Robert D. Ray: An Iowa Governor, a Humanitarian Leader

The Vietnam War was a divisive event in American history. America had been torn apart by internal conflict over the war. As a result of that war and other conflicts in Southeast Asia, more than 3 million Vietnamese, Lao, and Cambodians left their homes over a 20-year span—many forced out, starved out, and persecuted. They were refugees. And some of them would find allies in Iowa. One of the strongest allies was Iowa Governor Robert D. Ray.

Answering the Presidential Call

On January 16, 1975 Ray was sworn in as governor of Iowa for the fourth time. A popular politician, he had won the previous fall’s election with 58 percent of the vote.

About four months later, on the other side of the world, nearly 130,000 South Vietnamese scrambled to get out of the country as South Vietnam fell. Cambodia, a country bordering Vietnam, had already fallen to communists; Laos, also on the border of Vietnam, would fall later in the year. At that time, refugees were admitted to the United States on a case-by-case basis, either by special legislation or by “parole”—a special act by the U.S. attorney general.

But in July 1975 President Ford wrote every governor urging state governments to do all they could to help resettle the Southeast Asians–offering $500 to help resettle each refugee. The letter said: “Many individuals and voluntary agencies are participating in the resettlement program ... but we should not expect that they alone will accomplish this great humanitarian task as quickly as we would all wish.” Iowa’s governor chose to help.

I didn’t think we could just sit here idly and say, ‘Let those people die’. We wouldn’t want the rest of the world to say that about us if we were in the same situation…Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.
-Governor Robert D. Ray

Governor Ray and the Tai Dam Refugees

Thousands of refugees were already temporarily housed at four military bases in the United States when Ray formed the Governor’s Task Force for Indochinese Resettlement.

That same summer the governor’s office received a couple of pleas about the plight of a distinct ethnic group—the Tai Dam. One petition came from American citizen Arthur Crisfield. He had worked in Laos where he got to know the Tai Dam, formerly of Vietnam. Crisfield wrote to many governors seeking refuge for them. The Tai Dam were looking for a permanent home. And they wanted to settle as a group. Governor Ray thought Iowa could help.

But there was a problem. The U.S. State Department would not allow a large group to settle in one location. So Ray worked with the State Department and then President Gerald Ford to make an exception.

I thought there was a good reason for the exception and so I worked with the State Department and the White House. And I remember making the trip to talk to Henry Kissinger and then to Jerry Ford. And in the final analysis they agreed and they made the exception; and so we were able to invite the Tai Dam to come to Iowa.
-Governor Robert D. Ray

The final decision to resettle the Tai Dam was taken later that summer. In October Task Force members went to meet them at Camp Pendleton and Fort Chaffee. In the meantime, sponsors were being solicited in Iowa. But not everyone appreciated what was being done.

Some Iowans did not agree with Governor Ray’s decision to bring the refugees to Iowa. Some worried the refugees would take away jobs from Iowans. Despite the political risk, Governor Ray continued the plan to bring the refugees to Iowa. The first Tai Dam arrived in late October 1975. Iowa and Iowans were in the refugee business.

Iowa Does More

On January 20, 1977 a new administration took over in Washington: President Jimmy Carter and Vice President Walter Mondale. Vietnam was still in the news. The day after his inauguration Carter pardoned most young Americans who had avoided the draft.

When it came to refugees, in Iowa almost 1,400 Tai Dam had started new lives by then with the state’s help. The Iowa office that resettled refugees went on shorter hours that June, looking forward to the time that it would close. There were still thousands in refugee camps in Southeast Asia, and refugees still trickled into the United States. The refugee story wasn’t over, however.

As conditions worsened in Southeast Asia, people continued to flee that area of the world. Then on Tuesday night, January 16, 1979, a documentary called “CBS Reports with Ed Bradley: The Boat People” aired on national television. Governor Ray saw it and was once again moved to action, “I learned what was happening and it was just tragic…” Ray recalled. “These frail little boats with people trying to save their lives and get away were breaking apart and people were dying and you could see them right there on the screen. And once again, I thought, ‘We’ve got to do something to help that situation…’ ”

But this time it was different. There was no current federal action to help these refugees. There was no presidential request for states to help. This time Ray wrote the president asking for help.

Vice President Walter Mondale became involved after receiving a similar plea from the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Asia, and the administration encouraged the United Nations to do something. That summer the United Nations held an international conference on the Southeast Asian refugees in Geneva, Switzerland. Mondale invited Ray to go with him to the conference.

“Governor Ray had a name for leadership in this field,” Mondale said. “I had talked to him several times during the struggle, and when I put my delegation together to go to Geneva I wanted people who really knew the issue. And I wanted a bipartisan delegation.”

America showed its dedication to this humanitarian effort by offering to take 168,000 refugees and by ordering Navy ships to rescue boat people. The end result of the Geneva Conference was more openings worldwide for the Southeast Asian refugees—Vietnamese, Lao and Cambodians. And Southeast Asian refugees kept coming to Iowa.

A Different Kind of Help

In October 1979 Governor Ray and five other governors went on a trip to China. Organized by the Council for U.S. China Relations and the State Department, it was part of the effort to normalize relations with China. But Southeast Asia got on the agenda when the governors added a side trip to several refugee camps in Thailand.

At one of the camps Iowa’s and Governor Ray’s reputation preceded him and First Lady Billie Ray. Governor Ray recalled, “We walked in this little place—as I recall looked almost like a log cabin and there, inside, there on a wall was this Department of Transportation map from the state of Iowa. It had little pins where people had been resettled in the state of Iowa.”

They also made a visit to a new refugee camp in Thailand—just over the border from war torn Cambodia where victims had escaped from the government headed by a ruthless leader named Pol Pot. There they witnessed horrible living conditions, starvation and death. Once again, Governor Ray responded to what he saw.

When the Iowans arrived back in Des Moines on the evening of October 29, they were met by local press. Ray talked about what he had seen, and he shared with The Des Moines Register photos he had taken in the camp. He hoped Iowans could do something to help these refugees until they could be relocated.

The coverage of the camps prompted responses from all sectors of Iowa civic life – government, business and churches. Michael Gartner with The Des Moines Register got the newspaper involved with the fundraising. David Yepsen, the reporter who had met the governor at the airport, recalled, “It amounted to a great deal and touched a lot of lives.” Iowans gave generously of money for food and medicine to help the refugees.


When people on the other side of the world needed help, Governor Ray was a humanitarian leader. When it would have been easy for a person to turn away from the troubles of the refugees, Governor Ray led Iowa in helping them.

In 1975 the process for bringing refugees to the United States was an irregular process. In 1980 the United States rewrote its refugee law. There is now a permanent, standardized process for bringing in refugees from around the world.

Iowa continues to resettle refugees. The Iowa Bureau of Refugee Services is the only entity run by a state government that is certified as a resettlement agency by the U.S. State Department. And it all started with Bob Ray.

I think what it shows is that everyone can do something and make a difference in this world. We might not be able to do it all but we can do something, and isn’t there great satisfaction in that? The happiest people I know are people who are doing things for other people. Think about at Christmas time; what makes you happiest? Is it what someone gives you or what you give to make somebody pleased, right?
--Governor Robert Ray