During the final days of the Vietnam War, from April 3-26, 1975, under Operation Babylift, at least 3,000 South Vietnamese children were boarded onto military transport planes, flown to the United States and its allies, as well as put up for adoption overseas.1 Chaotic from start to finish, Operation Babylift and its motives have been under heated debate by scholars for over 50 years. Proponents of this transnational adoption program often heralded the effort as a great humanitarian effort which helped Vietnamese orphans escape the brutality of communist forces in South Vietnam.2 Others, however, voiced continuing reservations about whether the actual motives of Operation Babylift stemmed from the genuine care for the children themselves.3 In this essay, by looking at the portrayal of Vietnamese children during the war, the fabricated dangers that children faced from communist forces, and the acclaim of adoptive parents during Operation Babylift, I want to extend the conversation by arguing that Operation Babylift was not an act of humanitarian rescue but an act to garner sympathy from the public.

First, to understand how the Operation Babylift was implemented to garner sympathy, it is important to look at the ways children were portrayed during the war. At the height of the battle, “Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?” was often a chant by students and demonstrators in opposition to President Lyndon B. Johnson and his policies during the Vietnam War.4 Opposing Dow Chemical Company for making napalm and Agent Orange, toxic chemicals that caused millions of deaths and subjected many children to birth defects, students at UCLA and other colleges chanted “Making money burning babies!”5 And Babies, an anti-war poster that shows a dozen dead South Vietnamese women and babies stacked together on a dirt road, was arguably the most iconic poster, sparking a great deal of protests and outrage about the war.6 This repeated use of babies for anti-war protests, as seen through the chants and the poster, epitomized violence by using the destruction of innocent children. As Phan argued, the Vietnamese children “became how Americans living in the United States imagined US military violence in Vietnam”.7 These American people conceived of the children as a testament to the cruelty and as an object of sympathy amid the Vietnam war.

With Vietnamese children serving as an object of sympathy, the US government made every effort to portray the airlift of those children as a humanitarian act to prove it was making a difference in the midst of the complex war. In a joint session of the Congress Reporting on United States foreign policy, President Gerald Ford first represented Vietnamese children as those who needed the US: “I hereby pledge in the name of the American people that the United States will make a maximum humanitarian effort to help care for and feed these hopeless victims,”8 and he then allocated $2 million to airlift 2000 Vietnamese orphans to the United States.9 The US government claimed that these children of South Vietnam – the “hopeless victims,” as President Ford put it – would have been treated with brutality now that the Communists had taken over the country. While this argument echoes the care for Vietnamese orphans shared by both anti- and pro-Operation Babylift sides, it blindly assumes the terrors of communist forces without looking at the actual historical narratives at that time. A close examination of the accounts of those who took care of the orphanages confirmed that South Vietnamese children were hardly in any danger at all. Nguyen Thi Loan, who was in charge of homeless children and orphans in South Vietnam, claimed that the transition of South Vietnamese orphanages after the war ended proceeded smoothly: all South Vietnamese orphans had always been cared for by loving nuns.10 George W. Webber, an antiwar activist who heads the New York Theological Seminary, drew attention to the fact that when the communists took over the northern part of Vietnam from the French in 1954, they did not harm any children at all, so it would be unthinkable that the communists would carry out any bloodbath against the children.11 Other news correspondents agreed there had been no indication of anything resembling a massacre by the victorious North Vietnamese.12 From these accounts, it can be seen the assumption that a communist takeover threatened the well-being of Vietnamese children was fabricated by the US government to justify the airlift of babies out of Vietnam and garner sympathy from the public.

Given the absence of terrors from the communists, however, supporters of Operation Babylift may still insist that this program was a humanitarian rescue, for 233 seriously ill Vietnamese children would not have had the medical care they needed had they stayed in South Vietnam.13 Because of this dire condition, these supporters maintained that it made sense to transport those children somewhere else where they could be treated. While I agree that seriously ill children would be better off in a country where they could be cured, the number of these children, compared to the number of babies airlifted, is so small that Operation Babylift could not be justified as a humanitarian rescue. The number of ill children was reported to be 233, less than 8% of the total number of children in Operation Babylift,14 and in fact, this number could likely be overestimated. Many children were not ill before boarding the planes but became infected en route from other seriously ill children.15 The infection in transit proves that the number of children benefiting from better medical care in the US may well be lower than 233, comprising an even smaller fraction of the whole Operation Babylift population. To clarify, my point is not to contend that it was not worth saving those ill children but rather to argue that helping this small population of seriously ill children could not justify Operation Babylift as a humanitarian rescue. Therefore, the motive for Operation Babylift was not entirely to give all children a better life abroad but instead to portray them as victims in an attempt to justify the operation as an act of rescue.

