By: George Lober, US Naval Postgraduate School


Whenever I have attempted to teach the concept of principled ethics in a class or at a briefing over the past eight years, I have asked those present to consider whether they hold any principle to be so fundamental to who they are that they are willing to "go to the mat" over it—to uphold it, even in the face of anguish and hardship for themselves or someone else. And almost every time I've asked this question, the reaction from the majority of those present has been "No."

Before we go further, keep in mind two things: First, I typically ask this question of young, seasoned, professionally dedicated, often combat-tested individuals from law enforcement and the military, whose core task is to defeat the evils of terrorism. These are people who have taken at least one oath, and often more, to protect and defend a country, a constitution, a citizenry. But invariably, the overwhelming majority of them regard personal ethics as a shifting calculus, a product of an ever-present consequential calculation. And second, although I'm disappointed at the tally, I'm honestly no longer surprised.

I recognize that the majority of the people sitting before me when I ask this question may never have considered the issue of principled ethics. It's likely that their ethics training up until now has been based on an amalgam of vague precepts: don't screw up, do what's right, don't embarrass the organization. And it's equally likely that for them a simple utilitarian calculation—find the resolution that provides the greatest benefit to those involved (however "those involved" is defined)—has served them extremely well. I understand that. But I also think of Stuart Herrington.

The story of Captain Herrington is one of many stories depicted in the 2014 documentary film, Last Days in Vietnam.1 Herrington was an American intelligence officer stationed at the US Embassy in Saigon in April 1975, during the final weeks of the Vietnam War. Although the invading North Vietnamese forces were driving south toward Saigon and the South Vietnamese army had already begun to collapse under the weight of the North's advance, US Ambassador Graham Martin refused to authorize a plan for the systematic evacuation of the approximately 5,000 American personnel who remained in-country. Many of those personnel were involved with, or married to, South Vietnamese nationals, and some had families in Saigon. Martin similarly refused to authorize even the development of any plan to remove those South Vietnamese military leaders, officials, and locals who, once the Northern forces arrived, would be at high risk of execution because of their cooperation with the Americans.

Herrington fully grasped the imminent danger to those South Vietnamese officials and others with whom he had directly worked. In clear defiance of the approved American embassy evacuation plan, which forbid the evacuation of South Vietnamese nationals, and also in direct violation of Vietnamese law, which specifically stated that South Vietnamese military officials were not to be evacuated, Herrington and other American servicemen began to organize "black operations" to smuggle high-risk South Vietnamese military friends, officials, and associates out of the country through unauthorized airlifts on empty cargo planes. According to former CIA analyst Frank Snepp, who was stationed in Saigon at the time, the airlifts were "makeshift, ‘underground railway' evacuations using outgoing cargo aircraft that would be totally below the radar of the ambassador."2 Herrington chose to act because the South Vietnamese officials and military officers whom he evacuated were, realistically speaking, "dead men walking." Yet, had these unauthorized evacuations ever been detected, he and the others who were involved would have been "run out of country, end of career!" Herrington himself explains his decision in the film, "But sometimes there's an issue not of legal or illegal but of right or wrong." In other words, Herrington was driven by an ethical principle. In defiance of both a written directive that specifically forbade the evacuations and the peril to his career, he chose to save the lives of his South Vietnamese military colleagues and their families.

Do I think Stuart Herrington acted ethically in ignoring both the clear intentions of the ambassador and the written directive? Yes, I do—an answer that should come as no surprise to regular readers of my columns. In recent issues of CTX, I wrote about individuals such as Belgian Army Captain Luc Lemaire and Swiss border officer Paul Grüninger, who faced similar circumstances.3 The documentary Last Days in Vietnam also highlights other American servicemen and diplomats who made similar decisions to save South Vietnamese nationals, but what makes the case of Stuart Herrington so compelling for me is that he was driven by the principle to do right by those who had stood beside him and put their own lives on the line in the mutual struggle to preserve South Vietnam. Herrington clearly knew the risks he was taking, but he also knew he had both the opportunity and the means to save those directly in his sphere of influence from imminent execution. Given that opportunity and those means, he chose to act on his principles.

