Abandoned Allies and the Lessons We Still Need to Learn

"The enemy of my enemy is my friend" is an ancient proverb that suggests that two opposing parties can or should work together against a common enemy.  The earliest known expression of this concept is found in a Sanskrit treatise on statecraft, the Arthashastra, which dates to around the 4th century B.C.

Over the years, the U.S. has formed alliances — marriages of convenience — with numerous nations and groups during conflicts against a common enemy.  However, once the threat is deemed contained or there is a hiccup in American foreign policy, allies are often abandoned.  Such was the case during WWII when the U.S. allied with and assisted the Soviet Union as well as a number of communist resistance groups against Nazi Germany and its allies in Europe.  Once Germany was defeated, communism was seen as the great threat to freedom, and the Soviet Union ceased to be our allies.

The disenfranchised Montagnards of Vietnam's Central Highlands were recruited by the U.S. Special Forces to fight Vietnamese communists during the Vietnam War.  Some 61,000 Montagnards, out of an estimated population of 1,000,000, were used as surrogates for U.S. forces and fought alongside the Special Forces in epic battles.  In doing so, they rescued countless Americans, including pilots, crews, and others.  More than half of the Montagnards' adult male population was lost fighting with and for Americans.  Without their sacrifice, there would be many more names on that somber black granite wall in Washington, D.C. — the Vietnam Memorial.

We had no ally during the Vietnam War more dependable and steadfast.  Only a handful of Montagnards were able to escape when the communists took over Vietnam in April 1975.  Special assistant to the ambassador Colonel George Jacobson had promised the minister for Montagnard affairs that he, his staff, and other Montagnard leaders and their families and students would be evacuated by the American Embassy, but that promise was never fulfilled.  Colonel Jacobson also advised the minister to tell his people to flee to the jungle and continue to fight a guerrilla war against the communist Vietnamese, saying the U.S. government would provide assistance — another lie.

Following Jacobson's advice, tens of thousands of Montagnards fled to the jungles of Vietnam and Cambodia only to die of starvation and disease or be killed in the relentless pursuit by the communist Vietnamese, while awaiting the promised American assistance that never came.  In 1986, a group of America's "Abandoned Allies," 212 Montagnard fighters and their families, emerged from the jungles of Cambodia, having fought a guerilla war against the communist Vietnamese for 11 years without the promised U.S. support.*  They sought refuge in Thailand and were resettled in North Carolina.  In 1992, a second group of 400 Montagnards found in Eastern Cambodia were also resettled in North Carolina after 17 years of continued guerrilla warfare against the communists.  Both groups, like Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, vowed, "I will fight no more."  A third "battalion" of Montagnards had tried crossing to Thailand through the lower part of Laos but were annihilated by a large North Vietnamese PAVN unit stationed there.

The population of Montagnards now in North Carolina has grown to an estimated 12,000 people, with a few others scattered around in other states.  Some of the increase has been due to U.S. programs such as family reunification and refuge for former re-education detainees.  Another group of Montagnards was granted a special allowance after suffering through communist Vietnam's brutal crackdown on Christians in 2001–02 and escaping to Cambodia.

Unfortunately, persecution continues for those Montagnards soldiers and their extended families who have been unable to escape, for they have been prevented from acquiring ID cards and household registration and birth certificates, necessities to enable them to function within the communist society.  They have also been denied access to adequate land to grow food to feed their families.

International sources report that Montagnards are among the poorest of the poor and suffer the highest rate of malnutrition and infant deaths in Vietnam.  Reportedly, some two thirds of the Montagnards have now adopted the Protestant Christian faith.  The Vietnamese leadership is characterized by extreme paranoia and fear of organized religion, for it is in direct conflict with the country's political religion: communism.  Montagnards wishing to be ordained as pastors must swear allegiance to the communist government and agree to put "the state" before God.  Therefore, the Montagnards are forced to worship in outlawed house churches.  Vietnam's religious police regularly raid the house churches and arrest Christian worshipers. Those who refuse to recant their religious beliefs lose their small pieces of farmland, are imprisoned, or are "disappeared." More than 100 Protestant Montagnard pastors are believed to be languishing in prison under deplorable and inhumane conditions, unrecognized by the Department of State as political prisoners.

