May 23, 2019  

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Forty years on, the Vietnamese in America

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Cyndi Nguyen was about five years old when her family fled Vietnam on April 30, 1975. Her father, a soldier in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), likely feared retribution from the advancing North Vietnamese Army, the Viet Cong, or the new government that would take control following the war. It was clear by then that he had served on the losing side.

The family had no special connections to the Saigon government or the U.S. military. Ms. Nguyen’s father was a fisherman by trade, like his father before him, in the southern coastal village of Phuoc Tinh, near Vung Tau. But because of his military service, he made the decision to escape Vietnam with his family.

Ms. Nguyen remembers her dad carrying her on his back and boarding a ship along with her pregnant mother, her sister and brother, and her grandparents. The family’s first stop in the U.S. was Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, one of the stateside Army posts designated for Vietnamese refugees. From there it was on to Monticello, Iowa, where a family had agreed to sponsor them. They stayed for three months before heading to New Orleans. Some of Ms. Nguyen’s uncles had settled on the city’s far east side in a small community established by a Vietnamese Catholic priest. The weather was better, too, for refugees used to southern Vietnam’s tropical climate. Ms. Nguyen, now the executive director of Vietnamese Initiative in Economic Training (VIET) in New Orleans, remembers Iowa being very cold.

Despite the amount of ink historians and journalists have spilled on the Vietnam War, stories like Cyndi Nguyen’s remain on the margins of the narrative, if they are acknowledged at all. In the U.S. and in Vietnam, the politics surrounding who tells the Vietnam War story and how have silenced South Vietnamese voices. American writers have tended to focus their work on critiquing U.S. intervention in Vietnam, highlighting U.S. home front opposition to the conflict, or arguing that the American military could have won the war. In Vietnam, the government-controlled memory of the war has positioned it as a fight between Vietnamese nationalists and American imperialists. None of these approaches has paid much attention to South Vietnam or the war’s impact on South Vietnamese soldiers and their families.

Commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon offers an opportunity to broaden our collective view of the war and its consequences. More than 1.5 million Vietnamese live in the U.S. today, a result of the postwar diaspora. The first “wave” in 1975 brought approximately 130,000 refugees who had worked with the U.S. military or the Saigon government or served in the ARVN. A later wave in the late 1980s and early 1990s included ARVN veterans who had spent time in reeducation camps and other political prisoners.  

The experience of emigration was often daunting.  Having endured terrifying ordeals at sea or the brutal realities of forced labor, many Vietnamese expatriates arrived in the United States unable to speak the language and with only the clothes on their back.  Some had been doctors; some had been officers; some had been rice farmers.  But they were all now starting over, far from their beloved homeland, and they were often alone in a new and foreign land. 

In a story of bravery and perseverance, Vietnamese immigrants rebuilt their shattered lives.  Forty years on, vibrant, thriving Vietnamese communities dot the U.S. landscape from Los Angeles, to New Orleans, to Washington D.C.  Cyndi Nguyen represents the Vietnamese expatriate story, one that begins in the sorrow of defeat but ends in hard-won success.  The story of the Vietnamese community is an important consideration in understanding the far-reaching consequences of the Vietnam War. 

Andrew Wiest, Ph.D., is University Distinguished Professor at the University of Southern Mississippi and founding director of the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society. He is the author of numerous books including, most recently, Vietnam: A View from the Front Lines (Osprey, 2013) and The Boys of ’67: Charlie Company’s War in Vietnam (Osprey, 2012).

Heather Marie Stur, Ph.D. is an associate professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi and a faculty fellow in the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society. She is the author of Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era (Cambridge, 2011). In 2013-14, she was a Fulbright scholar on the Faculty of International Relations at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.