Not only was Operation Babylift implemented to gain sympathy by the portrayal of children during the Vietnam War, the way adoptive parents were depicted also played a part in easing the wounds after the Vietnam War. When mainstream media announced the launch of Operation Babylift, switchboards lit up with calls from people interested in adopting Vietnamese children.16 The belief that adoption of war orphans was a noble act, together with its popularity, grew so fast that within a week, thousands of applications to adopt Vietnamese orphans from American parents were received.17 “An average family in suburban neighborhood” – Jody and Gatty – even made The New York Times headline as national heroic figures for their adoption of a two-year old Vietnamese son through Babylift.18 This adoption frenzy, as Dr. Lucian Pye at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology explained, was clearly a response from many Americans: they wanted to reaffirm to themselves that they were still good and decent human beings, and that they did not abandon the orphans of Vietnam.19 Sharing this idea, Phan explained the fact that adoptive parents were able to become saviors by adopting those children.20 The fact that adoption was attributed to a noble cause illustrates the great support from adoptive parents for Operation Babylift, encouraging the government to continue the operation and at the same time healing the wounds of the nation as a whole after the Vietnam War.

Finally, what cannot be left out when discussing the motives of Operation Babylift as a humanitarian rescue are the actual deaths of many children as well as the separation between them and their birth families . First, the disastrous 1975 C-5 plane crash, the first Operation Babylift flight out of South Vietnam, killed 155 people, of which 78 were Vietnamese children.21 Immediately after the crash, President Gerald Ford announced: “Our mission of mercy will continue,”22 referring to the Operation Babylift as an act of mercy, garnering sympathy and at the same time improving public opinion.23 Not only did it lead to the deaths of 78 children, this “mission of mercy” also led to the separation of children from their parents, for many who were put up for adoption were not orphans in the first place.24 Children of Operation Babylift were of two types: (1) those who were left in Vietnamese orphanages because their parents could not care for them because of the war,25 and (2) those who were hurried onto US planes by their parents to secure a brighter future.26 For both groups of these Operation Babylift adoptees, if there is a need for reunion with their birth families, they face extreme difficulties reuniting due to the lack of accurate documentation.27 Bobby Nofflet, a worker with the U.S. Agency for International Development in Saigon, recalled the turbulent days of Babylift: “There were large sheaves of papers and batches of babies. Who knew which belonged to which?”28 In the middle of this disorderly condition, many documents were lost, and many were inaccurate to the point that they did not match the physical characteristics of the children at all.29 This lack of accurate documentations for the adoptees rendered the reunion with birth families virtually impossible. As in the case of Minh Le, an Operation Babylift adoptee, he was removed from his sister and has yet to found her since their separation in 1975.30 This real exacerbation of the lives of children, who had already been through the trauma of the war, as can be seen through the plane crash and family separation, stands in stark contrast with the presumed motive of Operation Babylift as a humanitarian rescue.

To conclude, by examining how Vietnamese children were portrayed during the war by the US government and how they were received by adoptive families, I argue that Operation Babylift was implemented not as a humanitarian rescue but as a channel for the US to garner sympathy after the violence in Vietnam. Through this “rescue,” thousands of Vietnamese children’s lives were lost or permanently taken away from their birth parents. This exposé is by no means exhaustive, yet it is a step advancing towards the truth of the actual motives of Operation Babylift. As Kevin Minh Allen, a Vietnamese born in Vietnam who was later adopted to American family, on learning about his identity and the motive of the United States behind Operation Babylift, wrote: We dare not only to question the historical interpretations of the Vietnam war, but also other people’s motives and methods for transporting us out of our birth countries. The question we ask is one few people are willing, or even prepared, to answer. Who made us orphans in the first place?”31 This quote calls for a continuous questioning of different narratives of history, and only through this process can the truth be learned.


