It was the 1960s, and the U.S. was at war in Vietnam. Many arriving American supplies and equipment disappeared from the Saigon dockside and turned up for sale on the black market or in the hands of the North's Viet Cong. South Vietnamese Customs was rife with corruption. The U.S. Agency for International Development asked the U.S. Customs Service for help in stemming the smuggling and correcting Vietnam Customs operations.
Customs advisors volunteered for duty in Vietnam. Those joining the Foreign Customs Assistance Program in 1966, under Division Officer Harold F. Smith, faced a year of concentrated training in U.S. Customs practices, language studies, the "art of overseasmanship" course, and an internship at a USAID mission abroad where a Customs program was already underway. Successful candidates reported to USAID at their foreign posts.
A single U.S. Customs man was in Saigon in 1964. By 1967, the number of advisors grew to 25. Customs advisors were hands-on, often working alongside their Vietnamese counterparts under the terms of the USAID-Customs arrangement. They also worked with military police assigned to perform customs duties through a joint program with the Department of Defense. In addition to the FCAP advisors, the South Vietnamese government requested special Customs Service personnel to conduct a study assessing general operations and to make recommendations regarding customs regulations.
As the war progressed, new challenges emerged. Customs advisors in Saigon worked with South Vietnamese officials to limit drug trafficking from Laos, Thailand, Burma and Hong Kong that supported heroin and marijuana use by American servicemen and fueled drug smuggling by military personnel. By the early 1970s, Customs initiated pre-clearance procedures for checking 100 percent of baggage carried by departing military in the search for drugs and prohibited war souvenirs, such as weapons-though packages shipped by mail or as cargo still provided a challenge.
With U.S. Customs help, the average turnaround time for vessels at the port of Saigon dropped from 89 days to six days. Major smuggling efforts were quashed-such as a 1968 shipment of "used railroad car axles" that turned out to be 168 mortar and anti-aircraft gun barrels intended for the Viet Cong. South Vietnamese Customs rid itself of the most corrupt officials and began operating with efficiency and legitimacy. Even after the fall of Saigon and U.S. withdrawal from the region in 1975, the new Vietnamese government continued to follow some of the practices and policies put in place by CBP's legacy Customs advisors.
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