—Fort Smith, Arkansas
From the government’s point of view the city of Fort Smith, Arkansas, may not prove to be so unpromising a location for the largest of the last four strategic hamlets as it may at first have seemed. The city, after all, began its brief and inglorious history as a staging area for US Cavalry search-and-destroy missions into the adjacent Indian Territories at just about the same time that the French were moving into Indochina in force. The closing of the frontier remains an unpleasant rumor. At Fort Smith one can easily buy an automatic pistol for the asking, but no legal drink stronger than wine. The downtown area, tucked into a narrow loop in the Arkansas River, has the raw seediness of a western rather than a southern town. Out past the new air-conditioned shopping mall east of town on the way to the refugee camp at Fort Chaffee, the Missionary Baptist Church sits near a Hep-Ur-Sef gasoline station, salvation by faith and free enterprise juxtaposed in matching mobile homes.
Sebastian County, of which Fort Smith is a part, is generally considered to be the most conservative in the state, a place where cold-war Manichaeanism is still the ruling public passion. It gave Wallace and Nixon 76.7 percent of the vote in 1968, Nixon 81.4 percent in 1972, and never had an antiwar demonstration big enough for anyone I asked to remember. Should the Ford administration, once it ceases pounding its collective chest over the Mayagüez incident, decide to do the expected thing and launch a campaign to peddle the refugees as innocent victims of the Godless Communist Oppressor, it will very likely sell in Fort Smith. To judge from the local radio evangelists, in fact, back orders are already piling up. The State Department officials who are in charge of the 24,000 refugees at nearby Fort Chaffee admit they had initial fears about the local response. They now are ecstatic over what one describes as a deep strain of patriotism in the region that has led to offers of help and support far beyond their expectations.
Still it would be misleading to describe Fort Smith’s response as altogether favorable. After the first UPI story went out of here quoting several local residents as being bitterly opposed to government aid for the refugees, we have heard mainly from local politicians, business and religious leaders, Jaycees, and other assorted boosters. It is not difficult to uncover a strong undercurrent of hostility to the refugees, much of it doubtless racial in origin, some of it economic. Numerous letters have appeared in local newspapers saying that the South Vietnamese deserve no help since they couldn’t fight worth a damn.
At a press briefing I attended the local television people were posing what they obviously regarded as very tough questions about the rumored incidence of leprosy, bubonic plague, and assorted tropical horrors among the refugees, along with an inordinate interest in the possibility that some might be engaging in sexual intercourse. This line of inquiry came to an abrupt end, however, when the State Department press man, John King, tartly informed the reporters that the venereal disease rate inside the camp is a good deal lower than that of the surrounding community (the incidence of venereal disease being one statistic in which Arkansas leads the nation) and that what there was of it seems to have been bestowed upon Vietnamese women by American soldiers.
A sign outside an auto parts store reads “Gooks Go Home”; a drive-in laundry rhymester reminds passers-by and employees that “If you don’t do your job to please / You may be replaced by a Vietnamese.” By and large, though, overt public resentment has had nothing to fasten upon and seemed to quiet down rapidly when it was determined that the settlement would be temporary. Arkansas Governor David Pryor’s magnanimous welcoming speech to the first planeloads of arrivals seemed more intended to calm his constituents than the refugees themselves, and the tactic seems to have worked. His office reports that his mail on the subject has been largely favorable. The local reaction was probably best summarized by a waitress at a local café who told me that nobody was very happy about the situation but that everything would be fine as long as the refugees were confined to the base and “don’t get to wandering all over the street.” “Besides,” she said, “the government’s going to do what it wants to do with ’em, and there isn’t a damn thing anybody can do about it.”
In tone and in feeling the resettlement camp itself is like nothing so much as a movie set. One who was never in Vietnam may feel that televised images have become real. A small girl squats at the edge of a drainage ditch in a secondhand cotton dress, idly stirring the water with a stick. One thinks of other Vietnamese children and other ditches. Loudspeakers make announcements in Vietnamese; MP’s in jeeps slowly patrol the gridlike World War II-vintage streets; occasionally a helicopter clatters overhead. One half expects the refugees to take shelter until one reminds oneself that these people were by and large our clients, and that the camp must represent a kind of security to them, and something at least familiar amid the strange and uncertain.
