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The Fall of South Vietnam and Operation Babylift

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

The fall of Saigon and the chaotic evacuation of the U.S. Embassy is one of the most infamous episodes in American diplomatic history. For Mary Lee Garrison, it was also part of her first job. At age 22, Garrison arrived in Saigon in June 1974 to an internal political consensus that the conflict was winding down and South Vietnam was finally on secure footing. The enormous multi-decade American campaign had culminated in the Paris Peace Accords in 1973, enabling the withdrawal of the vast majority of U.S. forces. However, just months after arriving, Garrison began to notice some ominous signs. Applications for student visas were surging, and members of the well-connected Chinese business community rapidly began making arrangements to leave. By the following March, the country was in full-blown panic, and enormous mobs of Vietnamese started gathering outside the embassy trying to secure visas. As the military situation further north started to deteriorate, it became increasingly clear that U.S. officials did not appreciate the severity of the situation.

In a riveting interview, Garrison recounts the chaos that was unleashed as she and her colleagues worked to evacuate as many American and allied South Vietnamese personnel as possible as the capital fell to North Vietnamese forces. Simultaneously, Garrison was involved in the scramble to locate and evacuate thousands of Vietnamese family members of U.S. soldiers still in-country, as well as Operation Babylift—a last-minute effort to evacuate two thousand South Vietnamese orphans. Before long, the disastrous crash of a Babylift cargo plane and the disabling bombardment of Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut airport by approaching North Vietnamese troops forced a harrowing fallback evacuation directly from the embassy via helicopter.

As Saigon descended into total anarchy, Garrison and her colleagues worked desperately to destroy the enormous trove of sensitive documents in the building and facilitate the helicopter evacuation before the ambassador finally ordered them to evacuate on April 29, 1975.

Mary Lee Garrison attended the Edmund Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University from 1969 to 1973, where she majored in International Economics.

Mary Lee Garrison’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on November 30th 2005. Read Mary Lee Garrison’s full oral history HERE.

Drafted by Dylan Miles

“When Phouc Long fell, everything went to hell in a hand-basket.”

GARRISON: I would date the deterioration probably from around Christmas [1974], when things began to feel uncomfortable and, one of the best indicators in the world, the Chinese-Vietnamese business community started getting immigrant visas for its kids. The ones who were old enough to be in university in the United States got student visas. The ones who were a little younger got visas to stay with their uncles and aunts in the United States and go to secondary school. And the applications for investor visas started going up. By Tet you were beginning to see an out and out panic. When Phouc Long fell, everything went to hell in a hand-basket, and there was a real disconnect between what we were seeing in the consular section and what the front office in the embassy was saying about the long term outcome of Vietnam. There was a real unwillingness to believe that it was too late to worry about panic setting in. Panic had already set in.

Q: You had this state which, quite well known, the ambassador digging his heels in and trying to keep panic from setting in and trying to hold things together and yet things were really falling apart. Did this affect consular operations?

GARRISON: Tremendously, because the Vietnamese government was taking routinely six weeks and more to issue passports for people intending to immigrate…. The delay on passport issuance from the Vietnamese government was the biggest stumbling block to moving people out of harm’s way, particularly children…. At a certain point, and this would have been February, March, probably beginning of March of 1975, 1975 was the right date in the letter, we convinced the Vietnamese government to, instead of issuing a full passport… to issue a one-page laissez-passer that we designed and printed for them. All they had to do was affix the picture and stamp it. Initially, though, they were insisting on the full range of documentation for the laissez-passer that they had insisted on for a passport. As the areas in the north began to fall from under government control, obtaining documents from that area were impossible. The other visa officer, Peter Orr, who was himself a Korean-American War orphan adoptee, was the one who was the moving force in getting the negotiations done with the Ministry of Interior to get them to accept issuance of the travel document, and he was spending almost his entire time at the ministry at that point in negotiation and trying to move the process forward.

“… destroy those files…throw a grenade or something similar in there and pray….”

Q: Working, as far as you were concerned, were complete, on the assumption that when you left that was it, there was going to be no records or anything.

