Saturday, January 16, 2016

Day Ninety-Six. Influence: Andrew F. Antippas

When Saigon fell on April 30, 1975, the ops center in Washington was pandemonium.

Here's the official reason for the facility. The Department of State's Operations Center monitors world events, prepares written briefs for the Secretary of State, and facilitates communication between the Department and the rest of the world. It's manned by watch-standers who work in shifts to provide coverage around the clock. In a world where what floor you're on can sometimes determine your status, the Operations Center is on the seventh, or top, floor of the Department's 21st and Virginia Avenue, Northwest headquarters building in Washington. I worked in that building between tours of duty aboard for 24 years (1965-89) without ever knowing it was named the Truman Building.

I'd just completed my Foreign Service tour in Liberia, from 1974 to 1975, and was in temporary housing with my young family of four.

I didn't have a home. I didn't have "an assignment." There was unpleasantness about an article I'd published in the April 1975 issue of The AOPA Pilot magazine. Don't ask. You can see the magazine cover here, but don't ask.

Others with many years of experience couldn't remember any previous crisis that filled the Operations Center the way this one did.

Ops center: pandemonium

Like so many who were rushed into the overcrowded Operations facility, I was being pressed into a temporary detail while awaiting a future, full assignment.

That made me part of the Indochina Task Force headed initially by Ambassador L. Dean Brown and later by Julia Valada Taft. Our initial estimate that that we were going to resettle 130,000 evacuees from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. In the end, we handled twice that number.

The United States had never before attempted a refugee effort of this magnitude. The effort had elements in common with resettlement after the 1956 Hungarian uprising but the Hungarian exodus involved fewer people, easier geography, and an established infrastructure for handling refugees. When Saigon fell, we suddenly had over a hundred thousand escapees, a figure that eventually doubled, many of them scattered at sea from Thailand to Guam. Our precedented mission was to resettle them, using the parole authority of the Attorney General to admit persons to the United States on a scale no one had imagined when that authority was placed into law.

My boss was Andrew F. Antippas, a smart, vocal, motivated figure who wasn't afraid to get into arguments, even when doing do was detrimental to his career. I was impressed by his integrity, outspokenness, and refusal to yield when somebody insisted that something couldn't be done. Andy wanted to be where the action was and at that moment, in a nation divided and bitter over our Vietnam legacy, a humanitarian crisis without precedent was that place.

I always wondered which Andy was the hard-headed and honorable leader I knew. Was it the Greek heritage, the Massachusetts-boy upbringing or the experience as a Korean War combat infantryman had shaped him?

Born September 28, 1931, a dual-graduate of Tufts University, Andy joined the Foreign Service in 1960, five years before me. He pulled early assignments in Douala, Cameroon, Bangui, Central African Republic and Osaka-Kobe, Japan.

His subsequent assignments were the ones that transformed him into into one of the State Department's most seasoned Southeast Asia hands.  At some sacrifice, he took a posting as a political officer in the U. S. embassy in Saigon.

Unlike political hawks who believed they were fighting the true fight in Southeast Asia, Andy entered the war with mixed reactions. He was very aware of the drubbing the French had taken in Indochina. He was skeptical of the domino theory, which held that if one country fell to communists, others would. But right or wrong, Vietnam was where the action was, and Andy wanted to be where the action was.

Also unlike political hawks who rushed in where fools feared to tread, Andy knew war wasn't something you make haste to create.

The photo of five combat infantryman, with Andy standing at real center, comes from his period in infantry combat in Korea in 1953. In my mind I see the camaraderie on the men's faces as a mask for the the thousand-yard stare they aren't showing us. Having fought in one war gave Andy a realistic perspective on being in another.

Difficult duty

Volunteering for Foreign Service duty in Saigon inflicted hidden costs that linger today. Andy volunteered to go to the American Embassy in 1967 with the assurance that he would serve as a political officer. Andy felt that success in the Foreign Service required experience in political reporting and analysis. Newly married, he volunteered without consulting his new bride, a significant personal error.  Judy's immediate resentment stemmed from the fact that while she was willing to go to a war zone State Department dependents were not allowed in Vietnam due to the obvious physical dangers as well as the paucity of living quarters. Andy and  Judy are still together today but Andy's decision to volunteer almost wrecked his marriage and created resentment that lasted for decades.

After Saigon, Andy took up a particularly difficult posting at the U.S. embassy in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He explored Cambodia and its leadership as no one else on our side had. He became the "go to" expert on Cambodia at a time when that country's affairs were pivotal to any Southeast Asia solution. More than once, Andy had to tell his bosses they were wrong about some pending policy move. They listened but at times Andy may have paid a price for being right.

