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The Life We Were Given: Operation Babylift, International Adoption, and the Children of War in Vietnam

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In April 1975, just before the fall of Saigon, the U.S. government launched "Operation Babylift," a highly publicized plan to evacuate nearly three thousand displaced Vietnamese children and place them with adoptive families overseas. Chaotic from start to finish, the mission gripped the world-with a traumatic plane crash, international media snapping pictures of bewildere In April 1975, just before the fall of Saigon, the U.S. government launched "Operation Babylift," a highly publicized plan to evacuate nearly three thousand displaced Vietnamese children and place them with adoptive families overseas. Chaotic from start to finish, the mission gripped the world-with a traumatic plane crash, international media snapping pictures of bewildered children traveling to their new homes, and families clamoring to adopt the waifs. Often presented as a great humanitarian effort, Operation Babylift provided an opportunity for national catharsis following the trauma of the American experience in Vietnam. Now, thirty-five years after the war ended, Dana Sachs examines this unprecedented event more carefully, revealing how a single public-policy gesture irrevocably altered thousands of lives, not always for the better. Though most of the children were orphans, many were not, and the rescue offered no possibility for families to later reunite. With sensitivity and balance, Sachs deepens her account by including multiple perspectives: birth mothers making the wrenching decision to relinquish their children; orphanage workers, military personnel, and doctors trying to "save" them; politicians and judges attempting to untangle the controversies; adoptive families waiting anxiously for their new sons and daughters; and the children themselves, struggling to understand. In particular, the book follows one such child, Anh Hansen, who left Vietnam through Operation Babylift and, decades later, returned to reunite with her birth mother. Through Anh's story, and those of many others, The Life We Were Given will inspire impassioned discussion and spur dialogue on the human cost of war, international adoption and aid efforts, and U.S. involvement in Vietnam.


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In April 1975, just before the fall of Saigon, the U.S. government launched "Operation Babylift," a highly publicized plan to evacuate nearly three thousand displaced Vietnamese children and place them with adoptive families overseas. Chaotic from start to finish, the mission gripped the world-with a traumatic plane crash, international media snapping pictures of bewildere In April 1975, just before the fall of Saigon, the U.S. government launched "Operation Babylift," a highly publicized plan to evacuate nearly three thousand displaced Vietnamese children and place them with adoptive families overseas. Chaotic from start to finish, the mission gripped the world-with a traumatic plane crash, international media snapping pictures of bewildered children traveling to their new homes, and families clamoring to adopt the waifs. Often presented as a great humanitarian effort, Operation Babylift provided an opportunity for national catharsis following the trauma of the American experience in Vietnam. Now, thirty-five years after the war ended, Dana Sachs examines this unprecedented event more carefully, revealing how a single public-policy gesture irrevocably altered thousands of lives, not always for the better. Though most of the children were orphans, many were not, and the rescue offered no possibility for families to later reunite. With sensitivity and balance, Sachs deepens her account by including multiple perspectives: birth mothers making the wrenching decision to relinquish their children; orphanage workers, military personnel, and doctors trying to "save" them; politicians and judges attempting to untangle the controversies; adoptive families waiting anxiously for their new sons and daughters; and the children themselves, struggling to understand. In particular, the book follows one such child, Anh Hansen, who left Vietnam through Operation Babylift and, decades later, returned to reunite with her birth mother. Through Anh's story, and those of many others, The Life We Were Given will inspire impassioned discussion and spur dialogue on the human cost of war, international adoption and aid efforts, and U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

30 review for The Life We Were Given: Operation Babylift, International Adoption, and the Children of War in Vietnam

  1. 4 out of 5

    Hải Lưu

    Cách viết thì không quá đặc biệt. Nhưng vấn đề thì hoàn toàn mới (với mình). Đoạn cuối, với những trang viết về nỗ lực đoàn tụ gia đình đặc biệt cảm động. Cách nhìn của tác giả cũng rất khách quan!!

