The Numbers Game:
How Many Vietnamese Fled South In 1954?
BY JOHN PRADOS
One old chestnut of Vietnam lore
is that following the 1954 Geneva agreements a million civilians
fled what became North Vietnam to seek safety in the South.
Stanley Karnow, in Vietnam: A History, writes of a
“massive movement of refugees from north to south.” National
Geographic magazine called it “an epic migration.”
The situation began with Article 14 of the central agreement
reached at Geneva, which required government authorities in both
the North and the South of Vietnam to furnish all necessary
assistance to anyone who wished to relocate. What is almost
never noted is the extent to which this apparently humanitarian
measure remained bound up in the ideological war being waged
against communism by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
At the battle of Dien Bien Phu,
the climactic combat action of the Franco-Vietnamese war, a
major force of elite units of the French Expeditionary Corps was
defeated and the remnants captured by Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnamese
communist forces, then called the Viet Minh. War-weary France
opted to negotiate a military cease-fire at Geneva, which
included a provision that the forces of the two sides would
regroup in the zones that became North and South Vietnam.
Political issues were to be settled by an election two years
following the agreement.
American authorities started out with the requirement—a simple
concept but difficult in practice—to evacuate equipment provided
as military aid to the Expeditionary Corps, the French soldiers
themselves, and their Vietnamese allies from the Red River delta
area of Tonkin. The ideological competition imbued this matter
of military logistics with political overtones. The Eisenhower
administration wanted to use the evacuation to show that
Vietnamese had “voted with their feet” against communism. What
follows is the story of this early skirmish from the American
war in Vietnam.
The highest American authorities
discussed an evacuation of Tonkin as early as January 1954,
before the battle of Dien Bien Phu even began. At the time, the
chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Arthur F.
Radford, told President Eisenhower and his National Security
Council that a couple of years earlier, when Radford had been
Pacific regional commander and had been instructed to discuss
this matter with the French, Expeditionary Corps
commander-in-chief Marshal Jean De Lattre had termed the idea
preposterous. De Lattre said that before any such action could
be completed, the last groups awaiting evacuation would be
In February, when an Eisenhower
senior official met with Vietnamese emperor Bao Dai, the
American considered it manifestly unsound when Bao Dai suggested
that military forces could gain a free hand to fight the Viet
Minh in the Tonkin delta by moving up to four million villagers
to the provinces in central Vietnam and the Central Highlands.
Bao Dai also lobbied for this plan with other Americans,
including ambassador Donald Heath, but never received the
slightest encouragement. In the wake of defeat at Dien Bien Phu,
the emperor changed his position and opposed any evacuation of
Tonkin, even though U.S. official Robert McClintock expected “a
last- minute appeal for U.S. aid in a Dunkirk-type sea lift.”
When Bao Dai’s last prime minister, Ngo Dinh Diem, met with
McClintock for the first time in late June, shortly after his
arrival in Saigon, he raised the issue of an evacuation of
Tonkin and believed rapid action was necessary to prevent the
Viet Minh from scattering the population.
Nevertheless, the United States
had fashioned an evacuation plan after that Radford-De Lattre
conversation. It took a year to do, was completed in early 1952,
and involved a huge amphibious operation. The plan predicted a
need to move 80,000 French regular troops, 40,000 Vietnamese
soldiers, and 10,000 civilians.
This plan was a focus of
discussion between the Joint Chiefs and State Department
officials at a meeting on May 7, 1954, the day Dien Bien Phu
fell. News of the French defeat arrived as the discussion was in
progress. Notions of evacuation then hinged on the French
successfully defending some portion of the delta. President
Eisenhower also would have had to declare a national emergency
to get the authority to divert ocean shipping for the effort.
