There’s Something Happening Here, What It Is Ain’t Exactly Clear…

This is a post from a while ago. But since I have been watching Ken Burns The Vietnam War, I thought I would post it again.  One of the things that comes out in Ken Burns’ great (though still disturbing) documentary is the reality of that old saying – The first casualty of war is truth. As you will read below, that also applies to operation BabyLift.

Here’s what I wrote…


Still talking about the conference is starting to feel a little ex post facto but I wanted to write about the last day because it was one of the best for me. I also want to say something about conference attendance generally, would I go to another one etc. I think a lot of people wonder about the emotional impact of going, so I thought I should write a bit about that.

On Sunday May 2nd, the last day of the conference, there was no general plenary session. I found this a little odd. I am used to a summing up of the experience. Maybe the organizers felt that would be too difficult to do given all the divergent view points. There were just two sets of break out sessions. I decided to go to one and then call it a day and walk around Boston.

Kent State

I went to “Transnational and Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Operation BabyLift”

I will translate.

There was a presenter from Canada, Tarah Brookfield, a professor of Youth and Children Studies. Her presentation was entitled: The Politics of Orphans: The Vietnam War and Adoption Reform in Canada, and one from Australia, Joshua Forkert, a PhD candidate at the School of History and Politics at the University of Adelaide whose presentation was entitled: Politics and the Pawns of War: Operation BabyLift in Australia.

They both talked about the perception and reality of Operation BabyLift in their own countries. That was the transnational part.

A writer, Aimee Phan, who has written a book, We Shall Never Meet, (fiction) about Vietnamese orphans who came to the US through Operation BabyLift or at the time of the Boat People also presented. That was the multidisciplinary part.

There I was in the USA, attending an adoption conference, being taken back to the Vietnam War on the eve of the 40th anniversary of Kent State. Kent State, where students died because they were protesting the war in Vietnam. Opposition to the war was very relevant to what the presenters had to say.

The session was excellent. It was, as I told Ms. Brookfield afterwards, a truly Malcolm Gladwellian moment. Here’s what you think was going on with Operation BabyLift and now I am going to tell you what was really going on.

It was one of the best sessions I attended. I was really glad that I didn’t say to heck with the conference after Saturday.

Operation BabyLift, while perceived by many as a humanitarian event, was really a political event. It was used by both Canada and Australia to improve each country’s image in the world and to assuage the guilt felt by the populations of each country for their support of the US’s very unpopular war in Vietnam. Australia actually sent troops. Canada supported by producing supplies for the war such as napalm and agent orange.

Their theses were supported by actual government memos sent at the time stating that Operation BabyLift was a very good PR move. Mr. Forkert read from memos saying we need more babies for the second flight out, we need 600 babies, find some babies.

Ms. Phan is of Vitenamese origins. Her mother is from Vietnam and she worked with Vietnamese foster children. Ms Phan said that she always knew she would write about the Vietnamese children’s experience when they came to the US. Part way through writing her book, she found out that her mother had actually been on one of the Operation BabyLift flights.

The book has eight stories. Four of Operation Babylift people and four of children who came to the US with the boat people a number of years later. The experience of these two groups was quite different. The Operation Babylift “orphans” were all adopted. The Boat People children, who were older, spent their lives in foster care and for the most part were not adopted.

According to Ms. Phan many of the Boat People children were sent to the US by their parents because they saw so much footage in the media of the Operation BabyLift children going to what they perceived as wealthy American homes. Some Vietnamese adoptees criticized her for not making the experiences of the characters in her book happier. Two reasons for that, she explained: One, the experiences were not all happy and, two, happiness does not make for good fiction. You need conflict.

The chair of the session, Karen Balcolm, invited Tina Klein*, an associate professor of English at Boston College to comment on the discussion. I found this very helpful; a useful summing up of the discussion before the Q & A.

There seemed to be an air of objectivity in this whole session that I didn’t always find at the conference. I talked to Ms. Balcolm about the role that birth mothers played. I felt I was heard, I didn’t think she felt threatened or criticized. She explained some of the rationale behind the programming. It was good. It was a positive way to end the whole conference.

Someone tweeted that this should have been a plenary session I agree. For me, it kind of summed up adoption. It appears to be about one thing but is, in fact, about something else.

Well, as Mark Twain said, it’s a terrible death to be talked to death, so I think I will save the question of would I go again to this conference or another conference for another time.



*This is an amendment to the original post as Tina Klein was kind enough to get in touch and tell me a) who she was and b) that the program listed the wrong person as chair.


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