Jerry Brown, as candidate for Governor of California in 2010, is presenting himself as a strong friend of immigration, but when he was governor in 1975 he was the nation’s most outspoken and active foe of immigration by political refugees from Vietnam. It is astonishing, as I visit California this week, to see how this relevant history seemingly has been forgotten.
I remember it very well. After the post-Watergate election of 1974, an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress cut off support for the government of South Vietnam. At the end of April, 1975, it became apparent suddenly that Saigon would fall. Almost as soon, the possibility arose that some, possibly large numbers of Vietnamese would try to flee the country as the Communists took over.
Eventually, about 130,000 Vietnamese successfully settled in the United States. They and their children beame citizens, and, as it happens, many reside in such places as Orange County and San Jose. The nation’s first Congressman of Vietnamese decent, Anh (“Joseph”) Cao, was elected recently in New Orleans as a Republican.
But in 1975 Gov. Jerry Brown made it starkly clear that he did not want any Vietnamese to come to his state. He went further and tried to stop them from coming. Julia Vedala Taft, who chaired President Ford’s interagency task force on refugees recalled, “‘The new governor of California, Jerry Brown, was very concerned about refugees settling in his state. Brown even attempted to prevent planes carrying refugees from landing at Travis Air Force Base near Sacramento… The secretary of health and welfare, Mario Obledo, felt that this addition of a large minority group would be unwelcome in California. And he said that they already had a large population of Hispanics, Filipinos, blacks, and other minorities.'”
At the time, I was Secretary of State in Washington State. I had a friend who had married a Vietnamese woman and was trying frantically to help her family escape. I contacted Joel Pritchard, a member of Congress from Seattle, who said that his information was that few of the “boat people” and other refugees would succeed in getting out. But I knew from history that some determined and perceptive people usually do find a way to flee tyranny, as, for example, in Europe before World War II. I called another friend, Les Janka, who served under Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Janka reported that refugees were getting out all right, but that Governor Brown’s opposition to any of them settling in his state was making it hard to win national support for helping them.
I then called our own governor, Daniel J. Evans, who was out of town at a conference, but was able to take my call. Evans didn’t have a lot of respect for his California colleague and was undaunted by the challenge of differing with him. The next day he assigned two aides, (future Secretary of State) Ralph Munro and Tom Pryor, state director of Emergency Services, to see what the state could do to help. Importantly he announced publicly that, in contrast to California, Washington State would accept refugees from Vietnam. Very quickly, Evans’ announcement was welcomed by a relieved State Department.When the time came, Govenor and Mrs. Evans personally met the first planeloads of Vietnamese refugees to land on our shores—after a brief stop at a military base in California. Instead of trying to keep out the refugees, our state warmly welcomed and assisted them.
That was a moment that brought pride to Washington and to Governor Evans. The contrast with the attitude of Gov. Jerry Brown could not be more striking.
It’s useful to recall the times: In 1975 the new Vietnamese arrivals represented no voting bloc. Backing them offered no elector advantage, while there was an anti-war sentiment in California that applauded Brown’s stand. However, four years later, as he prepared for a run for president, Gov. Brown set up a committee to consider how to help the refugees. But I don’t know of his ever admitting that he had been wrong in the first place.
This vivid memory is very much on my mind, therefore, as I hear what seem like opportunistic statements about immigration from the revived gubernatorial candidate of 2010, Jerry Brown. Once again, the man seems mostly motivated by political expediency, not principle.