Operation Passage to Freedom Evacuates Refugees from North Vietnam Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The U.S. Navy’s transport of 310,000 North Vietnamese refugees from communist North Vietnam to South Vietnam after the Geneva Conference of 1954 was a significant Cold War triumph for the West. It temporarily strengthened the South Vietnamese government and placed Vietnam in the American public eye, but deepened American involvement in Vietnam.

Summary of Event

On July 21, 1954, the Geneva Conference Geneva Accords (1954) concluded with accords to end French colonial authority and military presence in Vietnam. Because of the Cold War, Vietnam was to be partitioned temporarily along the seventeenth northern parallel. In the communist North, Communism;Vietnam the Democratic Republic of Vietnam Democratic Republic of Vietnam was led by Ho Chi Minh. In the noncommunist South, Emperor Bao Dai and his new prime minister, Ngo Dinh Diem, ruled the Republic of Vietnam. National elections and reunification were planned for 1956. To separate French and allied Vietnamese forces from the communist Viet Minh, Viet Minh article 14 of the Geneva Accords provided that military forces should regroup in their respective areas in the North or South. For a grace period of ten months, civilians could also move to the part of Vietnam of their choice. Because the Viet Minh violently harassed Vietnamese (especially the Vietnamese Catholic minority) Religious persecution Christianity;repression by communist governments whom they perceived to be aiding the French in areas of communist control, the number of Vietnamese willing to flee the communist North was significant. Operation Passage to Freedom Operation Exodus Refugees;Vietnamese [kw]Operation Passage to Freedom Evacuates Refugees from North Vietnam (Aug., 1954-May, 1955) [kw]Refugees from North Vietnam, Operation Passage to Freedom Evacuates (Aug., 1954-May, 1955) [kw]North Vietnam, Operation Passage to Freedom Evacuates Refugees from (Aug., 1954-May, 1955) Operation Passage to Freedom Operation Exodus Refugees;Vietnamese [g]Southeast Asia;Aug., 1954-May, 1955: Operation Passage to Freedom Evacuates Refugees from North Vietnam[04570] [g]Vietnam;Aug., 1954-May, 1955: Operation Passage to Freedom Evacuates Refugees from North Vietnam[04570] [c]Immigration, emigration, and relocation;Aug., 1954-May, 1955: Operation Passage to Freedom Evacuates Refugees from North Vietnam[04570] [c]Vietnam War;Aug., 1954-May, 1955: Operation Passage to Freedom Evacuates Refugees from North Vietnam[04570] [c]Cold War;Aug., 1954-May, 1955: Operation Passage to Freedom Evacuates Refugees from North Vietnam[04570] [c]Independence movements;Aug., 1954-May, 1955: Operation Passage to Freedom Evacuates Refugees from North Vietnam[04570] Ngo Dinh Diem Sabin, Lorenzo S. Lansdale, Edward Eisenhower, Dwight D. [p]Eisenhower, Dwight D.;and Vietnam[Vietnam] Bao Dai

The USS Montague lowers its ladder to the throng of Vietnamese refugees waiting to board at Haiphong in August, 1954.

(National Archives)

In Saigon, U.S. Air Force colonel Edward Lansdale realized the propaganda and material value of evacuating as many anticommunist refugees from North to South Vietnam as possible. Lansdale was head of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Saigon Military Mission and quickly became the friend of Prime Minister Diem. Diem shared Lansdale’s vision of a successful population transfer to shore up the power of his government and state. With South Vietnam openly welcoming northern refugees, their numbers swelled. However, despite the safe passage assured by the Geneva Accords, the Viet Minh harassed and killed refugees on the roads to the South. Evacuation by air or by ship was necessary, yet the French lacked sufficient airplanes and ships.

On August 5, 1954, Prime Minister Diem asked for American help. U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower agreed with Diem and Lansdale on the value of a successful evacuation mission and authorized American support. That day, the U.S. Foreign Operations Administration issued a declaration of aid. On August 7, the U.S. Navy launched Operation Passage to Freedom. The commander of the Seventh (Pacific) Fleet, Admiral Felix Stump, created Task Force 90, Task Force 90 which was charged with implementing the operation. The command of Task Force 90 was assigned to Rear Admiral Lorenzo Sabin.

Landing in the North Vietnamese port city of Haiphong on August 10, Rear Admiral Sabin started to coordinate the evacuation process with the French, who were airlifting and shipping out their own troops and matériel and as many refugees as they could handle. Because the Geneva Accords forbade the landing of foreign troops and equipment in Vietnam, the Americans were circumspect. Initially, American sailors went ashore in civilian clothing, and American equipment, such as bulldozers to clear refugee camp sites in South Vietnam, were stripped of military markings.

On August 16, the U.S. Navy transport ship Menard Menard (ship) began taking aboard the first North Vietnamese refugees. For political reasons, boarding was done not in Haiphong but on Do Son Beach to its south, where by August 18 nineteen hundred refugees had boarded the ship. Four more American ships arrived there, two transporters and two attack cargo ships.

On August 21, the Menard landed in South Vietnam at Vung Tau, then known as Cape St. Jacques. The refugees were met by Ho Quan Phuoc, the officer in charge from the Saigon government, and were guided into a tent city awaiting them. The arrival on August 22 of the next American ship, the Montrose, Montrose (ship) was filmed by U.S. journalists, and President Eisenhower publicly praised the operation.

