At a time when the nation is beset with rage over police killings of African Americans, violence against Asian Americans, heated divisions within the government, and admissions of refugees at historic lows, the passing of former Vice President Walter Mondale provides an opportunity to recall what was arguably his most powerful address. It was a great moment of bipartisan collaboration that brought the world to its feet in honor of the humanitarian leadership from the United States.
The story begins on a cold night in early 1979 as Iowa Governor Robert Ray sat in his office watching a news story by journalist Edward Bradley. Standing on the beach of an island off the coast of Malaysia, Bradley was describing how a boat filled with refugees, having escaped from Vietnam, was being pushed back out to sea. Local officials were fearful they would be inundated with the endless flow of refugees.
As Ray watched the news story, the frail craft broke apart in the deadly waves. Dozens of humans could be seen falling into the turbulent sea. Most were drowning as Bradley, with his voice breaking, incredulously described the tragedy before his eyes. The fortunate few who survived washed up on the beach. In one truly dramatic moment, Bradley rushed into the water to help pull these people to safety.
Shocked by what he had witnessed, Ray asked why this was happening. On loan to his staff from the State Department, I told him that the United States and every other country in the world had stopped taking refugees from Southeast Asia. The doors were all closed. That night, Ray wrote to President Jimmy Carter saying that if our doors can reopen, Iowa would double the number of refugees it resettles. Ray and I went to Washington to lobby the White House and State Department.
That July, Ray went to Geneva with Mondale to attend the International Conference on Indochinese Refugees held by the United Nations. There were still no countries taking refugees from Southeast Asia. Further, the depredations these people were suffering were increasing rapidly along with their numbers. As the event carried on, country after country either offered sympathetic words to the plight of the refugees or condemnation by communist bloc officials of an exploitation of the situation by the West as a way of attacking the victorious socialist government of Vietnam. No country offered to welcome any of these refugees.
Then Mondale came to the podium. In what was a triumphant moment of his political career, he told the assembled diplomats the story of the ship Saint Louis which, filled with Jews seeking to escape the Holocaust, had been turned away from our shores in 1939. Saying firmly that never again should this situation occur, Mondale said that Carter decided to reopen our doors and that the United States would accept 168,000 new refugees a year. Those from Southeast Asia would be saved.
At that moment, save for the communist bloc officials, those assembled delegates from around the world had jumped to their feet and gave our country a standing ovation for our humanitarian leadership. As Mondale made his way to the back of the hall where the United States delegation was located, Ray went up to him to shake his hand and say, “This is one of the proudest moments of my life as an American.”
In 2005, as the president of the World Food Prize Foundation, I hosted a dinner to honor Mondale and Ray and recall that incredible moment. The ballroom at the Des Moines Marriott was filled with officials and leaders from both political parties, who replicated the standing ovation after the announcement by Mondale. In a dramatic moment, a large group of the refugees from Southeast Asia who had been resettled in Iowa came on stage and joined in singing about their new lives.
The words of the Iowa corn song never sounded more meaningful to the crowd there than when they were sung by dozens of new residents as a tribute to those individuals who, inspired by the reporting of an African American journalist, had come together across political lines to rescue them and give them better lives in the United States.
Kenneth Quinn is a retired foreign service officer of the State Department and has served as a former president of the World Food Prize Foundation.