A Gift of Barbed Wire

America's Allies Abandoned in South Vietnam

Robert S. McKelvey

  • Published: 2002. Paperback 2014
  • Subject Listing: Asian Studies / South Asia; Politics
  • Bibliographic information: 280 pp., 6 x 9 in.
  • Territorial rights: World Rights
  • Contents

A Gift of Barbed Wire is a penetrating look at the lives of South Vietnamese officials and their families left behind in Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975. A former Marine who served in Vietnam, Robert McKelvey went on to practice psychiatry and, through his work in refugee camps and U.S. social service organizations, met South Vietnamese men from all walks of life who had been imprisoned in re-education camps immediately after the war. McKelvey's interviews with these former political prisoners, their wives, and their children reveal the devastating, long-term impact of their incarceration.

From the early years in French colonial Vietnam through the Vietnam War, from postwar ordeals of re-education camps, social ostracism, and poverty to eventual emigration to the United States, this collection of narratives provides broad and highly personal accounts of individuals and families evolving against the backdrop of war and vast social change.

Some of the people interviewed for the book eventually reached the United States as boat people fleeing Vietnam in unsafe vessels; others arrived, after rigorous screening, through U.S. Government-sponsored programs. But even in the safety of the United States they had to begin anew, devoting all their remaining energies to survival.

While crediting the courage and resilience of these families, McKelvey holds a critical mirror up to our culture, exploring the nature of our responsibility to our allies as well as the attitudes that obscured the reality of war as "a grinding, brutal interplay of complex forces that often develops a sustaining energy and momentum of its own, driving us in directions that we neither anticipated nor desired."
Robert S. McKelvey is professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland and is the author of The Dust of Life: America's Children Abandoned in Vietnam.

"Despite the horrors portrayed, these are tales of courage and successful survival in the broader human tragedy of war and its aftermath. McKelvey's skills as an interviewer and his knowledge of the Vietnamese community, especially the survivors, and their willingness to trust him with stories which they usually hold closely, make A Gift of Barbed Wire both persuasive and cogent. They are also reasons why not many people in the world could undertake such a project."
-Charles Holzer, University of Texas Medical Branch

"A Gift of Barbed Wire is the only study of Vietnamese re-education camp experiences that includes in some detail the family members of those who were incarcerated and the effects - economic, social, and psychological - that imprisonment had on the whole family."
-James Freeman, author of Hearts of Sorrow: Vietnamese American Lives


Part One Former Political Prisoners
1. The Doctor
2. The Engineer
3. The Tailor
4. The Spy

Part Two Former Political Prisoners and Their Families
5. The Pilot
6. The Pilot's Wife
7. The Pilot's Daughter
8. The Teacher
9. The Teacher's Wife
10. The Politician
11. The Politician's Wife
12. The Politician's Son
13. The Politician's Grandson
14. The Politician's Daughter-in-Law