Does criticizing the Vietnam War mean you’re anti-Vietnamese?


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The other day one of our readers took issue with the fact that I don’t think the U.S. should have gotten involved in the Vietnam War.  I further perturbed him by indicating that the North Vietnamese were freedom fighters.  Isn’t that true?

I decided to spend some more time researching the Vietnam War.  But first I took a look at the long history of Vietnam.  Here is what I discovered, in summary:

  • Vietnam has been populated for over 3,000 years.  During much of that time, the country has been subjugated to foreign rule, first by the Chinese, later by the French.
  • Ho Chi Minh was very much a freedom fighter.  He defeated the French and signed a treaty, which split Vietnam in two.  The treaty stipulated reunification, after two years, but the U.S. backed the Southern President, who turned out to be an ass, and Minh was left with little resort but to invade the South.
  • The U.S. had no business intervening in what was a local conflict involving the Vietnamese.  But we did and the results were not good for anyone.
  • Latinos paid a heavy price as soldiers in the American army in Vietnam, but today many Vietnamese residents in the U.S. spend a lot of time maligning Mexican immigrants.

Drum from Sông Đà, Vietnam. Dong Son II culture. Mid-1st millennium BC. Bronze

Let’s take a look at a recap of Vietnamese history, courtesy of the Viet Touch website:

The first kingdom of the Viet, was founded some 3,000 years ago, and the first Viet Chuong or Lac Viet kingdom in North Viet Nam was founded 2,400 years ago.  Some historians believe that the Vietnamese were originally of the Malay-Polynesian, a sea-oriented race.  Most scholars by now, accept that the Vietnamese are not descended from one single racial group, that they are instead a racial mixture of Austro-Indonesian and Mongolian races.

By 211 BC, a Chinese commander in the south had built his own kingdom of Nam Viet (South Viet; Chinese, Nan Yüeh); the young state of Au Lac, a precursor to Vietnam, was included.

From 111 to 43 BC, Vietnam was under Chinese rule, with sporadic rebellions.  Finally, in 939, Vietnamese forces under Ngo Quyen took advantage of chaotic conditions in China to defeat local occupation troops and set up an independent state. Ngo Quyen’s death a few years later ushered in a period of civil strife, but in the early 11th century the first of the great Vietnamese dynasties was founded. Under the astute leadership of several dynamic rulers, the Ly dynasty ruled Viet Nam for more than 200 years, from 1010 to 1225.

Finally, in 939, Vietnamese forces under Ngo Quyen took advantage of chaotic conditions in China to defeat local occupation troops and set up an independent state. Ngo Quyen’s death a few years later ushered in a period of civil strife, but in the early 11th century the first of the great Vietnamese dynasties was founded. Under the astute leadership of several dynamic rulers, the Ly dynasty ruled Viet Nam for more than 200 years, from 1010 to 1225.

In the 15th century, Vietnamese forces captured the Cham capital south of present-day Da Nang and virtually destroyed the kingdom. For the next several generations, Viet Nam continued its historic “march to the south,” wiping up the remnants of the Cham Kingdom and gradually approaching the marshy flatlands of the Mekong delta. There it confronted a new foe, the Khmer Empire, which had once been the most powerful state in the region. By the late 16th century, however, it had declined, and it offered little resistance to Vietnamese encroachment. By the end of the 17th century, Viet Nam had occupied the lower Mekong delta and began to advance to the west, threatening to transform the disintegrating Khmer state into a mere protectorate.

In 1407 Viet Nam was again conquered by Chinese troops. For two decades, the Ming dynasty attempted to reintegrate Viet Nam into the empire, but in 1428, resistance forces under the rebel leader Le Loi dealt the Chinese a decisive defeat and restored Vietnamese independence.