The Vietnamese rarely express anxiety openly, at least not those who speak English to American visitors, but it comes to the surface nevertheless. Exactly where is this Arkansas? one is asked. Is it far from the ocean? Do we often have these storms? (There have been two minor tornadoes with hailstorms and flash flooding since they have been here.) A prosperous seeming and confident gentleman in a raincoat and tinted eyeglasses wishes to know the distance to Baton Rouge, where he has a son. About twelve hours by car, he is told. Ah, it is very far. No, actually it is relatively near. In the next state, in fact. Oh yes, America is a very large country.
Reporters are not permitted to wander unaccompanied around the base but are given army escorts, most of them polite young ROTC graduates with no Vietnam experience and very little to say on the subject. If they have opinions they have clearly been advised to keep them to themselves. The ground rules are that one may talk to anyone one wishes and take pictures of anyone who consents to have his picture taken. One may enter the living quarters themselves if one is invited. By and large those refugees to whom one speaks are open to inquiry, although one suspects that some of them are being understandably less than candid.
It seems likely that, except for those like Marshal Ky who plan to follow John Dean on the lecture circuit, General Thieu’s war will turn out to have had as few supporters after the fact as Hitler’s did (and Ky himself is now attacking Thieu). Although many readily admit that large numbers of persons bribed their way out of Vietnam in the last days, no one admits to having paid one himself. All confirm that much gold was sent to foreign banks and a good deal personally carried off, but evidently very little by the persons I spoke to. One former civil servant informed me that many of the refugees became paupers as soon as word got out that they would be expected to pay for their airline tickets to leave here if they had the money.
Those of the refugees who worked for and with the Americans seem to find certain aspects of their dislocation less bizarre than do some of us who are natives. An elegant woman casually leaves the PX holding a child by one hand and carrying two pairs of Converse all-star sneakers under the other arm, “limousines for the feet” as they are styled on pro basketball broadcasts. Inside two vacant-eyed Arkansas honeys in short-skirted Uncle Sam outfits with cardboard top hats are offering free pieces from a large cake bearing the legend “Welcome to Fort Chaffee” and getting less notice from the Vietnamese than from the American soldiers. Over at the camera counter two civilian employees are wondering aloud how many Viet Cong have infiltrated among the refugees, as if no one can understand them, while a Vietnamese youth pricing a transistor radio pays no attention and listens to Jerry Lee Lewis sing “Red Hot Memories and Ice Cold Beer,” a song he may have heard in Saigon bars.
Outside, long lines wait patiently in the sun at clothing redistribution centers, telephones, sponsorship agencies, the PX itself. After an initial period of unseasonable coolness the Arkansas weather has reached the humid low nineties, and many are warm enough, they say, for the first time since they arrived. A polite seventeen-year-old Buddhist youth inquired about the meaning of the “Think Fort Smith” bumper sticker on a Salvation Army truck; satisfied by a halting explanation he wants to know, please, what is the Salvation Army? Perhaps emboldened by my embarrassment with that one he ventures a mild criticism: is it necessary that so many of the American movies projected against the outsides of the white-painted barracks walls at night be violent? “I want some movies for small children for relaxing,” he says, “rather than for killing.”
Like so much else that goes on in contemporary America the events here at Fort Chaffee invite nothing so readily as disbelief, a sense of disproportion between the sanctioned word and actuality so great that it can be embraced only by a kind of comic negation or transcended by political dogmatism. But neither is sufficient. It is too simple to conclude that because Gerald Ford would have us see these refugees as homeless victims of International Communism then they must be slothful and cynical opportunists; that if Hugh Scott would style them worthy then unworthy they must be, deserving losers of a class war that would have ended ten years or more ago but for our murderous interference. The fact is that for the most part we hardly know who they are. Nor, except for a relative handful of highly publicized figures, are we likely ever to find out.
