David has taught college history and holds an MA in history.
South Vietnam fell in 1975 to the communist North Vietnamese Army, effectively reuniting all of Vietnam under communist control. While the reunification of Vietnam ended a decades-long struggle for independence from foreign powers, a unified Vietnam nevertheless faced a wide variety of problems. The implementation of communist economics caused financial catastrophe. Former government or military officials were imprisoned for 're-education' or simply executed. An attempt to defeat neighboring Cambodia set up a decade-long war.
For many South Vietnamese, the fall of Saigon (the capital of South Vietnam) to the communists meant a disaster. Countless thousands attempted to leave the country, legally when possible, fleeing when necessary. 'Boat people' drifted throughout southeast Asia in search of any friendly nation that would take them in, and huge numbers drowned as they attempted to leave Vietnam. While many Vietnamese who had worked with the American military managed to get permission to live and work in the United States, far more had to be left behind.
A year after the fall of Saigon, Brent Scowcroft, the national security advisor for President Gerald Ford, composed a report on the state of the Vietnamese still attempting to flee the country. He commented on the difficulties of these refugees and the steps the Vietnamese government took to prevent the exodus.
Let's look at the memo now.
Text of Brent Scowcroft's Escape from Vietnam Memorandum
MEMORANDUM FOR THE PRESIDENT
FROM: BRENT SCOWCROFT
SUBJECT: Escape from South Vietnam
Our Embassy in Bangkok has compiled information (TabA) on the most recent instances of Vietnamese refugees fleeing from South Vietnam. Since the risks involved are so serious and the sacrifices so large, I thought you should have this brief summary of the report.
The Embassy states that even now, more than one year after the fall of Saigon, the flow of refugees from South Vietnam continues. More than 400 persons are currently at ports in Thailand hoping to continue on to the U.S. or other countries following their escape by sea. Others are in Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and even Brunei.
These refugees have told Embassy officers that escape is a risky undertaking requiring preparations carried out in utmost secrecy over a long period of time. Gasoline required for the long journey is scarce, expensive, and rationed and therefore must be obtained in small amounts and kept hidden until the day of escape. The most dangerous part comes when the escapees must rendezvous, load the supplies undetected on to the boat, and then somehow evade the constant coastal security patrols. The refugees say that new laws in South Vietnam prohibiting meetings in groups of three or more people make these efforts even more difficult. Finally, if the people do get past the patrols and out into the open seas they find themselves in the hostile environment of a vast ocean with frequent storms and dangerous currents.
Apparently most of those starting out to flee do not make it. Some refugees estimate that about one half are caught by the authorities before they can get under way and perhaps one third of the remainder perish at sea. Our limited intelligence reporting confirms that some groups have been captured.
One of the most interesting cases detailed in the Bangkok report involved a former ARVN officer who had become a shrimp fisherman. For nine months he carefully saved the food and fuel needed for the journey and learned the timing of security patrols. On the appointed day in mid-May he brought his small fishing boat into shore and loaded 23 people on board including 7 children. The boat, never designed for the high seas and powered by an engine with only two working cylinders, was so overcrowded that the passengers could not lie down. The only map available was a page torn from a travel brochure which contained a four inch map of the entire South China Sea. In the six days and nights it took them to get to Thailand, they survived one severe tropical gale and several lesser storms during which everyone had to bail water to keep the boat from going under.
Another fascinating case is that of a refugee who first escaped from Vietnam months ago, entered the U.S. refugee system and settled in Brooklyn. After obtaining travel documents here, he traveled to Thailand where he lived on a boat and secretly returned to Vietnam. In Vietnam he assembled 16 members of his family, developed an escape plan, and then successfully sailed back to Thailand once again.
In a separate episode, a Communist coastal patrol intercepted a boat at sea and placed an armed crew on board to bring it back to Vietnam. As the boat was making its way into port, the unarmed escapees, including women and children, rushed the crew, threw them overboard, and then steamed off for Thailand.
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