Draft of Chapter 17, Nothing Is Impossible: An Ambassador Reflects on America’s Reconciliation with Vietnam, by Ted Osius

Chapter 17

War refugees

A thirty-year diplomatic career allowed me the great privilege of serving something bigger than myself: the United States of America.  So it was with mixed emotions that I decided in 2017 to resign and join a number of other senior Foreign Service officers headed for the exit.

While each of us has a different reason for departing, many of my friends and former colleagues are deeply worried about the policy direction of the current administration, as am I. I fear that some policies are diminishing America’s role in the world, and assessed that I could not in good conscience implement them.

Many of us who were determined to strengthen America’s role in Asia considered that abandoning the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement was a self-inflicted wound. America left the playing field to those who do not share our values, and left American jobs there, too. Others grieved the U.S. abdication of responsibility regarding climate change, especially in a year marked by multiple storms so immense that they are supposed to happen only once every 500 years.

A large number of colleagues voiced their dissent regarding the so-called “Muslim travel ban” abhorrent in a country whose true strength derives from its diversity. What happened to the nation that welcomed “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”?

I decided to remain at my post as long as I could remain true to my oath “to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”  For 22 years, I had tried to strengthen ties between Vietnam and the United States, and I wanted to prevent huge mistakes from being made that would damage the relationship.  I also felt a deep loyalty to my Embassy team, all of whom shared my commitment to serving the United States and building a new, positive relationship with a former enemy.

But the outrages continued, and came even closer to home. In March 2017, I was asked to press the government in Hanoi to receive from the United States more than 8,000 Vietnamese-Americans subject to deportation orders.  More than 7,000 of them had fled South Vietnam in the years immediately following the war on boats and through the jungle.

The majority targeted for deportation—sometimes for minor infractions—were war refugees who had sided with the United States, whose loyalty was to the flag of a nation that no longer exists. And they were to be “returned” decades later to a nation ruled by a Communist regime with which they had never reconciled. I feared many would become human rights cases, and our government would be culpable.

After the war, the United States accepted over 800,000 Vietnamese refugees.  These refugees started new lives in the United States, married and raised children, paid taxes and established deep roots in their new country.  Many retained deep suspicions of the government in Hanoi.

A grown man who left Vietnam at the end of the war would have spent his entire life loyal to the South and could have fought for a decade against the communist North.  Someone who left later might have endured the reeducation camps, and would likely be even more bitter.

After refusing for decades to repatriate any Vietnamese immigrants, Vietnam signed an agreement in 2008 that allowed for repatriation of some, but excluded those who arrived in the U.S. before normalization of diplomatic relations in July 1995.   This was the status quo when Trump took office, with Steven Miller as a senior adviser. Miller, best known for his hardline approach to immigration, showed particular determination in interagency meetings to deport Vietnamese refugees.

By the time I visited Washington in April 2017, the administration had reversed long-standing policy and called for pre-1995 immigrants to be deported to Vietnam.  I joined a White House meeting where I was stunned by the missionary zeal of ICE officials, who declared that all the refugees subject to final deportation orders were either murderers or rapists.  I knew that this claim was untrue; some had been arrested for driving under the influence or far lesser crimes. Senior ICE officials advocated for immediate abrogation of the 2008 agreement.

Instead of breaking the agreement immediately, as ICE argued, State Department lawyers pushed for a “unilateral interpretation” of the 2008 Memorandum of Understanding.  That would allow the Administration to pursue deportation for immigrants who arrived in the U.S. before 1995.  

In the May 2017 meeting between President Trump and Prime Minister Phuc, the President pushed for speeding up the rate of deportations.  As I entered the Oval Office to help General McMaster brief the President, Steven Miller was there, and he whispered into the President’s ear just as Trump headed in to greet the Prime Minister.  I had no doubt as to who was pushing the policy of deportations.

On the record

In July, I wrote a first-person cable to Secretary Tillerson objecting to what I considered a racist, un-American policy. Besides being morally dubious, I assessed that the Administration’s approach to deportations would destroy our chances of success in pursuing President Donald Trump’s other goals for relations with Vietnam: reducing the trade deficit, strengthening military relations and coping with regional threats to peace such as those emanating from North Korea.  I then wrote to my family in the U.S. to prepare them for the possibility that I would be relieved of my duties.

We still had to prepare for a November visit by Trump to Vietnam, and I used the prospect of that visit to slow down the deportations.  In messages to Washington, I argued that the visit could hardly succeed if Vietnam and the United States were in the midst of a showdown over deportations.

In Hanoi,  I met with a senior Vietnamese diplomat to warn him that the Administration was considering various punitive measures, including eliminating port courtesies, if Vietnam didn’t receive more deportations and faster.  “Port courtesies” means no frisking at the airport for senior officials, and a generally simpler entry into the U.S.