At least 500 Montagnards have managed to escape the dead-end oppressive poverty, stagnation, and religious persecution in Vietnam and are languishing in Thailand.  The true number is unknown, for others are in caught up in the underground Thai "slave" market or are hiding from the Thai police and from Vietnam's intelligence apparatus in Bangkok.  Anyone captured by the latter is surreptitiously taken back to Vietnam to suffer severe consequences.  Some 150 of the 500 have been granted refugee status by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Bangkok.  So far, the U.S. government has shown no interest in giving these former allies a home.

In October, Senators Richard Burr and Thom Tillis of North Carolina introduced in the Senate a "feel good" resolution recognizing the Montagnards for fighting alongside U.S. armed forces during the Vietnam War and calling on Vietnam to end restrictions on basic human rights.  Of course, the Vietnamese communists will ignore this resolution.  They have ignored other similar resolutions for years, and nothing has changed.

Vice President Pence has stated it is "the Administration's priority to ensure that Christians are not being mistreated, persecuted or treated in any way that's unfair as they try to make their way into the United States of America."  These words need to be followed up with concrete actions.

As someone who served in Vietnam with the Montagnards, it's unfair for the U.S. government to refuse to offer these Montagnards, our former allies who languish in Thailand, refuge in the United States.  I believe that others who served as I did feel the same.

Might I be so brash as to suggest that the two honorable senators and the vice president do something concrete to find these Montagnards a home, preferably in North Carolina, and leave the empty political rhetoric to the Vietnamese communists?

Michael Benge spent eleven years in Vietnam as a foreign service officer, five as a POW.  He is a student of Southeast Asian politics.  He is very active in advocating for human rights, religious freedom, and democracy for the peoples in the countries of former Indochina and has written extensively on these subjects.

Image: Icemanwcs via Wikimedia Commons.

"The enemy of my enemy is my friend" is an ancient proverb that suggests that two opposing parties can or should work together against a common enemy.  The earliest known expression of this concept is found in a Sanskrit treatise on statecraft, the Arthashastra, which dates to around the 4th century B.C.

Over the years, the U.S. has formed alliances — marriages of convenience — with numerous nations and groups during conflicts against a common enemy.  However, once the threat is deemed contained or there is a hiccup in American foreign policy, allies are often abandoned.  Such was the case during WWII when the U.S. allied with and assisted the Soviet Union as well as a number of communist resistance groups against Nazi Germany and its allies in Europe.  Once Germany was defeated, communism was seen as the great threat to freedom, and the Soviet Union ceased to be our allies.

The disenfranchised Montagnards of Vietnam's Central Highlands were recruited by the U.S. Special Forces to fight Vietnamese communists during the Vietnam War.  Some 61,000 Montagnards, out of an estimated population of 1,000,000, were used as surrogates for U.S. forces and fought alongside the Special Forces in epic battles.  In doing so, they rescued countless Americans, including pilots, crews, and others.  More than half of the Montagnards' adult male population was lost fighting with and for Americans.  Without their sacrifice, there would be many more names on that somber black granite wall in Washington, D.C. — the Vietnam Memorial.

We had no ally during the Vietnam War more dependable and steadfast.  Only a handful of Montagnards were able to escape when the communists took over Vietnam in April 1975.  Special assistant to the ambassador Colonel George Jacobson had promised the minister for Montagnard affairs that he, his staff, and other Montagnard leaders and their families and students would be evacuated by the American Embassy, but that promise was never fulfilled.  Colonel Jacobson also advised the minister to tell his people to flee to the jungle and continue to fight a guerrilla war against the communist Vietnamese, saying the U.S. government would provide assistance — another lie.

