China elephants and orphans: Operation Babylift and the white savior complex

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Southern New Hampshire University
As the Vietnam War drew to a close during the spring of 1975, the United States determined it had a responsibility to save South Vietnam’s at-risk children from the communists. Americans largely pushed for this humanitarian act as a chance to do one thing right in Vietnam. Collaborating with Western-run orphanages in Vietnam, the U.S. initiated Operation Babylift evacuated thousands of children. This was not without consequences, some of which are still felt today. The evacuation was an emotional event that captivated the United States at the end of a long war. It is also an historic example of white savior complex at work. As a subconscious aspect of Western culture, the white savior complex enables white people to take the actions they deem best in helping non-white people. They then benefit from the experiences, while potentially doing nothing about the systemic causes of the problems they temporarily address. The white savior complex played a key role in the conception of Operation Babylift and creating the need for it through years of American intervention in Vietnam. Applying Teju Cole’s “White Savior Industrial Complex” framework with Jordan Flaherty and Caitlin Breedlove’s savior mentality concepts to the Western individuals and entities involved in Operation Babylift will illustrate their motivations and the outcomes, both negative and positive. This analysis will demonstrate why and how Operation Babylift came to fruition, played out, and concluded for the benefit of white Westerners. It will also highlight long-term, systematic repercussions faced by non-white people when the white savior complex is not acknowledged. The evidence will illustrate for white Westerners the importance of making informed decisions in helping non-white people by decentering themselves from their privilege and acknowledging their cultural understandings and motivations. (Author abstract)