What's in a Principle?

The case of Stuart Herrington nevertheless raises two concerns about the dangers of acting on a principle. The first concern is that it's not enough simply to possess a principle. Anyone can have a principle: even the villainous Joker and Penguin characters from the Batman comic books possess principles, albeit profoundly duplicitous, self-serving ones.4 And merely calling a favorite concept or belief a principle doesn't automatically ensure that it is founded on a bedrock of morals or ethics. In that regard, as one measure of whether a principle is ethically justifiable, I recommend the first part of Emmanuel Kant's categorical imperative, in which he suggests that one's actions—presumably as an extension of one's will—should always be fit to serve as a maxim or guide for others.5 In other words, I should act in a way that I believe would serve as an example of right behavior for everyone else in the world.

Kant can be perceived to be unyielding in this dictum, as with, for example, his insistence on never telling a lie regardless of the circumstances. And the burden of always acting as a model for future decision makers can be ponderous, to say the least. But the notion of basing a principle on an action you'd want everyone else to emulate in their own lives seems sound to me, and I suspect that Herrington and many of the other Americans in Saigon at the time felt the same way.

Still another time-tested guidepost for the ethical soundness of a principle may be Rushworth Kidder's care-based resolution principle, which he acknowledges is nothing more than the Golden Rule (do to others as you would have them do to you), a guide that "not only sets limits on our actions, but encourages us to promote the interests of others." 6 Again, I think Captain Herrington would agree, especially as he imagined himself in the shoes of those South Vietnamese servicemen and their families, facing the impending arrival of the North Vietnamese forces. And while Kidder acknowledges that the Golden Rule tends to be dismissed by both weighty earlier philosophers such as Kant and contemporary ones such as Sissela Bok,7 it appears in some form as a moral precept of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism, and the rest of the major religions.8 In that light, the Golden Rule is probably not a bad guidepost by which to measure an ethical principle.

The Cost of Turning Away

The case of Captain Herrington illustrates a second concern for me, as well: ethical principles can not only be tough to cling to in times that test character, but they can also be scarring to abandon.

The end of Last Days in Vietnam depicts the final hours of the American embassy in Saigon, 29–30 April 1975, as approximately 1,100 South Vietnamese men, women, and children wait in darkness inside the embassy grounds, hoping to be airlifted to safety before the North Vietnamese forces reach them.9 Herrington approaches the crowd and promises them that they will all be safely evacuated. He further assures them that being on the embassy grounds signifies that they are already within the safety and protection of the United States. Hours later, however, after 680 of the 1,100 assembled Vietnamese nationals have been evacuated, an order from US President Gerald Ford ends the airlifts, and Herrington is tasked with keeping the remaining 420 South Vietnamese "warm"—that is, to mollify and deceive them into staying calm so that he and the rest of the embassy staff can exit to the roof and be airlifted on the final flight out of the city. Or to put it another way, Stuart Herrington, who earlier in the month risked his career to airlift his South Vietnamese colleagues and their families to safety and who hours earlier had promised the remaining nationals that they would be protected and evacuated as well, is now ordered to lie to those same people so that they will remain passive while being abandoned. And Herrington does his job.

He walks over to the remaining 420 South Vietnamese and tells them a "big helicopter is about to come." Then after waiting a moment, he excuses himself, walks a circuitous route back into the embassy, and climbs to the roof. In a later interview, Herrington confesses that the entire situation, including the way he broke his personal promise to those waiting outside, "really, really was wrong," and he admits that he considered for a moment remaining at the embassy until his promise was fulfilled. Still, he boarded the helicopter and remembers looking down though the open door at those 420 people waiting quietly on the grounds where he left them. "I felt absolutely awful," he confides. "It was so severe and deep a betrayal." And by that he means, I assume, not only a betrayal of the people below, but of himself.

I've seen this film several times, and I have always inferred that Herrington struggled with the fact that he deliberately broke his promise to those people and abandoned them to whatever fate they would encounter under the North Vietnamese. I suspect in his world—of military discipline and the military code of honor—one does not readily abandon either a principle or a promise made when there are human lives potentially on the line, and I fully believe that for him the reconciliation of that broken promise and its consequences has not come easily.