Admiral Sabin quickly set up a successful and efficient naval evacuation system. North Vietnamese refugees, Vietnamese soldiers who had fought the Viet Minh, and military vehicles and cargo were shipped from Haiphong and Do Son Beach to either Vung Tau or Saigon. At the height of the operations, Admiral Sabin commanded seventy-four ships, including large tank-landing ships, transport vessels, attack cargo ships, and dock-landing ships. Sabin’s operations were aided by the Navy’s Military Sea Transportation Service, which contributed thirty-nine transport vessels. At Danang, the U.S. Navy based a Logistic Support Force.

To generate an impressive flow of refugees, Lansdale and his team used covert and overt anticommunist propaganda. However, this propaganda would not have been as effective if many North Vietnamese, especially Catholics, were not already suffering genuine Viet Minh persecution. September and October, 1954, were peak months for Operation Passage to Freedom. By October 2, aboard American and French ships and French planes, 400,000 people had left North Vietnam. On October 22, meeting with the National Security Council, President Eisenhower expressed his satisfaction with the operation.

Colonel Lansdale and Prime Minister Diem worked closely together to motivate the refugees and to process them upon their arrival. The United States allocated some forty million dollars to the operation, including initial donations to refugees. American sailors were genuinely welcomed by people fleeing communism. Aboard the ships, refugees gave birth and a few died. The U.S. Navy set up medical centers both in Haiphong and near Saigon to help sick refugees. One of the physicians operating in Haiphong since August, 1954, was Thomas Dooley, Dooley, Thomas who later wrote a best seller about his experience, Deliver Us from Evil Deliver Us from Evil (Dooley) (1956).

By January, 1955, the majority of the refugees were evacuated. Operation Passage to Freedom continued to its legal deadline of May 20, 1955, but with fewer and fewer vessels allocated. In all, from August, 1954, to May, 1955, American vessels had transported 310,800 Vietnamese from the North to the South. Of those, 293,000 were civilians and 17,800 Vietnamese soldiers who had fought the Viet Minh. The American ships had also carried 8,135 military vehicles and 68,757 tons of cargo.

Dubbed Operation Exodus by Prime Minister Diem and encouraged by Emperor Bao Dai, the full southward evacuation consisted of about 860,000-900,000 people. The U.S. Navy transported about one-third of these. The total includes 190,000 French and Vietnamese soldiers, about 65,000 Nung people and ethnic Chinese, and some 30,000 French citizens. Approximately 45,000 North Vietnamese went South by land. From the South, 90,000 Viet Minh troops and 40,000 communist civilians were transported North on Polish and French ships, and 12,000 civilians went North by road.


For almost 6 percent of the Vietnamese—a people traditionally tied closely to their ancestral lands—the flight from the North showed the world in 1954 that communism was indeed feared. The substantial American involvement in the evacuation not only enabled a large number of refugees to leave but also significantly increased U.S. involvement in the Vietnamese conflict. After its huge public support for South Vietnam, the United States would find it difficult to leave the South to the communists.

The success of relocating refugees in cities like Saigon and Da Lat and in 300 new villages, due also to generous American aid, gave the South an initial advantage. Because 80 percent of the refugees (including Prime Minister Diem) were Roman Catholics, the proportion of Catholics rose to a significant 10 percent in an otherwise Buddhist country. Of the 300 new villages, 267 were considered Catholic and 3 Protestant.

Diem used the Catholics immediately. After a national referendum, Bao Dai abdicated, and on October 26, 1955, Diem became president of the new Republic of Vietnam. Diem felt strong enough in the South to oppose the planned 1956 common elections. Diem’s autocratic leadership, his reliance on his family, and his favoring of Catholics at the expense of Buddhists—together with missteps in handling the growing communist insurrection—soured his relationship with the Americans, as evidenced by the fact that the United States did not oppose a coup that assassinated him on October 2, 1963. After the fall of Saigon to the North on April 30, 1975, many of the earlier refugees and their descendants would flee again, this time out of Vietnam. Operation Passage to Freedom Operation Exodus Refugees;Vietnamese

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dooley, Tom. Deliver Us from Evil: The Story of Vietnam’s Flight to Freedom. New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1956. An eyewitness account by a U.S. naval physician who treated Vietnamese refugees, credited for familiarizing Americans with Vietnam when first published in 1956; the book was later blamed for some propagandistic language and Cold War exaggerations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Frankum, Ronald B., Jr. Operation Passage to Freedom. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2007. The best and most detailed account from the American perspective. Built on archival research and more than forty interviews with members of the U.S. Navy who took part in the event. Illustrated, maps.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. 2d ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1997. Most widely available English book on Vietnam; chapters 5, 6, and 7 deal with Operation Passage to Freedom and its significance. Illustrated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lansdale, Edward. In the Midst of War. 1972. 2d ed. Bronx, N.Y.: Fordham University Press, 1991. The second half of this memoir by an American officer covers the event from an eyewitness perspective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nguyen, Thi Lien Hang. “The Double Diaspora of Vietnam’s Catholics.” Orbis (Philadelphia) 39 (Fall, 1995): 491-501. A Vietnamese perspective by the daughter and niece of three refugees; she includes their oral histories.

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