Week of August 11
When the Geneva Accords established a temporary division of Vietnam into North (Communist) and South (non-Communist), it also granted a ten-month period of free movement between these two “regroupment zones.” During these months, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese Catholics, who lived primarily in the Đồng bằng sông Hồng (Red River delta), decided to leave their homes and communities for new ones in the non-Communist South because they perceived that the Việt Minh-controlled government in Hà Nội planned to suppress religious freedom. Thousands of others also decided to leave the North for a host of reasons.
The United States, France, and the government in Sài Gòn viewed the refugees’ desire to flee the North as an opportunity to publically promote the South as the new home of democracy and freedom in Vietnam. These nations decided to assist refugees’ flight from Communist rule, sending dozens of military and civilian ships to help transport people by sea.
The U.S. named its evacuation effort Operation PASSAGE TO FREEDOM. Over a period of nine months, refugees gathered at the port of Hải Phòng and at other ports along the North Vietnamese coast and boarded Navy, Military Sea Transportation Service, and other civilian ships bound for ports in the South. Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese left by sea, and thousands more moved south by air. Estimates are uncertain, but all told somewhere between 700,000 and a million people left North Vietnam during the operation. Many of the evacuated men would later serve in the South Vietnamese armed forces. The leader of South Vietnam, Ngô Đình Diệm, who was Catholic, surely benefited from an increased number of supporters in South Vietnam, and the mass-migration probably helped solidify his political position in the mid and late 1950s. In comparison, approximately 140,000 Vietnamese left South Vietnam for the North.
Additionally, the United States transported nearly 70,000 tons of cargo and 8,000 vehicles. Men and women of the U.S. Overseas Mission assisted those leaving Hải Phòng and in many cases were on hand when refugees arrived at southern reception area, providing food, medical care, clothing, and helping people find shelter.
Operation PASSAGE TO FREEDOM became one of the largest humanitarian operations in United States history. In the minds of some commenters, both then and now, the operation served to further commit the United States to supporting South Vietnam and invested Americans in ensuring that Sài Gòn would institute democratic reforms in the years ahead.1
1Ronald H. Spector, Advice and Support: The Early Years, 1941–1960, United States Army in Vietnam (Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, 1985), 225–227; Edward J. Marolda, The Approaching Storm: Conflict in Asia, 1945–1965, U.S. Navy and the Vietnam War (Washington, D.C.: Naval History and Heritage Command, 2009), 19; Edward J. Marolda, Ready Seapower: History of the U.S. Seventh Fleet (Washington, D.C.: Naval History and Heritage Command, 2012), 39–40; Edward J. Marolda, By Sea, Air, and Land: An Illustrated History of the U.S. Navy and the War in Southeast Asia (Washington D.C.: Naval Historical Center, 1994), 6–7; Spencer C. Tucker, ed. Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, and Military History (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1998), 554. George C. Herring, America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950–1975, 4th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002), 62–63; Ronald B. Frankum, Jr., Operation Passage to Freedom: The United States Navy in Vietnam, 1954–1955 (Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech University Press, 2007), xix–xxi, 66, 214–217.