The official laughed, and said simply, “If there are no port courtesies, no Vietnamese officials will visit.”  In the months leading up to a presidential visit to Vietnam, shutting down all visits would make it impossible to advance any of our diplomatic goals.

In September, I wrote again to Tillerson, with copies to the Secretaries of Defense and Homeland Security, and General McMaster at the White House, warning a second time of the possibility of unintended consequences.  I noted that if we cut off port courtesies, we could expect a very bumpy visit by President Trump to the November APEC summit.

A few weeks later, I was instructed to vacate the ambassador’s residence to make room for the President’s delegation, which would arrive in early November.  We had expected to depart after the visit, after I had completed my duties, but Washington had other plans.

In an unprecedented move, my successor was recommended by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and confirmed by the full Senate on the same day.  The State Department sent me airplane tickets tickets and instructions to depart immediately. We packed quickly and said a few hurried farewells. On November 4, 2017, we were hustled out of Hanoi with our two- and three-year-old children.  My successor arrived a few hours after we departed.

I do not know for certain why we were hustled out of Vietnam so quickly.  A year after we departed, the State Department issued press guidance that urged diplomats to portray my departure as in line with standard protocol, rather than potentially politically motivated.

Drafted by the bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, the press guidance instructed diplomats to tell media that I “neither resigned from, nor was removed from, the position of U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam prematurely.” The guidance accused the New York Times of supporting a false “narrative that the former Ambassador resigned in protest, or alternatively, was removed from his position, due to his opposition to the Administration’s efforts to press Vietnam to accept its nationals under final orders of removal from the United States.”

In fact, I had protested the deportations internally on multiple occasions while serving as Ambassador.  I slow-rolled the deportations, as I feared that placing top priority on the issue would thwart the potential success of Trump’s upcoming visit to Vietnam.  After I resigned, I believed it was my duty as a citizen to speak out publicly.

When the State Department insisted that I depart quickly, days before Trump’s arrival in Vietnam, I concluded that the Administration preferred to have in place an ambassador appointed by Trump, who had not objected to any of Trump’s policies. 

I was on a short list for another ambassadorship, and had been offered a position as diplomat-in-residence at UCLA.  But by the summer of 2017, I had concluded that I could not in good conscience work for the Trump Administration, and could better serve my country from outside government, by helping to build a new, innovative university in Vietnam.  Five days after leaving Hanoi, I resigned from the State Department, after thirty years of service.

An oath

At a ceremony in the Treaty Room at State, with a portrait of Thomas Jefferson looking on, I had the opportunity to reflect on those three decades of service, behind me the flags of countries where I had served as a junior-, mid-level and senior officer. My spouse, Clayton, stood at my side and our children rode on our shoulders while Deputy Assistant Secretary Constance Dierman acknowledged the sacrifice of service, including the sacrifices that families make. My mentor of 26 years, four-time U.S. Ambassador Cameron Hume, presented an American flag to Clayton.

I reminded the mentors, mentees, colleagues, friends and family members attending of what another departing diplomat, Tom Countryman, said at his retirement, “we [must be] firm in our principles, steadfast in our ideals, and tireless in our determination to uphold our oath—to ‘defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.’”

Secretary Tillerson’s reply on the matter of Vietnamese deportations reached me in November, a few weeks after I had resigned.  Tillerson wrote that “the status quo on repatriation cannot continue” and that Vietnam needed to take back more deportees.

I thought Vietnamese-Americans, and Vietnam war veterans, would be as angry as I that people who had sided with the U.S. during the war would be deported to a country that they had struggled against.  I felt it was my duty as a citizen to speak out. Few people knew what was happening, as all discussions had taken place out of public view.

On April 2, 2018, I published my views in the Foreign Service journal, criticizing the policy of deportations.   New outlets began reporting on the deportations, noting that those deported included Amerasians and ethnic minorities who had supported the United States and South Vietnam in the fight against the communists.  A Vietnam vet wrote to me about Trump’s policy, “Odious in the whole, but especially so in the case of Amerasians.”

A man facing likely deportation sent me a photo of a Vietnamese-American woman and two children who will be left behind without their husband and father when he is kicked out.  He wrote, “At the age of 5, I was forced to leave my family behind [in Vietnam]. Living in the United States at a young age without parents or true guidance, I’ve made mistakes.  That was more than 18 years ago.”

He continued: “Now, the Trump Administration wants to force me to separate from my wife and kids.  This is even worse than being separated from my original family 40 years ago. It really means so much to me and my family that there is someone as big as you to speak out. On behalf of my family, thank you very, very much.”

