Murphy Floor Speech in Honor of Walter Mondale
Thank you, Madam Speaker.
The memorial service for former Vice President Walter Mondale was held last week.
Unbeknownst to him, Mondale had a major impact on my life, and on the lives of other refugees fleeing violence and oppression in Southeast Asia. The moral courage he displayed then should influence and inspire world leaders now—as we confront a new refugee crisis spawned by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The Carter-Mondale administration took office in 1977, in the aftermath of the end of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Because my parents had worked with American and South Vietnamese forces during the war, they faced persecution by the communist government that had taken over.
In 1979, we were finally able to escape by boat. Unfortunately for us, we ran out of fuel in international waters. But fortunately, a U.S. Navy ship responded to our distress call. The sailors gave us the fuel and supplies we needed to reach a Malaysian refugee camp.
Soon after, my family again became the beneficiary of American power and generosity. A Virginia church sponsored our passage to the United States, and we became proud American citizens.
My family’s physical journey from Vietnam to America, and our emotional journey from darkness to light, was only possible because of policy decisions made by this nation’s leaders.
After Saigon fell to communist forces in 1975, President Ford permitted about 130,000 South Vietnamese citizens into the United States. But, after that, America’s gates were essentially closed to refugees from Southeast Asia, even though the situation on the ground continued to deteriorate. Former U.S. allies were being sent to what was called “re-education camps.” They were essentially hard labor camps, and many of them didn’t survive.
When Carter and Mondale entered the White House, many Vietnamese families, including mine, were taking their chances on the high seas. We were collectively known as the “Vietnamese boat people.” There was debate within the U.S. government about what to do. Some policymakers thought America had done enough. Others believed this country could do more.
Carter and Mondale ultimately sided with the advocates for additional action—even though the weight of public opinion was against them. Mondale chaired a meeting during which he grew impatient with the officials from the Defense and State departments.
“Are you telling me that we have thousands of people drowning in the open sea, and we have the Seventh Fleet right there, and we can’t help them?” he asked.
Although some Navy officials were reluctant to use American ships to rescue refugees, Mondale overruled them. And the Navy soon came to cherish their humanitarian role. As one ship commander involved in a rescue operation told Mondale.
“I thought it would demoralize my sailors, [but] I was dead wrong. It’s going to make a difference to the way those people think about America. Because when their life was at risk, they saw this ship with an American flag come up and these young guys go down and pick them up. . . . It’s hard to stay mad at a policy like that.”
Of course, saving refugees was only half the battle. Refugees also needed to find countries willing to accept them. Here again, Mondale led the country and the world.
In July 1979, Carter sent Mondale to Geneva to address a UN conference, where Mondale delivered an eloquent and effective speech. He invoked the inadequate efforts taken by the international community to assist European Jews fleeing Nazi Germany. In that case, the consequences of inaction were the death camps.
“Let us not re-enact their error,” he told the delegates. “Let us not be heirs to their shame.”
“We face a world problem. Let us fashion a world solution.”
“History will not forgive us if we fail. History will not forget us if we succeed.”
Mondale’s speech prompted a standing ovation. More importantly, it prompted many nations to increase the number of refugees they accepted.
The record is clear. The only reason my family—and families like ours—were given sanctuary and opportunity in America was because of leaders like Mondale, who chose to do what was morally right over what was politically popular.
While history does not repeat itself, it does rhyme. Today, a new refugee crisis has emerged. Millions of families have fled Ukraine in the face of Russian savagery. To date, the response from the international community has mostly been in the mold of Mondale. World leaders have spent political and financial capital to help fellow human beings.
We must continue to meet the moral moment. We must follow the Mondale model.
Thank God for Walter Mondale. Rest in peace, Mr. Vice President.