behalf of reeducation camp detainees. McCain also personally traveled to Vietnam in 1987 with fellow veteran and congressmen Robert Mrazek to escort a by-then well-known Amerasian to the United States, symbolically kickstarting greater U.S.-Vietnamese collaboration on Amerasian emigration. These are only two of many examples, a history which suggests that members of Congress could become very influential voices in future debates about Afghan refugees, should they choose to do so.
Anderson: How did outside groups, such as the International Rescue Committee and veterans groups, affect U.S. refugee policies after the Vietnam War?
Demmer: The International Rescue Committee (IRC) had a significant impact on U.S. refugee policies in the late 1970s. As the oceanic exodus from Vietnam escalated, many in the United States turned their attention elsewhere. Members of the IRC formed a subcommittee, the Citizens Commission on Indochinese Refugees (CCIR), which went on fact-finding missions throughout Southeast Asia, held press conferences that offered policy proposals and met with high-ranking officials in the U.S. and abroad.
The CCIR’s extensive contacts among diverse segments of the U.S. population and close contacts with U.S. officials (William Casey, the future head of the CIA, co-chaired the commission) helped create momentum for major changes in U.S. policy. At a 1979 Conference on Indochinese Refugees, for example, U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale announced many new initiatives, including a pledge to resettle 168,000 additional refugees in the coming year and a financial pledge of $105 million (nearly $400 million in 2021 dollars). These and additional programs Mondale announced at the conference elevated many of the exact proposals the CCIR had been making for over a year to official policy.
While veterans in Congress played an influential role in refugee policies, most veterans organizations focused on the issue of U.S. servicemen listed as prisoner of war/missing in action (POW/MIA). In the 20 years after the fall of Saigon, the U.S. government spent billions of dollars to provide what activists called a “full accounting” of missing U.S. servicemen.
As of September 1, 2021, there are approximately 100 to 200 U.S. citizens in Afghanistan who wish to leave but were unable to evacuate in late August. Given the history of the POW/MIA movement and the extreme partisan landscape in Washington today, the Biden administration is no doubt aware that it will pay a heavy price if it does not do everything possible to secure the departure of the remaining Americans. Should U.S. citizens continue to be held against their will (or believed to be held against their will) for an extended period, the history of U.S.-Vietnamese relations after 1975 demonstrates that concern for Americans will dominate the public discourse and official U.S. rhetoric. That same history, however, also suggests that in discussions with the Taliban and official emigration programs, the issue of American citizens and Afghan refugees will likely be linked concerns.
Anderson: Based on your research on Vietnam and refugees after the war ended, what advice do you have for U.S. policymakers today in addressing Afghan refugees, including those left behind in Afghanistan?
Demmer: I would advise policymakers to act quickly but expect a protracted, often painful process. In the short-term, it would be wise to seize on the national and international attention on Afghanistan to put as much infrastructure in place as possible for continued emigration. Systems of pressure to prompt the Taliban to continue to allow departures will be necessary, which history suggests will require multilateral and unilateral efforts.
U.S. officials will need to negotiate agreements to facilitate continued departures from the airport in Kabul and make arrangements with neighboring countries to keep their borders open and provide temporary safe haven for fleeing Afghans. Turning the apparent bipartisan support in Congress into more concrete policy as soon as possible would also be prudent. All of this will be expensive, costs which will be incurred in dollars, political capital and diplomatic resources.
Thinking about the magnitude of the challenge ahead, it is inevitable that securing the departure and resettlement of Afghan refugees will take time and diligence. One of the things that surprised me most when researching my book was just how influential nonexecutive actors—those outside of the White House, including congressmen and NGOs—were in creating and sustaining the momentum for refugee admissions.
I would advise policymakers to tap into the passion of and information assembled by nongovernmental organizations (including those representing the Afghan American community) and members of Congress, and to expect some unusual alliances along the way. Many officials who fought vociferously about almost every aspect the Vietnam War found common cause in resettling Vietnamese refugees. These alliances held not just in the 1970s but for decades after the fall of Saigon, long after Vietnamese refugees disappeared from the headlines.
Although much has changed, family reunification and human rights, which were pillars which underwrote many of the migration programs for Vietnamese refugees, remain politically powerful forces in the United States. Whether these types of alliances and motivations are strong enough to surmount the many obstacles that exist to Afghan refugee resettlement, however, remains to be seen.