The US government itself, it appears, does not want to know too much. It is in a hopelessly contradictory position to judge the qualifications of the refugees to stay here: the worst torturers or extortionists, the most flagrantly corrupt of government officials, may also have been among our most loyal friends. So the Immigration and Naturalization Service is being exceedingly vague and somewhat touchy about the “security” checks they are running with the help of the FBI, the CIA, and the State Department.
The truth seems to be that most of these inquiries are so sketchy that in most cases they are almost nonexistent. “Negative,” it seems, is “positive.” In the absence of what the INS is calling “positive derogatory information,” refugees seeking “parole status” to enter the country (technically speaking those still at the base have not yet done that) are presumed to be clean. Unless they worked for the US government it is unlikely that any records exist on them at all. Not only were a great many embassy papers burned in the panic of the last days in Saigon, but our officials relied heavily on the infamous Saigon police for information on local civilians, a source which in any case no longer exists. So black marketeers, small-time chiselers, and prostitutes, people who can hardly be blamed for trying to survive in bloated Saigon, slip through the “security” net along with the clean-handed patrons of assassination and the highranking GVN heroin smugglers.
Many of the refugees, I was told, left the South with forged identification or none at all. It can be assumed, for example, that some of the ARVN troops that one sees here and there in small groups are the same ones who brutalized and murdered their way aboard escape vessels and helicopters; identifying them would be next to impossible. Officials here have been somewhat fearful, in fact, of reprisals against the latter as well as against some of the more spectacularly corrupt of the government and military people who got out, some of whom a State Department man speaking “for background only” characterized as “politically malodorous types who are prime candidates for throat cutting,” without however specifying which of our former allies he had in mind.
After the computerized lists of data currently being prepared are available, the information being gathered here will probably be as unreliable as American statistics on Vietnam always were, and this last Indochinese adventure will probably end the way it began, in a protracted and contentious muddle. As an inquiry by Senator Kennedy’s subcommittee on refugees has reported and several of the Vietnamese I spoke to confirmed, some bitterly, there seems to have been no coherent plan for the orderly removal of persons that one might reasonably suspect would be endangered—except for US government employees, friends and acquaintances of influential Americans, and those who had the money and the opportunity to bribe the appropriate GVN functionaries, most of whom doubtless got themselves out as well. Kennedy’s staff quotes the estimate by “high officials” on Guam that “half the Vietnamese we intended to get out, did not get out—and that half who did get out, should not have.” It is doubtful whether most of those leaving, even those in what State Department people here are calling “the first wave” of 60,000 persons, can be considered political refugees in the normal sense at all.
Of the “second wave” even less is known and perhaps knowable, only that those who came out by sea will very likely be less well educated, unskilled in marketable trades, without French or English, and more likely to be Buddhists. An official at the International Rescue Committee, stressing that the large number of well-to-do sponsors seeking what he called “indentured servants” will be disappointed, said that of the 3,200 persons of the early groups they had processed there had been not one farmer or fisherman and only one maid—she traveling with her employers. There is not going to be much household help in the second group either, but many more farmers, fishermen, local tradesmen, and soldiers. A Vietnamese-speaking State Department employee told me an anecdote about being approached on Guam by four old men who wanted to know where they were. Upon being told they were on Guam and that it was a part of the United States, one expressed his amazement. He had thought the land of the B-52 would be much larger than it seemed to be.
Many of those in the “second wave,” it now appears, never intended to flee Vietnam. Instead of voting with their feet, or their oars and sails as the case may be, some only sought temporary refuge from the shooting, as they had done many times before. Taken aboard American ships they had no idea of how to refuse. Le Minh Tan, a former fire inspector in an American government office, is the elected spokesman for several hundred Vietnamese here who have signed a petition seeking repatriation. He told me a good number of these people had no idea of leaving their homeland permanently either: they looked only for temporary asylum from the killing. Many of the original sixteen who signed the petition first were Saigon policemen whose commander fled and who simply followed suit.