By late June, the plan was
revised. The CIA estimated there were 600 planeloads of materiel
to be moved from the Hanoi area alone. The Navy expected to move
10,000 vehicles and 382 artillery pieces, along with 110,000
civilians. Military personnel figures were not available, but
the CIA estimated there were 83,000 militiamen in the delta,
along with 65 regular and 19 light battalions of French or Bao
Dai troops. At typical unit strengths, those figures suggest
overall military numbers of some 150,000. The Viet Minh also
would return slightly more than 9,600 prisoners, most of them in
By the time the diplomats signed
the Geneva agreement on July 21, one of Diem’s ministers
estimated that the potential number of refugees from Tonkin was
700,000. Diem spoke of one to two million. France’s minister for
the associated states of Indochina, Guy La Chambre, anticipated
500,000 to a million refugees. The French commander-in-chief,
General Paul Ely, put the figure at 200,000. In a meeting with
American diplomats, though, Ely said that “dramatic propaganda”
by Diem might persuade as many as a million people to leave
North Vietnam for South Vietnam. As this guessing game
continued, the refugee question steadily acquired greater
importance. Eleven million people lived in North Vietnam.
United States participation began
on July 28 when officials of the new South Vietnamese government
told American diplomats they needed 2,000 big tents immediately
or the refugee program would be over before it started. Then, on
August 4 and 5, the Saigon foreign minister, followed by prime
minister Diem himself, asked for American help. Until then it
had been assumed that the French were in full control. General
Ely had, in fact, begun pulling combat units out of Tonkin to
reinforce central Vietnam the day the Geneva agreements were
Now, however, officials in Saigon
were warning that the French could move only 80,000 people
during August, while 120,000 Vietnamese had entered French-held
areas in hopes of evacuation. On August 5, the U.S. Foreign
Operations Administration announced that the United States would
help. The French promptly asked for enough ships to move 100,000
people. Washington formed an interagency working group on
Indochina to manage this operation.
Chief of Naval Operations Admiral
Robert B. Carney instructed Pacific commander Admiral Felix B.
Stump to prepare to respond to shipping requests. Orders to
provide ships came on August 7. Washington dubbed the effort
Operation Passage to Freedom. It would be carried out by Task
Force 90 under Rear Admiral Lorenzo S. Sabin, commander of
amphibious forces in the Western Pacific.
Admiral Sabin flew into Haiphong
on August 10 to make arrangements with the French, who would
provide the port and piloting services. The first American ship,
the naval transport Menard, arrived that day from Hong
Kong, but Admiral Sabin instructed her to remain out of sight of
land until more vessels were present to provide a more
impressive display of the American contribution. The Menard
began loading off the beach at Do Son on August 16.
The airfield at Do Son, a village
on the seacoast south of Haiphong, had been home to a detachment
of U.S. Air Force mechanics helping the French Air Force
refurbish their planes for the war. Now it became the first
evacuation site for the defeated side in the war. Meanwhile, two
more transports, Montrose and Telfair, and two
attack cargo ships, Montague and Algol, steamed as
a flotilla into Haiphong. At this point, there were an estimated
132,000 refugees awaiting transport at Haiphong.
The Menard left for the
South with more than 1,900 Vietnamese aboard on August 18,
arriving at Saigon three days later. Red Cross representatives
met the ship and gave each refugee a care package. At the time,
the Diem government had just begun construction on the first of
five planned reception camps in Saigon. That one had just thirty
tents in place. Ho Quan Phuoc, the responsible South Vietnamese
official, had been on the job for only three days and had a
meager staff of three.
These points were not emphasized
for the reporters from NBC, CBS, and the United Press who were
brought up to film the pending arrival of the next transport,
Montrose. That ship was met by Admiral Stump. On August 22,
President Eisenhower issued a press release extolling the
evacuation effort. “Fortunately, Free Viet Nam is a country with
ample land resources for the resettlement of almost any number
of Vietnamese who desire to flee from Communist domination,”
By August 28, according to French
records, 65,706 persons had left Tonkin aboard aircraft and
81,074 by boat.
Because Ike’s message invited the
world to view the evacuation as a political event, the number of
refugees became more important than ever. Suddenly it became
opportune to generate refugees for the flow, and the Central
Intelligence Agency entered the picture. Frank G. Wisner, the
CIA’s deputy director for plans—and its director for covert
operations—had argued for an effort to remain in Hanoi through
the evacuation to drive a wedge between the Viet Minh and the
People’s Republic of China. The CIA had sent a team there under
Edward G. Lansdale, working undercover as a U.S. Air Force
colonel. Lansdale’s group swung into action with propaganda and
harassment activities in the North.
