But prior to 1975, his life of a three-time refugee– and almost three times by boat– could be identified with the three refugee movements resulting from the two Vietnam wars, in the second half of the twentieth century.
During the first Indochina War or First Vietnam War (1945-1954), his family followed the movement of refugees fleeing city areas occupied by the French to the countryside under Ho chi Minh government ( Dam Khe village) , and then when the Communist Viet-Minh agents began to kill the nationalist forces (including one of his uncles) and to harass “bourgeois” middle class, his family took the clandestine boat trip out of the Viet Minh region to take refuge in the Catholic enclave of Phat Diem, under the Nationalist government propped up by the French.
After the 1954 Geneva Conference dividedVietnaminto two regions, North and South, his family (when he was a teenager) followed the flow of one million refugees from the North, embarking on an American navy vessel, to go to South Vietnam, to escape Communist rule just days before the Communist take-over in Hanoi.
After obtaining the law degree from the University of Saigon in 1960, he went to University of Virginia and graduated with the degrees of M.A. and then Ph.D. in government and foreign affairs in 1965 and then returned to Vietnam to work there until 1975.
During the 10-year period from 1965 to 1975, he was attorney and professor of law and political science at universities in South Vietnam, and also doing research for the Rand Corporation on the Communist movement which caused socio-political upheaval and internal refugee migration in South Vietnam.
In 1975, as North Vietnamese troops advanced toward Saigon, he was planning to flee by boat with his wife and 3 small children, aged 5, 3, and 2, so he had dog tags made for them , engraved with their names and the name and address and phone number of the American family he knew in the United States when studying there in the 1960’s.
He intended to flee by boat to an American vessel of the 7th Fleet which he knew was there in the Eastern Sea.
He had visited one aircraft carrier as the teaching staff of the National Defense College in Saigon where the Americans served as advisors.
He wanted to present the Commander of the aircraft carrier with the certificate granted to visitor to the 7th Fleet aircraft carrier he got in 1971 and also his photo with President Kennedy in 1961 as a kind of passport documents for boarding the US vessel as refugee.
Fortunately, their hastily arranged evacuation from Saigon airport saved them from the boat trip to the Eastern Sea, and they later felt luckier than, and pained for, the boat people fromVietnam.
All of his brothers left behind went to the reeducation camps and one died while in the camp.
On the US soil since 1975, he remade his career, serving as research fellow at Harvard Law School, then went back to law school at Harvard to get another American law degree in 1985, passed the Massachusetts bar in 1986 and worked as attorney at law ever since.
But at the same time, he continued his association with Harvard Law School as research fellow and lecturer in comparative Chinese-Vietnamese law and published scholarly books and articles.
His publications include many books on law, for example:
– ”The Code of the Le Dynasty”(co-author), Ohio University Press , 1987,
– “The Vietnamese Tradition of Human Rights” published at University of California-Berkeley,1988;
– “Immigrants in American Courts (co-author) published at University of Washington-Seattle, 1999;
and many articles in law reviews and other scholarly journals,
among them and to be noted for our purpose here, at this 2009 Symposium on Vietnamese refugees, are
“The right of asylum of Indochinese Refugees” in the journal Asian Thought and Society (no. 21/1982),
later re-used in the June 6,1988 Conference on
“The Crisis of First Asylum in Southeast Asia”, the first big and truly international conference organized by Southeast Asia Resource Action Center—a refugee organization– in Washington, D.C ;
and some short articles in UNHCR Refugee Abstracts, June 1987 and December 1988.
As he was known in the legal circles, he was asked by the Federal District Court in California and state courts in Michigan, Connecticut , to serve as master to give opinion on the legality of the relinquishment for adoption of the babies in the Babylift Operation in 1975 (evacuating babies from Saigon airport).
He was also asked by the Federal District Courts in California and New York to serve as expert witness on the claim of Vietnamese refugees for their money back from American banks with branches in South Vietnam before.
These refugees were depositors of the American banks in South Vietnam before 1975.
So, his life and work were somehow intertwined with the Vietnamese refugees and their interests.
He participated in many conferences in US, France, Australia and Vietnam, resulting in publications in those countries.
His biographies are listed in Who’s Who in American Law, Who’s Who in the World, Who’s Who in America and Who’s Who Among Asian-Americans.
A long time ago, he was Fulbright scholar and received grants from The Asia and Ford Foundations and the Aspen Institute.
With the flow of former refugees, now US citizens, back to Vietnam as visitors or business people, Tạ Văn Tài also went back many times to Vietnam, not for tourist trips, but for lecturing at universities to eager students, or for attending investment conferences for business people, or for teaching at training workshops for defense attorneys, with the hope to contribute in some small way to the advancement of the rule of law and economic development in Vietnam, in the light of the new government policy of market-oriented economy and opening to global integration.
During his trip back home, he wished to share with his compatriots the benefits of the way of life of his adopted country of the USA.
In this connection, about working for the legal and economic development of Vietnam in order to contribute to some alleviation of the causes of the refugee outflow, he coauthored a book:
Investment Law and Practice in Vietnam, Hong Kong: Longman, 1990
with law professor Jerome Cohen , and published also an article on
“U.S.-Vietnam Trade Agreement’, in Harvard Asia Quarterly, Winter 2001
and later in other forums, and a number of writings on the Internet websites on the Vietnam’s on-going development of rule of law and human rights and trade relations with the world .
Tạ Văn Tài’s long odyssey in search of freedom and a better life for his family has come around full circle :
In helping in his small ways the Western world ‘s understanding of the Vietnamese nation in order to come in and help Vietnam, and the Vietnamese’s understanding and adoption of some of the Western world’s ways of rule of law, human rights and free market economic development, he hopes that his Vietnamese compatriots would not feel the necessity and the urge to flee from their beloved native land.