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APRIL 2015



Serving in Embassy Saigon’s consular section meant dealing with the

social consequences—marriages, births, adoptions—of more than three

million Americans coming through a country of 26 million.


Lange Schermerhorn joined the Foreign Service in

1966 and retired in 2001. She spent her first tour as

a rotational officer in Colombo, and then served as

a vice consul in Saigon fromMarch 1969 through

October 1970. She was ambassador to the Republic

of Djibouti from 1998 to 2000. Other assignments

included Tehran, London, Brussels (twice), the State Department’s

Secretariat and other Washington, D.C., assignments.


uring the decade between 1966 and

1975, more than three million Ameri-

cans, each spending anywhere from

a fewmonths to several years, cycled

through South Vietnam, a country of

approximately 26 million people (the

reunited country in 2014 has a com-

bined population of an estimated 90

million). This massive influx had an

enormous impact, some of it anticipated but most unforeseen.

I arrived in Saigon inMarch 1969 to join the embassy’s consular

section, not long after President Richard Nixon announced that

the United States would begin drawing down from the high-water

mark of approximately 550,000 troops flanked by a sea of civilian

contractors. A huge construction projects consortium (RMKBRJ—

Raymond International, Morris/Knudsen of Idaho, Brown & Root

of Texas and J. A. Jones of North Carolina) was busy building major

infrastructure to support military operations.

The combat soldier (tooth) tomilitary support personnel (tail)

Doing Social Work

in Southeast Asia



ratio has escalated in every successive war, reflecting the needs of

increasingly sophisticated technology and expanding missions. In

Vietnam a very large tail hadmore time and space for interaction

with Vietnamese citizens.

Embassy Saigon had already become our largest post in the

world, encompassing an enormous U.S. Agency for International

Development mission and a Civil Organization and Revolutionary

Development Support program. The job of CORDS was to “win

hearts andminds.”The programwas staffed, in part, by first- and

second-tour Foreign Service officers.

South Vietnamwas often referred to sardonically as the “Land

of the Big PX.” U.S. government economists had determined that

a large military post exchange offering every product imaginable

(even fur coats and very expensive jewelry) would absorbmuch of

the salaries and financial incentives paid to U.S. civilian personnel

and contractors.

As an incentive to join what ultimately became a coalition

of more than 30 countries (the most prominent being a large

contingent of South Korean combat troops, but ranging down

to a small military medical ambulance unit from Iran), access

to the PX was offered to all coalition members. The unintended

result was a booming black market for goods alongside the one

for currency.

This large international presence also generated a great deal of

business for the small consular section, which consisted of a consul

general, a consul and three vice consuls. The embassy did not issue

non-immigrant visas because Vietnamese citizens required exit

permits, which were rarely granted for non-official purposes by a