Colonialism → Independence movement → War of two governments → Reunification
At the turn of the 20th century, the area that constituted current-day Vietnam was part of the Indochinese Union (IU) ???????? and my grandparents (as well as many of the grandparents of my current generation I’m sure) were born during this time as French subjects. At the onset of WWII, nationalist movements throughout Southeast Asia were springing up. Among them were the Viet Minh, who used the red flag ???????? as a rallying flag for independence starting in 1940. Imperial Japan ousted the French government authorities and occupied the IU during WWII. Following the surrender of Japan and WWII, Ho Chi Minh declared an independent Vietnam on September 2, 1945, and formed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). It was at war with France who tried to reassert their control of Indochinese Union after WWII. In 1949, the State of Vietnam was formed by France as they transitioned from the old colonial system and formed the French Union, of which the State of Vietnam was a part of. Bear in mind, like the DRV which claim all of Vietnam under its jurisdiction, so did the State of Vietnam. The State of Vietnam would use the yellow flag with three stripes ???? ☰ . In 1954, the French would be defeated by DRV, and at the Geneva Conference that year, an agreement was made that Vietnam would be divided at the 17th parallel, with the DRV occupying the north half of Vietnam, and the State of Vietnam in the southern half, with elections to take place for a president that would preside over both halves. That election never took place, and thus began a war between DRV and the State of Vietnam vying for control over the fate of the whole Vietnam. The State of Vietnam would become the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) in 1955 as it left the French Union. From 1955 to 1975, Americans became involved to work with RVN to contain DRV. Although Americans call this the Vietnam War, and North Vietnamese would call this the American War, remember there was still a conflict between DRV and RVN. Americans withdrew from Vietnam in 1973, and eventually the RVN was defeated in 1975, and Vietnam being reunified a year later.
Exodus of South Vietnamese post-Reunification
Reference: What happened to South Vietnam after the war?
So you have a whole generation who grew up from 1955 to 1975 under the RVN which used the yellow flag. Then after Vietnam was reunified, these people, especially former RVN soldiers, were brought in for evaluation and sent to reeducation camps . I’ve done an interview of my father who was a telecommunications officer of the ARVN. Following the end of the war, he had to remain in hiding and kept a low profile in Ho Chi Minh City (no longer called Saigon), because his ARVN comrades were being reported by their neighbors and then escorted to reeducation camps. He ended up in a reeducation camp for 5 years. During this time, his family was starving. Although he claims it was due to discrimination from their ties to my father being a former ARVN soldier, I think everyone was struggling considering that the U.S. imposed an embargo on Vietnam (one that wouldn’t be lifted until 1994). Despite the end of the war, Vietnam would find itself in still more conflicts, such as the Cambodian-Vietnamese War (1978–1989) and the Sino-Vietnamese War in 1979, leading to a China-led embargo on Vietnam. Neighbors were keeping an eye on each other, breeding a sense of cautious distrust. And regardless of whether discrimination was intentional, an estimated 1.6 million Vietnamese were resettled between 1975 and 1997, either as boat people or through orderly departure programs, and another estimated 200–400 thousand boat people died at sea.
Look, I’m not judging; I can imagine being in the shoes of a Communist Party administrator presiding over HCM City and having the responsibility of restoring order following one war, and simultaneously wanting to suppress any possible insurrection by former RVN military while you’re in the middle of yet another war. You simply cannot afford internal revolt. Yes, I’ve heard stories of those former RVN military who tried to incite revolt or maintain resistance against the Communist Party. Regardless, the harsh tactics of the Vietnamese government failed to win the hearts and minds of these former RVN soldiers and their families. And they were also impacted economically as the country struggled to rebuild and stabilize its economy. So they fled the country. And then they resettled in countries where they had the freedom to express their hate for the victorious Communist Party of Vietnam, whom they blame for the death of their comrades/family during the war, the suffering within reeducation camps, the economic discrimination in post-Reunification Vietnam, and the suffering and death of boat people. And they used the flags as a way to embody their pain and anger. The yellow flag would be a rallying point of a shared trauma. The red flag became the target of their extreme hate of the Communist victors.