Empress Nam Phuong, the wife of the last Emperor of Vietnam

By the late 18th century, the Le dynasty was near collapse. Vast rice lands were controlled by grasping feudal lords. Angry peasants—led by the Tay Son brothers—revolted, and in 1789 Nguyen Hue, the ablest of the brothers, briefly restored Viet Nam to united rule. Nguyen Hue died shortly after ascending the throne; a few years later Nguyen Anh, an heir to the Nguyen house in the south, defeated the Tay Son armies. As Emperor Gia Long, he established a new dynasty in 1802.

A 100 piastre note from French Indochina, circa 1954

Then came the French.

A French missionary, Pierre Pigneau de Behaine, had raised a mercenary force to help Nguyen Anh seize the throne in the hope that the new emperor would provide France with trading and missionary privileges, but his hopes were disappointed. The Nguyen dynasty was suspicious of French influence. Roman Catholic missionaries and their Vietnamese converts were persecuted, and a few were executed during the 1830s. Religious groups in France demanded action from the government in Paris. When similar pressure was exerted by commercial and military interests, Emperor Napoleon III approved the launching of a naval expedition in 1858 to punish the Vietnamese and force the court to accept a French protectorate.

In 1862 the court at Hue agreed to cede several provinces in the Mekong delta (later called Cochin China) to France. In the 1880s the French returned to the offensive, launching an attack on the north. After severe defeats, the Vietnamese accepted a French protectorate over the remaining territory of Viet Nam.

The U.S. rejected Ho Chi Minh, so he rejected democracy

French rule truly sucked.  Peasants struggled under heavy taxes and high rents. Workers in factories, in coal mines, and on rubber plantations labored in abysmal conditions for low wages. By the early 1920s, nationalist parties began to demand reform and independence. In 1930 the revolutionary Ho Chi Minh formed an Indochinese Communist party.

In 1940, Japan demanded and received the right to place Viet Nam under military occupation, restricting the local French administration to figurehead authority. Seizing the opportunity, the Communists organized the broad Vietminh Front and prepared to launch an uprising at the war’s end. The Vietminh (short for Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh, or League for the Independence of Viet Nam) emphasized moderate reform and national independence rather than specifically Communist aims.

When the Japanese surrendered to the Allies in August 1945, Vietminh forces arose throughout Viet Nam and declared the establishment of an independent republic in Hanoi. The French, however, were unwilling to concede independence and in October drove the Vietminh and other nationalist groups out of the south. For more than a year the French and the Vietminh sought a negotiated solution, but the talks, held in France, failed to resolve differences, and war broke out in December 1946.

In 1953 and 1954 the French fortified a base at Dien Bien Phu. After months of siege and heavy casualties, the Vietminh overran the fortress in a decisive battle. As a consequence, the French government could no longer resist pressure from a war-weary populace at home and in June 1954 agreed to negotiations to end the war. At a conference held in Geneva the two sides accepted an interim compromise to end the war. They divided the country at the 17th parallel, with the Vietminh in the North and the French and their Vietnamese supporters in the South. To avoid permanent partition, a political protocol was drawn up, calling for national elections to reunify the country two years after the signing of the treaty.

After Geneva, the Vietminh in Hanoi refrained from armed struggle and began to build a Communist society. In the southern capital, Saigon, Bao Dai soon gave way to a new regime under the staunch anti-Communist president Ngo Dinh Diem. With diplomatic support from the United States, Diem refused to hold elections and attempted to destroy Communist influence in the South. By 1959, however, Diem was in trouble. His unwillingness to tolerate domestic opposition, his alleged favoritism of fellow Roman Catholics, and the failure of his social and economic programs seriously alienated key groups in the populace and led to rising unrest. The Communists decided it was time to resume their revolutionary war.

Ho Chi Minh died in 1969 and was succeeded by another leader of the revolution, Le Duan. The new U.S. president, Richard Nixon, continued Johnson’s policy while gradually withdrawing U.S. troops. In January 1973 the war temporarily came to an end with the signing of a peace agreement in Paris. The settlement provided for the total removal of remaining U.S. troops, while Hanoi tacitly agreed to accept the Thieu regime in preparation for new national elections. The agreement soon fell apart, however, and in early 1975 the Communists launched a military offensive. In six weeks, the resistance of the Thieu regime collapsed, and on April 30 the Communists seized power in Saigon.