Following his tour in Phnom Penh, Andy and I met in 1972, when we were country desk officers at 21st and Virginia Avenue, me for Korea and he for Cambodia. Although he served  in South Vietnam as well, Andy made an indelible mark as the State Department's expert on Cambodia. Later, when many became homeless. he felt strongly that the United States owed something to the people of Indochina who had been on our side and it would be wrong be betray them now.

We had other duties, but Andy and I were mainly tasked with solving the dilemma of those refugees who had not made it to U.S. soil, as many others had done at Guam or aboard U.S. ships at sea. Governments in Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and especially the British colony of Hong Kong did not want to offer succor to the refugees who descended upon them. They wanted the United States to solve what they saw as a U.S. problem.

Andy doesn't remember it today, but I recall a conversation he had with a skeptic from another agency who'd been detailed to the Operations Center, apparently to undermine our mission to save souls in distress. How would we vet an unprecedented number of applications? What if common criminals, or spies, or, heaven forbid. communists, were to seize advantage of the authority we were using to move so many people into U.S. custody so rapidly?

"So your solution is to leave boat people stranded across ten thousand miles of ocean? Your solution is to strand refugees in a dozen countries that can't, or won't, resettle them?" Andy didn't like to he told something couldn't be done. "We can solve the problems. We can show what we're made of.  We can prove that even in the worst of times, Americans can rise to the occasion. We can make this thing work."

Refugee centers

Against some congressional opposition, the government set up four principal refugee processing centers on U.S. soil, one each at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, Camp Pendleton, California, Indian Gap, Pennsylvania and Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. Andy remembers the Capitol Hill delegation from Arkansas as being especially concerned about tens of thousands of foreigners abruptly arriving on its turf.

As part of my work on refugees under Andy's tutelage, I spent July 1975 in the swamp at Eglin, living in a motel in Niceville, Florida, using a rental car and working in a tent supervising others who vetted refugee applications. "The American consul in Niceville," that was me.  An important event happened in my family while I was swatting mosquitoes in Florida: My wife Young Soon gave a realtor an offer to buy a four-bedroom Dutch colonial house on Valewood Drive in Oakton, Virginia. I never saw the house. I gave my approval to its purchase in a Niceville telephone booth. We bought the house that year, 1975, and have lived in it ever since except for the years 1979 to 1987, where we were in Stockholm and London.

I continued working in a tent, certain that our refugee pool consisted of deserving people and families to whom, as Andy would say, we owned a great debt. I was also convinced we missed some of the good ones: Many who deserved a chance at freedom never got out of Indochina.

I returned to Washington, at first to the Operations Center and later to a new home in the refugee task task force elsewhere in the building. My stint in the refugee task force ended by the end of 1975. Andy stayed longer. Whether the memory is real or imagined, I cling to this image of Antippas and I, struggled in limited space in the Operations Center, using its communications resources to make things happen when others couldn't because we were willing to improvise.

For me, a traditional assignment came the following year, as North Korea watcher in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research from 1976 to 1979. That ended my refugee experience and my work with Andy.

Andy Antippas went from our refugee task force to other duties including charge d'affaires in Nassau Bahamas, consul general in Seoul, Korea, and consul general in Montreal, Quebec before retiring from the Foreign Service in 1992, (I retired in 1989).

I see in Andy a man of heart and honesty who rose very far in our nation's diplomatic corps but who might have gone farther, perhaps even becoming a household name but for his outspokenness. Together, we moved mountains.

Maybe twenty years later, that government stuff behind me, my writing career is full swing, I was walking my dog Lucy near our Valewood Drive house, the house Young Soon bought while I was moving refugees at Eglin. A neighbor I had never noticed before popped out to check his mailbox. That's how I learned that Andy and I had been neighbors for years. We are friends still. On this ninety-sixth day since I was diagnosed with a fatal brain tumor, Andy has been one of those friends who've been there for me

That's heart.


  1. It's nice to have such a good friend. My husband, Dusty, was on the Coral Sea during the time when Saigon fell. They brought some of the refugees on board, but he said most of them went to the Midway. His job was on the flight deck as a yellow shirt.

  2. Great blog entry. Amazing, thank you for sharing.

  3. Dear Sir, My name is also Andy Antippas; in my case, however, the "Andy" is invented to spare me the awkwardness of my baptismal name, Antippas Antippas. I'm certain Andrew stems, as my family does, from the island of Bari, a village in the mountains of the Ionian island of Kefalonia, or possibly from Antipata, a trading village on the northern coast of the island established by our ancestors from Asia Minor who went to Florence after the fall of Constantinople. I think Andrew is a few years older than I am (74), but I was in graduate school and did not serve. I have been aware of Andrew for decades and have always felt honored to share patrimony with him, my semi-doppelganger.

  4. sorry...that was to read "...from Bari, a village...etc"