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Interview with L. Dean Brown, 1981

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Summary
L. Dean Brown retired from a 29-year career with the State Department in 1975. Specializing in the Middle East, he had served in Jordan and Cyprus. Two weeks after he retired, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger recalled him to organize the evacuation of Saigon. Here Brown describes the logistics of organizing the evacuation, raising Congressional funds, and the decision to evacuate thousands of Vietnamese, in addition to Americans. Brown downplays the panic portrayed by the media, recalling the events of April 1975 as relatively orderly. He describes empty helicopters leaving Vietnam in the early days of the evacuation because Ambassador Martin, optimistic about a political resolution, failed to organize evacuees. Finally, he praises Gerald Ford’s leadership skills and his ability to show compassion toward, and prepare Americans for, the flood of refugees now arriving from Vietnam.
Topics
Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Personal narratives, American, Capitulations, Military, United States--Foreign relations--Asia, United States--Foreign relations--1945-1989, United States--History--1945-, Evacuation of civilians, United States--Politics and government
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Transcript

Preparing for the American evacuation of Saigon

VIETNAM
Snd. Roll 443
Amb. Dean Brown
CH
This is a head of SR 443 to go with the head of camera roll number 2424 for WGBH the Vietnam Project, TVP 013, the Final Days. And, at the head of this role there are several seconds of reference tone recorded at minus 8 d.b. at a thousand hertz on a Nagra three using an internal crystal operating at sixty hertz to go with a camera speed of twenty four frames per second, and this is being recorded at seven and a half inches per second. Again, this a head of SR 443 to go with camera roll number. 2424 and coming up is an interview with Ambassador Dean Brown in Washington, DC, October 22, 1981.
Turning. Slate one. Clap sticks.
Mark that please. Thank you.
Brown:
Oh, you want me to a... right. This was, the period that just ahhh we're talking about was after really all the political events had taken place. And, the signs were on the wall ah very plain to everybody that ah we had a major crisis coming up. It wasn't a question of hav... needing somebody who knew more about Vietnam, it was somebody who could handle a crisis. Ahh, crisis management in the State Department. And, I'd done a lot of that for Henry Kissinger before.
So, he naturally, called up and said, come on and do it and ignorance will be great. If you don't know too much about the subject maybe you won't bother me on that, and what you'll do is you'll run... What I want you to do is to get the Americans out and get the Vietnamese friends out and to clean the situation up as much as possible.
Cut. Turning. Slate two. Mark it. Clapsticks.
Brown:
It was a very fascinating moment ah because in the, in the beginning, Congress really was very nervous about this program. The Congress didn't like it. Ah. The publicity that was coming out ah the direction that the media were taking at the time was one that, who are these people. Ah. Vietnam was an unpopular word in the United States, and, and, people would say oh, these are bunch of drug smugglers, ah, people that we don't really want in the United States.
And, there was this feeling that you felt in the first few days in the Congress. However, this sort of switched because by then we were starting to get the stories ah of ah who some of the people were. Ah. There was a sympathy as they realized people were fleeing in boats. Ah. Then, the thought came through that a lot of these people that were really coming through were originally from North Vietnam, and had been, ah, many of them Catholics, and who were refugees in South Vietnam and were now fleeing one step further.
And, slowly, with some of the responsible congre... very responsible congressmen, like Congressman Rodino on the Judiciary Committee. His, his attitude was one that the United States has always welcomed refugees. And, he kept saying and that's why I'm here. And, that's what Rodino's are about. Ah, and, and that, that started to move a little bit.
What we had though was we had a terrible problem. Ah. There was no money. The Congress had just voted down all the appropriations for Vietnam and so all of a sudden we were sort of running, running this enormous program with no cash on hand. So, we had to run and write a bill, an authorization bill, ah, and an appropriations bill, and try and get it through Congress.
So, it was a little over five hundred million dollars that we went for and we did the whole thing from sitting writing the bill to the signature of the president in two weeks which was an absolute record in legislative history in the United States, particularly when you look at today's Congress and see what happens.
Interviewer:
Thank you. Cut.
Turning. Mark it. Slate three. Clap sticks. Just a moment.
Interviewer:
Go ahead.
Brown:
Well, what we were interested in primarily naturally was getting the Americans out. All the Americans were there. That is to say, the people at the Embassy. We all remember that. But, the official Americans, and then the large number of private citizens, the ones that kept showing up at the Embassy everyday that people didn't even know were in, in Vietnam at all.
But, there was another category of people that we always had been thinking about and this is what we called at that time, the high-risk people. Certainly, all of the Vietnamese who had worked for the American Embassy or the American Military. Now, there's Vietnamese civilians and military people who we felt, if they stayed behind, would probably be ah ah well imprisoned or executed.
Ah. And, then we started thinking, as we added to this category, well, how about those Vietnamese who work for American firms? How about those that were involved with American charitable groups and ah and other relief efforts that were going on and that's, that list sort of added on and on and on.
Ah. When we finally ended up with a hundred and twenty five thousand in that first ahh batch of people who came to the states, ah, there were certainly a lot of high risk and there were a lot of really no risk as well that somehow or another came along.
Interviewer:
Cut.
Interviewer:
Sort of discuss the panic thing?

