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Mondale's role in saving 'boat people' recalled, 30 years later

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Vietnamese refugees
Thousand of people fled Vietnam by boat after the war ended in 1975, 3800 of whom resettled in Minnesota. In this photo from November 1977, Vietnamese refugees watch as a Thai Marine police boat casts them adrift in the Gulf of Siam after being turned away. They had escaped earlier in November from Vietnam to what they thought would be freedom, but Thai police refused to allow them to come ashore.
Eddie Adams/Associated Press

In the years following the end of the Vietnam War, thousands of Vietnamese risked the dangers of the South China Sea instead of facing communism. 

This year marks 30 years since then-Vice President Walter Mondale convinced world leaders to come to the rescue of more than 1 million "boat people" -- many of whom settled in Minnesota.

Connie Tran remembers the day in 1978 when communist government officials came to her parents' home in Vietnam. Tran, who was 13 at the time, said the officials told her mother and father the government was now in charge of the family's fabric business.

"We are taking control of your house, we will check inventories, and show us the cash," they told her parents.

Tran, now a banker in Eagan, said the takeover convinced her parents they needed to leave Vietnam. They paid the government eight ounces of gold for permission for each of her nine family members to leave. 

But permission to leave wasn't the same as a guarantee of safe passage -- because they had to face the South China Sea. 

Mother and sick child
A Vietnamese mother, Mrs. Nguyen Thi Yen, holds her sick child as she pleads help from a fishing boat carrying her and 48 other refugees as they arrive at Khlong Yai, a village 220 miles southeast of Bankgkok, Thailand, Nov. 30, 1977. The refugees were refused entry and the boat was towed back to sea.
Eddie Adams/Associated Press

Tran's family left in a boat -- a relatively small craft that seemed all the more tiny with about 200 refugees aboard. She and the other women had to stay below in the dark, with no room to stretch out. Tran remembers a raging storm their first night out caused them to fear for their lives.

"The boat is rocking and I can feel water coming into the boat," she said.

Three days later, with food and water running short, they put ashore on an island off Malaysia. It was already crowded with refugees living without shelter, adequate food or sanitation. Tran says they cobbled together a crude shelter of boards and plastic.

Nine months later, with the help of a suburban Twin Cities Lutheran church congregation, the Tran family resettled in Minnesota. They were joining an earlier wave of refugees who had begun settling in the region, mostly former South Vietnamese soldiers and government officials who resettled after the fall of Saigon. That was July, 1979.

U.S.-led intervention

When the war ended in 1975, State Department employees warned Congress the victorious Communists would take revenge on Vietnamese who'd supported the Americans during the conflict. Vietnamese including former soldiers, government officials and their families were resettled in this country.

Walter Mondale said the "boat people" represented something different, a symptom of the harassment of Vietnam's merchant class.

"The government there was pushing hundreds of thousands of mostly ethnic Chinese out to sea -- and ripping them off as they did it," said Mondale. "[Forcing them] onto boats that were unsafe, subject to piracy, all the things I thought no longer happened in the world." 

Connie Tran
Connie Tran, a banker in Eagan, was 13 years old in l978 when the Communist government of Vietnam took control of her parents fabric business. Her family, along with dozens of relatives, had pay the government in gold to legally leave Vietnam in a small boat that landed on an island off Malaysia.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

Shortly after Mondale became vice president, He saw the humanitarian crisis firsthand. In 1977, he traveled to refugee camps in Thailand which were overrun with people who needed food and shelter.

Mondale and others began working on a plan to help. They proposed doubling -- to 14,000 a month -- the number of southeast Asian refugees allowed to resettle in the United States. In addition, the U.S. would spend millions to build safe and sanitary temporary refugee camps in the Philippines and elsewhere.

Mondale said an unusual part of the plan was to convince the Navy to make its sailors and vessels in the 6th fleet off southeast Asia's coast a rescue squad, that would pluck refugees from the sea.

"That was a unique first step," Mondale said. "The military didn't want to do that. They said, 'We're here to fight battles, we're not a humanitarian organization.'"

President Carter endorsed the plan, but the problem was too big for the U.S. to solve on its own. Many nations felt the U.S. created the boat people problem, so it alone should take responsibility. 

