Ngô Thanh Nhàn
New York University Linguistic String Project
NYU Asians in America Conference 1996
March 22 & 23, 1996

Although signals from the Vietnamese-American community seem to reflect mixed feelings towards the decision of President Clinton to normalize relations with Việt Nam, the decision ushers in a new era in the politics and social concerns of the Vietnamese American community. For at least 20 years, the dominant political manifestation of the politically active Vietnamese Americans has been anti-communism. This political expression reflects their positioning as an "unsettled refugee community", rather than that of an integrated community focused on their lives as Vietnamese Americans in the U.S. This anti-communist stand, initiated and financed by the U.S. government, is the cause of the bitter divisions within the community. This paper looks at the role of anti-communism in this community and the changes that occurred after the announcement of normalization.

The FBI spy hunt

The current political changes in the Vietnamese American community were evident in early February 1996, seven months after the United States normalized relations with Việt Nam, when the FBI decided to buy advertisements in many Vietnamese language dailies and magazines to call on the community to aid its Cold War "spy hunt." In a vague language full of innuendo, the FBI Notice says:

"With the increased number of Vietnamese refugees in the United States, we think that the activities of Communist espionage has kept up the pace and multiplied vigorously. To prevent this growth, the FBI is once more requesting the help of Vietnamese refugees, those who had relations with, or who had communicated with the Vietnamese Communist regime in the past. Although we always pay close attention to all public documents detailing the activities of planted Communist agents, in this assignment, we hope to meet those had worked for, communicated, or had been asked by the Vietnamese Communist regime to carry out whatever activity, but who no longer believe in, or who are dissatisfied with, the ideals of the Vietnamese Communist regime. If you want to assist the United States Government and fellow overseas Vietnamese in eliminating the activities, threats, and abuses, etc. by the underground Communist spies, please contact us immediately.

"The identity of those who contact the FBI and provide information will be kept confidential."

The name of an FBI special agent, "Ông Bồ Câu" [tr. English "pigeon; dove"], was given with an Oakland address and a toll-free number." [1]

The community was bitterly split. The Los Angeles Times reported, "[I]n earlier years, the emigres branded as Communist anyone who supported diplomacy between the two countries... The FBI advertisement magnifies the rifts between the community's major factions" [2]. The San José Mercury News reported that Đỗ "Barry" Hùng, President of the Vietnamese American Community Council of Northern California supported the action and said, "it stirs up the spirit of anti-communism" [3]. Vũ Đức Vượng, Executive Director of the Center for Southeast Asian Refugee Resettlement in San Francisco called the FBI's actions "offensive, insulting and divisive", and the ads "a collective libel of all Americans of Vietnamese descent" [4]. Prof. Hiền Đỗ of San José State University was worried about the consequences of people labeling each other communist sympathizers and said "[I]n the Vietnamese community, that kind of libel is very serious because people get killed."

Within a few days, FBI spokesman George Grotz in San Francisco reported that the FBI had received more than 200 calls. The FBI did not arrest anybody as a result of these calls.

Community activists and media reporters were targeted. Activists were accused of "espionage" [4], one accuser said of someone she has "no proof, of course", but was "sure his activism is just a cover-up for his supporting the Communist regime." One of the phone calls concerned Vũ Đình Nghi, editor of Thời Báo (a Vietnamese language newspaper in San José) claiming "he must be a communist sympathizer. The proof: In his newspaper, he referred to Saigon by its communist-given name, Ho Chi Minh City." [4]

This is not the first time the FBI has chosen to inflict this Vietnam war type of Chiêu Hồi Open Arms program upon the Vietnamese American community (see below). However, this is the first time people in the community saw the implications of such an action and publicly protested. This is also the first time the US media reported in a relatively timely and balanced manner.

A brief history of the Vietnamese American community

Since 1954, many Vietnamese coming to the U.S. have been concerned with one political goal: fighting communism in Việt Nam, as defined by successive U.S. presidents. There has also been a movement since 1942 in support of the independence of Việt Nam and in opposition to the U.S. involvement (e.g. The Viet Nam - American Friendship Association, Inc. based in New York City) but it was strongly suppressed by the U.S. government. The main actor that has been supporting, financing and supplying the rationale for the anti-communist viewpoint has always been the U.S. government.

The first setback for the Vietnamese anti-communist movement in the U.S. came on April 30, 1975 when the first exodus of the anti-communist forces from Việt Nam to the U.S. began. Later, the FBI established the San José Chiêu Hồi II office (Chiêu Hồi "Open Arms" – a U.S. campaign in Việt Nam during the 1960's to lure the so-called Việt Cộng to leave the liberation struggle and join the U.S. side; Chiêu Hồi II was the same campaign, only this time, it was in the U.S.). This marked a continued active imposition of anti-communist ideology in the Vietnamese American community. Many anti-communist groups were formed and supported in the U.S. with one stated goal: to take over Việt Nam by force of arms. However, the FBI Chiêu Hồi II office and these groups combined in reality served to keep the community constantly under their control. A wave of right-wing terrorism in the community resulted in the assassination of many Vietnamese Americans who held opinions at variance with the anti-communist position [5, 6].