Tan spoke sadly of how much the petitioners, most of them young men, missed their homes and families. There were, he thought, at least 2,000 persons at Fort Chaffee alone who would also ask to be sent back immediately, if they did not fear the Americans would think them communists and punish them. Tan said that the petitioners had no personal politics and that they do not believe the new government will harm them, but that “if we are going to die, we want to die in Vietnam.”
Whether or not there will be mass reprisals made against its former enemies by the new government, there was little doubt of it among the American voluntary agencies arranging the “sponsorship” of refugees that I visited. Five of the seven sponsoring groups are religious (including the Lutheran Refugee Service, the Christian Missionary Alliance, the Catholic Conference). The word “Christian” in the sense of “morally correct” was used several times during the quarter hour or so I visited officials of one of the two groups that are not linked to the churches.
Herein lies a fundamental difficulty that no one on the American side seems to want to face. In order to leave the camp after getting a “security” clearance, each refugee, or family of refugees, must have an American sponsor who will undertake to house and clothe him and otherwise provide for his well being. But most Vietnamese, including 50 percent of the group at Fort Chaffee, are Buddhists. The Ven. Thich Giac Duc, lately of Saigon’s An Quang pagoda and a professor of government who studied at Columbia and earned his PhD at Claremont, told me that, in spite of official denials, many return in tears to the temporary pagoda set up here because it is hinted that if they convert they will be more successful in locating American sponsors.
Both he and a colleague, Tran Quang Thuan, who identified himself as a former senator, minister for social welfare, and dean of social sciences at Van Hang Buddhist University in Saigon, and who says he was jailed six times by the Thieu regime, believe that between six and eighteen months will be needed before the less Westernized of their countrymen will be ready to make their way in American society. They request that, at the very least, a concerted effort be made to attract sponsorship by American Buddhists, of whatever national origin.
Why not, they asked, enlist the help of Vietnamese and particularly of Buddhist intellectuals and professionally trained people here, some of whom, they say, are prepared to make sacrifices in order to help their countrymen find their own ways of adapting to the US, perhaps including the establishment of Buddhist communities. Many of the Buddhists, particularly of the An Quang sect, it should be recalled, are cultural nationalists who opposed the communists and were brutally suppressed by the successive American-backed regimes. For them especially, the sponsorship concept itself, not to mention the geographical limitations it imposes, sponsors being where you find them, is debilitating, since the price of “freedom” is one’s cultural identity. Very likely organized resistance to the policy will develop soon, if only by refugees failing to register with a sponsoring agency.
When I asked Donald MacDonald, the State Department man in charge of the encampment, about the question he responded with an ethnocentric blandness almost disarming in its openness. Experience has shown, he said, that “it is possible to deliver foreign refugees directly into American society” and that in his opinion neither “ghettoization” nor the “Indian reservation” approach has worked very well in the past. By this definition, of course, millions of us home-grown folks probably ought to be assigned sponsors ourselves, although to give him due credit, the position Mr. MacDonald is arguing against is that of John Eisenhower, one of the men President Ford appointed to advise on the refugees. After touring here late last month, Eisenhower observed that it might be necessary to keep some of the refugees in camps like these for the rest of their lives.
In spite of the many decent people who are giving selflessly of themselves here, one comes away from Fort Chaffee with a sense of apprehension and dismay. There is an unmistakable air of zeal and faddishness to many aspects of the operation. Most people in the sponsoring agencies cannot believe that Americans who were “against” the war could be “for” the refugees. A fifty-car caravan from a church group in Oklahoma City arrived at the base ready to sign up whole families on the spot and take them home, as if they were so many freshman “blue chippers” for the Sooner football team. (They were turned away, although they might get some refugees later on.) An official in charge of the Red Cross office here told me with a fist clenched for emphasis that “these people don’t want something for nothing, they’re the most competitive people I’ve ever met. They’re going to win.”
So we try to reaffirm the shaken sense of national goodness by making these refugees into surrogate patriots of an America that never existed outside the simpler fantasies of places like Fort Smith. No large group of immigrants has ever entered the United States under parallel circumstances. If as a group they symbolize anything at all it is our national confusion about political symbols. They are not Hungarians or even Cubans, and there are growing indications that upward of half will want to go home.
June 26, 1975