“Adopted Asian Americans : Asian-Nation :: Asian American History, Demographics, & Issues.” Accessed May 1, 2018. http://www.asian-nation.org/adopted.shtml#sthash.WGXzzuih.fDKwHh8Y.dpbs.

“Adoption History: Aid for International Develoment, Operation Babylift Report, 1975.” Accessed May 1, 2018. http://pages.uoregon.edu/adoption/archive/AIDOBR.htm.

“Adoption History: International Adoptions.” Accessed May 1, 2018. http://darkwing.uoregon.edu/~adoption/topics/internationaladoption.htm.

Allen, Kevin Minh. “Operation Babylift: An Adoptee’s Perspective.” The Humanist; Washington, D.C. 69, no. 3 (2009): 21–25.

“American Experience | Daughter From Danang | People & Events,” April 14, 2014. https://web.archive.org/web/20140414021548/http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/daughter/peopleevents/e_babylift.html.

Anderson, David L., and John Ernst. The War That Never Ends: New Perspectives on the Vietnam War. University Press of Kentucky, 2014.

Bergquist, Kathleen Ja Sook. “Operation Babylift or Babyabduction?: Implications of the Hague Convention on the Humanitarian Evacuation and ‘Rescue’ of Children.” Edited by Karen Smith Rotabi and Judith L. Gibbons. International Social Work 52, no. 5 (September 2009): 621–33. https://doi.org/10.1177/0020872809337677.

Bhabha, Jacqueline, and Susan Schmidt. “Seeking Asylum Alone: Unaccompanied and Separated Children and Refugee Protection in the U.S.” The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth 1, no. 1 (March 19, 2008): 126–38. https://doi.org/10.1353/hcy.2008.0007.

Brown, Barbara M. “Operation Babylift and the Exigencies of War - Who Should Have Custody of Orphans Comment.” Northern Kentucky Law Review 7 (1980): 81–92.

Coburn, J. “The War Babies.” The Village Voice, 1975.

“Distraught Couples: A Matter of Waiting.” New York Times. 1975, sec. Family/Style.

Drennan, Daniel ElAwar. “Re-Evaluating Adoption: Validating the Local.” Dissident Voice (blog), February 11, 2008. https://dissidentvoice.org/2008/02/re-evaluating-adoption-validating-the-local/.

Evans, Alona E. “Huynh Thi Anh v. Levi. 586 F.2d 625.” The American Journal of International Law 73, no. 3 (1979): 505–8. https://doi.org/10.2307/2201151.

Ford, Gerald R. “Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, Gerald R.” Ford: Containing the Public Messages, Speeches, and Statements of the President, August 9, 1974 to January 20, 1977, Book I, 1976.

Gardner, Janet. Precious Cargo. Filmakers Library, 2001.

“Gerald R. Ford: Statement on the Crash of a C-5A Cargo Plane on a Mercy Flight From Saigon, Republic of Vietnam.” Accessed April 30, 2018. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=4814.

“Hey! Hey! LBJ!” The Economist, October 3, 2013. https://www.economist.com/news/united-states/21586830-what-current-fascination-lyndon-johnson-says-about-barack-obamas-america-hey-hey.

Holsinger, Paul M. “And Babies.” War and American Popular Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia, 1999.

Kahan, Michelle. “Put Up on Platforms: A History of Twentieth Century Adoption Policy on the United States.” Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare 33 (2006): 51–72.

Kim, Jodi. “An ‘Orphan’ with Two Mothers: Transnational and Transracial Adoption, the Cold War, and Contemporary Asian American Cultural Politics.” American Quarterly 61, no. 4 (2009): 855–80.

Martin, Allison. “The Legacy of Operation Babylift.” Adoption Today 2, no. 4 (2000).

McCrohan, Kevin F., and John Wetterer. “Operation Babylift.” American Psychologist 32, no. 8 (n.d.): 671–74. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.32.8.671.

“Operation Babylift The Last Flights Out of Saigon Cherie Clark.” Accessed May 1, 2018. http://www.comeunity.com/apv/babylift-clark.htm.

