The Orphans of Vietnam

Christine Lai

Towards the fall of Saigon in April 1975, orphanages all over South Vietnam were filling with children. Some were the children of American soldiers whose mothers feared for both their safety once the North Vietnamese found them. Some children had lost their families in the fighting. Others were abandoned because of their families’ poverty or their own malnutrition and disabilities. In response to pleas from the South Vietnamese Ambassador to the United Nations and many humanitarian organizations, President Gerald Ford announced, on April 3, 1975, that two million dollars would be allocated from a special foreign aid children’s fund to airlift orphans. This was known as Operation Babylift. It flew 2,700 children out of South Vietnam to the United States. Canada, Australia, and Europe also took in approximately 1,300 children. Humanitarian organizations such as Holt International Children's Services, Friends of Children of Viet Nam and Catholic Relief Service helped coordinate the flights using commercial, as well as military, aircraft.

On April 4, 1975, the first flight took off out of the war-torn nation carrying 330 adults and children. The plane crashed due to a mechanical failure killing about half of those onboard. Fearing sabotage by the North Vietnamese or other conspirators, the American government later ordered two fully armed Security Policemen to ride “shotgun” on every flight of the Operation. The Security Policemen performed security checks at the loading points to make sure no stowaways or saboteurs were onboard.

Adopting children from outside the United States did not begin until after World War II. Thousands of children are orphaned, abandoned, or separated from their parents as a result of war. Through television and media, many Americans were shown the plight of the children of Vietnam. Many were so moved that they would provide homes for the airlifted children. This was especially true in the aftermath of the crash of the first flight, as can be seen in this ad placed in The New York Times days afterwards:


Although many orphans found new homes outside their country of birth, great controversy still loomed over Operation Babylift. Many of the children taken out were not actually orphans. Many had loving, but poor, families in South Vietnam, who were told that their children would be returned to them. The hasty evacuation out of South Vietnam before the Communists arrived in Saigon created a chaotic and confused environment for everyone involved. The most challenging problems would arise later on when birth parents and families immigrated to the United States from Vietnam. Many would request custody of children that they had placed on the airlifts.

As the children of Operation Babylift grew up, many of them would come face to face with prejudice and discrimination. Many of the children were the biracial offspring of American GIs stationed in Vietnam. They would struggle with their identities as Vietnamese and American, but even more so than the children of immigrants, because their parents and families were white.

Many of the families that adopted these children did so out of love. However, media portrayals of the airlift made it look as if these children were like animals waiting in a shelter for new owners. “[They] had this fantasy that there were all these Vietnamese babies just waiting for people to pick them, and they had suddenly gotten this great idea that it would be nice to have one of these cute Asian babies,” remembers Mirian Vieni, an adoptive parent. The publicity of Operation Babylift created thousands of prospective parents, who had rapidly decided that they would adopt, unlike the many parents who had already been processed and were waiting for their children to arrive.

Even though this type of publicity created many new homes for orphaned Asian children, I think the initial ideas and thoughts of many of these potential parents was that it would interesting to have an “exotic” child. Television and newspapers portrayed these children as commodities coming into America. The sudden upsurge in the number of parents wanting to adopt shows that they had not given much thought to it. There were already thousands of children in America who needed homes, but many of these people were only looking at the Asian orphans.

It may not have been their intention, but Babylift perpetuated the impression of white superiority. All the children lifted out of Vietnam were taken to Caucasian nations and almost all were placed in white homes. It added to the idea that many of the children in these Third World nations needed to be “saved” by white families.


Martin, Allison. “The Legacy of Operation Babylift.” Adopt Vietnam. <http://www.adoptvietnam.org/adoption/babylift.htm>

“New York Times ad about Operation Babylift, 1975.” The Adoption History Project. <http://darkwing.uoregon.edu/~adoption/archive/NYTOBad.htm>

“Operation Babylift.” United States Air Force Security Forces. <http://afsf.lackland.af.mil/Heritage/History/heritage_babylift.htm>

“Precious Cargo.” Corporation for Public Broadcasting. <http://www.pbs.org/itvs/preciouscargo/index.html>