The Life We Were Given: Operation Babylift, International Adoption, and the Children of War in Vietnam

The Life We Were Given: Operation Babylift, International Adoption, and the Children of War in Vietnam

by Dana Sachs

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In April 1975, just before the fall of Saigon, the U.S. government launched "Operation Babylift," a highly publicized plan to evacuate nearly three thousand displaced Vietnamese children and place them with adoptive families overseas. Chaotic from start to finish, the mission gripped the world-with a traumatic plane crash, international media snapping pictures of


In April 1975, just before the fall of Saigon, the U.S. government launched "Operation Babylift," a highly publicized plan to evacuate nearly three thousand displaced Vietnamese children and place them with adoptive families overseas. Chaotic from start to finish, the mission gripped the world-with a traumatic plane crash, international media snapping pictures of bewildered children traveling to their new homes, and families clamoring to adopt the waifs.

Often presented as a great humanitarian effort, Operation Babylift provided an opportunity for national catharsis following the trauma of the American experience in Vietnam. Now, thirty-five years after the war ended, Dana Sachs examines this unprecedented event more carefully, revealing how a single public-policy gesture irrevocably altered thousands of lives, not always for the better. Though most of the children were orphans, many were not, and the rescue offered no possibility for families to later reunite.

With sensitivity and balance, Sachs deepens her account by including multiple perspectives: birth mothers making the wrenching decision to relinquish their children; orphanage workers, military personnel, and doctors trying to "save" them; politicians and judges attempting to untangle the controversies; adoptive families waiting anxiously for their new sons and daughters; and the children themselves, struggling to understand. In particular, the book follows one such child, Anh Hansen, who left Vietnam through Operation Babylift and, decades later, returned to reunite with her birth mother. Through Anh's story, and those of many others, The Life We Were Given will inspire impassioned discussion and spur dialogue on the human cost of war, international adoption and aid efforts, and U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Deeply compelling and deftly researched, Dana Sachs's The Life We Were Given vividly documents this controversial mass evacuation while trailing the heartbreaking narratives of the children-from village life to orphanage to hastily arranged flights to the United States and into the homes of waiting American adoptive parents. The Life We Were Given is a powerful exploration of the questions that haunt everyone involved in adoption.—Meredith Hall, author of Without A Map

"The saddest story in the whole awful sweep of the war in Vietnam had nothing to do with soldiers or ideology and has never been fully told—possibly because no one could bear to. Thankfully, Dana Sachs fills that void with The Life We Were Given, one of the bravest and most wrenching books I have read about the war. All the victims and heroes of the Orphan Airlift come unforgettably to life in this beautiful book, and I will not soon forget them, or it."—Tom Bissell, author of The Father of All Things

"The Life We Were Given is a work of great compassion and scope that gives voice to the tragedy and salvation of thousands of Vietnamese orphans. Dana Sachs has compiled an impressive collection of personal stories and presented them with concise historical background to give this subject the depth it so rightly deserves. An illuminating book worth reading."—Andrew X. Pham, author of Catfish and Mandala and The Eaves of Heaven

"With its clear and compelling truths about war, children, fear, and hope, The Life We Were Given becomes one of our very best and most important books about America's involvement with the people of Vietnam. And it's so much more. Exquisitely written, full of breathtaking suspense, this book will become a classic, a must-read."—Clyde Edgerton, author of Lunch at the Piccadilly and The Bible Salesman

"This gripping account of Operation Babylift allows the voices of those directly affected by the experience to speak out. . . . Unmatched in its breadth of perspective and depth of insight . . . Sachs has broken new ground in our continued understanding and insight into how powerful Operation Babylift was on our national consciousness and the many lives it impacted."—Bert Ballard, PhD, Operation Babylift adoptee (April 1975), international adoption researcher, adoptee activist