“Orphan Airlift Draws Anger.” Accessed April 29, 2018. http://poundpuplegacy.org/node/33158.

“Orphan Airlift Stalled.” Winnipeg Free Press, April 5, 1975.

Phan, Yen. “Family Ties,” 2012.

Ranter, Harro. “ASN Aircraft Accident Lockheed C-5A Galaxy 68-0218 Saigon-Tan Son Nhat International Airport (SGN).” Accessed April 28, 2018. https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19750404-0.

“Remembering The Doomed First Flight Of Operation Babylift.” NPR.org. Accessed April 28, 2018. https://www.npr.org/2015/04/26/402208267/remembering-the-doomed-first-flight-of-operation-babylift.

Sachs, Dana. The Life We Were given: Operation Babylift, International Adoption, and the Children of War in Vietnam. Beacon Press, 2010.

Williams, Indigo. “Downloading Heritage: Vietnamese Diaspora Online.” Media In Transition 2 (2002): 1–18.

Wilson, George. “No Vietnamese ‘Bloodbath’ Is Found.” The Washington Post. August 5, 1975.

Zigler, Edward. “A developmental psychologist’s view of Operation Babylift.” American Psychologist 31, no. 5 (n.d.): 329–40. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.31.5.329.

  1. Martin, “The Legacy of Operation Babylift.” 

  2. Gardner, Precious Cargo

  3. “A developmental psychologist’s view of Operation Babylift,” 329. 

  4. “Hey! Hey! LBJ!” 

  5. Anderson and Ernst, The War That Never Ends: New Perspectives on the Vietnam War, 228. 

  6. Holsinger, “And Babies,” 336. 

  7. Phan, “Family Ties,” 39. 

  8. Ford, “Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, Gerald R,” 163. 

  9. Gardner, Precious Cargo

  10. Sachs, The Life We Were given: Operation Babylift, International Adoption, and the Children of War in Vietnam, 155–57. 

  11. “Orphan Airlift Draws Anger.” 

  12. Wilson, “No Vietnamese ‘Bloodbath’ Is Found.” 

  13. McCrohan and Wetterer, “Operation Babylift,” 671–72. 

  14. McCrohan and Wetterer, 672. 

  15. Zigler, “A developmental psychologist’s view of Operation Babylift,” 331. 

  16. Sachs, The Life We Were given: Operation Babylift, International Adoption, and the Children of War in Vietnam, 89. 

  17. McCrohan and Wetterer, “Operation Babylift,” 671; “Operation Babylift The Last Flights Out of Saigon Cherie Clark.” 

  18. “Distraught Couples.” 

  19. “Orphan Airlift Draws Anger.” 

  20. Phan, “Family Ties,” 41. 

  21. Ranter, “ASN Aircraft Accident Lockheed C-5A Galaxy 68-0218 Saigon-Tan Son Nhat International Airport (SGN)”; “Remembering The Doomed First Flight Of Operation Babylift.” 

  22. “Gerald R. Ford: Statement on the Crash of a C-5A Cargo Plane on a Mercy Flight From Saigon, Republic of Vietnam.” 

  23. Kahan, “Put Up on Platforms,” 68; “Adoption History: International Adoptions”; Drennan, “Re-Evaluating Adoption”; “Adoption History: Aid for International Develoment, Operation Babylift Report, 1975”; “Adopted Asian Americans : Asian-Nation :: Asian American History, Demographics, & Issues.” 

  24. Evans, “Huynh Thi Anh v. Levi. 586 F.2d 625”; “Orphan Airlift Stalled,” 2. 

  25. Coburn, “The War Babies,” 16; Kim, “An ‘Orphan’ with Two Mothers,” 857; Bergquist, “Operation Babylift or Babyabduction?” 

  26. Bhabha and Schmidt, “Seeking Asylum Alone,” 132 

  27. Brown, “Operation Babylift and the Exigencies of War - Who Should Have Custody of Orphans Comment,” 81. 

  28. “American Experience, Daughter From Danang, People & Events.” 

  29. Sachs, The Life We Were given: Operation Babylift, International Adoption, and the Children of War in Vietnam, 143. 

  30. Williams, “Downloading Heritage: Vietnamese Diaspora Online,” 6. 

  31. Allen, “Operation Babylift,” 25.