Vietnam War in California

The Public Radio International show "This American Life" had an… interesting episode this week called Turncoat .

The first, short opening story was about the case of Madison Nguyen, a young Vietnamese-American city councilwoman in San Jose, California. She faced some rather severe red-baiting (chu.c mu~, as it is known in Vietnamese-American communities), being called a Communist simply for wanting to change the name of a local business district from Little Saigon to Saigon Business District. (The radio story, and her Wikipedia page, go into a little more background as to why this was offensive to some.)  The story also discussed the phenomena of red-baiting more generally in Vietnamese communities in the U.S. (My-Thuan Tran has written several articles on this for the LA Times, and here is another case mentioned in the radio piece.)

What I found disturbing about the piece is that it is assumed that Vietnamese refugees were only ones who suffered in the aftermath of the U.S.’s IndoChina War. No mention whatsoever of deaths within Vietnam from chemical weapon residue, or from economic hardship induced by post-war U.S. sanctions. Of course, there’s no mention of the hundreds of thousands of civilians in southern and central Vietnam killed in the U.S. war. Nope, according to the standard U.S. script, adhered to by both liberals and conservatives in the U.S., the only Vietnamese people who suffered after the war were the soldiers and bureaucrats of the former South Vietnamese regime and their families. (And, of course, according to this script, the U.S. suffered vastly more than Vietnam after the war… but that’s another story.)

Thus in this piece and others like it, we hear statements like (from the accusers)  "I was thrown in a prison camp by the Communists for being in the South Vietnamese air force; thus I’ll accuse anyone I don’t like in SoCal of being a Communist and ruin their life" or (from the victims) "I/my parents were boat people who fled the Communists/economic hardship to come to this great country, so don’t accuse me of being Communist". While the historical facts behind these statements are probably true, the implicit context that even the nominally liberal This American Life gives is that the nationalist/Communist resistance against the French and the U.S.  was wrong, and the U.S. was right. This position is forever strengthened here, since the only Vietnamese position we hear on the war in the U.S. is from refugees from the defeated pro-American regime. 

At best, This American Life treated this story as a "ethnic problem" story– a little bit of "lookit those crazy Asians in California", a little bit of "look at this diverse American community, which has some strong beliefs". But there was no recognition of the historical role of the U.S. here– not in this 13-minute radio piece, nor in other stories on Vietnamese-American communities in the U.S. Since the U.S. (military, government, and liberal intelligentsia) bears responsibility for creating the South Vietnamese state and military in its 10+ year attack on south and central Vietnam, the same sectors of the U.S. also bear some responsibility for these red-baiting campaigns in Vietnamese-American Communities. But, of course, this is too complex… it’s easier to simply forget that this history exists, and leave this as a case of "violent ethnics who hate Communism".

(Interestingly, This American Life made no mention of similar anti-Communist lunacy within Cuban refugee communities in the U.S., which would seem to have been a natural journalistic comparison. Prehaps this was simply left out for lack of time, however.)

All this doesn’t invalidate the suffering of these refugees, and the Vietnamese state does seem to be pretty Stalinist (both now and before its latter-day conversion to Chinese-style "state capitalism with a Stalinist political face"). But Chomsky has written volumniously and controversially on the hypocrisy of the U.S. intelligentsia’s stance on post-war Southeast Asia–  I still agree with his basic stance that, however bad North Vietnam was and post-war Vietnam/Cambodia/Laos is, the U.S. bears a huge burden of responsibility for basically destroying these countries during the war. Even a pure-hearted anarcho-syndicalist resistance in Vietnam would probably not have done very well with the level of destruction that the U.S. meted out. Without any reparations from the U.S. to these countries, and with sanctions and imperialist violence against Vietnam for decades after the war, the U.S. intelligentsia really has no ground to stand on in their criticism of these countries, especially given their continuing support of imperialist projects in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This American Life, a show which I enjoy and have given money to, serves as the conscience of the modern young urban/suburban hipster– the Obama generation. Unfortunately, it seems that the Obama generation, and young Vietnamese-Americans, have swallowed the standard U.S. script on Vietnam, hook, line, and sinker. Not surprising, I guess, but depressing.

On a purely PR note, I do think that one thing that leftists might learn from this story is that Michael Albert (?I think? this was a quote from Albert, but I haven’t refound it yet) may be right that the words "socialism" and "communism" have lost whatever positive associations they once had, both due to the real crimes of Communist states in Russia, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere, and due to the (successful) 90-year propeganda offensive against these terms. Certainly in Vietnamese-American communities, it sounds like trying to organize on behalf of socialism would not get you very far.

(I was also going to discuss the second part of the This American Life piece, about Brandon Darby, and its not-so-surprising-for-NPR conclusion that "extremism is evil", but I’m out of time here.)

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