Although Lansdale arrived in
Saigon in June, it was not until August that most of his unit,
the Saigon Military Mission (SMM), was in place. Lansdale sent
in Army Major Lucien Conein, an old Indochina hand and a friend
of the South Vietnamese military commander in Tonkin, to lead
the mission in Hanoi. The SMM started rumor campaigns in Hanoi,
the first centering on a planted report that a Chinese communist
unit had entered North Vietnam and massacred Vietnamese
villagers. Another psychological warfare ploy was a lurid poster
campaign suggesting the Viet Minh would be out of control. One
poster featured Viet Minh soldiers looming over the Hanoi
skyline with an atomic mushroom cloud rising behind them.
There were about 6,000 French
civilians in Hanoi and about 24,000 in Tonkin overall. It would
have been a propaganda disaster if they decided to stay on under
a Viet Minh government. One ploy was a leaflet that looked like
official Viet Minh regulations for their assumption of control,
containing draconian provisions for monetary reform, abolition
of property, and an instruction that workers could leave their
jobs for three days, a holiday to mark the Viet Minh arrival.
Lansdale records show that registrations for evacuation tripled
the day after the leaflet was distributed.
As the evacuation began, the CIA
proprietary Civil Air Transport (CAT, later Air America) asked
SMM’s help to get a contract to participate. Lansdale complied.
The CAT flights then gave him a means to insert people and carry
materials to the North. Conein organized a variety of clever
anti-Viet Minh maneuvers. He recruited a senior Hanoi police
official to release any of his people arrested on their
missions. But the move backfired when the policeman insisted on
helping distribute the phony Viet Minh regulations leaflet. The
official, apprehended by French Sûreté after a high-speed chase
through downtown Hanoi in the dead of night, was jailed as a
Viet Minh agent. Viet Minh radio denounced the leaflets, but
within days their currency had lost half of its value. Conein’s
network of agents also contaminated the oil supply of the local
bus company so that its machines would malfunction and
collaborated with a CIA sabotage team from Japan to set
explosive charges on the Hanoi-Haiphong railroad line as the
French pulled out of Tonkin’s capital in early October.
The medical officer aboard the
transport Montague, reassigned on temporary duty from the
U.S. base at Yokosuka, was Lieutenant (j.g.) Thomas A. Dooley
III. A medical doctor, Dooley initially functioned as medical
officer and interpreter. In August, he was sent ashore at
Haiphong as part of a preventive medicine and triage unit set up
by Captain Julius Anderson. Before long, the unit began
conducting research on the other side. Infectious diseases,
parasites, and medical intelligence became its function just as
much as delousing the Vietnamese awaiting passage to the South.
Dooley’s highly stylized account of the events, Deliver Us to
Freedom, could have been written by one of Ed Lansdale’s CIA
propaganda experts and its publication subsidized by the CIA.
From November on, Dooley was the officer in charge of the
Some social engineering took
place on the evacuation vessels. American officers saw the
Vietnamese as a simple people capable of being swayed. Aboard
the transport Bayfield in late August, some Vietnamese
passengers insisted on viewing the Americans as priests and all
320 crewmen were regarded as full-fledged clergy. American
officers did not dissuade such thinking, believing it useful to
maintaining order on the ship. Admiral Sabin endorsed this
method. On the Mountrail, just as aboard Bayfield,
American sailors went out of their way to help the passengers,
many of whom were destitute.
Meanwhile, the evacuation had
reached full stride. The French were moving about 3,400 people
per day by air, plus about 20,000 per month by sea. Although the
British lent their aircraft carrier HMS Warrior, Admiral
Sabin’s Task Force 90 remained the main source of the sea lift.
The burden carried by the Navy’s amphibious ships and those
vessels of the Military Sea Transportation Service was
considerable. Sabin’s plans had envisioned the use of four
Landing Ship Docks, four attack cargo ships, eight transports,
and eighteen Landing Ship Tanks. At French request, in
mid-September the Navy added a hospital ship to move French
Union wounded. In all, more than fifty ships participated.
