Refugees and America

American-supervised evacuation at the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 24, 2021 (U.S. Air Force / Master Sergeant Donald R. Allen / Handout via Reuters)
A question having to do with national interest and national identity. What is included in ‘American greatness’?

On September 1, the Wall Street Journal published a striking news article: “Vietnamese-Americans Organize to Aid Afghan Refugees: People who arrived in the U.S. after the Vietnam War see similarities in the plight of Afghans today.” This is fairly moving — powerful — to some of us.

• The Bulwark published an article by Phuong Tran Nguyen — “Welcoming War Refugees to America.” The article takes us back to 1975.

Extremists had their hour early on, some holding signs in Arkansas that read “Gooks Go Home.” An employee of the John Birch Society in Florida told the New York Times that, “There’s no telling what kind of diseases they’ll be bringing with them.” Anti-refugee constituents sent scores of letters to their U.S. senators.

When refugees actually arrived, though, they were received with open arms.

That’s America (many of us think, or like to).

In May 2015, I wrote a piece called “A Question of Honor: As the wolves circle, Iraqis who helped us are pleading for visas.” Here is a paragraph:

As Saigon fell, we airlifted thousands of Vietnamese — not a couple thousand but 130,000 — to bases in the Philippines and elsewhere. They were our allies, they had counted on us, and we felt we owed them protection from slaughter.

Another paragraph:

We did not save all the Vietnamese who helped us, obviously — that would have been much of South Vietnam. Before we left, in that panicked evacuation, our personnel did not have a chance to destroy all sensitive records. The conquering Communists found a list of 30,000 Vietnamese who helped us. They systematically hunted those 30,000 down and killed them (a small fraction of the million they ultimately killed).

It’s all happening again, of course.

Further from that piece:

At stake is American credibility — do we keep our promises or not? — and also our honor, which is related. Some of us believe that our pullout from Iraq, before the country was secured, was dishonorable. In the matter of the visas, we are compounding dishonor with dishonor.

A bit more, concerning Iraq:

In a recent interview with me, Senator McCain said, “Barack Obama wanted out.” And when administration officials say that “they tried to leave a decent force behind, a stabilizing force, they are lying, and I don’t say that very often.”


I ended my piece — primarily about Iraq, remember — with this paragraph:

Soon, we will have desperate Afghans to think about, or ignore. The Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project helps them, too. IRAP’s website says, “Every day we receive emails and letters from Afghan interpreters and former and active-duty U.S. Service Members concerned about their interpreter’s fate.” IRAP also cites a “recent news estimate,” and a painful estimate it is: One Afghan is killed every 36 hours owing to his affiliation with the United States.

In a recent column on Afghanistan, I brought up a piece I published in October 2019: “Looking Hard at the Afghan War: A conversation with former ambassador Ryan Crocker.” Several weeks before that, Crocker had published an op-ed in the Washington Post: “We can’t leave Afghanistan without protecting our closest allies first.”

Wrote Crocker,

Let us not repeat the mistakes of the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. The United States, eager to end a prolonged conflict, signed the Paris Peace Accords, an ineffectual document gesture that did not result in peace. U.S. officials who had served shoulder to shoulder with Vietnamese partners watched in horror as their associates fled the country by sea or were executed or jailed for their service to the United States. Who can forget the horrifying image of desperate Vietnamese allies reaching for a helicopter leaving Saigon?

The State Department and vetting agencies must ensure that our Afghan partners can reach safety before the already poor security situation deteriorates further. The Defense Department, too, must demand this of the State Department in light of the mission-critical services that tens of thousands of Afghans have provided to U.S. troops since 2001.

Our Afghan partners have risked — and sometimes lost — their lives and those of their families to support the U.S. mission. As the United States is contemplating its exit strategy, the least we can do is ensure that our closest allies are part of the plan.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal published this: “Majority of Interpreters, Other U.S. Visa Applicants Were Left Behind in Afghanistan.”

There is a “realist” reason to rescue our allies, if basic decency or humanity is not enough: If we do not keep faith with our allies in one instance, how are we going to secure the help of others — help we need, for our national security — in other instances?

Here is an article from Reuters, for those who can bear it: “Hunted by the men they jailed, Afghanistan’s women judges seek escape.” There will not be, um, women judges anymore.

Everyone has his own sense of America, or “American greatness.” Part of this greatness, I think, is an acceptance of refugees. America has been a haven, from earliest days. This is part of what makes us “exceptional,” in addition to great, I think.

Are we just “another pleasant country on the U.N. roll call, somewhere between Albania and Zimbabwe”? (I have borrowed famous language from Bush 41.) I hope not. Maybe we are, or want to be.