Kirkus Reviews
An investigation into the 1975 airlift of Vietnamese children to the United States. In April 1975, as U.S. involvement in Vietnam was ending, foreign-sponsored adoption agencies were desperate to get the children in their charge out of the country and to America. Thus began Operation Babylift. During the course of a few weeks, nearly 3,000 children were loaded onto whatever aircraft could and would take them. Yet the evacuation was carried out amid the utmost confusion and with the absolute certainty among many adoption-agency officials that the children left behind-especially the mixed-race children-would die, from neglect or at the hands of a vengeful communist regime. Sachs (If You Lived Here, 2007, etc.) questions the wisdom and legality of the operation. Many children were too ill to survive the arduous flight, and one aircraft crashed, killing nearly 80 children. Most of the children brought with them inadequate or even made-up legal documentation, and many were not orphans at all, but ended up on the planes anyway. Ultimately, most of the 850,000 orphans left behind survived. In the United States, some who were not orphans were reunited with their birth families, but most were not. With deep respect for the humanitarian intentions of those who organized the airlift, Sachs concludes that the mission was driven by misguided assumptions about postwar Vietnam and an American need for "catharsis after the psychological trauma of a disastrous war."Sure to arouse controversy and debate, the book raises important and timely questions about the wisdom of and motivation behind humanitarian efforts to remove children from nations embroiled in strife. Agent: Douglas Stewart/Sterling LordLiteristic
Library Journal
Who is the orphan: the displaced children of Vietnam—or Vietnam itself? So mused an MIT political scientist in the New York Times in 1975, the year of Operation Babylift, when the U.S. government sanctioned the removal of almost 3000 Vietnamese children before the fall of Saigon. Indeed, as America withdrew from Vietnam, Operation Babylift took on an urgency that Americans, after a disastrous and unpopular war, embraced. Those involved, such as Friends of Children of Viet Nam (FCVN), were poorly equipped to handle so many adoptions so fast. They had the best of intentions but perhaps a limited view of the consequences of their endeavors. Many of the transported children were not in fact orphans, and although some were reunited with their birth parents, others were not despite efforts to negotiate the poorly maintained records. Especially moving is the story of Ahn, an Amerasian girl given up by her birth mother, who was fearful of the fate awaiting her child in Vietnam once the Americans left. VERDICT Combining historical background with personal stories from those involved, Sachs (The House on Dream Street: Memoir of an American Woman in Vietnam) provides a well-researched, deeply moving work, sensitive and nuanced. Highly recommended.—Patti McCall, AMRI, Albany, NY

