War Stories

When America Took Responsibility for Refugees

A new biography of legendary diplomat Richard Holbrooke shows how much the country has changed.

South China Sea Crewmen of the amphibious cargo ship USS Durham (LKA-114) take Vietnamese refugees aboard a small craft in this undated photo.
South China Sea crewmen of the amphibious cargo ship USS Durham (LKA-114) take Vietnamese refugees aboard a small craft in this undated photo. National Archives and Records Administration

There’s a story in George Packer’s new book, Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century, that highlights just how much about us has changed as a nation since the rise of Donald Trump. The book contains many such stories, and as its subtitle suggests, the changes, for better and for worse, took hold well before the 2016 election.

It’s a magisterial tome, a blend of biography and diplomatic history on par with Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars or Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie. But this is not a book review, in part because Packer is a friend, so you might view my praise with suspicion, which would be a mistake (you really should read this book if you’re at all interested in the decline of our country’s elites or America’s role in the world over the past 50 years) but understandable.

In any case, I want to focus on one long-forgotten, but especially pertinent story about Holbrooke, the book’s flawed and tragic hero, one of our era’s most talented diplomats, who died of a heart attack in 2010 at age 69, and who might have been secretary of state, were it not for his outsize tin-eared ego. The story—which is a minor piece of the book, taking up just four of its 566 pages—concerns Holbrooke’s role in creating the Refugee Act of 1980.

In the late 1970s, the end of the Vietnam War and the savage terror of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia unleashed a massive humanitarian crisis and a flood of refugees across Southeast Asia. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, President Gerald Ford had let 130,000 South Vietnamese into the United States, but then, as Packer puts it, “the gates closed.” No one wanted to think about that part of the world anymore. President Jimmy Carter came to the White House preaching human rights in foreign policy, but none of his Cabinet secretaries considered refugees to be a legitimate foreign policy issue. The State Department had a refugee office, but it was staffed with just two people. Nor were other countries rising to the challenge. Thailand was turning away migrants; the United Nations was applying no counter-pressure; tens of thousands of South Vietnamese were fleeing their land in small boats to the South China Sea, where most of them perished.

Holbrooke, an assistant secretary of state at the time, was a man obsessed above all with power and his own place in the pecking order; but he was also genuinely moved by human suffering and driven to use the power he possessed to do something about it. This impulse stemmed from his time as a junior diplomat in the early days of the Vietnam War, when the mission was less about firepower than “nation-building” (essentially bombastic social work). Holbrooke made it his new mission to save the refugees from the aftermath of that disastrous war.

Richard Holbrooke as seen during U.S.-Vietnam talks on normalizing relations in Saigon on Dec. 19, 1977.
Richard Holbrooke as seen during U.S.-Vietnam talks on normalizing relations in Saigon on Dec. 19, 1977. Michel Clement/AFP/Getty Images

He persuaded Vice President Walter Mondale to take an active role in the crisis. Mondale ordered warships of the U.S. 7th Fleet to rescue the boat people. The admirals at first argued against the idea: Picking up refugees wasn’t the Navy’s mission, and they thought their crews would be demoralized by it. But in fact, crews reveled in the act of saving lives, and America’s image soared among ordinary people in the region. The issue was where the rescued refugees would go.

On Air Force One, during a flight to Japan for a G-7 summit, Holbrooke badgered Carter and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance to double the monthly quota of Southeast Asian refugees allowed into the United States from 7,000 to 14,000. Holbrooke could be annoying—it was one reason many people disliked him—but in many cases, including this one, he could be effective.

Holbrooke then refocused his attention on Mondale, who was about to attend a conference in Geneva on the refugee crisis. Holbrooke handed Mondale’s speechwriter a paper about a similar conference, held in Evian, France, in 1938, on the fates of Jews in Nazi Germany. Almost no delegates at that earlier conference offered to raise their refugee quotas. As Holbrooke hoped, the speechwriter used the reference as a hook. “Let us renounce that legacy of shame,” Mondale read out loud at the conference. “We have a world problem. Let us fashion a world solution. History will not forgive us if we fail. History will not forget us if we succeed.” The speech roused a standing ovation and pledges from many delegates to let more people inside their borders.

Finally, Holbrooke learned of a primitive refugee camp that a handful of aid workers were building in Thailand. He swept in by helicopter to inspect the place, talked with its organizer, promised help, then arranged a tour for first lady Rosalynn Carter, whom he accompanied on the trip. The trip made worldwide headlines. The rumors of the Khmer Rouge’s atrocities, which many doubted (they seemed too dreadful to be true), were steadily confirmed. The world started paying attention to Cambodia.

On March 17, 1980, Carter signed the Refugee Act, which tripled the number of refugees allowed into the United States, established systematic procedures for their admission and uniform provisions for resettling, and absorbing, those refugees into communities. By 1982, as Packer summarizes, the United States had admitted a half-million Indochinese, “by far the most of any country in the world.” Eventually, the number rose to 1.5 million.

Packer ends the chapter laconically: “It shames us today.” If anything, that’s an understatement.

The Washington Post reported this week that, under the Trump administration, the number of refugees allowed into the United States has fallen to its lowest level since the 1980 law was signed, a mere 30,000—even as the number of people seeking relief continues to soar.

Syrian refugees, who form the largest and most desperate set of applicants, have been hit the hardest. In 2016, the last year of Obama’s presidency, 12,587 Syrians were allowed into the United States. In 2018, the number dropped to just 62—a decline of 99.5 percent.

Wars and other crises have displaced 68 million people from their homes around the world; more than 25 million have fled their countries as refugees. It is tragic and appalling by any measure in history. We once roused ourselves to do something about this, as Packer’s chronicle shows. We seem inured to it now, and there are no Holbrookes or Mondales in positions of power to change that.