The second setback for the Vietnamese anti-communist movement in the U.S. came in April 1985 when the American TV media was allowed to go to Việt Nam and broadcast directly from there. The strongest anti-communist group, the National United Front for the Liberation of Việt Nam, suffered an internal split [7]. The Front was charged with having never been able to raise an army or to fight inside Việt Nam as claimed. The money collected from the community was stolen by the leadership. The Chiêu Hồi II office of the FBI closed, without having found a single Vietnamese "communist infiltrator." The Vietnamese Americans publicly increased contacts with their relatives in Việt Nam. The U.S. Department of Treasury estimated that more than $200 million U.S. dollars a year were transferred from Vietnamese Americans to their relatives in Việt Nam as cash gifts.

The U.S. government ended its trade embargo against Việt Nam on February 3, 1994 and established diplomatic relations with Việt Nam on July 11, 1995. The U.S. is indeed the last country in the world that officially dropped its policy of war against Việt Nam. 1995 saw an unprecedented number of Vietnamese Americans travelling to Việt Nam -- something that could have gotten them killed in the last decade. The backbone and raison d'être of the anti-communist forces have thus strategically been broken.

From the point of view of Vietnamese, inside or outside of Việt Nam, this is the first time in 148 years that Việt Nam has a real prospect for peace. The Vietnamese people themselves are now totally responsible for the peaceful development of their country and communities.

Inside Việt Nam today...

Việt Nam is still struggling with the severe consequences of a thirty year war with the United States. It is one of the poorest countries in the world with an average per capita income of less than $200 US dollars. It was not until 1989, six years before the U.S. dropped its embargo, and having been deprived of external assistance from Eastern European countries, Russia (formerly, the Soviet Union) and China, that Việt Nam achieved something unprecedented in its history: self-sufficiency and growth. It became third in exports of rice, third in exports of coffee, fourth in cashews in the world. Việt Nam has become one of the fastest growing economies in the world in terms of Gross Domestic Product, over 8% annually. These achievements, by a totally independent Vietnamese government, remove any rationale for the anti-communist movement in the U.S. to seek to overthrow it.

The Vietnamese Constitution [8] protects the right to employment (Article 58), to free education (Article 60), to free heathcare (Article 61), housing (Article 62), and equal rights between men and women in all respects (political, economic, cultural, social and family life) (Article 63). The Constitution also protects freedom of speech, freedom of the press, of assembly, association, etc. (Article 67), freedom of worship and religion (Article 68), and the right to legal protection from physical violence (Article 69), and so on. Being an underdeveloped country, the Vietnamese economy is still unable to fulfill all these ideals. However, it is clear that, under the most pro-people constitution ever in Vietnamese history, the Vietnamese people have a strong basis to press their government to implement these laws, especially under the market economy and its potential for exploitation. These facts suggest that if there was a necessity for a movement outside of Việt Nam to defend the rights of the Vietnamese people against abuses by authorities, it would logically be based on this Constitution.

Problems in the Vietnamese American community

Vietnamese Americans still suffer from the serious legacy of many years of war: distrust and division within the community, and severe economic, social and psychological problems. Under the control of anti-communist ideology, the Vietnamese American community gives the appearance of supporting the most conservative political positions, which, in the final analysis, are detrimental to the welfare of the community. Vietnamese Americans voted overwhelmingly for conservative Republican candidates and positions. The candidates only had to "promise" to continue fighting "communism" in Việt Nam. This can be incorrectly understood to mean that the Vietnamese American community is unconcerned with the political, economic and social agendas of other peoples of color. Cindy Quỳnh-Trang P. Nguyễn reported, "The entire community is concerned with issues such as civil rights, education, health, employment and immigration. However, these issues are more actively pursued by younger members of the first generation, and the second generation that is currently coming of age." [9]

Vietnamese-Americans have begun to shed the myth that the community is inherently divided, and cannot be united to do anything. This myth is repeated in the media and academic works, e.g. Banerian attibuted the sources of fragmentation to "poor leadership, traditional behavior, historical factors, and lack of democratic spirit" [10]. This myth was systematically promoted in Việt Nam during the French war (1857-1954) and the U.S. war (1954-1975). Since 1975, U.S. government officials and certain community leaders continued to perpetuate the so-called "deep-rooted" division "inherently" among Vietnamese Americans. Of course, there is nothing "deep-rooted" or "inherent" about it. Why has "the enemy", by whom they mean Vietnamese on "the other side", been able to unite, while the so-called anti-communist side has not ? From voting patterns and the desire to settle together in a few selected locations in the U.S. [11, 12], it is evident that the Vietnamese Americans do "vote" as a community on almost all issues. Thus, noone dares to point out that the anti-communist ideology, which reigned supreme over the community for years, is the cause of such division, i.e. it is forced, it is repressive and it is unpopular.