Vice President Walter Mondale
Vice President Walter Mondale delivers his address to the Indochinese refugee conference of the United Nations in the Palais de Nations in Geneva on Saturday, July 21, 1979. Comparing the plight of Indochina refugees to the "doomed Jews of Nazi Germany," Mondale pledged increased U.S. aid for the refugees and called on Vietnam to halt its "forced expulsions" of the boat people.
AP Photo/File

The Carter-Mondale administration decided to ask the U.N. for a special refugees conference in Geneva in July 1979.  It was a gamble. 

Unlike so many other large international endeavors, this one was not prearranged. Mondale knew what he'd encounter when he stood to speak before the U.N. delegates.

"The thing you have to get ready for when you speak to the UN is being ignored," Mondale said. "They sit there like extras on a movie lot, and these speakers come by, droning on for decades, and they get sort of comatose."

It was up to Mondale speechwriter Martin Kaplan to craft an argument that would rouse the delegates. He said he found his key message in a sheaf of background materials he brought with him on the flight to Geneva.

The stack of paper included a chilling account of another U.N. refugee conference decades earlier that ended in failure, which amounted to a death sentence for millions. It was a U.N. meeting in Evian near Geneva, just as World War II was breaking out. Kaplan said the delegates at that meeting failed to agree on a rescue plan for Germany's Jews.

Vietnamese children
A light-haired Vietnamese-American boy named Dung is one of the 6,700 boat people who fled Vietnam and found refuge in this camp in Songkhla, in southern Thailand, May 27, 1980. Dung, who says his father lives in America, smiles as his friends call out that he is American.
File/Associated Press

"At that conference, if every nation had agreed to accept something like 15,000 Jews, there would have been no Jews left in the Third Reich to send to concentration camps," Kaplan said.

Mondale told his Geneva listeners in 1979 those earlier U.N. delegates had "failed the test of civilization." 

"The civilized world hid in the cloak of legalisms, and the result was the Holocaust," Mondale said.

Kaplan and Mondale said the audience snapped to attention, as Mondale told the delegates they faced a world problem and exhorted them to fashion a world solution.

"We all know the grim statistics, the toll being taken among those refugees forced out by Vietnam in inadequate and unseaworthy boats," he told the delegation in 1979.

He ended by saying, "History will not forgive us if we fail. History will not forget us if we succeed."

Observers recall a moment of silence after Mondale's last sentence, and then the normally staid U.N. delegates rose as one with an ovation.

An estimated 3,800 refugees settled in Minnesota

As nations joined in the rescue plan, conditions at sea and in the camps for the boat people began improving. But the crisis was so deep and the number of people affected was so large, that the problem lingered for several years. 

Tens of thousands still trying to escape Vietnam continued to risk jail if caught on land, or drowning at sea. Hung Phung, then 19, was among them.

Hung Phung
Hung Phung, now a guidance counselor in a Twin Cities public school district was 19 in l981 when he and 11 others boarded a leaky boat for a 10 day, 1000 mile voyage across the South China Sea to the Phillippines, a departure sparked in part by the Communist government of Vietnam attempting to draft him into the military to fight a war in Cambodia.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

"I'd been trying to hide away from the local government," Phung recalled. "They tried to chase me down and recruit me to Cambodia."

Phung, who now lives in Minnesota, said he'd made 20 attempts to escape by sea rather than fight in Cambodia, but each time, something went wrong. His family paid 1.5 ounces of gold to a middle man to get Hung and his brother on a boat.

Of the 12 people in the small craft, seven became seasick on the 10-day voyage. The others were groggy with exhaustion and hunger and prone to making mistakes. Three days out, the motor quit. 

"They mistakenly put the water into the gasoline," he remembered.

Phung laughs at the mistake now, but remembers at the time both he and his brother assumed they would die. Instead, they were rescued and towed to the Philippines by a fishing boat. 

Months later, they were allowed to resettle in the United States. He's now a guidance counselor in the Bloomington school district.

Connie Tran and Hung Phung have not met Walter Mondale, but they credit him personally, and the U.S. generally, with saving their lives. 

"I think it [had] great impact not just for me, but for the refugees from Vietnam, from Cambodia, from Laos, for the Hmong people too," Phung said.