As we know, thousands of Vietnamese refugees were settled in the U.S.  Today, a number of them, in Little Saigon, spend a lot of time maligning Latino immigrants.

Vietnam Memorial

Vietnam Memorial

What price did Latinos pay in Vietnam?

  • In Vietnam Reconsidered, a book published by Harper & Row in 1984 and edited by Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Harrison Salisbury, Ruben Treviso wrote:   “One out of every two Hispanics who went to Vietnam served in a combat unit.”    “One out of every five Hispanics who went to Vietnam was killed in action.”
  • The Latino Experience in U.S. History, a book published for elementary schools by Globe Fearon in 1994 and written by several University professors stated: “Latinos fighting in Vietnam had a 19 percent casualty rate compared to a 12 percent rate for U.S. soldiers as a whole.”
  • Hispanics in America’s Defense, a book published in 1989 by the U.S. Department of Defense, states: “In 1969, a study was released which examined Hispanics participation in the war by analyzing casualty figures from two periods: one from January 1961 to February 1967, and the other from December 1967 to March 1969. The study revealed that for the two periods, 8,016 men from the States of Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas had been killed. Of the number, over 19 percent had Hispanic surnames.”
  • 3,741 names on the Vietnam Memorial in D.C., are Spanish surnames. Therefore, 6.4% of our country’s total casualties were Latinos. The figure is likely higher as it does not count Latinos who did not have Spanish surnames.
  • Therefore, the accurate number of Latino casualties during the Vietnam War was approximately 7% of the total deaths. At that time Latinos represented approximately 5% of the total population in the U.S. Furthermore, there were Latino casualties were from every one of our 50 states.
  •  5,572 soldiers from California died during the Vietnam War. Listed in the National Archives and Records Administration (www.nara.gov/nara.electronic/cahrviet.html)  are their full names, home city, date of birth, date of death and if by hostile action. Of those 5,572 names, 823 are Spanish surnamed. Therefore 15% of the California casualties were Latino. At that time, Latinos represented approximately 7% of California’s population.
  • From Texas, 23% of the casualties were Latino. Jose Maria Herrera, a doctoral candidate at Purdue University, wrote in his 1998 Master’s Thesis in the History Department of the University of Texas at El Paso, that “of the 3,405 Texans killed in the Vietnam War, 784 were Latinos.” 
  • Furthermore, in New Mexico, Herrera found that “while Hispanics made up 27 percent of that state’s population, they accounted for 44 percent of the deaths.”      
  • On April 22, 2000, Elaine Woo wrote in a Los Angeles Times article: “Latinos answered the call to combat in Vietnam in unprecedented numbers and paid a heavy price: One in two Latinos who went to Vietnam served in a combat unit, 1 in 3 were wounded in action, 1 in 5 we killed in action.”

Both Assemblyman Van Tran and Supervisor Janet Nguyen have openly maligned Latino immigrants.  There are other Vietnamese politicians, such as Hugh Nguyen, Phu Nguyen, Long Pham and Quang Pham, who have not done so.  In fact Hugh Nguyen is married to a Latina.

Mexicans and the Vietnamese in our country have much in common.  Both come from countries with peasants and a large agricultural base.  Both countries were invaded by the French.  Both countries had Catholicsm forced on the peasantry, by Euro invaders.  Both countries have been invaded by the U.S.  However, only the Vietnamese were allowed to come here legally, even though the U.S. essentially stole the Southwest, including California, from Mexico.

Will Latino and Viet voters in Orange County ever come to see how much they have in common?  That is hard to say.  I think the young people offer some hope.  But older Viet residents remain fixated on commies and are mired in the Republican Party.  They may never find a way to find commonality with their Latino neighbors in Orange County.


About Art Pedroza