Anti-communism in the diaspora communities
Reference: Why do most Vietnamese Americans hate the current Vietnamese government?
So in these new countries, and I’ll use the United States since I’m most familiar with this country, the Vietnamese refugees would try to rebuild their livelihoods. And even though the war was over, they had the freedom to congregate, and use the yellow flag as remembrance for everything they had lost. No, they weren’t mourning over the government. If anything, even they also lamented how the leaders behaved. No, the loss they felt is having to leave all of their possessions behind. They left all of their extended relatives behind. They lost family and friends to death. And they could not go back to their homeland. And so the activity of denouncing communists would become tradition. Part of these traditions would be groups that would engage in active takedowns of red flags in the United States (I call these people yellow guards). It certainly was still happening in the mid-2000s when I was a college student. And unsurprisingly, you also had multiple fundamentally anti-communist organizations forming overseas as well, such as Third Republic of Vietnam , Government of Free Vietnam , and the Vietnamese Constitutional Monarchist League to name a few. I believe the current Vietnamese government designates all of them as terrorist groups (though Vietnam’s definition of terrorism differs from the U.S. in that it includes activities that undermine the solidarity of the nation).
One of the largest examples of this anti-communism was the Hi-Tek incident where in 1999, a video store owner put up the red flag and a portrait of Ho Chi Minh, drawing thousands to demonstrate outside the store with the yellow flag in arms. Why? I think people came for various reasons. Some were certainly yellow guards who wanted to take down the red flag. But I think most people wanted to express the pain caused by their lives under the red flag. This pain has been unacknowledged by the current Vietnamese government.
Look, I understand that Vietnam during this time was economically starving under a U.S.-led embargo, and trying to build a self-sufficient and independent country after several wars and colonialism. In my personal opinion, I felt like Vietnam was punished and set up to fail, and when the government made mistakes while having little international support, those who lived outside of Vietnam used those mistakes as reasons that the government is incompetent, cruel, and illegitimate, and that the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) should just be dissolved. That’s not to say the CPV is completely faultless; corruption, incompetence, and violence do happen. But I go beyond where most people stop: I seek to understand why. What was the environment like that made these people act the way they did? I think hatred has a way of narrowing one’s view of the bigger picture of what’s truly happening. I don’t accept simple rhetoric of “evil” or “brainwashed”.
I think over time, the anti-communist rallies needed reasons to delegitimize the Vietnamese government. And so they used the matter of freedom of speech in Vietnam. According to Reporters Without Borders, Vietnam is almost dead last when it comes to freedom of the press. Although the usage of the yellow flag inside Vietnam per se not illegal, it can be tied to conspiracy against the state (see Is it a crime to display the South Vietnam flag in Vietnam? ). So then a feedback loop occurs: the Vietnamese government enhances the importance of the yellow flag by making its usage a crime, and then the yellow flag supporters will then want to use it even more BECAUSE the Vietnamese government cracks down on its usage, further evidence of its lack of respect for freedom of speech and its illegitimacy, which then makes the Vietnamese government want to further tighten its control over the media to make sure insurrections don’t happen… and on and on we go.
And over the decades, Vietnamese American organizations would try to get the yellow flag publicly recognized in cities, counties, and other public institutions, as the official flag representing the Vietnamese American community. It is given the name Vietnamese Heritage and Freedom Flag. The movement for official recognition is still ongoing, as are red-flag takedowns.
The Silent Spaces
During this time, you had multiple waves of migrations. Some were family members sponsored by the refugees that were already here. Some came later not so much for political persecution, but economic reasons. And then following the lifting of the U.S.-led embargo in 1994, a growing number of international students. You had a mix of those who have lived under the RVN, with those who were born after the war.
Anti-communism has a way of dominating headlines because its nature is to be vocal and visible. What about the people who were born after the war, lived in Vietnam for, say, 15 years, and then got sponsored to live here in the United States. Technically, they grew up under the red flag, and then arrived to the U.S. and saw t