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Read an Excerpt


The photograph shows a row of red-and-yellow striped seats inside the cabin of an airplane. They look like any seats on any commercial jetliner,
though the mod color scheme does help date them to the 1970s.
What is odd about the photograph is not the seats themselves, but who occupies them: on each seat lies a tiny baby swaddled in white pajamas.
As human beings, we view babies as vulnerable, and a solitary infant, in any context, seems strange and pathetic. These particular children look like dolls that some prankish three-year-old left forgotten on the sofa.
A few of these children appear to be sleeping. One faces the camera,
looking both curious and forlorn.
I first came across this picture in the spring of 2004, while reading about Vietnam on the Internet. I had been writing about the country for many years, but I had never seen the photograph or heard about the event it depicted. Now, on the Web site, I discovered that in April
1975, at the very end of the war in Vietnam, a group of foreign-run orphanages,
with the help of the U.S. government, airlifted between two thousand and three thousand children out of Saigon and placed them with adoptive families overseas. The Web site showed photos from only one jet, but I learned that there had been many babies, and some four dozen flights that carried them out of Vietnam.
As a writer, my interest in Vietnam had, until that moment, consciously focused on the country as a country, not as a participant in a war. Too much attention had centered on the conflicts of the twentieth century and as a result, I believed, Americans knew little about the place except that we had fought a devastating war there. Now, looking at this puzzling photograph of babies on an airplane, I reminded myself that every war produces its own set of bizarre situations. Apparently,
Operation Babylift had been one such situation that emerged from the war in Vietnam. I moved along in my research and told myself to forget about it.
I couldn’t get my mind off those babies, though. April 1975 marked the end of the war in Southeast Asia, the moment that, after three decades of conflict, Vietnam finally emerged into a time of peace. Right at that moment, however, thousands of children were airlifted away from their homeland. Why? It didn’t make sense to me. Months passed. Every so often, I’d make my way back to the computer, just to have another look. Each time, the same questions filtered through my mind: Who were these children? How did they end up on those planes?
Orphans play a peculiar role in our consciousness. The idea of a child without parents defies the natural order, evoking a pity so deep it feels instinctive, like some remnant of our pre-conscious past. Perhaps it’s the pathos of the image that explains why so many myths and legends include children raised by wolves, or floating down rivers in woven baskets,
or wandering lost through haunted woods. Our desire to help such children takes on a meaning that goes well beyond the individuals themselves.
By saving them, we’re saving ourselves and saving our species.
And yet, we have always treated children badly, too. Throughout history, children have borne the brunt of war, and illness, and poverty.
Nearly three thousand years ago, the Spartans created a brutal army of ruthless young men by forcing little boys to survive in the streets.
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, young boys served as
 “powder monkeys,” carrying explosives to gunners on board ships. Even in times of peace, children have filled out the ranks of farm workers and laborers throughout the world. It wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century, around the time that Charles Dickens introduced both Pip and
Oliver Twist, that society began actively addressing the gap between our expectations of how we should treat children and the reality of their suffering. In 1851, the Massachusetts legislature introduced the Adoption of Children Act, the first legal mandate requiring that adoption decisions promote the welfare of the child, not the desires of adults.
Over the next few decades, American society came to regard adoption as a viable means of ensuring the well-being of children who had no families to care for them.
By the twentieth century, this commitment to our own orphans expanded to include helping foreign children made vulnerable by war.
After the Holocaust, the U.S. government accepted as immigrants thousands of displaced children. Though the attempts were haphazard and often unsuccessful, some effort was made to find these children’s families before placing them for adoption. Following Fidel Castro’s revolution in Cuba, a program known as “Operation Pedro Pan” evacuated thousands of Cuban children, in small groups and on commercial flights, to the United States, where many were reunited with relatives.
In 1970, two years after the end of the Nigerian civil war, five thousand
Biafran children, who had been evacuated from the country for their safety, returned to their families and villages. “It’s not your fault that you left your country,” Nigeria’s head of state told one group of children as they arrived, adding, “We’re very, very happy to see you back here with us.”
Operation Babylift followed what had, by then, become a familiar pattern: war creates orphans, and then civilized society steps in to help.
If the war itself revealed our basest nature, then humanitarian interventions unveiled our best—a deeply felt desire to save the lives of defenseless kids. As an April 1975 article in Time magazine described Operation
Babylift, which was taking place at the time, “Not since the return of the prisoners of war two years ago [has] there been a news story out of Viet
Nam with which the average American could so readily identify, one in which individuals seemed able to atone, even in the most tentative way, for the collective sins of governments.” It was a feel-good effort,
to be sure, but the Babylift also marked a new phase of humanitarian endeavor, and it revealed a new philosophy with regard to what it means to “save” a child. Earlier efforts had centered on reuniting families torn apart by war; adoption was a backup plan. In contrast, this mission focused completely on adoption. Evacuation organizers claimed that these children were orphans. It quickly became clear, however, that a significant number were being put into permanent homes without clear proof of their eligibility for adoption. Some children, it seemed, came from Vietnam’s most vulnerable families, and they had been swept up in the panic of those last days of war and transported to new, permanent homes overseas.
Eventually, I stopped trying to ignore the story of Operation Babylift.
For the past six years, I have tried, instead, to unravel the tangle of events that led, in April 1975, to the mass evacuation of those children from Vietnam, approximately 80 percent of whom ended up in the United States, while the rest were adopted by families in Canada,
Australia, and Europe. Even as the airlift was taking place, controversy began to swirl over whether it was an appropriate response to the crisis facing these children. The arguments focused on many factors—the oversight of the mission, the family status of the children involved,
the appalling conditions of children in wartime South Vietnam—but these debates also coalesced around a single vexing question about adoption itself: is the primary purpose of adoption to find a home for an orphan or to satisfy the needs of a family that wants a child? That question, of course, remains, to this day, at the center of the controversy over international adoption.

Meet the Author

Dana Sachs has written about Vietnam for twenty years. The author of The House on Dream Street: Memoir of an American Woman in Vietnam and the novel If You Lived Here, and coauthor of Two Cakes Fit for a King: Folktales from Vietnam, she teaches at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington and lives in North Carolina.

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