DATELINE: SAIGON — Little Saigon that is. In the largest Vietnamese enclave outside of Vietnam they remember the Vietnam War as the American War. Spanning the three Orange County, California cities of Westminster, Garden Grove and Santa Ana, the residents of this communist-free (by legislation) stronghold have little use for War Hero candidate John Kerry. Chock full of beauty schools, cafes, and ubiquitous Pho restaurants (the classic Vietnamese soup), the pre-communist national flag proudly waves next to the Stars and Stripes above the Veterans memorial at Westminster City Hall.
In “America’s Most Republican County” (350 elected officials; registration 48.5% Rep./30.6% Dem.) Senator Kerry is considered a traitor to the Vietnamese cause. His anti-war antics that helped launch a thousand boats, coupled with his shelving of the 2001 Vietnam Human Rights Act (a litmus test for a majority of Vietnamese no matter what party), gives President Bush a golden opportunity to woo an often overlooked minority voting block.
“Kerry’s action burned bridges nationwide” within the Vietnamese community, according to Garden Grove councilman and Republican California State Assembly candidate Van Tran. Sponsored in the House by Christopher Smith and co-sponsored by the unlikely bipartisan duo of Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and Loretta Sanchez (D-CA, whose district crosses into Little Saigon), the human rights act passed by a margin of 410-1. Kerry, then ranking member of the Senate subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs, did not allow the legislation to come to the floor for a vote.
TRAN, A VIETNAMESE-AMERICAN, is readying for a cross-country trip to New York City as a first time delegate to the Republican National Convention. He told this writer that he had taken advantage of this year’s option of registering as a GOP delegate via the Internet. Elected to the Garden Grove City Council with more votes than any other candidate in city history, Tran also picked up the Republican nomination for State Assembly with a 2-1 edge (66% to 33%) over fellow Councilman Mark Leyes. He is also a member of Rep. Ed Royce’s Asian Pacific Congressional Advisory Board.
For those of us who have been content to let the bad dream of the Vietnam War fade into national unconsciousness (until the Kerry campaign), the strength of the battles still going on in our midst may seem surprising. In early 1999, Truong Van Tran (no relation) placed a picture of Ho Chi Minh and the communist Vietnamese flag in the window of his video store in the Westminster portion of Little Saigon. Seven weeks of subsequent protest garnered national attention and culminated in Truong’s arrest for pirating Vietnamese soap operas. This event was a turning point in the political participation of the locals. After serving as a liaison between the community and the Westminster police, Van Tran decided to make a run for city council in his neighboring hometown of Garden Grove.
“It is intriguing about this election that Vietnam is coming in to play,” Tran muses. “Vietnamese-Americans haven’t forgotten John Kerry’s anti-war stance. It would not be too much to say there is some hatred for him in the community.” With a population of over a million in the U.S., and almost half of that in California, this sizable and vocal minority voting block may have some resonance during this election cycle.
Lan Quoc Nguyen, the first Vietnamese-American to be elected to a local school board in California (Garden Grove, nach), has a more “nuanced” view of his struggles with Kerry. “Senator Kerry is a deeply principled man that believes that the war was wrong,” he says, “and he’s trying to undo the damage that the U.S. did to the country.” That doesn’t mean that Nguyen believes that Kerry is right, or that Kerry is listening to the Vietnamese community. “It is difficult to approach him. Anyone who gets in his way is viewed as a leftover from the Southern regime.”
Nguyen believes that the war was wrong in the way that it was fought, not in its intent. He says that the war cause was just, and that the actions of the North afterwards demonstrate that. “We fought to prevent what actually happened. Senator Kerry has ignored the aftermath of the war, the wholesale persecution in the south, the tragedies and the torture.
“In the south, we accepted the fact that we lost. The communist government did not forget that it won. It did not reconcile with the south. It cracked down with a vengeance on all who were involved, including the religious organizations. This never registered in any part of Kerry’s policy.”
AS FOR KERRY’S HANDLING of the 2001 Vietnam Human Rights Act, Nguyen says it further emboldened the communist government. “We accept democratic debate. We won almost unanimously in the House. When Kerry used his influence to squash the bill in the Senate, it was like he was thumbing his nose at us and making a mockery of the process.” He says that the communist government has used Senator Kerry to make a point at home. “They make fun of America and its ‘process.’ They know that all they need to do is get one Senator to get what they want.”
Nguyen says that the government has used the bill’s defeat to enact a new crackdown on religious freedom in Vietnam. On the street in Little Saigon, people take a blunter view, and refer to Kerry as a communist sympathizer. To make it even more interesting, the community doesn’t hold all its ire for Kerry. Although John McCain wasn’t technically linked to Kerry or the legislation, locals suspect that he had a role in its fate, and want him to fess up.
Councilman Van Tran is grateful for the opportunity to represent Little Saigon and the greater Vietnamese-American community at the convention. He considers his life to be a classic American success story. Emigrating with his parents at age 10 from Saigon, Tran went on to get a B.A. in Political Science from the UC Irvine, and then went on to earn both a Master’s in Public Administration and a Juris Doctorate from Hamline University School of Law in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He has served as a staff aide to Rep. Bob Dornan and then-State Senator (now Congressman) Ed Royce, as well as other political posts. “America offers to immigrants a life of hope and opportunity, and nourishes our aspirations to be something better.”
Tran, along with Nguyen, has worked intensely within the Vietnamese community to encourage people to participate in the electoral process. Earlier this year in anticipation of his assembly race, Tran registered 4,000 new Republicans through his Vietnamese-American Voters Coalition, including 1,000 existing voters that switched parties to vote in the primary. With an Eastern Seaboard group sponsoring a fundraiser this month in Philadelphia for his California race, Tran is taking-in talk of his being a future national figure. “There is talk about that circulating, but one step at a time.”
THE LATEST NEWS OUT OF Little Saigon was the passing of two ordinances in May of this year, one each in Westminster and Garden Grove, which declared both cities “communist-free zones.” The communist Vietnamese government had been planning a charm mission to Little Saigon (as well as other expat communities), to promote “Resolution 36,” which seeks to define the government’s relationship with those communities. The resolution, passed in March defines the Diaspora as inferior to the homeland, and requires it to support the current regime for its ultimate success (in other words, “send us your money”). The mission was subsequently scrubbed, at least in Orange County. Since then a number of other communities have enacted similar communist-free zoning acts.
With John Kerry and the Swift-Vets moving Vietnam to the front burner of public debate, discussion of the new version of the Vietnam Human Rights Act could attract some unwanted attention; and bring further trouble to Senator Kerry. Reintroduced in April of 2003 as H.R. 1587, the measure passed the house 323-45 on July 19 of this year, again co-sponsored by Rohrabacher and Sanchez. This time Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Sam Brownback, who is also chairman of the Sub-Committee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs, is sponsoring the bill in the upper chamber. The bill is more than likely to reach the Senate floor.
Lan Quoc Nguyen says that he is preparing for the worst. “We are resigned to the fact that if Kerry is elected, our cause will be set back 20 years. Our efforts will be doomed until he’s out of office.”
According to Van Tran, the Vietnamese-American community is “strong on national defense, strong on family values, and strongly religious,” a natural Republican group. It opposes Kerry’s quest for normalization of government relations with Vietnam until the government provides answers about missing family members, prisoners of war, and a commitment to basic human rights.
In Little Saigon they’ve been talking about the War for thirty years. If John Kerry wants to talk about the war, they would like to talk to him about it too. After all, they were there.