  2. 5 out of 5

    Karen

    I picked up this book expecting to read heart-warming stories of adoption. Instead I got a gripping, harrowing, and heartbreaking tale of war, desperation, and good intentions gone wrong. This book is well written and thoughtful but of course there are many questions that have no answers. One thing I find particularly sad is when amazing, courageous people dedicate their lives to doing something good and then it turns out to not be so good. Most of this book is morally complicated. The kids that I picked up this book expecting to read heart-warming stories of adoption. Instead I got a gripping, harrowing, and heartbreaking tale of war, desperation, and good intentions gone wrong. This book is well written and thoughtful but of course there are many questions that have no answers. One thing I find particularly sad is when amazing, courageous people dedicate their lives to doing something good and then it turns out to not be so good. Most of this book is morally complicated. The kids that were part of Operation Babylift were generally successful but often felt a sense of not belonging. The kids who stayed were often looking for more opportunity and trying to immigrate to the US. I think one of the biggest problems in general was the loss of information. Who was really an orphan? Why was a kid given up? I think for many of the kids coming to the US was a boon, but I can imagine it's maddening and hard to find closure when you have no idea what happened to your birth family and whether someone might be looking for you. There were a few individual stories that were told with some detail. I would love to read more of those.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Erica

    I recently finished reading this book because I came to the US as part of Operation Babylift as a baby. I was on the third airplane. Prior to this book, I have heard stories about how some of the "orphans" were not really orphans, and this book confirms what I have heard. I have mixed feelings about what transpired that led the US to airlift over 3,000 "orphaned" Vietnamese infants and children, and me being in this country. To say this was a complicated situation would be putting things mildly. I recently finished reading this book because I came to the US as part of Operation Babylift as a baby. I was on the third airplane. Prior to this book, I have heard stories about how some of the "orphans" were not really orphans, and this book confirms what I have heard. I have mixed feelings about what transpired that led the US to airlift over 3,000 "orphaned" Vietnamese infants and children, and me being in this country. To say this was a complicated situation would be putting things mildly. My impression is that it was poorly organized and no one considered the fact that not all the children in the orphanages were orphans. Dana Sachs did an excellent job at investigating Operation Babylift and showed that it was not all peaches and cream.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Meredith

    This book was written well, I love this author and the other books she's published about her experiences in Vietnam. I loved the passion with which she approached the subject and her objectivity. It raised some hard questions about the role of international adoption, and painted a vivid picture of those final days in the Vietnam War from an interesting and often forgotten perspective. This book was written well, I love this author and the other books she's published about her experiences in Vietnam. I loved the passion with which she approached the subject and her objectivity. It raised some hard questions about the role of international adoption, and painted a vivid picture of those final days in the Vietnam War from an interesting and often forgotten perspective.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Chloe Nguyễn Hoàng

    Cuốn sách mở đầu của năm 2020 👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻 Đọc xong thực sự rất ngưỡng mộ và khâm phục sự nhiệt huyết và bền bỉ của tác giả khi tìm tòi và lùng sục để có thể đưa vào khối lượng lớn kiến thức và thông tin như vậy. Tuy đến cuối cùng câu trả lời cho câu hỏi ban đầu đặt ra vẫn chưa thể tìm được, nhưng mình thiết nghĩ có lẽ nó không phải là dạng câu hỏi có thể dùng đúng hay sai để trả lời được, và liệu có cần thiết phải tìm được câu trả lời cho nó hay không? Qua cuốn sách mình cũng có được một cái nhìn về tìn Cuốn sách mở đầu của năm 2020 👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻 Đọc xong thực sự rất ngưỡng mộ và khâm phục sự nhiệt huyết và bền bỉ của tác giả khi tìm tòi và lùng sục để có thể đưa vào khối lượng lớn kiến thức và thông tin như vậy. Tuy đến cuối cùng câu trả lời cho câu hỏi ban đầu đặt ra vẫn chưa thể tìm được, nhưng mình thiết nghĩ có lẽ nó không phải là dạng câu hỏi có thể dùng đúng hay sai để trả lời được, và liệu có cần thiết phải tìm được câu trả lời cho nó hay không? Qua cuốn sách mình cũng có được một cái nhìn về tình cảnh miền Nam giai đoạn cuối kháng chiến chống Mĩ, tâm trạng, cảm xúc của người dân khi ấy.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Lauren A