Panic in the final days before the total collapse of the South

Mark it. Slate four. Clap sticks.
Brown:
Yes, I think, I think everybody in a situation like this where you're not sure of numbers, you're not sure of what's going to happen ah there is always a fear of panic. And, in a sense, we saw that. I mean, as we saw the people climbing into helicopters and climbing up on roofs, there was that. But, I didn't think and never did believe, that the evacuation of of of Americans out of there was going to cause a major panic of such proportions that perhaps the Vietnamese army would rise up in objection and things like that.
These were some of the things that we we we were hearing from Graham Martin at the time. It was never on that nature. I think the ah those scenes of panic were after in the hundreds of people, not in the thousands and tens of thousands. Ah. No, I, ah, ah it was in retrospect a rather orderly procedure despite all the disorderly appearances as you watched it on TV.
Cut. Turning. Mark it. Slate five.
Clap sticks.
Brown:
Well, panic wasn't really a concern of ours sitting in Washington. What we were trying to do ah is to set up some sort of orderly procedures, if humanly possible, or anything just to get people out. We wanted to move people. Ah. And, we wanted to create ah ah the the kind of conditions whereby they could move.
Ah. What we ah what we were interested in ourselves ah was was pre... if we could preventing for panic. We didn't want to lose large numbers of people because they'd been overlooked, ahhh, because people were getting very emotional at the time. Ah. And, we were constantly dealing back and forth with our embassy saying ah have you thought about this group? Have you thought about that group? Ah. Have you got people organized? Are there, are there eh are there messengers going out to deal with people?
And ah that, of course, was carried out by the younger people on the staff at the Embassy, and I think that that helped to calm things enough so as to allow some sort of orderly evacuation of these thousands of people.
Interviewer:
Let's... Taking off on that, could you talk about Martin's continuing resistance to the evacuation? That after a few days the C-141s were still, you know, leaving empty. He said, you know, get the numbers down was a direct order from the president and it took a direct order, not only to get those people out, but to get him out of the embassy.
Brown:
Ya, sure. When we go... We, ya, we had a basic problem and I think reflect back on it all these years later, the basic problem in that ah in the whole evacuation thing was the ambassador himself. The ambassador, up until the very last moment, ah, 'til the very moment that he was finally pulled off himself ah sort of persuaded by the Marine guards to get on that helicopter on a direct order from the President of the United States.
He always thought that there was some sort of political solution that he could pull out of the air. Ah, so what we were doing in those early days, is I was actually we were flying big C-141s at the Tan Son Nhut Airport and they were leaving virtually empty because he had not done what he had been told to do was to set up processing centers at the airport ah with the consular people, and move people on to the airplanes.
And, ah, there really were a series of direct orders from the president to him signed by the president saying, you will do the following. And, then the next day, he found out it hadn't been done. But, eventually, he got the message and eventually we got him out.
Interviewer:
Cut.

