by Jim Bullington
“April is the cruelest month…” The Waste Land, by T. S. Eliot
Enforced social distancing and the consequent abundance of time for reflection can give rise to some unusual mental connections. For me, it was a letter from a previously unknown Foreign Service Officer colleague and memories of another cruel April 45 years ago, when Saigon and the Republic of Vietnam fell to the communist North Vietnamese. This connection, which was brought to mind by Eliot’s poem, evoked not only sad recollections but also some cautious long-term optimism.
Peter Tomsen, the previously unknown FSO colleague, saw an excerpt from my oral history that was published by the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training to mark Valentine’s Day. It was about the experience of my then-fiancée, Tuy-Cam, and me when we were caught behind the North Vietnamese lines in Hué during the Tet Offensive that began on January 30, 1968. We were eventually liberated by U.S. Marines and reunited on Valentine’s Day, February 14.
This prompted Peter, who is working on his oral history, to send me a letter about his experience in the final days of April 1975, just before Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese on April 30. He was one of a group of FSOs at the Saigon embassy who were contacting and helping evacuate Vietnamese who were closely associated with Americans and hence at high risk of imprisonment or worse under North Vietnamese rule. I was then working on the State Department Vietnam task force that was set up in the wake of the massive North Vietnamese invasion of the South that began in January. I had sent a message to the embassy requesting that some of Tuy-Cam’s family members be included in the evacuation.
Peter saw my message and went to the house of Tuy-Cam’s uncle, near Tan Son Nhut airport, on April 22, to prepare him and his family with the proper papers to join an evacuation group being set up for the following day. When he returned to the embassy, Peter was assigned to other duties, so he never knew what happened to this family. He wrote me to find out.
Peter remembered the man he had met that day only as “a lawyer,” so I explained that he was Than-trong Thuan, a judge and former high-ranking government official, and was thus at extremely high risk. After the death of Tuy-Cam’s father, uncle Thuan became her guardian, and it was from him as well as her mother that we had to seek permission to marry. I had gotten to know him when Tuy-Cam and I were both working at the U.S. embassy (and courting), so his blessing was forthcoming.
I told Peter that Thuan, his wife, four children, and the older son’s fiancée were picked up by an American vehicle the day after his visit, as he had arranged, and they were successfully evacuated. After three weeks in the refugee processing system, through Guam and Fort Chafee, they were resettled in Quebec. Thuan and his wife are now deceased, but the children are thriving: Three remain in Canada, and one married a Vietnamese refugee doctor in Indiana.
For Tuy-Cam and me, recalling those dark days of April 1975 added more sadness to the grim pandemic news we see every day. She lost her native country, the Republic of Vietnam, a country I had worked hard throughout the previous decade to preserve. We had lost many friends and family members in the war; now we were to lose others who were thrust into the cruel gulags the communists called “re-education camps.”
But the story also had some ultimately optimistic outcomes: The Than-trong family lives on, now in America and Canada as well as in Vietnam; and Vietnam, freed in the late 1980s from the worst economic and police-state policies of the communist regime, is now thriving under a free market system and welcomes American trade, tourists, and even U.S. Navy ship visits.
Bringing closure to this story by connecting Peter and Thuan’s children has helped Tuy-Cam and me cope with the cruel April of 2020 and sustains our hope for better Aprils to come.
Jim Bullington served in eight countries, all in Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, in his 34-year foreign service career. He was Ambassador to Burundi and Dean of the Senior Seminar. In retirement, he has published three books, including Global Adventures on Less-Traveled Roads: A Foreign Service Memoir. He and Tuy-Cam live in a retirement community in Williamsburg.