    3.6/5

  7. 5 out of 5

    John

    Operation Babylift was the well-intentioned but perhaps misguided evacuation of 2,000 to 3,000 Vietnamese infants and children from what was then South Vietnam to the United States and other countries during the waning days of the Vietnam War. This book is excellent, really well-researched, well-reported and well-written. It had to have taken a great deal of persistence to chronicle events that happened 35 years ago amid the chaos and confusion of a collapsing country. The little girl in that pi Operation Babylift was the well-intentioned but perhaps misguided evacuation of 2,000 to 3,000 Vietnamese infants and children from what was then South Vietnam to the United States and other countries during the waning days of the Vietnam War. This book is excellent, really well-researched, well-reported and well-written. It had to have taken a great deal of persistence to chronicle events that happened 35 years ago amid the chaos and confusion of a collapsing country. The little girl in that picture on the cover -- shown with her birth mother just before they were separated in 1975 -- is now a wife and mother herself, living in Superior, Wis. I interviewed her as well as the author of this book for a story I wrote for the Duluth News Tribune. So the passages about Ho Thi Ngoc Anh -- now Anh Hansen -- were particularly poignant to me. But there are all sorts of poignant passages. Politicians are not a major part of the story, but two U.S. politicians who come across rather well are President Gerald Ford and Sen. Edward Kennedy. I found one passage involving Ford particularly moving. He had arrived in San Francisco to meet one of the first planes carrying babies and children. A pediatrician named Alex Stalcup already had entered the plane and was evaluating the infants, many of whom were in bad shape. Then he encountered the president in the aisle of the plane. Picking up the narrative: Only that morning, Ford had discussed the situation with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Frederick Weyand. It was one thing, though, to talk about the war in the luxurious atmosphere of a vacation home near Palm Springs. It was quite another to enter the stale and overburdened cabin of a 747 jetliner and find hundreds of sick and weary children, some of whom, having survived a plane crash the day before, still had burn marks, cuts, and even shrapnel wounds on their bodies. The president looked at Stalcup. "Alex, am I in the way?" he asked. It struck the young doctor at that moment that the president had not come here merely for political reasons. In fact, Gerald Ford looked close to tears. Stalcup picked up a baby girl, put her into the president's arms, and told him, "This one's yours." The president grasped the baby, then turned and walked back up the aisle. By the time he appeared in the doorway of the plane, he had managed to smile.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Megan Elizabeth

    I read this one for a class, and I was fully expecting it to be a dry-as-bones recap of what happened during and after Operation Babylift. What I got was a moving and captivating story that tells a side to the Vietnamese adoptee's story I had never heard before. Usually, American media/schooling paints this as the amazing saving of thousands of children's lives, rescuing them from a life of poverty and destruction. Sachs gives a more well-rounded perspective, taken from those who were there as w I read this one for a class, and I was fully expecting it to be a dry-as-bones recap of what happened during and after Operation Babylift. What I got was a moving and captivating story that tells a side to the Vietnamese adoptee's story I had never heard before. Usually, American media/schooling paints this as the amazing saving of thousands of children's lives, rescuing them from a life of poverty and destruction. Sachs gives a more well-rounded perspective, taken from those who were there as well as other Vietnamese citizens who stayed in their home country and saw everything happening with the babies and adoption agencies from a distance. Don't get me wrong, it was very informative and definitely a nonfiction book that isn't dramatized for added effect. Honestly, it doesn't need to be. That time period was violent and scary as is, and the parts on this book that show that do not pull many punches. I think anyone looking to learn more about a very complicated situation in a way that is smart and compelling as well as thorough, should pick this one up. In fact, I think the questions posed in this book are absolutely still relevant today, especially with the ongoing refugee crisis.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Huongta

