Last month, Jimmy Carter announced he had cancer. The 39th president often gets pretty low marks from conservatives. Now, however, is a time to remember the moral dimension he brought to the presidency, one that brought out America’s capacity for moral greatness. Nowhere was this more apparent than in his response to the humanitarian emergency of the Vietnamese “Boat People.”
When South Vietnam fell in 1975, the United States gave refuge to around 100,000 Vietnamese who had been linked to the U.S. side in the Vietnam War. But from 1978, there was a second wave of people fleeing the brutalities of the Communist regime. Including Laotians, this numbered 2 to 3 million people. They swamped neighboring countries. Others risked their lives fleeing Vietnam in unseaworthy boats.
Concern for the wretched plight of the Boat People mounted. In July 1979, Joan Baez, who had campaigned against the Vietnam War, held a concert at the Lincoln Memorial. “The sea should not be a tomb,” read one of the placards at the concert. People demonstrated outside the White House demanding action. Carter went to the White House fence and shook hands with the protesters. He had previously announced he was increasing the quota for Vietnamese refugees to 14,000 a month. But he would do more. He told them he was ordering the Seventh Fleet to help find and pick up the boat people. “I cannot let your people die,” the president said to one of the organizers. Vice President Mondale was flying to Geneva “to work with all the nations to try to save all the boat people,” he told them.
The Boat People were the human outcome of a failed war that had left Democrats deeply divided about America’s role in the world. Anti-war activists criticized Joan Baez for denouncing Communist Vietnam’s “brutal disregard for human rights.” Jane Fonda accused her of deserting the anti-war cause. Others suggested she was working for the CIA. For Carter, the moral imperative outweighed the political risk. No other country on earth had the capacity to act, and Carter’s action demonstrated that America was the indispensable nation.
#share#Today the world faces a similar emergency. In Syria, desperate people and their children are fleeing the most evil homicidal fanatics on the face of the earth and attempting to cross the Mediterranean in overcrowded rubber dinghies. Many are losing their lives. True to form, Europe is incapable of acting. Its lack of response reminds one of how, speaking for Europe at the onset of nearly a decade of bloodshed in the Balkans, Luxembourg’s foreign minister declared in 1991: “This is the hour of Europe. It is not the hour of the Americans.” When he spoke, the Srebrenica massacres lay three years in the future and the Dayton Accords, which ended the bloodshed in Bosnia, were four years away.
Europe’s handling of the current humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean has been worse than inadequate.
Similarly, Europe’s handling of the current humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean has been worse than inadequate. A year ago, the British government announced it would not support any future search-and-rescue operations to prevent migrants and refugees drowning in the Mediterranean, because they encouraged people to attempt the sea crossing. This was reversed in April, but only last month, Britain’s foreign secretary claimed that millions of marauding migrants threatened British living standards. By contrast, German chancellor Angela Merkel has said Germany will keep an open door for Syrian refugees. Belatedly, Britain’s David Cameron has announced he will follow Merkel’s lead and accept “thousands” more refugees from Syria.
The parallels between July 1979 and September 2015 are obvious: a failed war; a humanitarian crisis; most of all, desperate people risking — and some of them losing — everything. But where is the 44th president? He is in Alaska taking selfies. “Alaskans are on the frontline of one of the greatest challenges we face this century,” the president said in a White House video. The emergency of melting glaciers was a “wake-up call,” President Obama claimed.
The president is wrong. Today’s emergency is not in Alaska. It is in the Mediterranean. Obama’s cold indifference surely marks the lowest point of his presidency — a moment which will be weighed in the balance and found wanting. The world is waiting for America to act. As Jimmy Carter demonstrated 36 years ago, only a president deploying American leadership can make good on the commitment, “I cannot let your people die.”