Bryan Caplan  

Vietnam's 300 Days of Open Borders: Operation Passage to Freedom

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Yesterday I stumbled across a obscure experiment in open borders.  Under the 1954 Geneva Accords, the Vietnamese were explicitly given 300 days to freely migrate between the Communist north and the non-Communist south.  As Wikipedia explains:
The agreements allowed a 300-day period of grace, ending on May 18, 1955, in which people could move freely between the two Vietnams before the border was sealed.
The result was predictable: A mass exodus south from the Communist north, a tiny trickle north from the non-Communist south.  In fact, virtually the only people who went north were guerrillas who otherwise would have been trapped behind enemy lines.  Precise estimates vary, but only slightly.  The article on Operation Passage to Freedom states:
Between 600,000 and one million northerners moved south, while between 14,000 and 45,000 civilians and approximately 100,000 Viet Minh fighters moved in the opposite direction.
The article on the 1954 Geneva Conference gives slightly different figures:
1,000,000 North Vietnamese, mostly Catholic, moved south of the Accords-mandated ceasefire line... At the same time, 52,000 people from the South went North. Communist fighters were urged to remain in the South in case the election did not go their way.
South Vietnamese leader Diem never saw it coming:
Despite claiming that his northern compatriots had been "enslaved," Diem expected no more than 10,000 refugees.
The migration magnitudes are particularly striking because the Communists broke the agreement when they could get away with it.  The ports of Hanoi and Haiphong were still controlled by the French; refugees who made it there could escape.  But many weren't so conveniently situated:

As the American and French military personnel were only present in the major cities and at air bases and on the waterfront, the communists tried to stop people from trying to leave through a military presence in the ruralside to interdict the flow of would-be refugees... In parts of the Red River Delta, ferry services and other water traffic were shut down so that refugees would not be able to travel to Haiphong.  In some cases there were reports of thousands-strong groups of refugees being forced back by similar numbers of armed communist cadres. As a result, many refugees headed directly for the nearest coastal point to wait for passing vessels... In some rural coastal areas where it was common for refugees to converge before boarding vessels to connect to the long-distance naval vessels taking them south, the Viet Minh installed mortars on the beaches to deter prospective immigrants.

They prohibited mass gatherings in an attempt to stop entire villages or other large groups of people from emigrating together, and also isolated people who sold their water buffalo and other belongings, as this was a clear sign that they intended to end their farming. Both the Americans and the South Vietnamese lodged complaints to the International Control Commission about the violations of the Geneva Accords, but little action was taken.
Credit where credit is due: the American navy and the French military were the main rescuers: 310,000 and about 500,000 respectively.  Blame where blame is due: If the American government had learned from this experience, it would have opened its borders to the victims of Vietnamese Communism as it withdrew from the war.  Not only would this have averted most of the post-war Indochinese bloodbath.  It would have been a crushing moral victory over Communist tyranny.  Alas.

COMMENTS (7 to date)
RPLong writes:

On your final paragraph: hear hear!

Eric Falkenstein writes:

This event is rather poignant, with all sorts of drama, bravery, and epic consequences for those involved. My mother's family employed someone who escaped, and it was a harrowing tale with a very happy ending. Yet I'm not persuaded this is relevant for argument that open borders for the USA is an optimal strategy.

Jon writes:

Does this really show that Communism is horrible, or does it show that CIA propaganda is pretty effective?

I'm reminded of Operation Peter Pan in Cuba. The CIA concocted a propaganda campaign intended to convince Cubans that with the Castro revolution their children would be shipped to the Soviet Union and turned into sausages. Many Cubans fearing for their children's safety did ship their children to the US though they didn't know where they would end up or if they would ever see them again. The whole thing was just terrorism. The misery associated with the familial separation was intended to destabilize the new regime.

Do we turn around and say that the proof that Cuba is a nightmare is the fact that some people were duped by CIA propaganda and sent their young children away from them into the arms of pedophile priests and what not, in many cases destroying both the lives of the children and the parents?

