April 10, 1999
Thank you very much, Richard [Ford Library and Museum Director Richard Norton Smith]. This is a day of remembrance - and renewal. We remember past heroes, and we renew our hope that one day the people of Vietnam may enjoy the freedom that is every man's birthright. In that spirit, would you please join me in a silent prayer for all those who fought in a cause ennobled by their sacrifice....
Spring comes softly to west Michigan. In this season of new life and quickening possibilities, we have gathered to dedicate this staircase, which is all that remains of the former U.S. Embassy in Saigon. It has found a new home on the banks of the Grand River, thanks to the generosity of Fred Meijer and his family - whose name we give to the museum lobby in grateful recognition of their longstanding friendship and support. I would also like to acknowledge Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and her State Department colleagues, and the Gerald R. Ford Foundation and its chairman, Marty Allen, for all their help in preserving an important, if sobering, piece of 20th century history.
In recent days the civilized world has been horrified by the pictures coming out of Kosovo. We have drawn back in horror at what the diplomatic establishment calls ethnic cleansing, and we instinctively recognize as mass murder. Our hearts go out to the victims of a foreign dictator and his thuggish regime. It's a far cry from the mood prevailing in the spring of 1975. In their haste to consign an unpopular war to the history books, some Americans were all too willing to abandon those who had fought courageously at our side.
April 1975 was indeed the cruelest month. Even as Hanoi's armies poured south, I became the first President since Woodrow Wilson to meet with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the White House. My visitors were interested in one thing only - the immediate evacuation of all Americans in South Vietnam. One senator told me that to even try evacuating South Vietnamese refugees could involve us in a whole new war. Another pledged to vote whatever funds were needed to get Americans out - so long as the issue didn't become entangled with the question of our Vietnamese allies.
To me, such an attitude was unthinkable. To deliberately shut our doors to those fleeing a brutal dictatorship would add moral shame to military humiliation. It would have mocked the service of two and a half million Americans, and the supreme sacrifice of 58,209 who gave their lives so that a small land on the other side of the globe might somehow elude the grip of Communist tyranny. It would have repudiated the values we cherish as a nation of immigrants, and our longstanding tradition of providing refuge for the victims of religious, ethnic and political persecution.
In the end, we were able to mobilize public opinion and help resettle over 130,000 Vietnamese refugees, including Mr. Le and others in this audience. In the intervening years, you have greatly enriched our society, even as you have struggled to preserve your own traditions in a world few of us could have imagined in 1975. The passage of time has not dulled the ache of those days, the saddest of my public life. I pray that no future American president is ever faced with the grim options that confronted me as the military situation on the ground deteriorated ... mediating between those who wanted an early exit and others who would go down with all flags flying ... running a desperate race against the clock to rescue as many people as we could before enemy shelling destroyed airport runways ... followed by the heartbreaking realization that, as refugees streamed out onto those runways, we were left with only one alternative - a final evacuation by helicopter from the roof of the U.S. Embassy.
We did the best we could. History will judge whether we could have done better. Inevitably some will question the wisdom of official policy. Yet no one can doubt the idealism of those brave helicopter pilots who flew non-stop missions for 18 hours, dodging relentless sniper fire to land on an embassy roof illuminated by nothing more than a 35 mm slide projector. They are the true heroes. Thanks to them, the pain of that long ago April is salved by the pride of so many Vietnamese-Americans who have carved out new lives in a new land.
A quarter century after Operation Frequent Wind concluded, I still grieve over those we were unable to rescue. I still mourn for 2500 American soldiers who to this day remain unaccounted for. Yet the passage of time brings with it a fresh perspective. No doubt each visitor will interpret this staircase and its historical significance for himself. For many, it was both a way out of a nightmare - and a doorway into something incomparably better. To some it will always be seen as an emblem of military defeat.
For me, however, it is a monument of hope and not despair. For it symbolizes man's undying desire to be free. Ernest Hemingway once declared that human beings are not made for defeat. Man can be destroyed, he wrote, but he can never be defeated. What applies to individuals holds equally true for nations. There is more to a nation than its soil, its cities, its wealth, or even its government. There is a soul in a great people. It is steeled in their sufferings. They may be occupied by foreign armies. They may be temporarily enslaved. They may be economically impoverished. But the soul of a great people cannot be crushed.
Today the Ford Museum assumes stewardship of the Saigon staircase in the name of such a people. It is my hope that one day it may be returned to a Vietnam that is free. Until then, let us remember the millions of brave men and women - Vietnamese and Americans - who fought a common foe with uncommon valor. May God bless you and them, now and always.