2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden at one time tried to block the evacuation of tens of thousands of South Vietnamese refugees who had helped the U.S. during the Vietnam War. As a senator, Biden was adamant that the U.S. had “no obligation, moral or otherwise, to evacuate foreign nationals,” dismissing concerns for their safety as the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong swept south toward Saigon in 1975.
As South Vietnam collapsed at the end of the Vietnam War in the spring of 1975, President Gerald Ford and the U.S. government undertook to evacuate thousands of South Vietnamese families who had assisted the U.S. throughout the war. The leading voice in the Senate opposing this rescue effort was then-Senator Joe Biden.
Hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese allies were in danger of recriminations from the Communists, but Biden insisted that “the United States has no obligation to evacuate one — or 100,001 — South Vietnamese.”
In April 1975, Ford argued that, as the last American troops were removed from the country, the U.S. should evacuate South Vietnamese who had helped the U.S. during the war, too.
“The United States has had a long tradition of opening its doors to immigrants of all countries … And we’ve always been a humanitarian nation,” Ford said. “We felt that a number of these South Vietnamese had been very loyal to the United States and deserved an opportunity to live in freedom.”
But Biden objected and called for a meeting between the president and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to voice his objections to Ford’s funding request for these efforts. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who led the meeting, told the senators that “the total list of the people endangered in Vietnam is over a million” and that “the irreducible list is 174,000.”
Biden said U.S. allies should not be rescued: “We should focus on getting them (the U.S. troops) out. Getting the Vietnamese out and military aid for the GVN (South Vietnam’s government)are totally different.”
Kissinger said there were “Vietnamese to whom we have an obligation,” but Biden responded: “I will vote for any amount for getting the Americans out. I don’t want it mixed with getting the Vietnamese out.”
Ford was upset with Biden’s response, believing that failing to evacuate the South Vietnamese would be a betrayal of American values: “We opened our door to the Hungarians … Our tradition is to welcome the oppressed. I don’t think these people should be treated any differently from any other people — the Hungarians, Cubans, Jews from the Soviet Union.”
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee recommended that the bill be passed by the full Senate by a vote of 14 to 3. Biden was one of just three senators on the committee who voted nay. The conference report also passed the Senate as a whole by a vote of 46-17, where Biden again voted against it.
Saigon fell on April 30, 1975, and hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese who did not manage to escape the country were eventually sent to reeducation camps, where they were abused, tortured, or killed.
Despite opposition from Biden, and other leading Democrats, the U.S. military evacuated over 130,000 Vietnamese refugees in the immediate wake of the collapse of South Vietnam, and hundreds of thousands more were resettled inside the U.S. in the following years.