A peak occurred in September when
10,000 people arrived in Saigon on a single day. That month
nearly 101,000 people moved by sea. On October 2, the 400,000th
person left Tonkin. After that, numbers began to decline
steadily—75,000 in October, 46,500 in November, 24,500 in
December. An additional 82,000 moved during the first three
months of 1955.
Efforts to move passengers by air
were complicated by the withdrawal of French Air Force transport
units. Air efforts compared favorably with sea lift in August
1954, when over 72,000 persons left the North on airplanes. In
September, there were more than 54,000 aerial evacuees. Air
travelers from October through December averaged only about
15,000 a month. From January to March 1955, airplanes moved some
The sea lift moved roughly twice
as many people as aircraft, until 1955 when the disparity became
even greater. Through December, the sea lift moved 17,517
vehicles and 171,625 long tons of military cargo, plus about
185,000 additional tons of government and private items.
Additionally, roughly 45,000 people went South overland,
crossing the provisional military demarcation line of the 17th
Parallel, known to Americans later as the Demilitarized Zone.
President Eisenhower reviewed the
Passage to Freedom program with his National Security Council on
October 22. The group was briefed by undersecretary of state
Herbert Hoover, Jr.
Many civilians remained to be
brought out. Those who had been were still living in temporary
shelters in the Saigon area. There would be a need to resettle
some 250,000 people in South Vietnam.
The United States had allocated
$40 million for the Passage to Freedom effort, which amounted to
more dollars per refugee than the per capita annual income of a
Vietnamese. Despite the major logistics problems Hoover’s report
indicated, Eisenhower’s NSC devoted its entire discussion to the
military and political difficulties of the Americans, the
French, and Diem in Saigon.
Aside from the scheduling and
logistics problems of shipping, the biggest difficulty with the
evacuation of Tonkin involved people—in this case the largely
Catholic population of two provinces, Phat Diem and Bui Chu
southwest of Hanoi. In the immediate aftermath of Dien Bien Phu,
French commander-in-chief General Ely made plans to regroup his
forces in Tonkin to secure a corridor between Hanoi and Haiphong.
That meant abandoning the Catholic provinces to the Viet Minh.
Phat Diem and Bui Chu had been
the provinces most loyal to the French. They had recruited
Catholic militias, sometimes led by parish priests. Many
Vietnamese had no doubt the Viet Minh had it in for them and
begged the French to stay. When Ely began his withdrawal, a
military operation codenamed Auvergne, there were incidents in
which villagers and even the pro-French militia threatened or
fired upon the retreating French troops. Several times,
Lansdale’s CIA secret warriors intervened to avert disaster. In
one case, they stopped hungry militia women from tossing hand
grenades at French soldiers guarding a warehouse. In another,
the Americans dissuaded the militia, which wanted heavy guns to
fire at the Viet Minh, from attacking a withdrawing artillery
Auvergne was in progress during
the Geneva conference. The new Saigon leader, Ngo Dinh Diem, as
well as his influential brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, feared for the
people of the Catholic provinces. Diem made many appeals to
American diplomats to take action. In July, Diem visited the
provinces and then went to see the Americans. But because the
Viet Minh were about to take over Tonkin, the Americans could do
nothing. Ed Lansdale, however, found in Phat Diem and Bui Chu
ideal audiences for his propaganda about the horrors of the
coming Viet Minh regime.
The French were aware of the
plight of the Catholics, but the measures they took in Geneva
were invisible in the provinces. French diplomats negotiated a
codicil in the Geneva agreement that obliged the sides to
recognize the freedom to travel of those who wanted to relocate.
The provision remained untested until August when the Viet Minh
took control of the provinces. Conscious of the political impact
of their behavior, the Viet Minh made special efforts to win
over Catholic priests and their parishioners. But the occupation
seemed onerous to these people. However, Vietnamese culture,
with its strong attachment to ancestors buried on the land,
caused many to want to remain.
