The photograph shows a row of red-and-yellow striped seats inside the
cabin of an airplane. They look like any seats on any commercial jetliner,
though the mod color scheme does help date them to the 1970s.
What is odd about the photograph is not the seats themselves, but who
occupies them: on each seat lies a tiny baby swaddled in white pajamas.
As human beings, we view babies as vulnerable, and a solitary infant, in
any context, seems strange and pathetic. These particular children look
like dolls that some prankish three-year-old left forgotten on the sofa.
A few of these children appear to be sleeping. One faces the camera,
looking both curious and forlorn.
I first came across this picture in the spring of 2004, while reading
about Vietnam on the Internet. I had been writing about the country
for many years, but I had never seen the photograph or heard about
the event it depicted. Now, on the Web site, I discovered that in April
1975, at the very end of the war in Vietnam, a group of foreign-run orphanages,
with the help of the U.S. government, airlifted between two
thousand and three thousand children out of Saigon and placed them
with adoptive families overseas. The Web site showed photos from only
one jet, but I learned that there had been many babies, and some four
dozen flights that carried them out of Vietnam.
As a writer, my interest in Vietnam had, until that moment, consciously
focused on the country as a country,
not as a participant in a
war. Too much attention had centered on the conflicts of the twentieth
century and as a result, I believed, Americans knew little about the place
except that we had fought a devastating war there. Now, looking at
this puzzling photograph of babies on an airplane, I reminded myself
that every war produces its own set of bizarre situations. Apparently,
Operation Babylift had been one such situation that emerged from the
war in Vietnam. I moved along in my research and told myself to forget
I couldn’t get my mind off those babies, though. April 1975 marked
the end of the war in Southeast Asia, the moment that, after three decades
of conflict, Vietnam finally emerged into a time of peace. Right at
that moment, however, thousands of children were airlifted away
their homeland. Why? It didn’t make sense to me. Months passed. Every
so often, I’d make my way back to the computer, just to have another
look. Each time, the same questions filtered through my mind: Who
were these children? How did they end up on those planes?
Orphans play a peculiar role in our consciousness. The idea of a child
without parents defies the natural order, evoking a pity so deep it feels
instinctive, like some remnant of our pre-conscious past. Perhaps it’s the
pathos of the image that explains why so many myths and legends include
children raised by wolves, or floating down rivers in woven baskets,
or wandering lost through haunted woods. Our desire to help such
children takes on a meaning that goes well beyond the individuals themselves.
By saving them, we’re saving ourselves and saving our species.
And yet, we have always treated children badly, too. Throughout
history, children have borne the brunt of war, and illness, and poverty.
Nearly three thousand years ago, the Spartans created a brutal army
of ruthless young men by forcing little boys to survive in the streets.
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, young boys served as
“powder monkeys,” carrying explosives to gunners on board ships. Even
in times of peace, children have filled out the ranks of farm workers
and laborers throughout the world. It wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth
century, around the time that Charles Dickens introduced both Pip and
Oliver Twist, that society began actively addressing the gap between
our expectations of how we should
treat children and the reality of their
suffering. In 1851, the Massachusetts legislature introduced the Adoption
of Children Act, the first legal mandate requiring that adoption
decisions promote the welfare of the child, not the desires of adults.
Over the next few decades, American society came to regard adoption
as a viable means of ensuring the well-being of children who had no
families to care for them.
By the twentieth century, this commitment to our own orphans expanded
to include helping foreign children made vulnerable by war.
After the Holocaust, the U.S. government accepted as immigrants
thousands of displaced children. Though the attempts were haphazard
and often unsuccessful, some effort was made to find these children’s
families before placing them for adoption. Following Fidel Castro’s
revolution in Cuba, a program known as “Operation Pedro Pan” evacuated
thousands of Cuban children, in small groups and on commercial
flights, to the United States, where many were reunited with relatives.
In 1970, two years after the end of the Nigerian civil war, five thousand
Biafran children, who had been evacuated from the country for their
safety, returned to their families and villages. “It’s not your fault that you
left your country,” Nigeria’s head of state told one group of children
as they arrived, adding, “We’re very, very happy to see you back here
Operation Babylift followed what had, by then, become a familiar
pattern: war creates orphans, and then civilized society steps in to help.
If the war itself revealed our basest nature, then humanitarian interventions
unveiled our best—a deeply felt desire to save the lives of defenseless
kids. As an April 1975 article in Time
magazine described Operation
Babylift, which was taking place at the time, “Not since the return of the
prisoners of war two years ago [has] there been a news story out of Viet
Nam with which the average American could so readily identify, one
in which individuals seemed able to atone, even in the most tentative
way, for the collective sins of governments.” It was a feel-good effort,
to be sure, but the Babylift also marked a new phase of humanitarian
endeavor, and it revealed a new philosophy with regard to what it means
to “save” a child. Earlier efforts had centered on reuniting families torn
apart by war; adoption was a backup plan. In contrast, this mission
focused completely on adoption. Evacuation organizers claimed that
these children were orphans. It quickly became clear, however, that a
significant number were being put into permanent homes without clear
proof of their eligibility for adoption. Some children, it seemed, came
from Vietnam’s most vulnerable families, and they had been swept up
in the panic of those last days of war and transported to new, permanent
Eventually, I stopped trying to ignore the story of Operation Babylift.
For the past six years, I have tried, instead, to unravel the tangle
of events that led, in April 1975, to the mass evacuation of those children
from Vietnam, approximately 80 percent of whom ended up in
the United States, while the rest were adopted by families in Canada,
Australia, and Europe. Even as the airlift was taking place, controversy
began to swirl over whether it was an appropriate response to the crisis
facing these children. The arguments focused on many factors—the
oversight of the mission, the family status of the children involved,
the appalling conditions of children in wartime South Vietnam—but
these debates also coalesced around a single vexing question about
adoption itself: is the primary purpose of adoption to find a home for
an orphan or to satisfy the needs of a family that wants a child? That
question, of course, remains, to this day, at the center of the controversy
over international adoption.
Excerpted from The Life We Were Given by Dana Sachs. Copyright © 2010 by Dana Sachs. Excerpted by permission of Beacon Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.