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Dana Sachs

Dana Sachs

Posted: September 1, 2009 06:44 PM

Operation BabyLift: Ted Kennedy and the Orphans of Vietnam


This week, many people have recollected their interactions with Senator Edward Kennedy. I also met him -- in the pages of a 34-year-old transcript I discovered while researching a book about the war in Vietnam.

My research involved Operation Babylift, the U.S.-sponsored evacuation, and subsequent overseas adoption, of several thousand children from Saigon at the end of the war. The transcript came from an April 8, 1975, Senate Judiciary Subcommittee hearing titled, "Indochina Evacuation and Refugee Problems, Part I: Operation Babylift and Humanitarian Needs." The chair of the subcommittee was Ted Kennedy, 43 years old and 13 years into his Senate career.

By early April 1975, the war in Vietnam was nearly over but the misery was intensifying every day. The North Vietnamese-backed final offensive had displaced hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom were dying of starvation and disease. "Tragedy is piled on tragedy," Senator Kennedy said in his opening remarks. He recognized a "deep and despairing sense of helplessness among the American people" over what was happening in Vietnam. At the hearing, he hoped to find answers to a simple question: Why, after so many millions of dollars in aid had been promised to Vietnam, were we still witnessing so much suffering?

Operation Babylift was a case in point. By the time of Kennedy's hearing, these displaced children had begun to arrive in the United States and they were very, very sick. In an interview with The New York Times, Dr. Alex Stalcup, who had witnessed their arrival in San Francisco, described it as "the most incredible scene of deprivation and illness I've ever seen." These children, however, had come from orphanages in Vietnam, which were supposed to have benefited from millions of dollars in U.S. aid.

Senator Kennedy called upon Daniel Parker, administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). On the question of the Operation Babylift children, the senator asked, "How do you explain their poor condition?"

At first, Parker dodged the question. "I do not think the condition on arrival of orphans making the flight of some 10,000 or 12,000 miles is necessarily an indication of the condition in which they left. This is a rigorous flight," he reminded the senator. "It is a flight halfway around the world."

Kennedy was unconvinced. "You do not get viral pneumonia, chicken pox, dehydration on an American plane in a period of 30 hours," he retorted. He noted that Congress had appropriated $10 million for childcare, but USAID had only spent $3.9 million of that money. Clearly, Vietnam's children had suffered the consequences. For comparison, the senator cited another fact. Out of $77.8 million appropriated for industrial development, $77.8 million had actually been spent. "What do you say about priorities?" Kennedy demanded.

Parker hedged. For the next few minutes, the discussion centered on technical questions, like the use of Vietnamese piasters versus dollars, and the different meanings of the words "allotted" and "obligated" in aid budgets. Other senators might have zoned out. Kennedy, however, dominated the debate.

By mastering the facts, Kennedy rendered the government's actions indefensible. Near the end of their exchange, Daniel Parker tried to assert that refugee relief expenditures had nearly doubled since the previous day.

Kennedy seemed incredulous. "In the last 24 hours you have gone from $25.8 to $41.6 million; is that right?"

Parker didn't like the senator's tone. "That implies that we made a capricious and arbitrary decision," he said.

"Exactly," the senator shot back. "That is not only an implication. That is the conclusion I have made."

As I read these words thirty years later, I realized that Kennedy was not only smart enough to use the facts to his advantage, but also brave enough to speak the truth. He displayed a wisdom and fortitude that Americans needed in that dismal moment.

Speaking on NPR after Senator Kennedy's death, John Sununu, the prominent Republican, attributed the senator's effectiveness to his practicality and willingness to cross party lines. He mentioned, too, that the senator "always came prepared," which "made him a formidable opponent." Kennedy's quick-witted exchange with a hapless government bureaucrat three decades ago show both his capability and his moral clarity. Here were the talents that ultimately made him an intensely effective legislator. That's the Ted Kennedy I know.