Contrary to the concerted campaign by President Reagan and other Republican leaders, who tried to show that "the Vietnamese made it in the U.S." and are a "model minority" in order to attack immigrant rights, affirmative action and social welfare, the 1990 census shows that Vietnamese-Americans are not doing well in the U.S. Statistics shows that they are at the bottom rung of the ladder [13]. They suffer from very high drop-out rates, gang violence, poverty, racist attacks, under-employment, under-representation, poor education and neglect by the system. Average Vietnamese family income is about $7,700, or about $3,800 below the poverty line. Only 2% of Vietnamese are college graduates.

There is yet to be a Vietnamese movement to deal with these problems. There has been no Vietnamese voice to protest against Proposition 187 in California. There has been no community voice against welfare cuts by the Congress. There has been no voice against the bankrupcy of Orange County, where there is a majority of Vietnamese who will suffer from public service cuts. The protests of the community in San José after the havoc caused by the first city casino have been ignorable. There has been no community voice against the joint attack of the police, the customs and company agents against Vietnamese vendors in New York Chinatown under Mayor Giuliani's "Quality of Life" program,... There has been no voice against the racist attacks against Vietnamese around the country.

Activists of the younger generation are faced first and foremost with the challenge to elevate themselves from the present anti-communist political course. Community and union activists have always been labeled communist agents, cf. reactions to the FBI "spy hunt" cited above.

Prospects for a solution

Vietnamese Americans are one of the fastest growing communities in the U.S. This is consistent with the patterns of ethnic shifts, esp. of Asian Americans, in the U.S. projected by the Bureau of Census [14]. Thus, it appears that the fight of Vietnamese Americans against poverty, racist attacks [15, 16], underemployment and limited accessibility to the political process, which is being experienced by all ethnic groups in the U.S. [17], will only be successful if the community begins to realize that it is a part of the Asian American community, a part of the community of people of color (including Latino, Chicano, Native and African American), and a part of the working people. For it is clear that they have been in the same predicament with these communities and have been benefiting from all their achievements. There are indications that young Vietnamese American community activists are moving towards this direction, now that there is no reason for the community to accept the anti-communist position.


  1. Thông cáo [Notice] by U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation. Advertisement on Người Việt daily, Saturday, February 17, 1996.
  2. Dizon, Lily. Orange County Vietnamese split on FBI calls to aid spy hunt. Los Angeles Times (Orange County edition), Saturday, March 2, 1996.
  3. Phuong Le. FBI recruits Viet imigres to report on spies for Hanoi. San José Mercury News, Thursday, February 22, 1996. Front page.
  4. Goldberg, Carey. US: FBI advertises for informers about Vietnam. The New York Times, Tuesday, March 12, 1996. Front page.
  5. Dossier on the acts of terrorism by Vietnamese right-wing groups in the United States. The Association of Vietnamese in the United States. July 27, 1984.
  6. Dossier on the assassination of Professor Edward Lee Cooperman. Committee for Justice for Professor Edward Lee Cooperman. December 1, 1984.
  7. San José Mercury News, December 29, 1984.
  8. Constitution of the Socialist Republic of Việt Nam. Hà Nội, Việt Nam: Thế Giới Publishers. 1993.
  9. Nguyễn, Cindy Quỳnh-Trang P. 1994. The Vietnamese American community: A statistical and political perspective. Southeast Asian Resource Action Center. Washington, DC.
  10. Banerian, James. 1988. Fragmentation in the Vietnamese community: Some observations and recommendations for change. Paper presented at the Ninth Annual Conference of the National Association for Vietnamese American Education.
  11. Chin, John. 1995. Dispersal of Southeast Asian refugees in the U.S. resettlement: Wisdom or folly ? A review of evidence. Research paper for Urban Planning, Columbia University. April 26, 1995. 24 pp.
  12. Chin, John. 1994. Vietnamese, Chinese-Vietnamese, and Cambodian refugees in New York City: Economic incorporation and the impact of the Chinese ethnic economy. First draft, Research paper for Urban Planning, Columbia University. December 19, 1994. 41 pp.
  13. How sub-groups in California voted on Prop. 187, by the Organization of Chinese Americans, Inc. from the Los Angeles Times exit poll. Email communication, December 8, 1994.
  14. Holmes, Steven A. Census sees a profound ethnic shift in U.S. The New York Times Thursday, March 14, 1996.
  15. Police violence in New York City's Asian American communities. A report by the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence submitted to U.S. Attorney Zachary Carter, Eastern District of New York. March 12, 1996. 22 pp.
  16. 1994 Audit of violence against Asian Pacific Americans, by the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium. Second annual report. 1995.
  17. The state of Asian Pacific America: Policy issues to the year 2020. A public policy report by LEAP Asian Pacific American Public Policy Institute and UCLA Asian American Studies Center. 1993.