Tuan, a Vietnamese American living in San Jose, was arrested as a teenager for stealing a car.  He served three years in prison.  After prison, he cut all ties to the gang that had persuaded him to steal the car.  Eighteen years later, he had married and was raising two children. He opened a supermarket that now has 45 employees, and pays $500,000 per year in taxes. But now he has spent two years in ICE detention.  The new policies mean he will be deported “back” to a country with which he no longer had any ties.

On April 26, attorneys filed a class action suit in the U.S. District Court, Central District of California, on behalf of the deportees.   Lawyers in the suit cited my comments protesting the Administration’s policy. In mid-June, ICE sent a letter to the court indicating it would no longer pursue the deportations of individuals who had arrived in the United States before 1995.  I thought perhaps we had won, but it was only a reprieve.

In September, the Los Angeles times printed an editorial decrying the Trump Administration policy.  “In its insatiable quest to rid the U.S. of immigrants, the Trump administration has been rounding up Vietnamese refugees who have been in the country for more than a quarter of a century and trying to send them back to Vietnam — despite a formal bilateral agreement that refugees who arrived here prior to the 1995 normalization of relations between the two countries would not be sent home.”

In the mid-term elections, four Republican members of Congress from southern California lost narrowly to Democratic challengers.  The deportation of refugees was unpopular among Vietnamese-Americans, and those members of Congress were aligned with Trump on immigration.  Given the large number of Vietnamese-American voters in those four districts, the political salience of the deportations issue, and the narrow margins of victory, it seems likely that the deportations issue played a role in the Republicans’ defeat. 

I wondered if the Administration, seeing how unpopular the policy had become, would cease pursuing deportations.  But it soon became apparent that the “pause” was political. After the mid-terms, the Administration reverted to form and resumed pressuring the government in Hanoi to accept more deportees.

On December 13, 2018, 26 members of Congress wrote to President Trump expressing concerns about the Department of Homeland Security’s intention to renegotiate the terms of the 2008 Memorandum of Understanding between Vietnam and the United States.

The letter stated,

This longstanding agreement, which was signed by the U.S. and Vietnamese governments in 2008 under President George W. Bush, did not outline a bilateral agreement regarding the deportation of any Vietnamese citizens who arrived in the United States before July 12, 1995, as this was subject to previous legal positions of the two countries. [Article 2, Para. 2]

Even for those who came to the U.S. after July 12, 1995, the agreement promises to “take into account the humanitarian aspect, family unity and circumstances” of each person being considered for repatriation and to carry out repatriation “in an orderly and safe way, and with respect for the individual human dignity of the person repatriated.” [Article I, Para. 1,3]

The terms of this agreement recognize the complex history between the two countries and the dire circumstances under which hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese fled to the U.S. to seek refuge from political persecution in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Many of those who fled were South Vietnamese who had fought alongside or otherwise supported the U.S. government during the war.

Upon their arrival in the U.S., Vietnamese refugees, many of them young children or teenagers, were resettled in struggling neighborhoods without support or resources to cope with significant trauma from the war. As a result, some made mistakes that funneled them into the criminal justice system. However, these refugees have completed their time and are now positively contributing to their communities. These individuals and their families are Americans who are not familiar with the country they fled from.

Since 2008, the MOU has not been renegotiated. It has allowed families to stay together and enabled individuals not only to rebuild their lives but also to make a difference in their communities.

We strongly oppose any renegotiation of the MOU that strips the current protections afforded to Vietnamese refugees, including the exclusion from the agreement of pre-1995 immigrants and the humanitarian considerations provided to all others.

We further urge you to honor the humanitarian spirit and intention embodied in the current agreement.  To do otherwise would send thousands of Vietnamese refugees back to a country they fled years ago, tear apart thousands of families, and significantly disrupt immigrant and refugee communities in the U.S.

On December 15, former secretary of state John Kerry called the deportations “despicable” on Twitter, writing: “After so many – from George H. W. Bush to John McCain and Bill Clinton – worked for years to heal this open wound and put a war behind us – they’re turning their backs on people who fled and many who fought by our side. For what possible gain?”

Among the people the Administration seeks to deport are the children of U.S. servicemen, Asian-Americans whom Ronald Reagan sought to protect when he signed into law the American Homecoming Act (also known as Amerasian Homecoming Act).  In Vietnam, these children, half-Vietnamese and half-white or black, suffered discrimination. After they fled to the United States, they faced discrimination again. Was the United States to turn its back on them a third time?

In my view, the matter had moved into the political realm, where I believe it belonged.  I thought it was an issue for the American people and their elected representatives to decide, not an agenda that Steven Miller could pursue in secret.  I believed I had done my duty as a citizen by bringing the matter to the attention of Congress and the public.