Gerald Ford's task

Turning. Mark it. Slate six. Clapsticks.
Interviewer:
Stand by. Go ahead, sir.
Brown:
President Ford, I thought, really proved his capacities for leadership during ah this these these weeks of the of the Vietnam crisis and the evacuation. Obviously, torn in many ways emotionally ah by what was an apparent defeat of the United States at the in his presidency, yet, realizing that the that the that the evacuation itself had been successful and that his prestige as president was necessary if we were going to get the political agreement to absorb the Vietnamese, Laotian, Cambodians who were on their way to the United States at that time. Not just the Congress, but the general support in in the American community.
And, so, he was very good. I mean he was he was he had groups in, groups of women, groups of Rotarians, ah various groups who were around for one reason or another in the Washington area, he'd bring in, and we'd we'd do a little show. A little sort of briefing on what was going on. And, what I'd liked a, what I found good was that he'd ah he'd get a piece of paper, he got it quickly and then just walking down the hall he would say to them now, here are two or three new facts, Mr. President, that will be good for you in this. He'd seize them and go in and come across with these various groups as a concerned human being.
Of course, I think that was the important thing that we had to communicate is that we were dealing once again with one of these floods of refugees that happens every so often and to which, historically, the United States has responded openly and warmly. (clears throat). But, he had to overcome some of the hesitations that were being felt about ah the Vietnamese. And, I thought he was very successful at it.
Cut. Camera roll number 2425 coming up.
Turning. Marker. Slate seven. Clap sticks.
Brown:
Well, the President was was intimately concerned with the whole question of the of the fall of of Saigon and the evacuation. Ahh. And, his staff, I mean I think the White House was really concentrating on that more than anything else. Ah. There was constant exchange of telephone calls from the office we were running. I was always being asked to come over and see him ah talk to him ah about the problems.
Ah. And, he was ah he'd he had ordered his whole staff saying we put every effort right away into overcoming all the legal obstacles we have. Ah. I want it understood that if they want airplanes, if they want helicopters, if they want the navy, it's all there for the Task Force. And, and, of course, what he had done in creating the Task Force, he had made it responsible directly to him. And, not to some an agency or group of agencies around. In other words, it was divorced in the real sense from the State Department.
Ah. And, then, throughout the rest of the process, ah the president was always conscious of the need himself to involve himself in getting through the next step and that was, what are we going to do about the refugees themselves. And, so he had he had group come to the White House. Rotarians and women's groups and ahh a lot of Congressional groups, of course. And, he would always himself take part in the briefing. He would always introduce the me me if I was doing a briefing or sometimes Phil Habib. Introduce us ah and then stay during the briefing to show his his interest and his concern.
And, I think, he projected himself ah as a as a warm, compassionate human being, and that was very important at that time to get that feeling that we wanted to treat this refugee flood as Americans have historically treated refugee floods, that is, with sympathy.
Interviewer:
What would he say to the groups? Would he acknowledge his sadness and and the disastrousness of the situation? How did he introduce the subject?
Brown:
The ve... No, I think, I think what, he's more of an upbeat man.
Interviewer:
Start over again.
Brown:
No, he's sort of an upbeat man. I mean, I don't, I never did, saw him that way, sort of saying, oh, this is terrible and now we have to do something about it. But, rather, we've had a, we've had a tragedy. We have to look forward, and we have to think about the future and this is what we're doing. And, that was more the idea ah because I think that was the way to handle it at the time. Was, was a little bit upbeat that we're coming out of something. I don't know exactly where we were but we know we're going to do something better. That's the whole idea.
Room tone. Ambassador Brown's interview.
Turning. Mark it. Slate eight. Clapsticks.
Enter the timecode: