Interview with Tammy Nguyen Lee, director of Operation Babylift

Among the many controversial legacies of the Vietnam War, Operation Babylift dramatically brought the results of U.S. Cold War policy to the front doorsteps of U.S. domestic race politics. Critics have argued that childcare workers and government staff deceptively persuaded Vietnamese parents into allowing their children to go, parents who were desperate to find a safe way out for their children and who believed that they would be reunited eventually. Tammy Nguyen Lee’s film Operation Babylift revisits the controversial, $2 million mission that airlifted more than 2,500 Vietnamese children out of Saigon during the last days of the war. The first 20 minutes of the film comprise interviews with non-governmental staff who accompanied the children on cargo planes, the first official flight of which blew up in the air due to mechanical failure. The rest of the film presents a series of interviews with 20 of the adoptees, who talk about growing up in the U.S. and realizing they didn’t look like their parents (most of whom were white); their soul-searching for their biological parents (especially their mothers); and their joy in meeting other adoptees who understood their ambivalent feelings about their loss and the privilege of having been separated from war. Their stories remind me of scholar Jodi Kim’s argument about how adoptees experience a “social death” in being cut off from affiliations that provide us with a sense of history, family lineage, and community.

Nguyen Lee was born in Saigon, and fled the country as a boat person when she was three months old. After a year and a half in a refugee camp in Hong Kong, she and her mother were sponsored to the U.S. by a church in Silver Spring, Maryland. Nguyen Lee has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Cinema from Southern Methodist University, and a Master of Fine Arts from the Producers Program at UCLA. In addition to her work as a filmmaker, she is the founder of ATG (Against The Grain Productions), a non profit company that creates social issue based media and raises funds for international orphanages.

We sat down for an interview in Los Angeles when she was in Southern California for a screening of her film at UC Irvine. The interview is in two short parts (8:34 min and 1:57 min) because we were cut off momentarily and, this being on the low-tech side, I haven’t been able to paste the two parts together.

Here is the interview:

–Chuong-Dai Vo

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  1. I have not yet succeeded in hearing the interview. Tried Mozilla and Explorer. Tried downloading and then playing with RealPlayer. Has anyone succeeded?


    • Thanks, Dan, for pointing out the technical issue. The audio files have been converted to mp3 and should play in most browsers.

  2. The interview crashes my browser. I will try again later, and hope to see the film.

    Here is my vsg review of a related new work. Dana Sachs’ history of Babylift, The Life We Were Given:

    The Life We Were Given: Operation Babylift, International Adoption, and
    the Children of War in Vietnam, by Dana Sachs comes out April 30 from
    Beacon Press. See for details of
    Dana’s tour in support of the book.

    As Kurt Vonnegut wrote in review of a book by Vance Bourjaily, Dana Sachs
    is a friend of mine. I would plug any book she wrote but I wouldn’t cross
    my heart and swear that it was good.

    I swear on my heart that Operation Babylift is a good book. No one ever
    told me that as you age you get to watch your friends turn into artists,
    much better than the ones whose works you enjoyed in youth, because you
    know exactly what they are talking about.

    Dana has reached into one of the comets that lit up the night sky when
    were five and ten years old, the mad evacuation of a few thousand children
    from the falling Republic of Viet Nam, and told its origins and trajectory
    and how the tail broke up and what it portends.

    She has talked to almost everybody and consulted the archives, here and in
    Viet Nam, with a Fulbright grant but without the doctoral-level funding
    which would have required her to frame and discuss the events in the
    discourse of a discipline.

    She can just say what happened. The discourse she does engage with is
    common sense, the questions that are going to come up if you talk about
    the Babylift. Were they orphans? What happened to the mothers? Would
    the children have been better off in Viet Nam?

    I don’t have a lot of common sense. My father’s father was placed in an
    orphanage by living parents and farmed out to fosters as free farm labor.
    My mother’s mother was abandoned as a Jew to the French state and raised
    with loving righteousness by a village that took in such as she for pay.

    Pop hated the adults involved in his childhood and paid for all their
    graves in grim glory. Grandmere longed for her mother, and then for her
    foster mother and village, who got her out of France ahead of the Nazis,
    all her life.

    But I love the way Dana follows down every possible issue from the common
    sense of people who are not yet aware that we are all orphans. She goes
    to such lengths as to find the Communist who entered Saigon in 1975 to
    take charge of its orphans, another woman of Saigon who was a child on the
    same block as one of the evacuated orphanages, on and on.

    The book is indefatigable, yet short. It glows with wisdom, nuance,
    acceptance, compassion, all earned from asking questions I would never
    ask. It also has uncanny charm, the gravity I think of an occulted

    The one person Dana didn’t talk was the prime mover of the Babylift,
    Rosemary Taylor, one of those queen bees we all know from international
    aid. She wouldn’t cooperate with the book. Dana’s deft presentation of
    her nonetheless is a marvelous display of what it is not only to be from
    the South but also to actually be kind and courteous.

    Saints aren’t saints because they are nice, or professional, or because
    what they do makes sense. Taylor is a piece of work, who sent children
    around the world because she loved every one of them as an individual,
    whatever that can mean, in a world where every orphan also has family.

    She glows in Dana’s book like that maniac who stomps around Scripture,
    whom we are all supposed to worship. It’s a book about life as we live
    it, the real stuff. Really should be in libraries.

    Dan Duffy
    Editor, Viet Nam Literature Project


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