The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress
January/February 2005

The Numbers Game:
How Many Vietnamese Fled South In 1954?


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 massacred.

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 Tonkin.

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 signed.

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,” Eisenhower said.

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 Haiphong unit.

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 15,600 refugees.

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 unit.

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 vessels.

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 to prison.

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 Russia.

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.


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