Project Background


The Story

Operation Babylift: Perspectives and Legacies explored the diverse experiences and lasting impacts of a dramatic airlift that removed more than 2,000 Vietnamese children from their war-torn country to be adopted by American families as Saigon fell in 1975. The extraordinary story continued at the Presidio, where more than 1,500 of these children were transferred before being placed with adoptive families. As more than 5,400 volunteers in the San Francisco Bay Area cared for the children, Operation Babylift was being debated across the country.

The exhibition focuses on the part of Operation Babylift that occurred at and near the Presidio of San Francisco. It reflects on the the complexity of the event, how it both helped and harmed, and how it relates to our world today.

Operation Babylift: Perspectives and Legacies also pays special attention to the voices and stories of the people who were adopted as children through Operation Babylift 40 years ago. Eighteen of the 41 community contributors were people adopted from Vietnam either through Operation Babylift or at other times. In Operation Babylift: Perspectives and Legacies, they spoke as adults and for themselves.

A Part of Adoption History

Operation Babylift is part of many histories — including adoption history. Beyond the fact that this event led to over 2,000 adoptions, it was a time when ideas about adoption were more more visible and powerfully at play. These ideas informed the motivations and actions of people who were involved, and how the adoptees and their families, both American and Vietnamese, experienced their lives. While specific circumstances may have changed, those ideas are still at play today. By looking at Operation Babylift, deeply and from multiple points of view, we can reflect on these ideas: the impact of war, the meaning and practice of humanitarian action, transracial and international adoption, community, family, identity, race and belonging.

Guiding Principles

There is no single truth about Operation Babylift. Multiple perspectives exist, are valid and need to be considered in trying to understand the event.

Dialogue can be a way to explore and bridge differences. Dialogue can occur when engaging with ideas, objects and spaces, and other people.


Exhibition + Public Programs

Through photos, artifacts with community contributed labels, a multi-media timeline, and StoryCorps dialogues between adoptees and Presidio volunteers, the exhibition explored the diverse points of view about Operation Babylift that existed then and now. Operation Babylift: Perspectives and Legacies is not a single story told by a solitary voice, but many stories told by people whose lives were changed forever. Visitors were able to contribute their personal perspectives in the gallery, adding them to the legacy of this event. Parts of the gallery content were translated into Vietnamese, and a print guide with Vietnamese translation of all content was available.

A series of nine public programs explored exhibition themes more deeply, gave voice to stories not told in the gallery and related the exhibition to contemporary ideas. Through different formats –panel conversations, presentations, performance, film, and workshop — the programs offered audiences many ways of accessing the Operation Babylift story and ideas. All programs took place in and around the Presidio Officer’s Club.

Project Creators

This exhibition and public program series was co-curated by the Presidio Trust and the Adoption Museum Project. The Presidio Trust was a visionary, generous, and hard working partner. Apart from choosing Operation Babylift as an important story to tell in their space and funding the project, they took risks and worked with honesty, empathy and trust. Adoption Museum Project worked as equal partner on nearly every aspect of the project including: research, community engagement, concept development, gallery design, artifact identification, script, content development, marketing/communications, docent training, and evaluation. We were also the lead developer on seven of the nine public programs.

Over 40 community contributors helped to shape the project, from concept to content and in close partnership with the co-curators. Learn more about this extraordinary group.


The project opened on 4/16/15, marking the 40th anniversary of Operation Babylift. It closed nearly one year later on 4/3/16.


Operation Babylift: Perspectives and Legacies was the second special exhibition in the Heritage Gallery at the Presidio Officers’ Club, a cultural institution that showcases the Presidio’s role in shaping and serving California and the nation. These special exhibitions explore the Presidio’s heritage and allow for fresh perspectives and a deeper exploration of the topics and themes presented in the permanent exhibit of the Heritage Gallery.