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Playing Geopolitical Whack-a-Mole: The Viet Nam Flag Issue Revisited

The National Flag of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

If a US educational institution enrolls Vietnamese students, chances are there’s a Vietnamese flag displayed somewhere, perhaps in the student center, along with the flags of the other countries represented in that school’s international student population. I’m referring to the red flag with a yellow star not the yellow one with three red stripes flag of a country that was relegated to the dung heap of history 44 years ago.

If there is an overseas Vietnamese community located nearby, it’s only a matter of time before it catches wind of this fact like flies to honey. If the administration doesn’t acquiesce, the smiles will quickly vanish from their faces and what started out as an innocuous and upbeat initial encounter could quickly metamorphose into a battle of words and emotions. For many overseas Vietnamese, the war didn’t end in April 1975 but continues, at least in thought, word and, occasionally, murderous deed.

This story has played out with tiresome predictability in the political arena in parts of the US with large Vietnamese-American communities, including California, Florida, Texas, Virginia, and Washington state. A 2005 radio commentary entitled The Vietnam Flag Issue — Here We Go Again that I wrote about an incident in California was one such example.

Why? Because the old guard element of these communities is consumed with bitterness, resentment, and hatred of a Viet Nam they do not know. And because they lost. They are zealots who are living in the past and in blind denial of historical truth. They inhabit a geopolitical fantasy world, not unlike those in the US who still proudly fly the flag of the Confederate States of America (CSA) and dream about how the South will rise again someday. Or veterans of that ignominious US war in Viet Nam who still cling to the belief that it was a grand and glorious cause for freedom and democracy when, in reality, it was an ongoing Vietnamese struggle for self-determination and independence.

The Real Vietnamese Flag

Here’s some background information about the legitimate Vietnamese flag and what the colors signify.  It wasn’t until the early 1980s that research revealed who actually designed the flag. It was Nguyễn Hữu Tiến, a leader of the uprising against the French in November 1940 in southern Viet Nam.  (He was subsequently arrested by the French and executed the following year.)

This is what Tiến wrote in his poem:

… All those of red blood and yellow skin
Together we fight under the nation’s sacred flag
The flag is soaked with our crimson blood, shed for the nation
The yellow star is the color of our race’s skin
Stand up, quickly! The nation’s soul is calling for us
Intellectuals, peasants, workers, traders and armymen
United as a five-pointed yellow star…

Most Vietnamese students studying in the US are proud of their country and want to see its flag displayed at their host institutions not that of a client state in a divided Viet Nam that ceased to exist in 1975.

The Lobbying Process

Here’s a brief soup-to-nuts look at the Vietnamese-American flag issue playbook. Chances are the offending institution will receive a phone call and/or email from a leader of the local community asking that the flag of the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam (SRV), the only legitimate Viet Nam, be replaced with that of the Republic of Viet Nam (RVN or “South Vietnam”), the so-called Heritage and Freedom Flag. They may even offer to donate it in a feigned spirit of generosity and goodwill.

The old flag of South Vietnam.

This will start out as a request. If the institution pushes back, the polite request may very well quickly escalate into a demand. When you confront unreasonable and irrational people with reality and historical truth, they become angry. Next, they will ratchet up the pressure with more emails and calls, requests for meetings, and even demonstrations with people chanting and carrying the Freedom and Heritage flag, resulting in media coverage of this faux controversy. Some of the older members of the community who served in the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam (ARVN) may even show up in uniform, medals and all.

A “Teachable” Moment

If the community goes on the warpath, no pun intended, the administration could turn lemons into lemonade and use this confrontation as a “teachable moment” to educate people about the origins of that war. For example, if the US had not chosen to ignore a key provision of the Geneva Accords of 1954, there would have been a national election in 1956 that Ho Chi Minh would have won with 80% of the popular vote, according to President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s memoirs and other US sources.

View this as an opportunity to organize lectures and seminars about the war that will educate the academic and local community and, in doing so, jam the transmission of those Vietnamese-Americans who are at the forefront of this perverse lobbying campaign.

As I noted in an August 2019 article entitled Coming to Terms with the Past by Honoring Historical Truth: The Case of Fulbright University Vietnam, “Without the suffering, death, and destruction inflicted, mostly from 1965 to 1972, by the US, its client state, and allies, e.g., Australia, South Korea and others, Viet Nam would be at a very different stage of development perhaps even in the same league as Singapore.  Most importantly, 3.8 million Vietnamese, over half of whom were civilians, and 58,300 Americans, would not have lost their lives.”

Another obvious point is that the US government pledged to recognize and respect the SRV flag when it established full diplomatic relations with that country in 1995 the support of US senators such as Max Cleland, Bob Kerrey, John Kerry, and John McCain, who were also war veterans. Two years later, President Clinton appointed former POW and US congressman Douglas “Pete” Peterson as the first US Ambassador to Viet Nam. It is not a point of debate but a fact, regardless of your opinion of the country that flag has represented since reunification. It is a country that Donald Trump has visited twice since becoming president and is considered to be an important US strategic partner in Southeast Asia.

What to Do?

My advice to institutions confronted with this issue is that under no circumstances should they cave to a demand to replace the SRV flag with that of the RVN.  There are two main reasons for this. First, to do so would be to deny historical truth in a world already inundated with fake news, and current geopolitical reality. Secondly, it may create problems with the SRV government, which could in turn affect that institution’s standing in Viet Nam.

Vietnamese-American communities have every right to fly the old RVN flag in their community centers, shops, and in the cyberwinds of the Internet on their websites.  It’s also their right to live in a geopolitical fantasy world.  They don’t have the right, however, legal or otherwise, to make the same request (or demand) of educational institutions.

Most Vietnamese-American communities have progressive elements, young and old.  It’s important for colleagues to reach out to and develop long-term relationships with those individuals. The Vietnamese diaspora is a diverse community not a monolith. While there are thousands of overseas Vietnamese working in Viet Nam in the private and NGO sectors, including one I mentioned in this 2-19 article, there are others who come here with the goal of destabilizing the country and its government.

In a 2015 series entitled Terror in Little Saigon – An old war comes to a new country, ProPublica reported an investigation into the assassination of five Vietnamese-American journalists between 1981 and 1990 in California, Texas, and Virginia. That’s what the more radical elements of the Vietnamese-American community are capable of doing to people with whom they disagree – just as they did in the old country. To date no arrests have been made, which means justice remains elusive for the victims and their families.

My hope is that this perennial spectacle involving the “Heritage and Freedom Flag” will soon become a historical footnote with the imminent passing of the older generation. I’m not so sure, however, knowing that there are members of the younger generation who are as delusional as their parents and grandparents. I remember the time when I was in a Vietnamese restaurant in northern California and spoke some Vietnamese (with a northern accent) to the cashier, a woman in her 30s. That friendly smile faded in a heartbeat, replaced by a glare of hostility. I suddenly felt a chill in what had been a warm and hospitable ambience. In other words, time will tell.

Mark A. Ashwill is an international educator who has lived and worked in Vietnam since 2005.  He blogs at An International Educator in Viet Nam

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