In the end, even with CIA
propaganda, Catholic religious pressures, and French
importunings, about half the people of Phat Diem and Bui Chu
chose to stay behind. Nevertheless, a steady stream of villagers
applied for travel permits. Many were denied—only some 15,000 of
those evacuated to the South traveled on the basis of permits
issued by the Viet Minh.
General Ely attempted a special
evacuation from the Catholic provinces in October and November
1954, when the French abandoned Hanoi and confined themselves to
an enclave around Haiphong. The idea was that villagers could
paddle out to sea where they would be picked up by French Navy
ships, primarily landing craft that would shuttle them to larger
Several incidents occurred during
these operations. The most notorious took place at Tra Ly and Ba
Lang. At Tra Ly, Viet Minh troops forcibly dispersed most of a
group of about 10,000 refugees. Some villagers who fled to
sandbars offshore hoping for sanctuary were trapped by rising
tides. The French asked the International Control Commission to
dispatch mobile teams to Tra Ly, but the Viet Minh hindered ICC
movement and had finished their job before the team arrived.
French naval officers on the scene reported that the Viet Minh
fired upon villagers in the dunes.
At Ba Lang in December, the Viet
Minh arrested refugee leaders who had contacted a French ship.
This prompted villagers to clash with soldiers, killing one and
capturing three, before barricading themselves inside a church.
Troops forced their way into the church and dispersed the
Vietnamese peasants, arresting several hundred. The village
leader and a priest were tried by People’s Court and sentenced
Another thread of the story concerns Viet Minh troops and
Vietnamese who elected to move North. The Soviet Union and
Poland provided ships for this traffic. Many people also were
carried aboard French ships returning to Haiphong for new
boatloads of evacuees. Almost all those who went North traveled
aboard French or Polish ships. Some 90,000 Viet Minh troops and
40,000 Vietnamese civilians went north by sea. Some 12,000
crossed the 17th Parallel.
As in other areas of this
political war, the CIA’s psychological warriors were active on
this front, too. Lansdale’s group tried to stimulate riots among
returnees and fomented a rumor that the ships transporting
Vietnamese really were taking them to forced labor camps in
Then there were games with the
numbers. The Diem government said 2,598 went North and induced
the ICC and the British government to use that figure. A
reporter for National Geographic who looked into the
evacuations to the North in 1955 cited “reliable estimates”
putting the number of civilians at “about 40.” There was
political hay to be made by maximizing the flow of Vietnamese to
the South and minimizing that northward.
With the French presence in the North reduced to the Haiphong
area and many people already moved, the United States
revised its attitude toward participation. By mid-November, Task
Force 90 phased out its amphibious ships, despite a French
request to keep the LSTs in service so as to complete removal of
French equipment from Haiphong by January 1955. One troop
transport was kept in service until early December. Four
civilian-manned MSTS ships and Admiral Sabin’s flagship stayed
on the job. Sabin advised that no more than one ship be kept
available for the Indochina evacuation operation. “It has been
my experience,” he wrote in a January 9, 1955, dispatch, “that
predicted great influx of refugees have failed to materialize.”
So, despite the CIA psychological warfare campaign masterminded
by Lansdale, the heavy funding made available by the Eisenhower
administration, and all the reasons the French could adduce for
people to go to the South, Operation Passage to Freedom
fell far short of expectations. Not two million—not even one
million people responded to the call. The final number was just
under 800,000. Even that figure included 190,000 French and
Saigon soldiers and returned prisoners, some 43,000 military
dependents, 15,000-25,000 Nung tribesmen who were military
auxiliaries, between 25,000 and 40,000 French citizens, and
about 45,000 Chinese residents. It also included several
thousand people who had worked for the French and Vietnamese
administrations in the North.
The net number of Vietnamese who
freely chose to “vote with their feet” therefore works out to
about 450,000. And that figure doesn’t take into account those
Vietnamese who chose to move to the North. Of course, these
numbers still represent a huge human tide. But it is less than
half the figure that has entered the mythology of the Vietnam
War, and the diaspora was by no means the exodus of simple
peasants it was made out to be. Once more, the conventional
wisdom on Vietnam is misleading at best.