“Honorable Exit: How a Few Brave Americans Risked All to Save Our Vietnamese Allies at the End of the War,” by Thurston Clarke
The Vietnam war is, for many Americans, the war “they have spent decades trying to forget” — a war whose purpose and execution were misrepresented by presidents and generals; a war that angered the home front and brought cross-generational protest into the streets; a war that, in its theater of operations, ended as a lost cause.
By its title, “Honorable Exit” implies that, while the war itself was less than honorable, some measure of honor was recovered in the actions of well-meaning Americans who, in the frantic days before South Vietnam fell to the communist North in April 1975, risked their lives and defied their superiors to save 130,000 South Vietnamese — wartime colleagues and their families — from execution or concentration camps.
The author, Thurston Clarke, calls these rescuers “American Schindlers,” after Oskar Schindler, rescuer of Jews in World War II made famous by the Thomas Keneally novel and Steven Spielberg film, “Schindler’s List.” Clarke’s subtitle — “How a Few Brave Americans Risked All to Save Our Vietnamese Allies at the End of the War” — understates the number, however: There are dozens of rescuers portrayed. But Clarke is something of a Schindler himself and clearly could not bring himself to leave off his own list any rescuer. Caveat lector: In addition to the author’s two-page list of principal characters, the reader will need a spreadsheet and patience.
As an example of the author’s method, his prologue features the iconic photo of America’s first lost war — of a helicopter atop a building (misidentified as the American embassy), with a man in a white shirt leaning down to assist to freedom a mass of people on the stairway. Clarke not only tells us how the photographer got the photo, but the identities of the man in the white shirt, the helicopter pilots, and, impressively, the first five rescuees on the stairway — and what happened to them.
While Clarke’s focus is on the rescuers, he does not stint the Vietnamese rescuees, and we get thumbnail sketches of translators, drivers, fixers, comrades in arms. Of necessity, given the wide scope of the tale, and the chaos of evacuation, the rescuers get only thumbnail sketches, too. Many seem to have been spiritual wanderers who, in the sorrow of the war’s end, found their life’s purpose in a final honorable action.
Clarke introduces the rescuers and their mission thus: “Many believed that their country’s political and military leaders had mismanaged the war, that Americans had a moral duty to evacuate their South Vietnamese allies, that a nation built by immigrants had room for more, and that they were saving Vietnamese from years of imprisonment…or a bloodbath…. And so they cobbled together underground railroads of safe houses, black flights, disguises, and fake flag vehicles, and smuggled friends, co-workers, and strangers past the police checkpoints at Tan Son Nhut airport in ambulances, metal shipping crates, and refrigerator trucks with airholes drilled in their floors. They impersonated chauffeurs, generals, and hospital patients, and they embossed documents with counterfeit consular stamps and signed affidavits stating that they would be financially responsible for the Vietnamese adults whom they claimed to have ‘adopted.’”
Most rescue operations required insubordination of direct orders. Perhaps the biggest obstacle was the American ambassador, Graham Martin, who resisted drawing up an evacuation plan, so as not to create “panic” in the South Vietnamese population or its army, our ally. At book’s end the author concedes some moral ground to Martin’s impossible task. (To remind us of scope, the U.S. diplomatic mission in South Vietnam, Clarke notes, was the largest in the world at that time.)
The rescuers included mid-rank members of the U.S. Foreign Service, various bureaucrats, businessmen, soldiers, missionaries, contractors, reporters, and spies, all turning organizational expertise to humanitarian purpose and instinctual smarts. Lists of evacuees were drawn up. Flat-topped roofs were scouted in Saigon, to serve as helipads. Convoys of jeeps and vans were thrown together. Bribes were paid. Orders to abort a flight were not received, due to convenient “radio failure.” In sum, regulations were sacked, along with, the rescuers knew, their careers.
Certain details linger, such as when Americans, contacted by South Vietnamese friends on flimsy pretext, realize their help to escape was being sought. Especially moving are the Americans who, approached by parents to adopt their children, decide to do so on the spot. Once the storm breaks, the great escape unfolds on myriad fronts — by convoy, sedan, bus, helicopter, plane, barge, ship. On top of the tragedy of defeat, there is more tragedy, as when a plane in what became “Operation Babylift” crashed upon takeoff, killing the wife and son of one of the American rescuers (his daughter was found, alive, in the ruins). And there are the individual tragedies, as when a family member, for whatever reason, is denied exit at the last.
This touches on the moral dilemma, that of “playing God,” that all of the rescuers faced in deciding who among their South Vietnamese charges would be evacuated — life-or-death decisions that, given their gravity and given the rescuers’ moral core, stayed with them forever.
An example: After one rescuer had denied a wealthy Saigon surgeon access to a flight, despite the surgeon’s bribing (he felt it was “the kind of corruption that had ruined South Vietnam”), the American “felt awful.” “To ease his conscience, he approached a forlorn-looking young couple who were sitting alone under a tree. She said her boyfriend was a law student and they saw no future for themselves in a Communist country.” Moved, he directed them to the flight. He would never forget them, either the young couple or the surgeon. Twenty years later, he received a phone call from the woman, reporting that she and her boyfriend had married, had children, and now lived in Seattle, where he practiced law: “’I just wanted to tell you that we took advantage of that opportunity you gave us.’” Tellingly, for this rescuer, as the author reveals at the end of the book, it is the faces of the Vietnamese he was forced to leave behind that remain clearer in his mind’s eye than those he rescued.
At a time when, led by a president lacking all honor, America is becoming an international pariah, this book about Americans conducting an honorable exit to a national tragedy is, in a word, tonic.