from the UNICEF memoir, published on its 30th anniversary of operations in hanoi, veitnam / by patrick carpenter


‘It is a long story and it begins with the Poles and the Swedes saying,

‘What about the children and the bombing in North Viet Nam?’’

                                                                        - Jacques Beaumont

On July 7, 1973, Martin Sandberg and Jacques Beaumont flew out of Hanoi to Laos and then back to New York and UNICEF headquarters. The two men were principals in UNICEF’s Indochina Peninsula Liaison Group (IPLG), a task force created by the Executive Director, Henry Labouisse, specifically to create a plan of intervention in a region racked by poverty and a country suffering from a globally divisive war. It was an extracurricular arrangement for a unique state of affairs, and Sandberg and Beaumont had been appointed as representatives of Labouisse to travel to the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam (DRVN). 

Their seven day visit was the product of seven years of diplomatic effort and displays of resolve, patience and goodwill. It was also, indirectly, an opportunity opened by events on the ground, including a fragile Paris Peace Agreement that had been signed less than six months before. Sandberg and Beaumont were in the North for exactly one week, and had seen the capital, the port city of Hai Phong and rural areas that had been affected by the war. They had established contacts at a senior level with both the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam and its southern counterpart, the Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG). They wanted to shape negotiations around participation in an immediate relief effort. Also on the table was future direction for further cooperation.

But the North Viet Nam Government had its own agenda. It wanted UNICEF to agree to deliver a list of medicines and medical items. Health care services for children and education were priorities, with equipment for ear-nose-throat examinations and dental care requested, as were warehouses for storage. If UNICEF was going to proceed any further into North Viet Nam, it was first going to have to preface its goodwill in earnest by providing tangible, critical materials.

Sandberg and Beaumont flew back to New York with this list. The Democratic Republic of Viet Nam’s aid requests were estimated at $1 to 2 million; the Provisional Revolutionary Government’s estimate was between $400,000 and $500,000. Just as important for headquarters was a report of their impressions of what they had seen, and what they felt was needed to address the most urgent areas of need. But most importantly, Sandberg and Beaumont returned to UNICEF headquarters with an agreement from the government of North Viet Nam to open a direct line of communication. This alone was huge. It was the break-through UNICEF had been seeking all along.

But it was still not everything. UNICEF had to persevere with further proof of its integrity for another twenty months before the DRVN and UNICEF could reach an agreement. Finally, in April 1975, it happened. UNICEF became the first UN agency to have an official, physical presence in the new Viet Nam. Again, it was Jacques Beaumont who had been sent back to Hanoi to act as chief negotiator with the DRVN Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Nguyen Duy Trinh. According to the agreement, UNICEF was to be established in the Hoa Binh Hotel, room 105, at a cost of twenty-four Vietnamese Dong per day for the room, with further stipulated costs of a local interpreter and driver for their respective 300 and 200 Dong per month. But though there was now a physical presence and direct communication, it was still not the final piece UNICEF was hoping for. Owing to several disputed clauses, the actual agreement that elevated UNICEF’s temporary mission to a status of permanent delegation was not signed until February 12, 1979.

And so it all began.