Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Book Excerpt: In ‘Enlisting Faith,’ the Navy Takes Vietnamese Catholics South

It was hot and muggy as monsoon season crested in the summer of 1954.

The cover of "Enlisting Faith." (Harvard University Press)
The cover of "Enlisting Faith." (Harvard University Press)

It was hot and muggy as monsoon season crested in the summer of 1954, and hundreds of thousands of Northern Vietnamese refugees descended upon the Red river delta near Haiphong. They had loaded the things they could carry on their shoulders and walked for days, sidestepping mines and avoiding snipers to reach the space where spongy earth met saltwater. Most were peasants, few spoke French let alone English, and almost all were terrified.

Gray vessels larger than most had ever seen loomed on the horizon. Anchored at sea, too big to load from land, the hulking ships could carry 6,000 people south, first to Saigon and then to outlying villages. It took an act of faith to board the watercraft — faith that unfamiliar chunks of steel could spirit people to safe haven, faith in the uniform-clad men who uttered strange words, faith that the unseen city was better than familiar mossy hills, and faith that the vehicles festooned with banners proclaiming, “This is your passage to freedom” in English and Vietnamese would fulfill that promise, even for those who could not read.

Latin, it turned out, could serve communication needs effectively, if not always efficiently. In the suffocating late August air, rice farmers temporarily became boat people. And priests, like Chaplain Francis J. Fitzpatrick (Catholic) and his Vietnamese counterparts, accomplished what signs could not. The American, sporting navy-issue white shorts and short-sleeves, and the Vietnamese, clad in long black robes, communicated with one another in Latin. The clergy calmed frightened passengers, convinced them to descend ladders into the below-deck compartments, and explained shipboard procedures.

Racing against an advancing Red Curtain and a 300-day limit on border crossing, Operation Exodus — promoted in the United States as Operation Passage to Freedom — ferried over 300,000 people and almost 70,000 tons of cargo from north to south. After a two-month battle, Ho Chi Minh’s forces successfully flushed out the colonial French regime from their garrison at Dien Bien Phu in May. Meanwhile, over the ten months from August 1954 to May 1955, ships accompanied by navy chaplains made 500 three-day trips across the Gulf of Tonkin to the South China Sea as part of the largest civilian evacuation in history.

Passage to Freedom was a humanitarian operation, but it was also a political and military one. Almost a million northern Vietnamese migrated south in 1954–1955, and about two-thirds of the emigrants were Catholic. More than a statistical anomaly in a predominantly Buddhist country, this political calculation “result[ed in] a major reordering of the religious balance of Vietnam.” The exodus halved the Catholic population of the north and more than doubled the Catholic population of the south, providing important support to “America’s Miracle Man,” Ngo Dinh Diem.

While refugees moved en-masse, their decision was neither automatic nor spontaneous. The United States, through the work of the CIA, the State Department, and the military, facilitated the population transfer. The CIA’s propaganda campaign included fabricated tales of communist brutality, false rumors of forced labor, and fictitious leaflets about nuclear bombs, while the military provided a means of escape. Navy leaders may not have known the extent of CIA deception, but Rear Admiral Lorenzo Sabin, the commanding officer of sea operations for Passage to Freedom, lauded the support of religious networks: “The native Catholic priests are a very determined lot and so far, they’ve been able to get their flocks though the Vietminh lines. And they’ve got a way of encouraging other natives to join.” Military chaplains, as conduits of information and sources of spiritual sustenance, often represented the last link in this chain of religious encouragement. Even if they “did not think of themselves as instruments of American international policy,” they represented the American government and operated in the shadow of its empire.

When chaplains celebrated Mass, baptized babies, distributed religious pictures (primarily a white Jesus and Mary), and issued New Testaments to the refugees on their ships, they projected an image of the United States as a Christian nation. Of the sixteen American chaplains who served the Passage to Freedom operation, seven were Catholic and the rest Protestant. For many, Chaplain Spencer J. Palmer’s (LDS) sense that “somehow God’s flag was the American flag” might have rung true. Safety from communism arrived cloaked in navy blues.

Excerpted, with permission, from Enlisting Faith, by Ronit Y. Stahl, published by Harvard University Press.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1