Following Jacobson's advice, tens of thousands of Montagnards fled to the jungles of Vietnam and Cambodia only to die of starvation and disease or be killed in the relentless pursuit by the communist Vietnamese, while awaiting the promised American assistance that never came.  In 1986, a group of America's "Abandoned Allies," 212 Montagnard fighters and their families, emerged from the jungles of Cambodia, having fought a guerilla war against the communist Vietnamese for 11 years without the promised U.S. support.*  They sought refuge in Thailand and were resettled in North Carolina.  In 1992, a second group of 400 Montagnards found in Eastern Cambodia were also resettled in North Carolina after 17 years of continued guerrilla warfare against the communists.  Both groups, like Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, vowed, "I will fight no more."  A third "battalion" of Montagnards had tried crossing to Thailand through the lower part of Laos but were annihilated by a large North Vietnamese PAVN unit stationed there.

The population of Montagnards now in North Carolina has grown to an estimated 12,000 people, with a few others scattered around in other states.  Some of the increase has been due to U.S. programs such as family reunification and refuge for former re-education detainees.  Another group of Montagnards was granted a special allowance after suffering through communist Vietnam's brutal crackdown on Christians in 2001–02 and escaping to Cambodia.

Unfortunately, persecution continues for those Montagnards soldiers and their extended families who have been unable to escape, for they have been prevented from acquiring ID cards and household registration and birth certificates, necessities to enable them to function within the communist society.  They have also been denied access to adequate land to grow food to feed their families.

International sources report that Montagnards are among the poorest of the poor and suffer the highest rate of malnutrition and infant deaths in Vietnam.  Reportedly, some two thirds of the Montagnards have now adopted the Protestant Christian faith.  The Vietnamese leadership is characterized by extreme paranoia and fear of organized religion, for it is in direct conflict with the country's political religion: communism.  Montagnards wishing to be ordained as pastors must swear allegiance to the communist government and agree to put "the state" before God.  Therefore, the Montagnards are forced to worship in outlawed house churches.  Vietnam's religious police regularly raid the house churches and arrest Christian worshipers. Those who refuse to recant their religious beliefs lose their small pieces of farmland, are imprisoned, or are "disappeared." More than 100 Protestant Montagnard pastors are believed to be languishing in prison under deplorable and inhumane conditions, unrecognized by the Department of State as political prisoners.

At least 500 Montagnards have managed to escape the dead-end oppressive poverty, stagnation, and religious persecution in Vietnam and are languishing in Thailand.  The true number is unknown, for others are in caught up in the underground Thai "slave" market or are hiding from the Thai police and from Vietnam's intelligence apparatus in Bangkok.  Anyone captured by the latter is surreptitiously taken back to Vietnam to suffer severe consequences.  Some 150 of the 500 have been granted refugee status by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Bangkok.  So far, the U.S. government has shown no interest in giving these former allies a home.

In October, Senators Richard Burr and Thom Tillis of North Carolina introduced in the Senate a "feel good" resolution recognizing the Montagnards for fighting alongside U.S. armed forces during the Vietnam War and calling on Vietnam to end restrictions on basic human rights.  Of course, the Vietnamese communists will ignore this resolution.  They have ignored other similar resolutions for years, and nothing has changed.

Vice President Pence has stated it is "the Administration's priority to ensure that Christians are not being mistreated, persecuted or treated in any way that's unfair as they try to make their way into the United States of America."  These words need to be followed up with concrete actions.

As someone who served in Vietnam with the Montagnards, it's unfair for the U.S. government to refuse to offer these Montagnards, our former allies who languish in Thailand, refuge in the United States.  I believe that others who served as I did feel the same.

Might I be so brash as to suggest that the two honorable senators and the vice president do something concrete to find these Montagnards a home, preferably in North Carolina, and leave the empty political rhetoric to the Vietnamese communists?

Michael Benge spent eleven years in Vietnam as a foreign service officer, five as a POW.  He is a student of Southeast Asian politics.  He is very active in advocating for human rights, religious freedom, and democracy for the peoples in the countries of former Indochina and has written extensively on these subjects.

Image: Icemanwcs via Wikimedia Commons.