Refugees are not a cause of the political Right these days — far from it! But they were, when I was coming of age, back in the Reagan years. That president was staunch on the subject. I also think of my late friend Dusty Rhodes.

He was on the board, or at the helm, of every conservative organization you can think of: Heritage, Bradley — you name it. He was president of National Review. He was also on the board of the International Rescue Committee. (This is the group founded in the 1930s at the urging of Einstein.) Dusty thought that this cause was very important — part of the American soul, so to speak.

Your mileage may vary (as we say now).

On August 16, Bush 43, down in Dallas, put out a statement:

Laura and I have been watching the tragic events unfolding in Afghanistan with deep sadness. Our hearts are heavy for both the Afghan people who have suffered so much and for the Americans and NATO allies who have sacrificed so much.

The Afghans now at the greatest risk are the same ones who have been on the forefront of progress inside their nation. President Biden has promised to evacuate these Afghans, along with American citizens and our allies. The United States government has the legal authority to cut the red tape for refugees during urgent humanitarian crises. And we have the responsibility and the resources to secure safe passage for them now, without bureaucratic delay.


On one occasion, Laura Bush wanted to give me a book. She handed it to me personally, signed. We Are Afghan Women: Voices of Hope. Mrs. Bush wrote the foreword. It is a very good book.

There is a sense, on the right, that the acceptance of Afghan refugees is a plot to make America more Democratic. Charlie Kirk, the young Republican leader, said, “Do you see what’s going on here? What’s going on here is, Joe Biden wants a couple hundred thousand more Ilhan Omars to come into America to change the body politic permanently.”

(Ilhan Omar is the radical congresswoman from Minnesota, who came from Somalia.)

Running for the GOP Senate nomination in Ohio, Josh Mandel tweeted, “This is exactly how we ended up with America-hating, Christian-hating, Jew-hating, Ilhan Omar infiltrating the US government.”

There are some rotten, or undesirable, Somalian refugees, no doubt. I also think of my junior-high math teacher: a wonderful gent, who tried to teach me algebra, which was very hard. (To teach me, I mean, not algebra.)

Josh Mandel also tweeted,

These planes are now being emptied into Cleveland, Toledo and other places in the heart of America.

To protect our kids, our communities and our Judeo-Christian way of life, we must FIGHT this with all our might.

The response of Matthew Stinson was interesting:

Mandel will tell you he’s fighting for small town America, but he’s really fighting for a small America, with small ideals and small hearts. A small America will never be great.

I thought of Kevin D. Williamson, who speaks of “Little America” and “Little Americans” (to go with “Little England” and “Little Englanders”).

Seth Mandel, of the Washington Examiner, wrote,

My great-grandfather was also an immigrant fleeing persecution to Cleveland. When WWI broke out he joined the allies before the US did. Then his brother joined the US military once we entered the war. His other brother was too young–but he talked his way into serving *in WWII*.

Donald Trump made the claim that there is “NO VETTING” of potential refugees and said, “How many terrorists will Joe Biden bring to America? We don’t know!” Alec Dent of The Dispatch provided a useful fact-check, here.

Can the United States accept everybody? Everybody — not just from Afghanistan but from all over — who needs refuge? Of course not. Should U.S. authorities be as careful, as vigilant, as possible about who comes in? Of course. And yet an America without refugees would not really be America — just another country on the U.N. roll call, no big deal, nothing to get excited about.

The governor of Utah, Spencer J. Cox — a Republican — had a notable response:

Utah was settled by refugees fleeing religious persecution. We understand the pain caused by forced migration and appreciate the contributions of refugees in our communities.

That sounds to me very American. (Again, your mileage may vary.)

Many of us have friends and contacts in Afghanistan. Many of us have received SOS messages: They’re coming. I don’t know how much longer I’ll be alive. Can you do anything? That sort of thing. I must say, this is a very unusual and affecting human experience. I am being as understated as possible.

At this remove, people like to damn FDR and his men for the turning away of the St. Louis. But how many, today, would turn away St. Louis after St. Louis after St. Louis? Will our descendants damn us, as we damn FDR and his guys?

 Here was some good news: “Afghan robotics team arrives safely in Doha.” This is an all-female robotics team. In 2018, I interviewed a member of this team: Fatemah Qaderyan. Her father had been killed in a terrorist bombing. An utterly delightful, brave girl. She was 16 when I interviewed her. She loved Albert Einstein and Harry Potter.

There are many organizations dedicated to helping Afghan refugees, or would-be refugees. The Bulwark put out a list here; the George W. Bush Center here. Another Bush — previously quoted — spoke of “a thousand points of light.” They exist, thank God.

If you’d like to receive Impromptus by e-mail — links to new columns — write to


The Latest