SAIGON (1954-1960)/ 5. Operation Passage to Freedom
The resettlement movement named ‘Operation Passage to Freedom’, or ‘Operation Exodus’ to the South Vietnamese, was a result from the discussions in Geneva Accords on July 20, 1954. It was pivotal in the sense that it decided the retreat of French troops, a temporal division of North and South Vietnam, and provided civilians the freedom in a 300 day period to move from one zone to another in line with military transfer schedules.
By October 31, 1955, three months after the remaining French troops withdrew from their final stop, approximately 810,000 people from the North passed through the demarcation line to the South, while 140,000 people moved the other way to the North1. With the latter having Viet Minh professionals and Catholic priests, they were widely publicized in propaganda directed at Catholics that remained in the North.
The leading motives for people leaving the North were apparent. Out of the 810,000 that fled, 1/3 of those were Catholics due to Viet Minh’s treatment of people who followed the church and hence were encouraged by village priests to flee. These priests were important not only as their spiritual leaders but also guides and acts as translators during the flee. Another batch of people that left were ones that assisted the French during their colonial conquest of Vietnam where they feared that their future in the North – once they were identified they underwent various degrees of torture. Huge evacuation movements began right after the news from Geneva Accords were released. As the French reports:
“Immediately after the signing of the accords, a large number of Vietnamese fled from the Communist regime into the city, abandoning their villages to regather in Hanoi and Haiphong prior to evacuation to Saigon by air and sea…In Hanoi, 33 schools and public buildings have been placed at the disposal of the refugees.”2
There were people who registered commercial flights and voyages from departure ports of Hanoi and Haiphong to Saigon, and on the other hand by private means through boats and by land. Yet this number of 810,000 disregarded people who did not require resettlement assistance and supported themselves; or ones who attempted to flee but failed due to DRVN authorities and hence never crossed the demarcation line.
While Article 14(d) in the agreement states the free and unfettered movement of those who wished to move from North to South or vice-versa, supervised and enforced by International Control Commission (ICC)3. The DRVN in fact were initially content towards the decision but hardened immediately after they saw the vast number attempting to leave the North. What they did was completely contradictory to the article where they:
- actively preventing intending people from reaching Hanoi and Haiphong departure points
- refusal to give out departure permits
- use of women and children to block roads
- naval patrols to prevent marine departures
- prohibition of sale of property by those intending to leave home districts
- propaganda campaign of a enslavement life awaiting them in the South4.
The most sounding interference is where DRVN authorities came to villages of Luu My where 12 were reported killed; and in Ba Lang where 50 were wounded and 200 arrested after 3000 people surrounded the village to demand permits to travel south. People who lived furthest away from the departure points, namely Hung Hoa, were under the most comprehensive Viet Minh control, implying the difficulty to not only get departure permits but also leaving their districts5.
The South were by no means silent during the 300-day transfer of civilians. While priests informed anxious parishioners that “Christ has gone to the South” and “the Virgin Mary has departed from the North”, Diem also had the assistance of teams within the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) which were organized by Edward Lansdale6. The Americans believed that a massive migration to the South would significantly embarrass and weaken the power of the communist-North, and thereby offered incentives of five acres of land and a water buffalo for northern Catholics to the South. Lansdale’s propaganda circulated stories among the northern Catholics regarding Vietminh concentration camps and the possibility of atomic bombs to the North played a vital role in the fears for Northern Catholics to flee.
- Hansen, Peter. “Bắc Đi Cú: Catholic Refugees from the North of Vietnam, and Their Role in the Southern Republic, 1954–1959.” Journal of Vietnamese Studies, Vol. 4, No. 3 (Fall 2009), pp. 110
- Hansen, 2009, pp. 105
- Randle, Robert F. Geneva 1954; the Settlement of the Indochinese War. Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1969, pp. 460
- Wiesner, Louis A. Victims and Survivors: Displaced Persons and Other War Victims in Viet-Nam, 1954-1975. New York, Greenwood Press, 1988, pp. 218-219
- Hansen, 2009, pp. 120
- Schulziger, Robert D. A Time for War: The United States and Vietnam, 1941-1975. Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 81