40 Years Ago, Arkansas Military Base Became Refugee Camp

May 1, 2015

Fort Chaffee in northwest Arkansas once played an important role at the end United States' official involvement in the Vietnam War after the fall of Saigon to North Vietnamese forces on April 30, 1975. From May until December of that year, Fort Chaffee became the temporary home to more than 50,000 Indochinese who had sought refugee status.

The resettlement process was known by the U.S. Military as “Operation New Life.” It was brought about when Congress enacted the Indochina Migration and Assistance Act of 1975

Fort Chaffee was among four domestic military bases to take in refugees from the war. The others were Camp Pendleton in California, Eglin Air Force Base in Florida and Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania. Fort Chaffee took in the largest share of the nearly 100,000 Indochinese political refugees who came to the United States in 1975.

According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture, the refugee population “was a very heterogeneous one, consisting of Vietnamese, Laotian, Cambodian, and Hmong.” Though many educators and social service providers entered the camp to assist the refugees on humanitarian grounds, refugees were largely isolated from the surrounding communities of northwest Arkansas at the time.

Shortly after the refugees' arrival, a Vietnamese newspaper, Tan Dan, began publishing and a radio station broadcasting in English and Vietnamese began to operate.

Jana Lipman, associate professor of history at Tulane University notes that in coverage of the resettlement process, many photographs in local and national media displayed the refugee children. She says the photographs conjured a symbolic importance for domestic audiences at the end of the long and sometimes horrendous conflict.

She writes:

 

“[The photographs] imposed a paradigm of U.S. Paternalism on the Vietnamese refugee population, where the children were physically and symbolically dependent on the United States...it visually served to present the Vietnamese community to the American public as apolitical, innocent, and without political histories or military ties to the United States.”

By contrast, Lipman notes that many of the refugees at Fort Chaffee were high level officials in the South Vietnamese government, who had strong working relations with the U.S. prior to their arrival. She says this indicates that“their encounter with U.S. military culture would not have been a wholly new experience.”

Most of the refugees resettled to different regions in the United States, like Orange County, California and Falls Church, Virginia. Some did stay in Fort Smith and surrounding areas, where a small Indochinese population remains to this day.