In this case we had a massive scare campaign. Catholics will be persecuted in Communist North Vietnam. People were effectively scared and did flee. Was it true? Did the north actually harm people for being Catholic? Not that I'm aware.

Those that fled of course would suffer the consequences. In 1962 JFK would order the attack on South Vietnam. He would set up concentration camps, referred to as "Strategic Hamlets" and drive in the populace. Supposedly to protect the people from "guerrillas" in fact it was intended to isolate them because the CIA knew the people actively supported the resistance to the US imposed puppet regime. The war was really against South Vietnam. An attempt to prevent independence. It was against the very people the US pretended it was protecting. Far more bombs were dropped on South Vietnam than North. So JFK ordered carpet bombing and chemical warfare. What were the fleeing Catholics thinking as the bombs fell on them in the South? This was supposedly where we were supposed to go for safety. And yet it's indiscriminate bombing.

For you to portray this horror show like it's some sort of proof of the benevolence of the US government, who would go on to carpet bomb the entire place, as well as neighboring countries such as Laos is really quite telling. Laos was completely defenseless against the US war machine and more bombs were dropped on them than were dropped during the entire second world war by both sides. The equivalent of one B-52 load every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years. It's obvious, Bryan, that you have a real problem with democracy and independence. Voters are irrational. So US lies that chase people into the South where they would subsequently be bombed are a great thing, because it was an effort to block an irrational government.

That view of rationality is one not shared by most others as you know. I'll take the morality of the peasants over your morality that treats genocide like it's a good thing.

Harrison Nguyen writes:

Consider these information:
From 1953 to 1956, North Vietnam conducted land reform, killing thousands Vietnamese, most of them were from "enemy class".
After North Vietnam "liberated" the South, over 2 millions Vietnamese ran away, though only a half of that made it to safe destination.
During Vietnam War, mot battles, if not all, were taken place in the South. Therefore, there would be not only more bombing, but also more death, gunfire.... in the South

Jon writes:

What does that have to do with the question at hand? OK, thousands died during land reform. Many more thousands died in S Vietnam due to US aerial bombardment prior to the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Meaning I'm talking strictly about the war that was waged against S Vietnam by the United States and N Vietnam wasn't even in the picture. None of this is relevant to the point I made, which is this. Bryan thinks the effectiveness of CIA lies and US propaganda, which successfully scared many Vietnamese Catholics, causing them to migrate south, somehow demonstrates US benevolence. Why? Does Operation Peter Pan, which led unsuspecting Cuban parents to ship their young children off to lands unknown, never to be seen again, also prove US benevolence? How would you like it if you were lied to and told your 5 year old daughter was in danger, so you shipped her to a foreign country, not knowing who would take care of her or if she would be comforted when she cried at night, only to discover that the whole operation was a lie that was intended to separate you from your daughter and cause misery? Would this prove that the foreign government that concocted this lie was wonderful? The whole thing is asinine.

Jose Antonio writes:

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examinator writes:

The problem here is two fold. what is missed is the duplicity of the USA in that it armed and trained the Viet Cong and promised them that if they fought against the Japanese the USA would support a colonial free Vietnam but after the war the they supported their other 'major allies' to reclaim their previous territories.They simply ignored Ho.

Secondly, those who had prospered or those who had acquired land under the French weren't about to give up their land willingly (human nature), shades of Palestine.
One shouldn't run away with the idea that the French colonial dominion was benign....far from it. nor did they simply extend their egalitarian mantra to the indigenous. History shows that no colonial power ever does. Often when leaving they set up regimes that suit their purposes/interests e.g. Israel, Philippines et al.
This doesn't mean that I'm saying that the communist regime at the transition did the land reform well or that I support 'communism' (sic).
It does mean that in order to understand the reality (messy as it is) is by understanding the context in which it happened.
It is a nonsense to judge it by our times.. white racism was still endemic at this time.

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