THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL
BY SHAWN DORMAN
n the 40th anniversary of the fall
of Saigon to the North Vietnamese
Army and the evacuation of many
thousands of Americans and South
Vietnamese from the country, we
take a look back at the Foreign
Service role in Vietnam.
Why revisit Vietnam? After all,
the history of the war has been
written and rewritten. Yet the civilian side of the story—the work
and experiences of Foreign Service personnel who served in Viet-
nam during the 1960s and 1970s—is not so well known. At the
time, all those joining the Foreign Service knew there was more
than a good chance they would be sent to Vietnam. That’s what
worldwide availability meant.
Service in Vietnam shaped a generation of Foreign Service
officers, but do we understand how? As of late 1971, some 600
FSOs—or 20 percent of the Foreign Service—had served in
Vietnam, more than half of themwith the Civil Operations and
Revolutionary Development Support program, or CORDS.
In the following pages, we bring you some of the voices of the
FS Vietnam generation, starting with an account of the beginning
of the end, the 1968 Tet Offensive. First-person narratives of the
final days in Saigon from different vantage points follow. And a
critical review of the counterinsurgency effort and an analysis
and snapshots of Vietnam today round out the presentation. In
these stories you will find plenty of drama and tragedy, but also
bravery, hope and inspiration. And, not least, lessons for today.
Expeditionary Diplomacy Redux
The Foreign Service experience in Vietnam, and in particular
ON THE FOREIGN SERVICE IN VIETNAM
with CORDS and its predecessor counterinsurgency efforts, was
“expeditionary diplomacy” in all but name. Language-trained
FSOs serving in the provinces were able to gain a true under-
standing of the real situation on the ground, not something that
was always welcome in Washington, or even at the embassy
in Saigon. In addition to reporting, these FSOs were directly
involved in leading project work in cooperation with the military.
Mortal danger was ever-present. In all, 42 FSOs—most serving
with or assigned to USAID—were killed in Vietnam between
1965 and 1975. Their names are inscribed on the AFSA Memorial
Plaque at the State Department.
In 1975, out of an extremely tragic situation of a new nation
and U.S. ally collapsing, heroes emerged who, collectively, saved
thousands of people. The two other U.S. allies in the Indochina
war also fell that year. Cambodia fell to the Khmer Rouge on April
17, and Laos collapsed gradually as the Pathet Lao seized power.
In subsequent years, the U.S. accepted significant numbers of
refugees from both countries.
At the heart of our story is a group of FSOs who, acting largely
without instruction (and in some cases without permission)
in the face of U.S. government inaction, organized what would
become the largest refugee resettlement operation since World
War II to rescue at-risk Vietnamese.
Two of them, Lionel Rosenblatt and Craig Johnstone, saw the
writing on the wall fromWashington and, frustrated that the U.S.
government was not planning for the end, set off for Vietnam on
their own, helping several hundred Vietnamese get out. In 1976,
the two received AFSA dissent awards for their efforts. While
Lionel Rosenblatt is not an author in this issue, his insights and
recommendations informed our choices for who best to tell the
story. For that, I offer this public note of thanks.