    Quá buồn. Cuộc hội ngộ nào cũng làm cay sống mũi. Mình nghĩ, trong vấn đề này, việc tòa tuyên bố không thể đưa ra kết luận cho vụ kiện tập thể là đúng, vì bài toán này không đơn giản chỉ có đáp án Đúng hay Sai. Mỗi mảnh đời ấy tự tìm được câu trả lời cho chính họ. Mình cũng thích cách trả lời và tư tưởng của bác Williams ở Holt: Nếu không đủ khả năng thì đừng làm. Và, quả thực có một sự thú vị không nhẹ khi đọc cuốn này ở tháng này, tháng 3, tháng 4... Có nhiều vấn đề khúc mắc lắm, nhưng thực sự khô Quá buồn. Cuộc hội ngộ nào cũng làm cay sống mũi. Mình nghĩ, trong vấn đề này, việc tòa tuyên bố không thể đưa ra kết luận cho vụ kiện tập thể là đúng, vì bài toán này không đơn giản chỉ có đáp án Đúng hay Sai. Mỗi mảnh đời ấy tự tìm được câu trả lời cho chính họ. Mình cũng thích cách trả lời và tư tưởng của bác Williams ở Holt: Nếu không đủ khả năng thì đừng làm. Và, quả thực có một sự thú vị không nhẹ khi đọc cuốn này ở tháng này, tháng 3, tháng 4... Có nhiều vấn đề khúc mắc lắm, nhưng thực sự không phải điều mình quá quan tâm. Nếu còn gặp vấn đề này trong một cuốn sách khác thì mình sẽ tìm hiểu kỹ hơn.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Kara

    I really enjoyed learning about the complexity and years of aftermath of 'Operation Babylift' from Vietnam, which took place in the month prior to the "fall of Saigon". It makes me appreciative of the current laws for international adoption, and hopeful that history will never repeat itself even in such extreme situations. I was reminded of the mis-reporting in the news following the Haiti earthquake that there were orphans in need of adoptive families, which was later clarified that it would be I really enjoyed learning about the complexity and years of aftermath of 'Operation Babylift' from Vietnam, which took place in the month prior to the "fall of Saigon". It makes me appreciative of the current laws for international adoption, and hopeful that history will never repeat itself even in such extreme situations. I was reminded of the mis-reporting in the news following the Haiti earthquake that there were orphans in need of adoptive families, which was later clarified that it would be years to complete due diligence to determine whether there were any new children eligible for adoption.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Richard Taylor

    Bought the book for limited research on Operation Babylift, the controversial operation to bring babies to the US from Vietnam during the spring offensive and fall of the country, especially Saigon in April 1975. Found it too compelling to put down without reading it entirely. The author has done extensive research and writing in this area and has prepared a significant piece without taking sides.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Jennifer

    I picked this book up at the library thinking that it would be stories about the orphans from Vietnam. It actually is more the story of how the orphans were taken out of Vietnam during the fall to the North in 1975. It was interesting but not what I was expecting. It almost seemed a bit like an academic study in places.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Jo Sandgren

    a difficult read...about Vietnam orphans brought to USA at fall of Saigon...not all happy endings that's for sure! a difficult read...about Vietnam orphans brought to USA at fall of Saigon...not all happy endings that's for sure!

  14. 4 out of 5

    Karin

    This jumped around too much for me. I would have preferred the stories in full as case studies, not broken up so much.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Amber

    A fascinating account of operation baby lift and early international adoption.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Ruby Hollyberry

    Seemed very shallow, discursive, and amateurish to me. Barely covered the main facts. I expected something a lot more in-depth and professional.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Suzie

    I cannot imagine giving up my children. An absolutely fascinating book. Very well written and even handed. It raises more questions than it answers , though.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Lê Phúc

    Informative. Insightful. Human. Still too long.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Janeene

    not able to get this done before need to return to library - will try getting it another time

  20. 5 out of 5

    Karen (Living Unabridged)

    Moving and complicated.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Luesa

    Raises interesting issues of foreign adoptions in times of war.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer

    An excellent look at the role of orphanages and adoption agencies during the Vietnam war and how the well-intentioned Operation Babylift was disastrous for some children and families.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Caroline

  24. 4 out of 5

    Amy

  25. 5 out of 5

    Sharon Johnson

  26. 4 out of 5

    Devaki Murch

  27. 4 out of 5

    Ben

  28. 5 out of 5

    Nhung Vo

  29. 4 out of 5

    Laura

  30. 4 out of 5

    Deborah

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