Having said that, when I consider his two decisions—first to organize "black ops" to evacuate South Vietnamese colleagues at the risk of his military career, and second to lie and abandon other South Vietnamese when the peril was imminent—it occurs to me that the circumstances surrounding the two decisions were significantly different. In early April 1975, Herrington had the three necessary conditions of time, opportunity, and means by which to act upon his principle to help protect those individuals who had worked closely with him in a common cause. In the final hours of the embassy evacuation, he had none of those conditions to call upon. At the moment of his promise to the 1,100 people on the embassy grounds that they would all be airlifted to safety, there is no reason to doubt that Herrington believed that the time, opportunity, and means to fulfill that promise still held, just as they had up until then. But in the intervening hours between his promise and the eventual direction by his superior to go downstairs and make the remaining 420 "warm," decision makers far removed from the reality of the embassy grounds that night canceled all three of the necessary conditions for Herrington's promise to remain viable. He was thus left with few choices other than to betray those to whom he had promised safety and protection only hours earlier.

To his credit, Herrington did consider refusing to leave until the remaining 420 South Vietnamese were evacuated as he had promised. But he also realized that, by that time, it was too late to get anyone else out. His superiors had made the decision to end the airlift. Furthermore, there was the danger that if he told the crowd the truth, they were likely to panic and delay his own departure, and risk allowing the North Vietnamese troops to start targeting the evacuation helicopters.10

In today's parlance, it's possible that Stuart Herrington suffered a "moral injury"—what Dr. Bill Nash, a leading authority on the subject, would describe as the ancient idea "that people can be damaged in the cores of their personhood by life experiences that violently contradict deeply held, and deeply necessary, beliefs about themselves and the world."11 Such is the price we may pay for possessing strong ethical principles and encountering experiences that challenge and occasionally overwhelm our ability to honor them.

Despite his decision that day in 1975, I admire what Herrington and his fellow "black-ops" conspirators did to help those whom they could help. I admire the fact that he acted on an ethical principle. I also admire the fact that almost 40 years later, he is still grappling with the memory of his actions on the embassy grounds that night and is attempting to reconcile them with those "deeply held, and deeply necessary, beliefs" about himself and the world. I believe, simply, that true ethical principles rooted in sound, morally justifiable soil are important. I further believe that individuals who possess such principles and have had to pay the price for them offer the rest of us a possible model for how we ourselves should act when we are put to the test. ²

About the Author(s):

George Lober teaches ethics at the US Naval Postgraduate School.

  1. Last Days in Vietnam was directed and produced by Rory Kennedy for American Experience Films/PBS. See "Last Days in Vietnam," 2014: go back up
  2. The quotes and information in this paragraph are from Last Days in Vietnam.go back up
  3. See George Lober, "Making Decisions, Taking Ethical Responsibility, Part 1: To Tool or Not to Tool," CTX 5, no. 2 (May 2015): ; George Lober, "Making Decisions, Taking Ethical Responsibility, Part 2: Recalibrating the Job, Reconsidering the Tool," CTX 5, no. 3 (August 2015): go back up
  4. "Joker," DC Comics, n.d.: ; "Penguin," DC Comics, n.d.: go back up
  5. Immanuel Kant, "Duty and Reason as the Ultimate Principle," in Western Philosophy: An Anthology, ed. John Cottingham (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996), 386–87. go back up
  6. Rushworth M. Kidder, How Good People Make Tough Choices: Resolving the Dilemmas of Ethical Living, rev. ed. (New York: Harper Perennial, 2009), Kindle edition, 158.go back up
  7. Ibid.go back up
  8. Ibid., 157.go back up
  9. The following description of events at the US embassy in Saigon is from Last Days in Vietnam.go back up
  10. Ibid.go back up
  11. Bill Nash, "Introduction," in God Is Not Here by Bill Russell Edmonds (New York: Pegasus Books, 2015), 14.go back up
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