GARRISON: Yeah, we assumed that everything was going to be shredded. We talked about how to handle shred and burn operations and quite frankly I doubt any of it was ever shredded or burned. The Marines were running the shredder at the embassy, in the embassy building, full tilt at the end but that was just dealing with the, what was in the political section and the front office. The only way you could have done a burn on our side was to throw an incendiary in there and that would have had to have been something strong enough to melt the metal….

Q: Was there a concern that we had all these files on people. If the communists took over, good insight into who’s related to who, could be used against people.

GARRISON: There was serious concern in the consular section. Unfortunately, that concern was not shared elsewhere in the building. The only folks who were really focused on that besides us were the guys like Frank Snepp, who on his own came, he had been using our files as reference extensively during the entirety of his time in Vietnam, and came over and started doing his own destruction before the word came down. The only idea that anybody had for how to destroy those files, given the extensive size, was to throw a grenade or something similar in there and pray that they went up. The limited classified holdings were easy enough to shred. But the Marines handling the incinerator/shredder operation were going round the clock already with the amount of paper from the political section and the front office. So, we were at the bottom of the list, unfortunately and it probably did provide somebody with a treasure trove of information if they ever got in there and looked.

“The rules went out the window…”

…the junior officers were pulled off or brought up from the various consulates and sent out to the airport. The Immigration Act basically got thrown in a cocked hat. I was supposed to try to follow the revised rules that we got from Washington in the consular section but out at the airport what they were doing was taking a look at the folks who showed up and making an assessment whether they had half a prayer of making a life in the States, and if they did they put them on a plane…. There were several times when I said, “Look, I can’t do this here but if you can get her or him on the bus with the rest of the family group, go out to the airport, I think you’ll have no trouble getting on the plane.” The rules went out the window…. You had to be practical. I found it very difficult, though. This was my first assignment in the Foreign Service. I was all of, at the time, 22 years old and you find yourself making literally life and death judgments and that’s not easy.

“I still don’t know if they got out”

There is one, one thing that’s going to haunt me ‘til the day I die. It was the case of a sergeant in the military who married a woman with several children from a previous marriage. Several is an understatement. I think there were six, and they had several of their own. These were not kids. This was not the 18-year-old marrying a 24-year-old bar girl. This was a sergeant of some standing marrying a mature woman with whom he fell in love. And right before the family was to leave for the States grandma convinced two of the kids not to go, one of the girls and one of the boys. In the confusion when they got to port of entry in the States, one of the girls who was close in age ended up using her sister’s immigrant visa. It took us ages, over a year, because the case started before I even got to Vietnam, before we could get to the truth of who had traveled and who hadn’t and then try to get new immigrant visas issued for the two children who had stayed behind. The girl by this time was about 14 and the boy was 12 and able to be drafted. They had been actively trying for a good six months by March of 1975.

The last I saw of them, I handed the girl the files that we had, we took the petitions and everything else related to it and were starting to put them into manila envelopes, initialed them, seal it with the consular seal and tape them shut and hand them to folks who we presumed were getting on the evacuation flight saying, “Give this to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) when you get there” because we were so far from any possibility of doing visas then. And I gave them to her and I said, “See if you can get your brother out to the airport and give them this.” They were from Philadelphia. I still don’t know if they got out.


B.A. in International Economics, Georgetown University                                                                       1969–1973
Joined the Foreign Service                                                                                                                    1973
Saigon, South Vietnam—Consular officer                                                                                                    1974–1975
Washington, D.C.—Bureau of African Affairs,Special assistant to Assistant Secretary Nat Davis  1975–1976
Kinshasa, Zaire—Economic Officer                                                                                                               1976–1978
Washington, D.C.—Bureau of African Affairs Economic Policy Staff Deputy Director                      1981–1983
Budapest, Hungary—Economic Officer                                                                                                        1984–1986
Washington D.C.—Office of Developing Country Trade, Deputy Director                                            1989–1991
Monterrey, Mexico—Economics officer                                                                                                        1992–1996