In the Promised Land

—Fort Smith, Arkansas

From the government’s point of view the city of Fort Smith, Arkansas, may not prove to be so unpromising a location for the largest of the last four strategic hamlets as it may at first have seemed. The city, after all, began its brief and inglorious history as a staging area for US Cavalry search-and-destroy missions into the adjacent Indian Territories at just about the same time that the French were moving into Indochina in force. The closing of the frontier remains an unpleasant rumor. At Fort Smith one can easily buy an automatic pistol for the asking, but no legal drink stronger than wine. The downtown area, tucked into a narrow loop in the Arkansas River, has the raw seediness of a western rather than a southern town. Out past the new air-conditioned shopping mall east of town on the way to the refugee camp at Fort Chaffee, the Missionary Baptist Church sits near a Hep-Ur-Sef gasoline station, salvation by faith and free enterprise juxtaposed in matching mobile homes.

Sebastian County, of which Fort Smith is a part, is generally considered to be the most conservative in the state, a place where cold-war Manichaeanism is still the ruling public passion. It gave Wallace and Nixon 76.7 percent of the vote in 1968, Nixon 81.4 percent in 1972, and never had an antiwar demonstration big enough for anyone I asked to remember. Should the Ford administration, once it ceases pounding its collective chest over the Mayagüez incident, decide to do the expected thing and launch a campaign to peddle the refugees as innocent victims of the Godless Communist Oppressor, it will very likely sell in Fort Smith. To judge from the local radio evangelists, in fact, back orders are already piling up. The State Department officials who are in charge of the 24,000 refugees at nearby Fort Chaffee admit they had initial fears about the local response. They now are ecstatic over what one describes as a deep strain of patriotism in the region that has led to offers of help and support far beyond their expectations.

Still it would be misleading to describe Fort Smith’s response as altogether favorable. After the first UPI story went out of here quoting several local residents as being bitterly opposed to government aid for the refugees, we have heard mainly from local politicians, business and religious leaders, Jaycees, and other assorted boosters. It is not difficult to uncover a strong undercurrent of hostility to the refugees, much of it doubtless racial in origin, some of it economic. Numerous letters have appeared in local newspapers saying that the South Vietnamese deserve no help since they couldn’t fight worth a damn.

At a press briefing I attended the local television people were posing what they obviously regarded as very tough questions about the rumored incidence of leprosy, bubonic plague, and assorted tropical horrors among the refugees, along with an inordinate interest in the possibility that some might be engaging…

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