In geopolitical terms, the Asian sub-region Southeast Asia consists of ten countries that are organized under the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Current member nations include Brunei Darussalam, Kingdom of Cambodia, Republic of Indonesia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos), Malaysia, Republic of the Union of Myanmar (formerly Burma), Republic of the Philippines, Singapore, Kingdom of Thailand, and Socialist Republic of Vietnam. The term Southeast Asian Americans has been shaped largely by the flow of refugees from the American War in Vietnam’ however, Americans with origins in Southeast Asia have much more diverse migration and settlement experiences that are intricately tied to the complex histories of colonialism, imperialism, and war from the late 19th through the end of the 20th century. A commonality across Southeast Asian American groups today is that their immigration history resulted primarily from the political and military involvement of the United States in the region, aimed at building the United States as a global power. From Filipinos during the Spanish-American War in 1898 to Vietnamese, Cambodian, Lao, and Hmong refugees from the American War in Vietnam, military interventions generated migration flows that, once begun, became difficult to stop. Complicating this history is its role in supporting the international humanitarian apparatus by creating the possibility for displaced people to seek refuge in the United States. Additionally, the relationships between the United States, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore are different from those of other SEA countries involved in the Vietnam War. Consequently, today’s Southeast Asian Americans are heterogeneous with varying levels of acculturation to U.S. society.
Chia Youyee Vang
Jessica M. Chapman
The origins of the Vietnam War can be traced to France’s colonization of Indochina in the late 1880s. The Viet Minh, led by Ho Chi Minh, emerged as the dominant anti-colonial movement by the end of World War II, though Viet Minh leaders encountered difficulties as they tried to consolidate their power on the eve of the First Indochina War against France. While that war was, initially, a war of decolonization, it became a central battleground of the Cold War by 1950. The lines of future conflict were drawn that year when the Peoples Republic of China and the Soviet Union recognized and provided aid to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in Hanoi, followed almost immediately by Washington’s recognition of the State of Vietnam in Saigon. From that point on, American involvement in Vietnam was most often explained in terms of the Domino Theory, articulated by President Dwight D. Eisenhower on the eve of the Geneva Conference of 1954. The Franco-Viet Minh ceasefire reached at Geneva divided Vietnam in two at the 17th parallel, with countrywide reunification elections slated for the summer of 1956. However, the United States and its client, Ngo Dinh Diem, refused to participate in talks preparatory to those elections, preferring instead to build South Vietnam as a non-communist bastion. While the Vietnamese communist party, known as the Vietnam Worker’s Party in Hanoi, initially hoped to reunify the country by peaceful means, it reached the conclusion by 1959 that violent revolution would be necessary to bring down the “American imperialists and their lackeys.” In 1960, the party formed the National Liberation Front for Vietnam and, following Diem’s assassination in 1963, passed a resolution to wage all-out war in the south in an effort to claim victory before the United States committed combat troops. After President John F. Kennedy took office in 1961, he responded to deteriorating conditions in South Vietnam by militarizing the American commitment, though he stopped short of introducing dedicated ground troops. After Diem and Kennedy were assassinated in quick succession in November 1963, Lyndon Baines Johnson took office determined to avoid defeat in Vietnam, but hoping to prevent the issue from interfering with his domestic political agenda. As the situation in South Vietnam became more dire, LBJ found himself unable to maintain the middle-of-the-road approach that Kennedy had pursued. Forced to choose between escalation and withdrawal, he chose the former in March 1965 by launching a sustained campaign of aerial bombardment, coupled with the introduction of the first officially designated U.S. combat forces to Vietnam.
Andrew J. Gawthorpe
From 1965 to 1973, the United States attempted to prevent the absorption of the non-Communist state of South Vietnam by Communist North Vietnam as part of its Cold War strategy of containment. In doing so, the United States had to battle both the North Vietnamese military and guerrillas indigenous to South Vietnam. The Johnson administration entered the war without a well-thought-out strategy for victory, and the United States quickly became bogged down in a bloody stalemate. A major Communist assault in 1968 known as the Tet Offensive convinced US leaders of the need to seek a negotiated solution. This task fell to the Nixon administration, which carried on peace talks while simultaneously seeking ways to escalate the conflict and force North Vietnam to make concessions. Eventually it was Washington that made major concessions, allowing North Vietnam to keep its forces in the South and leaving South Vietnam in an untenable position. US troops left in 1973 and Hanoi successfully invaded the South in 1975. The two Vietnams were formally unified in 1976. The war devastated much of Vietnam and came at a huge cost to the United States in terms of lives, resources, and political division at home. It gave birth to the largest mass movement against a war in US history, motivated by opposition both to conscription and to the damage that protesters perceived the war was doing to the United States. It also raised persistent questions about the wisdom of both military intervention and nation-building as tools of US foreign policy. The war has remained a touchstone for national debate and partisan division even as the United States and Vietnam moved to normalize diplomatic relations with the end of the Cold War.
Little Saigon is the preferred name of Vietnamese refugee communities throughout the world. This article focuses primarily on the largest such community, in Orange County, California. This suburban ethnic enclave is home to the largest concentration of overseas Vietnamese, nearly 200,000, or 10 percent of the Vietnamese American population. Because of its size, location, and demographics, Little Saigon is also home to some of the most influential intellectuals, entertainers, businesspeople, and politicians in the Vietnamese diaspora, many of whom are invested in constructing Little Saigon as a transnational oppositional party to the government of Vietnam. Unlike traditional immigrant ethnic enclaves, Little Saigon is a refugee community whose formation and development emerged in large part from America’s efforts to atone for its epic defeat in Vietnam by at least sparing some of its wartime allies a life under communism. Much of Little Saigon’s cultural politics revolve around this narrative of rescue, although the number guilt-ridden Americans grows smaller and more conservative, while the loyalists of the pre-1975 Saigon regime struggle to instill in the younger generation of Vietnamese an appreciation of their refugee roots.