Of Ladders And Letters

On the anniversary of Saigon's fall, a trove of documents sheds new light on old traumas

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The owner of a chain of supercenters in Michigan would hardly seem a match for Henry Kissinger in a debate over the Vietnam War, but at the 1995 Gerald R. Ford Foundation board meeting, the former Secretary of State indeed lost a heated argument on the subject to one Fred Meijer of Grand Rapids. At issue was an 18-step metal ladder, utterly unremarkable except that in April 1975 thousands of desperate South Vietnamese, fleeing capture by the invading North Vietnamese for freedom in the U.S., had clambered up its sturdy steps onto the roof of the U.S. embassy in Saigon and into American helicopters perched there. To Meijer, the gray ladder was an uplifting symbol of hope; to Kissinger, it was a grim reminder of the U.S. failure in South Vietnam that had cost more than 58,000 American lives.

It was Meijer's entrepreneurial son Hank who unwittingly sparked the contention when he went to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon) in October 1994, in search of promising new business ventures that might result from the Clinton Administration's impending normalization of relations with Vietnam. While driving down Le Duan Boulevard one afternoon, Hank Meijer asked his driver to stop at the former U.S. embassy, atop which the tragic last moments of America's involvement in Vietnam had been played out. Abandoned since and allowed to run down into a weed-choked eyesore where only chickens wandered among the shards of broken glass, the padlocked building was slated for the wrecking ball.

"Then I saw the ladder from the evacuation," Hank Meijer relates. "My first thought was, That's an important piece of history; perhaps I can pay somebody a few hundred bucks to weld it off with a blowtorch, then crate it up and ship it back to Michigan for display at the Ford Museum." He resisted, but when he returned to Grand Rapids and told his father about the ladder, Fred Meijer was captivated, and determined to put those "18 steps to freedom" on permanent display before the American people. He figured his fellow board members at the Ford Foundation would agree--but when he broached the idea of acquiring the ladder at the next meeting he met with surprisingly harsh resistance from Kissinger. "It's just a terrible idea," the nation's only celebrity diplomat kept repeating. "Why would you want to remind visitors about this horrible chapter in American history?"

Somewhat startled, Meijer held his ground. "Henry, if we don't acquire the ladder, it will end up in the bowels of the Smithsonian." To which, an annoyed Kissinger shot back, "That's a good place for it."

Then the ex-President spoke up for his old friend Meijer, likening the "freedom ladder" to the concrete slab from the Berlin Wall that adorns the museum's entrance. "No one knows more than I how humiliating it was," Ford reminded his Secretary of State. "As you recall, I had to sit in the Oval Office and watch our troops get kicked out of Vietnam. But it's part of our history, and we can't forget it." The decision was made to get the ladder. "To some, this staircase will always be seen as an emblem of military defeat," Ford notes. "For me, however, it symbolizes man's undying desire to be free."

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